Since his 2009 graduation from the University of Washington, where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in drama, Steven Bateman has been pursuing voice work and audiobook production. He has performed in several stage productions, including Jesus Christ Superstar, Kiss Me, Kate, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and several one-act festivals.
Steven currently lives and works in the Seattle area, and in recent years, he has worked as an on-call light and sound technician for the University of Washington’s Ethnic Cultural Theater, as a video editor for several student productions and many gaming compilations, as a sound designer for a production of Proof, and as an audiobook producer for both Librivox.org and Audible.com.
Readers can learn more about Steven and his career at his website, www.steven-bateman.com.
What is your background, and how did you get your start in the voiceover/audiobook world?
I was born and raised in the Seattle area and didn’t spend a whole lot of time being theatrically-minded originally. My dad performed in many shows in the area, then eventually in Hawaii where he’s been living for a couple decades, so I did have some experience hanging out around rehearsal spaces and going to see shows as a child.
I took to English really well at a young age, participating in the spelling bee in kindergarten and typically reading far ahead of my grade level. They used to send me out into the hallway to just read on my own, and after awhile I was excused from spelling tests, instead being given a dictionary and being told I had to just go learn 10 new words.
Around the time in school when they started having students read aloud in class, there were a few times that the other students would just ask the teacher if I could read everything. Part of that, I think, is because everyone felt self-conscious about “performing” in front of everyone else by having to read, but I never really felt shy about it.
Towards the end of college, there was this book that I thought was one of the funniest things I’d ever read, and I was sharing some of it with some friends I had online through one of our games. After a few minutes, I stopped, because I was feeling a little odd about speaking for so long over our voice client, but they insisted I continue because they were really enjoying listening to it. I think that was the first moment that I thought, “Well, maybe I could do this, then.”
I also started researching a lot more about voiceovers at that point and kept getting more and more interested — particularly after listening to a lot of the audio commentary from Billy West and John DiMaggio on the Futurama DVDs.
What skills are most vital for a good voiceover person? And how do you go about honing them?
Voiceover is acting, really, so that’s the skillset you have to learn. You really have to tailor your acting for your environment, though. If you’re acting on stage, for example, you can’t make subtle movements or speak quietly — you need to make sure that the guy who’s 20 rows back can see and hear you, so you have to learn how to project without sounding like you’re yelling or unnaturally raising your voice. All your movements have to be bigger than normal.
Camera work, on the other hand, is the total opposite — there are specialized courses you can take that are about “acting in front of the camera.” Facial expressions have to become very subtle and minute, because if you try to do stage acting on camera, you end up being an enormous ham.
So voiceover and audiobooks are the same way. You’re acting, but you have to be mindful of your environment. You can’t convey anything with a look or a gesture or the way you’re standing, it’s all got to be in your voice. The best way to do that, though, is typically to just act “at” the microphone. If you need to sound enthusiastic or happy, it’s best to literally smile while you’re doing your lines. If it’s supposed to be an over-the-top energy, you might even jump around a bit in the studio and get yourself pumped up like you’re about to get into a boxing match. If you have to deliver something emotional, you have to build yourself into it. I recorded some voiceover for a video game where it’s a father basically saying goodbye to his 5 year old daughter because he’s about to commit suicide — and it’s not very believable if you just launch into it. You have to figure out how to get into the headspace of saying goodbye to your little kid who’s not going to understand what you’re saying.
To hone that, it’s just practice, practice, practice. I used to spend a lot of time in the stock room of previous jobs talking to myself at great length in as many different voices as I could. I’d try out accents and voices or maybe just recite lines to myself. Acting is one of those things that you just get better by doing. There is theory and study you can do, but the only way to improve is to just do it.
What’s the typical process for recording an audiobook? Just you in a studio, reading for hours at a time? Is there an engineer staring at you for the duration? And when it’s done, how do you celebrate?
For ACX, all my audiobook production is done at home. Studios often cost somewhere from $50-$100/hr. to use, so it’d end up costing more money to use one than I’d be making to do the recording for an audiobook. Thankfully, home studios aren’t terribly difficult to build if all you’re doing is voice work. Instruments would require a lot more sound-proofing and careful construction of a room, and singing would increase your volume exponentially. Speaking at a relatively conversational tone, though, is much easier to deal with. You can find lots of DIY instructions for sound booths all over the internet.
Once your audition is selected, you’ve produced the first 15 minutes of the book, and you’ve been given the go-ahead to produce the rest of the book, the first step for any good narrator is to read the book from cover to cover. I usually do this over a couple days, maybe less if the book is relatively short. You don’t want to be speaking with an Irish accent only to discover on page 122 that, actually, that character is French — or speaking with a Texan drawl only to find out the heroine is from Alabama. It also gives you a better idea of character motivation — imagine trying to read Snape’s character before you’ve finished the Harry Potter series and discovered his real motivations. It causes subtle changes in how you perform a character — sometimes it causes major ones.
When I’m reading, I also make notes of any questions I might have for the author. If I find something I don’t know how to pronounce, I’ll take to dictionaries or Youtube or Google or what-have-you, but for things like names, I tend to just go straight to the author. Several books I did were written by a police officer, and he had a number of acronyms that I had to ask if you say each letter individually, or pronounce the whole thing as a word. I recently finished one where a character is supposed to spend half the book speaking with a vocoder over the phone, so that it’s distorted and warped, so I had to ask the author if they wanted some kind of processing on those lines — ultimately, we decided no.
If it’s a fiction book, then I’ll usually try to figure out voices for each of the characters. I’ll practice them for a bit when I’m not reading, just wandering around the house or while I’m driving or something, maybe have conversations with myself. This step isn’t quite so necessary with non-fiction books, since those tend to just be informative or mostly first-person accounts of events.
For a day of recording, I usually record for about an hour to an hour and a half. Even at those lengths, it doesn’t take long for your voice to start wearing out and your desire to perform to start to become exhausted. It’s not like when you’re doing voice work in a studio, where there are starts and stops and you’re not speaking quite so constantly. I can perform characters in a studio for much longer than I can read books on end. One note is that I don’t do punch-recording like most audiobook narrators do. Typically, you’ll hear most narrators will record until they make a mistake, then they pause, click back to where the mistake was, then read the line again. It’s a more time-consuming way to record, but it makes editing much faster in post-production.
Instead, I just read everything straight through, because it helps me maintain my flow and mindset. It means I spend more time getting rid of outtakes in editing, but for working on my own, it’s more beneficial to me in the long run. If I was working with someone else, though, I’d do whatever their preference was.
Then I usually take a little break to get some water or what-have-you, then settle in to edit. Typically, for a finished hour of audio, it takes me about 4-5 hours of editing, then I spend an hour listening to it again to double-check and make sure I didn’t miss anything (quality control). Usually, for 45-60 minutes of actual audiobook, it takes me a full 7-8 hour workday, excluding breaks for food. Sometimes it’ll take longer if I’m having a bad recording day (which is rare, but it happens). Then I save the project file, backup the project file to my external hard drive and my flash drive, export it all to MP3, and upload to ACX.
When it’s all finished, it gets passed off to ACX, who runs one more round of quality control on it, then it gets put in for processing and publishing. It’s funny that you ask about celebration, though — there are mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s often something I’ve been working on for a couple weeks, or a month, or maybe two months, so it’s this amazing relief that it’s finally all done. Then you remember that you need to find work again, so it’s back to browsing auditions (which I’ll often start doing a week before the book is actually done). It’s kind of a perpetual, “I’m employed — now I’m not” cycle when you’re freelancing. I guess I’ve never really taken the time to actually celebrate anything beyond going, “Sweet, that’s done… What next?”
In terms of your career or otherwise, who has inspired you over the course of your life?
As I mentioned, Billy West and John DiMaggio were early inspirations for me when I started researching voiceovers. I started learning about people like Frank Welker, Troy Baker, Tress MacNeille, Steve Blum — it was amazing how often I kept hearing the same voices in every TV show, animated movie, or video game I’d come across, once I knew what I was listening for.
David Sobolov is a voice actor I worked with down in California on getting my demos produced. He’s one of the nicest guys I ever met — his filmography (voiceography?) is something like 20 years old, including RoboCop, Beast Wars, Call of Duty, Diablo III… Some pretty notable parts. He was very encouraging and helped me figure out what aspects of my voice were marketable, where to kind of hone my focus down, what I was good at and what I probably wouldn’t get work trying to do.
What is the career pinnacle for an audiobook producer? Is there one project (or type of project out there) that you fantasize about working on, knowing that it would define your career?
I really imagine that a career pinnacle for anyone doing what they want to do is just being able to make a living off it. Voiceover and audiobooks are extremely difficult to break into, even harder to find regular work for, and then even harder to get paid enough that you won’t have to do something else on the side to support yourself. It’s not an easy dream to have, especially because acting in general is one of those things that most people will just frown at you for and ask when you’re going to get a career or a “real job.” In the beginning, it’s easy to feel like, “Oh, I’ll show all of you!” But when the realities of how much time, effort, and struggling you’re going to go through in order to really make a living off it start to hit you, you start facing your own doubts: “What if I never get a break? What if I’m struggling the rest of my life trying to do this? When do I decide that I’ve tried long enough and it just isn’t going to work?” It’s hard to keep yourself motivated.
As far as a career-defining project, I think I’d most love the opportunity to work on a popular series. To be able to play a character so well and so memorably that, if you go to something like a comic convention, people can go, “Oh, that’s the guy who plays so-and-so!” To define a character so much by your performance that nobody would ever accept anyone else in that part. I think to pull off something like Mark Hamill playing the Joker would just be amazing.
Book-wise, I would so love to do the audiobook of Pretending You Care: The Retail Employee’s Handbook by Norm Feuti. It would be problematic, because a lot of the book is comic strips from Norm’s comic, “Retail,” but it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, on top of being so incredibly accurate to how I felt about almost every aspect of my job. That was actually the book I was reading to my friends online that initially cued my, “Maybe I could do this” thought.
What’s your biggest fear?
Oh man. Where to start?
Like I mentioned, one of my biggest fears is that ultimately, it will not work out as a long-term career. I spent about eight years or so working various customer service and retail positions, and I often feel like, if voiceovers and audiobooks don’t work out, that’s what I’m going to be sent back to. Sure, it pays the bills, and depending on where you work, it’s relatively tolerable — but I think I would feel like I had just given up or failed myself, and I don’t know that I would recover from something like that. I think I’d still end up recording things one way or another for the rest of my life, but sometimes I worry that I’m going to spend my whole life living month to month and just trying to “make things work.”
Somewhat related is that I often fear some “industry professional” is going to somehow sound an alarm that I’m a phony. I had already finished college before I ever began really pursuing voiceover and audiobooks, so I didn’t take any courses or have any really formal learning on how to do what I’m doing. I never had anyone sit me down and say, “This is the microphone you use. This is where you stand. This is how you create 100% clean audio. This is what’s acceptable as ‘professional level.'” I’ve never had anyone really tell me, “Yes, you sound like someone who deserves to get paid to do this for a living.” I just have to gauge how I’m doing by whether or not I’m getting work and the quality of work I’m getting. I feel pretty confident about my ability to perform, but I’m always stressing out about sound quality. “Is this a perfect noise floor? Does this sound as clean as it’s supposed to? Is it GOOD ENOUGH?”
Especially because I work from home, and not in a “professional studio,” I just always fear that one day, someone’s going to point out that I’m just not doing it right and my reputation will be forever ruined. I wonder if other “self-taught” people stress out about that sometimes.
What do you enjoy most about living in Seattle?
Seattle’s amazing. I lived in Southern California for about three years when I was trying to make a go of the LA area for voiceovers, and to be honest, I was pretty miserable. The culture, the weather, the lack of public transportation… I just felt so incredibly out of place and unwelcomed. It never felt like home, either — I thought that maybe after being somewhere for a couple years, it would start to feel like home, but ultimately it just felt familiar.
Flying back into Seattle for a week to visit family always felt like coming home. A lot of that is, I think, the environment. I’m not really a “blue skies and warm weather” sort of guy. My favorite days are the ones where it’s overcast, 50 degrees, and maybe drizzling lightly. I was out hiking at Hurricane Ridge recently and it was still cold enough for snow to be covering the trail at one point, and that was just amazing. Once it starts breaking about 75 or 80 degrees outside, though, I retreat into my cave and turn on the AC — or a fan, if the budget isn’t allowing for that. I still get kind of depressed around late Spring and most of Summer in Seattle, but it sure as hell beat the 90-degree Decembers I was facing in California.
I love Seattle culture, too. A lot of people who grew up here even before I did are feeling there’s a sense of gentrification invading the city that’s been going on for about 10 years or so. I was pretty young during the grunge era, and I often wish I had been older when it was still big. I think there are still a lot of places in Seattle that have that “hole in the wall, flannel shirts, ripped jeans, have a beer and chill out” kind of vibe, but it is sad to see so much of it disappearing to be replaced with slick businesses. I think I’m still trying to live in the ’90s, sometimes, and Seattle is able to fulfill that here and there where I haven’t been able to elsewhere.
Rank the following grunge bands in order, from best to worst: Nirvana. Pearl Jam. Soundgarden. Alice In Chains.
I don’t want to call any of them “worst,” I feel like that’s sort of doing a disservice to great bands. Nirvana was obviously the most influential — or at least the most well-known. Dave Grohl is just an incredible musician, and watching him smash those drums was always a treat — it still is. And of course he went on to do amazing work with the Foo Fighters, along with about a hundred other bands, it seems like (Queens of the Stone Age, Tenacious D, Them Crooked Vultures, etc.). Cobain had such a distinct and raw — and, in hindsight, obviously pained — voice, I think the argument could be made that he was THE voice of grunge for the era.
Pearl Jam’s STILL touring, and a lot of their music still has the same soul that their older stuff does. Eddie Vedder’s not climbing scaffolding and diving into crowds off light posts any more (I don’t think…), but any band that can continue making music and giving great performances 20 years or more after their first album’s release deserves a lot of respect. Plus, I really love “Even Flow,” “Jeremy,” and “Last Kiss” (as sad as the song is — it tears me up a bit every time I hear it).
Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, I must admit, I’m slightly less familiar with. Chris Cornell is one of the greatest singers alive, and I was incredibly impressed with the work he did with the Rage Against the Machine crew as Audioslave. Perhaps not shockingly, I’m into the big radio hits that everyone knew, like “Rusty Cage” and “Black Hole Sun,” or “Them Bones” and “Man In The Box.” Although, I suppose that’s true of Pearl Jam and Nirvana, but only because I think their entire discographies have been played on the radio at one point or another.
I think Alice In Chains sounded a lot grittier than the other bands and perhaps better evoked the grunge imagery (I’m sure someone’s going to get angry at me and throw Kurt Cobain back in my face for that one). Soundgarden was more poetic, I think. Their lyrics were a bit more abstract and, at times, more beautiful than the other bands.
I really hesitate to rank them in any order, they all meant so much to the Seattle scene and music in general that I feel like it would be unfair to call one better than the other.
What are you working on next?
I did some voicework for a game called Labyrinthine Dreams that, as far as I know, should be coming out this month or next month. I had a blast playing the original version, before they went on Kickstarter to get funds and do all new art and music, and I’m really looking forward to seeing all the snazzy facelifts it got.
I’m also still in the audiobook business with Amazon/Audible — I’ve got a handful of auditions out right now that I’m waiting to hear back on, including one that’s trying to decide between a couple other people and me. I recently finished a 13.5 hour romance/thriller audiobook, though it’s published under a pseudonym.
I’ve also been looking into talent agencies around the Seattle area — the one I was with in California doesn’t have representation up here, so I’ve been getting into touch with as many around here as I can. It’s tough to find a good fit for an agency (and not all of them are on the level, unfortunately), and sometimes it’s just an issue that the good ones are already full of “your voice type.”