I have recorded 54 books to date, with a lovely variety of fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, and with titles for children and adults alike. My early recordings were, of course, on cassette but now we are all deliciously digital.
Katherine Shaw has been a Calibre narrator for 25 years! Her interest and appreciation of the spoken word and use of language was sparked at a really young age, when aged just seven, she started going to elocution lessons with a magnificent woman called Madame Mitchell. From there she joined amateur dramatics productions of plays and musicals which she continued throughout her teens. Academically, her love of maths and science led her to study Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, but she kept up theatre performances in her spare time and eventually hearing theatre’s call, she gained a place at Drama Studio London on a one-year postgraduate acting diploma. And that is where her Calibre journey began because her landlady in West London was herself a Calibre narrator.
Katherine has always fitted in narrating around her changing patterns of work. For many years after drama school, she toured with different theatre companies, including ‘The National Trust Theatre Company’, ‘The Edinburgh Science Festival’ and ‘Floating Point Science Theatre’, performing educational physical theatre in primary schools around the UK, as well as short contracts in China, Hong Kong and Indonesia. She then spent a number of years running youth drama workshops and projects and about ten years ago began presenting annual workshops on voice awareness and vocal health for trainee teachers at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge. She is now involved in one-to-one maths tutoring up to GCSE level, but throughout all the variations in her working world the power and value of the spoken word has remained central. Katherine relates that within that, for her, Calibre has been a constant source of both pleasure and pride.
When recording the books, Katherine uses her dining room – a room located in the middle of her house with two walls between the room and the outside world, which hopefully goes someway to eradicating outside noise. That isn’t failsafe however as the microphone is sensitive enough to pick up the lightest rainfall on the plastic roof, or the delicate ‘tap dancing’ of leaves and ash tree seeds if caught in the swirling of a breeze. The mic will also pick up a wood pigeon’s call echoing down the chimney breast from the rooftop, and living near an RAF base, there are periods when jet engines put paid to recording efforts. Katherine tries to avoid these as best she can by working on a book in the early mornings – usually between 6.00and 7.30am.
To ease her voice in, she has a warm drink before recording and does a bit of sliding-scale humming just to wake up the throat and voice box muscles. A voice coach at drama school used the analogy of ‘stroking a cat from head to tail’ as you start the hum high and slide down towards the bottom of the range and recording early in the morning has the advantage that your muscles are still quite relaxed from being asleep. She is then ready to begin.
An average book of, say, 320 pages would consist of 20 separate sound files and take around 20 hours of time to record and edit. Katherine aims to record four or five books a year, and says she still feels an undeniable thrill when finishing a book. Upon completion, the recorded sound files are transferred from laptop to USB memory stick which is then zipped into its own little blue padded pouch, and the bookand pouch are packaged together in a padded envelope for posting back to Calibre HQ. Which leads to the growing anticipation of the arrival of a new book!
Before starting a recording, Katherine always begins a creative and constructive process of how to present the ‘story’. She almost always reads a book through fully before recording – the exceptions might be, for example, a collection of poetry by diverse poets where each poem stands in its own right or factual first-person accounts or narratives where there is only one central voice describing their world throughout. In most cases though, to dive in and start recording without reading the book first is to ask for trouble, as she discovered early on in her Calibre career. She hadn’t read the book in question first, and about a quarter of the way in, she was recording dialogue between two established characters, including, ‘“Dah-de-dah-de-dah,” he said in his soft, Welsh accent’. Oh no he didn’t – whoops! And as this was the days of cassette recording, she had to re-wind, find the first occurrence of Mr Soft Welsh Accent speaking, and re-record everything thereafter. Nowadays, digital recording makes it easier, but it was a lesson learnt.
Katherine also tells us how she gets the balance right on the scale that runs from bland neutrality through to the Ministry of Silly Voices. On her first read through, she makes a note of every character that appears, as unless you know the book, you can’t always tell who will become a major player and who will get a single mention then never pop up again. She then adds in detail of appearance, behaviour, personality traits etc. to those character notes as they occur in the text. Once she has a full picture of who’s who, she attempts to find just one or two specific vocal elements for each character’s speech: this might be pitch, perhaps nasality, the pace of their speech, the movement of their face and, if appropriate, a touch of accent. Ultimately the goal is to make the characters easily distinguishable to a listener and the most important thing is to be consistent! A character must keep the same voice throughout so she gives herself mental ‘pegs’ on which to ‘hang’ a voice quickly, especially when recording dialogue between two or more characters.
But whatever tapestry of vocal threads she chooses for a recording, Katherine ensures it never gets in the way of the language and narrative of a book. She uses the analogy of puppeteering to demonstrate this. Having done a lot of puppetry work at her local pre-school, she acknowledges there is no theatre critic more honest than a 4-year-old, and if little Molly doesn’t believe in the make-believe world that is being created, she will calmly get up and return to the plastic dinosaurs. Generosity and focus are key in puppetry, bringing everyday objects to life to create the landscape of a story, and at its best the audience becomes so absorbed into that story that they lose all awareness of the actual puppeteer themselves. In the same way, with her recordings, Katherine hopes that listeners become immersed into the world of the book and barely notice her voice at all.
Katherine’s podcast for us where she talks in more detail about herself and her work as a narrator is here as well as under the podcast menu of our website.
If you've loved Katherine's podcast and now want to listen to the books that she has recorded in our collection, please follow this link.