The voice of experience

Two of the industry’s leading audio book narrators share their expertise with Perkins Library volunteers.

Between the two of them, Jack and Jill Fox have narrated more than 2,000 talking books for the American Printing House for the Blind. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.

Even if you’ve never spoken with Jack or Jill Fox, chances are you’ve heard their voices.

Between the two of them, the father-daughter duo have recorded more than 2,000 talking books at the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), hosted radio programs and lent their voices to commercials, documentaries and even airport announcements.

On a recent morning, they visited Perkins School for the Blind to share their expertise with a group of volunteer narrators who record audio books for the Perkins Library. The session was intended to help the volunteers improve their skills in the recording booth, where they produce between eight and 12 talking books a month for readers who are blind or visually impaired.

The Foxes fielded a steady stream of questions ranging from the personal (how do you avoid a scratchy throat when you’ve been speaking for two hours?) to the technical (should you pronounce foreign words with an accent?).    

Some of their answers were brief: Jack Fox swears by Echinacea and vitamin C to ward off colds that could render his voice unfit for work. Other answers morphed into stories of comical mispronunciations: “wanton woman” was once mistakenly recorded by Jack Fox as “wonton woman.”

Throughout the session, the Foxes offered candid advice on the craft of narration. Things like pacing, inflection and even microphone placement can be the difference between recording a vibrant, compelling scene from a book and one that falls flat.

“It’s nice to have a pleasant voice but that’s not really what it’s about,” said Jill Fox. “It’s so much about timing and being sensitive to the characters, to what’s going on.”

For Jack Fox, visualizing the scene while he narrates helps him bring characters and dialogue to life.

“I imagine what those characters look like, and that influences how my voice comes out,” he said. “If I have a woman I might try to speak a little softer versus a man who’s some tough guy. We’re not trying to be dramatic, but we do want to make it interesting to people.”

At the Perkins recording studio, narrators are trained to read a text without over-characterizing. That means no accents, funny voices or quirky sound effects. 

“They don’t want you to act, they want you to narrate,” said Jill Fox. “It’s a fine line. There are subtle ways that you can indicate something without going over the top and becoming a character, but you have to find that for yourself.”

Both father and daughter have experience with many types of voice-over work, including podcasts, advertisements and recordings for interactive kiosks at museums. They have also found success on the radio – Jack Fox as a broadcaster for several stations in the Midwest, and Jill Fox as a weekend host for Louisville’s NPR station.

No matter what she’s recording, Jill Fox makes the audience her top priority. Like Perkins Library narrators, she knows how important audio books are to people who can’t access traditional printed materials.

“It’s helpful for me to keep in mind that it’s really less about you as a performer and more about the product you’re making,” she said. “I try to think about how it’s sounding on the other end – I want it to be accessible and easy to listen to.”

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