An Interview with Frank Muller
exclusive by Ric Johnson

29 October 1997

I'd like to describe the room where we sat for this interview or some other such tripe, but the bottom line is that I e-mailed Frank some questions on August 12 (yes, August 12!) when he was in the midst of recording Stephen King's Wizard and Glass: Dark Tower IV and he's now returned the answers after a nice vacation and about a week before Penguin's simultaneous release of the audio, standard hardback and softcover editions.
       I was very anxious to see his responses. Only a little because they were two and a half months coming, but more because I really wanted to know the stuff I asked him.

How did you get into recording books from stage acting?

FM: In 1979 I was a member of the company at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. Henry Trentman, the founder and still owner of Recorded Books, had decided he wanted to become an audio publisher, and was looking for actors. Audio publishing did not exist in any form remotely resembling what there is now, of course, and Henry is now seen as one of the pioneers of the industry. He posted a note on the message board backstage, I answered it, and here we are--RB has published approximately 2000 audiobooks--of which 130 or so are by me.
       In the past few years, I have found myself doing more and more titles for "trade" publishers (Penguin, BDD, Simon & Schuster, Time-Warner, etc.). I have been directing/producing myself in recordings since 1993 - although I do occasionally work with other directors and producers, depending on the publishers way of working. In 1995 I built my own small recording studio, where most of my work is now done.

Do you read a book all the way through before reading it aloud?

FM: Yes. Preparation has an effect on choices made throughout the recording process, and saves headaches later. While it is certainly possible for a good reader to read "cold"--I know that some do--a recording is forever, and I believe one pays a price for working that way. I will, as I read through, make preliminary decisions on character choices (final decisions are made in the studio, where the rubber meets the road), make vocabulary notes--many books require research on language or proper name pronunciation--and I will have time to consider the arc of a story--the big picture-- before beginning, which can also affect the way one approaches a story.

How many hours a day do you record?

FM: A typical session is 3-4 hours. Feels like an eight-hour day. In my own studio, however, I have the freedom to spread a session out over an entire day if I choose.

How long on a single project in a day? Reading? Editing? Listening? How many different projects do you work on in a day?

FM: Depending on the density of our schedule at a given moment, we might well (My wife Erika is an excellent editor/proofer who tells me EXACTLY what she thinks) work from 8AM to 8 or even 10PM. Usually things are not quite so hectic, but we have on occasion started running a dub at 6AM, spent the day proofing, recording, editing--we rarely have more than 2 or 3 projects in production at once--and worked into the wee hours of the next morning. We sometimes do all the post-production (proofing, rough edit, fine edit, mastering), but not always. Depending on what the client has engaged us to do, we may do the recording sessions, and all or some of the post is done elswhere, or we may do everything. We try, of course, to plan a day's work to be as efficient as possible.
       There is little question that I work slowly. I care about efficiency only to a point--which is that the client's goals be met. My expertise is in the reading itself, and I have to remember always that the reading is the reason I'm here. The performance requires all the energy I can bring to it (as discussed in the essay "A Reader Inflects"). Everything else is secondary.

Do you conventionally read galleys, bound books or loose leafs?

FM: If a book has yet to be published, I will often find myself wrestling with uncorrected proofs--and sometimes get updated versions of the text after having begun recording. On occasion we have to go back and make repairs. A audio of a new book is usually released simultaneously with the hardcover, and the schedule is typically very tight and inflexible,so we begin as soon as possible, with the first available text the publisher sends. Usually they are fairly reliable, though, and things work out fine. I used to read from bound books, but now find photocopies more user friendly.

Do you stand when you record?

FM: Nope. I sit in a one-piece (i.e. quiet) molded plastic chair.

How do you keep the voices straight? Do you keep notes on what voice you use for whom? (I found it startling that Fitch's voice from "Runaway Jury" popped up on an unrelated character in "Nop's Hope." I guess one can only do so many voices <grin>)

FM: Usually I have no problem remembering what I've done with different characters because I don't think of it as doing or assigning voices, but as interpreting and portraying full characters. In a big book with many small characters, I will sometimes run a few seconds of each character speaking onto a separate tape to use as a reference, so that I can easily go back and listen.

Do you ever find yourself reading in the wrong characters voice?

FM: I find myself making every conceivable mistake at some point or other. That's why take 2 was invented. Mistakes don't concern me however. They can be fixed. I always want to push the edge of the envelope from a performance standpoint--that means taking risks constantly, and that means making mistakes. The benefits outweigh the costs.

You must listen to everthing you've read; so between reading silently, reading aloud and listeneing, you must go through a book at least three times. This must be tedious at times. Especially on a mediocre book. Comments?

FM: On a project where we are doing all the post-production, we will have spent--by the time we finish recording, proofing, editing, and mastering--at least 10 or 12 hours time on each hour of finished programming. Rule #1 is to avoid mediocre books. Usually it's fine though. The job is to maintain perspective on the technical and artistic aspects and quality of the work simultaneously.

Do you ever feel the urge to correct a wrong word as you're reading? Like in The Vampire Lestat, Rice uses "monologue" when she obviously meant "monotone."

FM: I will always correct a typo if I spot it and if what the author intended is clear. When possible and if necessary, I will consult the publisher and/or author directly.

Are some audiobooks companies more particular than others or do they all pretty much trust you by now?

FM: They seem to trust me pretty well, I guess. There's plenty of reference material available for anyone who wants to see what we do. Each audio publisher has their own set of production requirements, usually designed to standardize their in-house operations. Part of my job is to accomodate those requirements.

Do you have any sense of tape breaks (e.g. at 45 minutes) as you're reading or is that all post-production? How finished is the tape when it leaves WaveDancer?

FM: No, I don't concern myself with that as I'm recording, because the criteria for that type of decision doesn't usually exist yet during recording. I will sometimes in post-production re-record a beginning or ending of a side --a benefit of doing everything in one place...

Do you refuse any books? For what reasons?

FM: I'm in the fortunate position of being offered more work than I am able to do, so yes, I do have to pass on projects sometimes. I've rarely done so because I didn't like the book, although that has happened. More often it has do do with scheduling and availability questions.

Have you done any voiceovers?

FM: I've been working in commercial voiceovers for more than ten years--first in New York, nowadays in Los Angeles.

Any national TV ad campaigns that we would remember?

FM:Probably. I've done a good number of on-camera commercials over the years, too. I'm sure I'd have to play them for you before you'd make the connections, but I've done hundreds of national and local on and off-camera spots in the last ten years. Major campaigns include McDonalds, Degree deodorant, Nature Made Vitamins, Wausau Insurance, Louis Rich, Scattergories, and many others. Commercials are a good way for actors to finance the development of less lucrative aspects of their careers. They made it possible for me to do plays--which almost always means losing money (actors are the greatest contributors to the American Theater scene--especially when you consider that their contributions of time, talent, and energy at very low pay levels aren't tax deductible), while living like a human being.

Would you like to do more movies/television?

FM: I love acting, and came to LA to continue in theater and to pursue film and TV, and although audiobooks has taken on such a tremendous life of it's own and become such a wonderful new medium, I think it is important for any artist to flex all muscles and recharge all batteries on a regular basis, and so I will continue to do so.

This interview copyright 1997 "Bitchen" Ric Johnson.
All rights reserved. Please contact me before using this interview.