Thomas Machin is an old hat at doing characters. He’s been doing them most of his life, from entertaining as a ventriloquist at the age of 11 to doing audiobooks for Audible. It came from his parents (the talent, we presume), and it was fostered through theater productions and media experimentation during the 70’s. A graduate of Butler University and ITT Technical Institute, his love of radio/TV and movies grew. Then, suddenly he switched into computers where he made a business of fining flaws in the security of software and hardware for networks. He spent several years teaching IT Directors and their staff how to best secure their networks inside and outside when Cancer entered the scene.
Physically no longer able to do 17-20 hour days, Thomas went back to his first love and started his Voice Over company,MagePro. But, it didn’t stop with just that; he has begun sharing his experiences in the industry from “the old days” and comparing them with today’s Voice Over world at a couple local colleges. He has set up his studios so that others who need a recording space have that chance. If they need an audio engineer, they have that too.
He’s been called “Unstoppable,” “All-In,” and a few other names we can say in mixed company because of his never-say-die attitude for all things Voice Over. Even the big “C” can’t stop him!
Check out his latest audiobook series’ both written by Craig Shaw Gardner – The Temporary Magic series and the Cineverse Cycle (Reel 1 became available early March. Reels 2 and on will be available later this year). He is always working with a couple giants in the VO industry to hone his skills and hopes to have a few video game roles under his belt. Both series are very silly stories with even sillier characters. They are comedy, YA stories.
You started your career in audio production in the 1980s and only recently returned to the field. How have things changed in the last 30-40 years?
I used to edit film and audio tape using a cutting block and a razor blade. Being able to edit using a computer is actually nothing new for me. In the late 80s and early 90s there was a video editing computer system called the CMX that I used with 1″ video tape. But, even that had issues because the tape machines or the tape itself were constantly having issues.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW software) that allows the ability to edit digital data rather than just automatically controlling tape machines, has changed my world greatly! It’s been a bit of a learning curve, but it is immensely easier and quicker. It’s also easier to alter the audio after the fact to make it sound like you want without having to do a million takes.
You spent most of your career doing computer security. What led you (back?) to the world of audiobooks?
Really, it was a combination of bad things. I laugh now at it, but at the time, they were crippling to the ego. I had closed out my IT business and was a bit depressed because I had also been diagnosed with leukemia. I began to read and do reviews. I was also playing some table top role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, only with super heroes. It wasn’t long before a few authors that liked my reviews and I became friends. From there, I formed a bond with some other narrators and people in the Voice Over industry. They, and my best friend, encouraged me into looking at doing Voice Over for a business.
After almost of year of looking into the Voice Over industry, it rekindled my love of doing what I went to college for and was actually doing as I ran the RPG’s. With the push forward from my wife, my best friend, and a host of author friends and others in the industry, I (we) jumped in with both feet! I haven’t looked back.
You talked to me about doing sound editing vs. sound designers. What is the technical side (i.e. the part not actually doing reading) of audiobook making like?
Ooo! It was more of a discussion concerning the differences between a Sound Engineer and a Sound Designer. The editing is actually the most time consuming part of doing audiobooks from the narrator’s perspective. Many narrators not only edit their own work, but also master it as well. This process is called… wait for it… processing.
If the narrator doesn’t do this processing/mastering themselves, this is often done by a Sound Engineer. These are the guys and gals that take an edited file produced by the narrator and make it sound amazing! All those breaths get lowered. Those little sounds in the background that listeners never really hear are removed. And sometimes, they will even add music to the beginning and end of the books. There are some very strict requirements put out by the audiobook industry that demand specific minimal standards. The Sound Engineer makes the audio meet those specs or surpasses them.
There are some versions of audiobooks that go beyond just reading the book into a microphone. Some include other voice actors and all that has to be edited together. A hybrid type of audiobook is something similar to an old time radio play that can include sound effects, music, and multiple actors and is just television or a movie without the picture. The Sound Designer is the one that does all those other things in addition to what the Sound Engineer does.
You are in the process of putting out all the Temporary Magic Series by Craig Shaw Gardner. You have described this series to me as very silly. How do you deal with the humorous parts and not laugh while doing your narration?
I don’t! I laugh when I first read it when I prep. I laugh when I first pick out a voice for the characters and hear it for the first time and sometimes even as I’m actually performing it in the booth. I just have to keep doing it until it stops and I can get through it.
I’m a silly guy after all. To be honest, if it’s really good, and I have done my job right, I’ll listen to it after it has been released on Audible and laugh again. I’m also doing the Cineverse Cycle series that is just about as strange and funny as the Temporary Magic series. It has many of the same situations and the main character has many things in common with their love life.
You told me that pacing is crucial to the success of an audiobook. Can you tell us why this is, and how pacing can ruin a performance?
Just like any acting, timing is crucial! For a horror film, the reveal of the monster is never done in the beginning. For comedy… well, timing is sometimes the punch line itself. With Gardner’s books, he has a keen sense of timing that just comes across on its own. After reading the books several times, I was actually afraid I would mess up the timing. When you have great material, it’s easy to have that fear. However, the better written it is for, say humor, the easier it is to convey that humor with the pacing.
Some people can do pacing normally as a natural reflex. Others, like me, have to study and find those points and find that timing that fits the pacing of the book. If someone doesn’t take the time to study out the pacing that is built into the book, that person will miss some fantastic cues and the performance turns flat. Some of this is dependent upon the author’s focus on character or story. Some authors let the story drive the characters, while others let the characters drive the story. One will allow the narrator more flexibility and offer better clues as to how to pace the narration.
You do a wide variety of voiceover types of work. What kinds of things besides audiobook narration do you do, and how do they compare and differ with audiobooks?
Just to give some credit, audiobooks come in widely different flavors that require different performance levels and abilities. It’s not that much different for the other areas of Voice Over. You still have to determine your audience, what the overall story is trying to convey, and what viewpoint it is telling the story from. You also have to develop what’s not immediately obvious about any characters involved. All characters have a background even when it’s never written or implied. That’s where we, as narrators, get to have some additional fun. It’s kind of neat how it all is related and connected through various strings.
Narration is not just for audiobooks. Think about those National Geographic shows or something like Shark Week. Those shows do narration (no, I didn’t narrate them. They are just an example here). They are speaking to a specific audience and the narrator is a character just like any acting part. Yup, that’s narration too.
I’ve done eLearning, telephony (you know, that voice you hear that says to dial 1 for Accounting?) or On-Hold messages, radio commercials, station imaging (those are the ones that tell you what station you are listening to with a little catch phrase), promos (ranging from telling you what’s coming up next on TV to a short commercial for a show), and now, I’m getting ready to start on Video Games. That last one, I’m really excited about!
You have provided us with a great image of your recording studio. Can you describe to us what we are seeing?
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I’ll try… This is actually my view inside my isolation booth. It’s a 5’x5’x7′ WhisperRoom. It is the Enhanced version which means it has double walls/windows and your ears pop when the door closes. It has sound deadening foam all over the place except the floor, the window, the door (which I will have covered soon), and my little desk area. In the area you don’t see, there is a special add-on called the Acoustic Tuning Package. It is some special magic that keeps the booth from sounding like I’m inside a 5×5 little box. In reality, it’s not a TARDIS (even though Simon Vance says it is) because it’s not bigger on the inside than it is on the outside until the book is opened. Then, it becomes as big as a world!
- Oh yeah… to the left on the table, there is a roll of toilet paper. Well, it can get hot in the booth and it’s cheaper than paper towels or tissue paper. Because it gets hot, I keep plenty water in the booth for that reason.
- The orange circle sticking out of the top of the roll is actually a needlepoint hoop with some pantyhose strung across it. Depending upon the microphone I use, I will throw that up in front to either add some extra protection or to alter my voice for another character.
- What you don’t see is another pop filter on the boom arm above the microphone.
- That tube in the upper left is my microphone that I’m using on my current project, Temporary Hauntings. It’s a Sennheiser MKH416 shotgun microphone that many use. It is a standard in the industry like the Neumann TLM103. But I digress.
- On the table, you’ll notice a wireless keyboard and a mouse with a pad.
What usually sits to the left side of the keyboard is a blue and orange dog clicker. Yes, it is an key part of many Voice Over people.
- To the right of the mouse is my controller I use to change input levels, do switch processing, change headphones, and perform a host of other things, including connect to other studios for remote direction. The paper underneath it is a script I’m doing on Monday afternoon. Shhhh.
- To the right of that is a little remote control for my “On Air” light. This is a light outside the booth area to let people know to SHUT UP AND BE STILL! Sometimes, it even keeps people quiet
- Just above that is my little secret spray that keeps my voice from going away on long reads.
- Against the wall, next to the secret spray, is an extra pair of reading glasses if I happened to forget my regular ones.
- The little white case is to hold a mouthpiece because, when I’m editing (if I edit in the booth), I tend to grind my teeth. I can tell you first hand, listening to yourself over and over again is stressful! Ha!
- In the corner to the right are multiple water bottles. Did I mention it gets hot? It’s also important for everyone to keep well hydrated. It’s even more important for Voice Over people!
At the top of the table is a black rectangle. It’s my headphones holder that I’ve used velcro to attach it to the top of my table. It’s actually a foam Yoga block!
- On the left side of that block is a temperature and humidity sensor. Microphones are not fans of high humidity, so I have to keep the circulation going if it gets too hot or moist.
- The red topped thermos contains hot water and honey mix. The honey helps to sooth the throat and helps it heal more quickly if I have done something wrong.
- I have a few things that are attached to the area around my window. In the bottom left is a camera that I use for Zoom! or Skype conversations with clients or coaches. I eventually intend on using it for a YouTube channel if I ever have anything important enough to share. HA! There is just a little bit of white next to it. All that is, is a bit of velcro to hold the camera cable.
- Above that is the control for the fans that cool the booth. It’s supposed to be silent, but my mics tend to pick up the low rumble, so I only use it when I’m not recording or not in the booth.
- All the stuff you see above the window, actually covers the top of the window that is not in use. It helps to reduce sound wave reflections.
- There is a little strip of paper from my favorite publisher from Crossroad Press that just is there as a reminder of what to do and what not to do.
- Through the window, you can see my monitor that is a mirror of what is on my computer. I can control it all from inside the booth. I usually have a split screen with my script on one side and my recording software on the other.
What parts of your studio are not within this cell?
Funny you should call it a cell. I guess it could seem that way to some people. Well, I sort of spoiled that, now didn’t I? I suppose I left out the chair I sometimes sit in. But, there is a load of stuff outside the booth in my editing bay that I rely heavily upon. For example, my computer that everything gets recorded on and I use to edit the material. There is a desk to hold it all, monitor speakers so I don’t have to always wear headphones, my microphone preamplifier, compressor/limiter to make the sound better, an analogue to digital converter to change my funny noises into some other funny things that the computer can understand as well as the all important chair. I really have much less than many others have.
There are some other magical things outside the booth like lights to see by and battery backups to keep my machinery running if I’m in the middle of something. But, I think the most important part of things outside the booth are my workers’ treats! I have two basenji brothers that always come work with me. They are my helpers on long days. They help remind me to take breaks.
If you make an error while reading, how do you correct it? (How did you correct it in the analog age?)
Wow… You sure you really want this? OK. Let’s talk about the “analog age” first. It’s not really that much different in many ways. In the old days, if we made a mistake, there were three ways to deal with it. Stop recording and start all over again (usually only at the beginning). Make note of each mistake you made and do another take so you can quickly (ha!) edit it later. Or, if the equipment had the function, do a “punch and roll.”
The first way was easy and was often called the false start method. It generally took the least amount of time or lost the least amount of time. You didn’t lose much tape, but if you had a section that was good in that, too bad, you better hope you could do it again.
The second way was painful! As you were going along and made a mistake, you had to mark down the time/counter where/when the mistake was made and do it from the point where there was enough of a pause you could easily “edit it out.” If you or the narrator didn’t do this task of marking the out-takes, you had to painstakingly listen to the whole thing marking down where the bad takes were. Then, you could go back and literally physically mark the beginning of the bad areas with a grease pencil or china marker, roll forward to find the best take and mark that point. Then, you had to roll it all back to the first mark, pull it off of the recorder heads to a cutting block and cut the tape with a sharp razor blade. You had to pull off the reel on the right and put up a spare reel. Put the cut end on that real and run it forward to the other mark, pull that down and cut it. Pull off the right hand reel and put a spare up there and roll the tape off to that side. Pull the empty reel from the left side off and put up the original reel and then connect the two spots on the segments of tape you need to fit together with tape and move on to your next edit point. Hopefully, you got all the mistakes and didn’t throw away any tape that had some good stuff on it you needed.
The third method was wonderful in comparison. This was by far, the best thing ever! You could stop the tape, find the part where you made the mistake. You would mark a “punch-in” point there (either time or by counter) and roll it back as far as the system would let you or as far as you needed. Some machines could do it automatically, but were limited how far you could roll back. Then, you hit the record button. It wouldn’t record again until it got to your marked point. You could listen to it all up to that point. It allowed you to get the same pacing before the recording started at it would sound like you ever missed a beat!
The digital age made things so much simpler. You can do copy/paste, duplicate, move things around and do all the things that you could before in practically no time at all. There are only a few DAWs that don’t allow you to natively do the “punch and roll” feature, but I hear you can get plug-ins for that now.
If I make a mistake, I have the choice of doing the punch and roll function or using my little doggie clicker I mentioned before. The clicker does the same thing as snapping your fingers or making a mouth pop into the microphone. It creates a large spike in the wave form that is easy to spot. We can immediately go there and look around on both sides of the click and see what needs to be done.
What is the best advice anyone has given you about performing audiobooks that you now like to pass on to new narrators?
I think the best pieces of advice I got was from my author friend and my engineer. My author friend, C. T. Phipps, listened to something I thought was sub par in performance. He told me, “It sounds great! Keep it up!! You are your own worst enemy when it comes to being critical about your own work.”
When I complained to my engineer, Jeffrey Kafer, about how I didn’t think the sound quality was good enough… it didn’t sound like the audiobook quality I listened to and I had to take tons of time to edit every little thing so it sounded like I thought it should. Kafer said, “That’s my job! Stop it. You’ll sound great!”
AND, they were both right. I still cringe when I hear my voice over and over again. I want to dive into the software and make all sorts of changes to make it “sound” better, more like the audiobooks I listen to. But that’s what the mastering process does. That’s what the sound engineers do. I’ve learned to trust the authors and what they hear or don’t hear. All those little quirks that we narrators find so irritating end up being nothing or a part of the performance or character that enhances the project.
Visit Thomas at his website: