Alternate Audiobook Narrators

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A while back I wrote about my favorite audiobook narrators. Today, I want to talk about narrators that don’t work as well for me. Let me be clear from the start that while sometimes an audiobook narrator’s performance is lacking, often a narration that turns me off has less to do with the narrator and more to do with the quality of the recording.

The first audiobook performance I remember being disappointed by was John Lee’s performance of Shōgun by James Clavell. I’d read the book years before I attempted to listen to the audiobook. It was a wonderful read, and once I began listening to audiobooks, I thought I could experience the book again, this time in audio format. I don’t know if it was the recording, or the delivery, but it was awful. I couldn’t make through more than a few minutes.

Sometimes, however, audiobook are rerecorded, and the first time I bought a second version of an audiobook, after already buying one, was when a new version of Shōgun was released with Ralph Lister narrating. It was a night and day difference in performance. Lister’s performance was mesormizing, and like the best audiobook performances, enhanced the book.

I have encountered other examples of alternate audiobook narrators over the years. The first audiobook version of The Hunt for Red October that I got was narrated by J Charles and was pretty awful. Later, when the Jack Ryan series premiered on Amazon Prime, a new edition of the audiobook was released with the always-reliable Scott Brick narrating. Again, it was a night and day difference. Scott Brick went on to perform Patriot Games and The Sum of All Fears as well. However, Michael Prichard narrates several of the audiobooks in the Jack Ryan series. He’s not bad, but the recordings aren’t very good–they probably came from tape. I wish that the rest of the series would be re-recorded using someone like Scott Brick.

The first of the Harry Bosche novels, The Black Echo was originally narrated by Dick Hill, who is a reliable narrator, and who for a long time was the voice of Jack Reacher in Lee Child’s Reacher series. A few years ago, however, a new edition was released, narrated by Titus Welliver, who played Bosch in the TV series. That was great narration.

But what if you could choose your own narrator?

I picture a future in which Audible and similar services will have a premium offering where a listener can select from a diverse list of narrators to read them any book they want. The premium fee will be used to pay for the “voice likeness” rights, and it will be AI that actually emulated the voice the voice actor in question. The performances will be entirely computer generated. It seems like the stuff of science fiction (after all, Connie Willis did write a book along these lines, Remake) but I think eventually this will be fairly common. Want Bing Crosby to read you The Hunt For Red October, pay the fee and collect your prize. Want Morgan Freeman to read Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization? An AI will take care of it for you, just as soon as you pay the fee.

So long as the actors and/or their estates are willing and getting paid for their likeness, I think this could be an novelty in the audiobook industry. Whether or not it would take is anyone’s guess. I also think it would encourage more new voice actors, if they knew they could sell the likeness of their voice the way many celebrities sell the right to use their likeness in video games.

I’d probably stick with the chosen narrator for a given book, the way I do today. But there would definitely be some books that I’d be will to pay for a “custom” narration generated by an AI.

Written on February 16, 2022.

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