R.A.P. Interview: Cindy Jo Hinkleman

Cindy Jo Hinkleman, Freelance Audiobook Editor, Director & Coach, Los Angeles, CA

Cindy-Jo-Hinkleman webby Jerry Vigil

Cindy Jo spent some time in radio working for Drake-Chenault, Radio Arts, Far West Communications and Radio Express.  She has hosted a syndicated show and did production and interviewed recording artists for American Top 40 and other syndicated shows. She has won numerous awards including an Oscar, 3 Golden Reel Nominations, an Audie (audiobook award) and a Grammy nomination. She has produced, edited and/or proofed over 500 audiobooks. Most recently, Cindy has starting doing classes in LA, teaching voiceover artists how to get in the audiobook game. We get a peek inside the audiobook world in this month’s interview along with some interesting tidbits about sound editing for film. Be sure to check the end of the interview for a link to Cindy’s upcoming audiobook class in LA.

JV: You started in radio. How did that happen?
Cindy Jo: Well, I was a pharmacy major originally – this is the San Bernardino Valley College – and every day I would walk by the radio station. They had a big picture window at the FM station. A week before I was supposed to go away to pharmacy school, I wandered in and met the head of the department and went home and announced to my family that I was changing my major. I’m also a musician, and I always had an affinity for radio. So it just made sense for me to go into it.

JV: What did you do during your time in radio?
Cindy Jo: My first job was what was called at the time, a research girl, for a consultant named Jerry Clifton at 99.1 KGGI in Riverside. We called people randomly out of the Yellow Pages and asked them questions about music and radio. Then I transferred to Cal State Northridge, and through a connection at KCSN, the radio station at Cal State Northridge, I was hired at Drake Chenault as a production engineer.

JV: Did you ever actually work at a radio station?
Cindy Jo: No, I always worked for syndicators after 99.1. I was never on the air on a station. I did host syndicated shows for Drake Chenault, and another one later with a friend, but I was never on the air on local radio.

JV: With Drake Chenault, were you doing production for them right off the bat?
Cindy Jo: Yes. It was interesting. At the time, they had never had a female production engineer – which is just bizarre today. The man who interviewed me and hired me had to pull some strings to get me in the door. I ran what was called the duplication chain at first. It was racks of reel-to-reels. There were 2 masters and 23 slaves, and I would duplicate the tapes for all of our automated or live assist radio station clients. So I was carrying boxes full of reels of audio tape around. About two years later, there was an opening to go into the studio to produce the reels of music that I had been duplicating, and I was promoted into studio work at that point.

JV: What got you into editing sound for feature films?
Cindy Jo: Radio changed, as we know. I had gotten to the point of about middle management. This was in the ‘90s, and middle management was pretty much phased out when the big conglomerates were buying up syndicators. I just couldn’t find a job. A friend of mine had just gotten into cutting dialogue for films. He said, “Listen, I know you know how to use a Pro Tools system. I know you’ve never worked with picture, but we have three evenings of loading ADR dialogue into the computer. You can come over and load dialogue for three nights.” I thought, “Sure, why not?”

I went over and those three nights turned into years. I never left. I was very fortunate. The first movie I ever worked on was Breakdown with Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan. I’m forever thankful to that friend of mine who said, “Come on over and load some dialogue for three nights.”

JV: I’ve always wondered what the job of editing sound for film entailed. When you see the Academy Awards announce winners for Best Sound Editing, is that what you did?
Cindy Jo: Yeah, absolutely. There are two categories of Oscars for sound. There’s one for mixers and there’s one for sound editing. We won in sound editing for the movie U571. Sound editing is basically everything except the music. So it’s all dialogue, all sound effects, all Foley, and dialogue replacement when you have to do that when the production sound isn’t usable.

I worked as a dialogue and ADR editor, but I mostly worked as what is called first sound assistant, which isn’t really what it sounds like. It’s not really an assistant. It’s more of a supervisor, coordinator role. You’re the hub. As first sound assistant, you’re the hub of the sound department. You work with the picture editor making sure the sound department has the latest versions of all the reels that they’ve edited. Then you get all the materials out to the sound effects editors, to the dialogue editors, and load everything in the computer, and make sure everything is current. When it’s all edited, you gather it all back up from everyone and compile it for the mix stage.

It’s the first sound assistant’s job to take all the hundreds of tracks that you have over to the mix stage and prepare everything for the mixers, so that when they push that green button on the console the first day of the mix, everything plays and plays in sync. It’s a bit of pressure, but it’s just really such an amazing creative process.

JV: How long did you do that for?
Cindy Jo: I did it for 7 years.

JV: What pointed you in the direction of audiobooks?
Cindy Jo: I had gone into audiobooks a tiny bit between radio – I kind of bounced back and forth for a while. But I got very tired. In film it’s 60 to 90 hours a week and I was very blessed. There were times I was doubled and tripled up on movies. After 7 years, I just needed a break from the 60 to 90 hour weeks and the last minute schedule changes. So I called a friend of mine who was at what was Books on Tape. I had worked with him at Drake Chenault. I said, “Do you have a place for me editing some audiobooks for you, because I need to just take a breath?” He said, “Sure, come on over.”

I’m still a freelancer, but I’ve been editing and directing for them ever since that time. I miss films, and I might go back at some point. I’ve kept my options open. But right now the audiobooks thing is working just fine.

Books on Tape doesn’t exist anymore. They were based out of Orange County and were purchased -- I think it was about 12 or 13 years ago -- by Random House Audio. And then just about a year ago, Random House was purchased by Penguin Publishing. So now they are Penguin Random House. There’s a group of people there, and we’re kind of like family. People come in and go, but there is a core there that’s really family.

JV: What’s the job of editing an audio book like? It seems like it would be a tedious task, but I suspect it’s not.
Cindy Jo: It’s really changed over the years, but currently, it’s basically, I get the recordings that they do in the studio. My job is to take them and clean them up, all the mouth noise, where they’ve picked things up, take out the parts that aren’t usable, work on the pacing, and make sure it sounds like the reader read it perfectly the first time, and to deliver back to them a finished product.

We also proof as well -- pronunciations of words, and we make sure everything is done accurately. After it goes back to Penguin Random House, for me, it goes to the quality control person who gives it another listen to make sure everything is correct. There are usually some notes that come back from them. I, as the editor, go back and make any corrections that they request. It goes back to them for final approval, and it goes out the door.

JV: I can see how listening to and editing so many of these and putting in so many hours into this work, that you would learn a lot about how to read these books.
Cindy Jo: You do. Absolutely.

JV: What about reading audiobooks? That also seems somewhat tedious -- different from reading 30-second radio scripts! How do you keep from going nuts reading a whole book out loud?
Cindy Jo: Sometimes it’s not easy. [laughter] You take frequent breaks. It is very tedious, and audiobooks really is more acting than it is voiceover. Of course, it is voiceover, but especially in fiction, it requires you to be an actor, and it’s not easy. First of all, your voice has to hold up. Then you have to keep your characters consistent throughout. So if you have a book with a lot of characters, it can be challenging. You have extensive notes. You oftentimes have a recording on your phone or your iPod as a reader that you go back and listen to if you kind of get lost. That puts you back into – “Oh yeah, that’s what I did with this character. They’re English. They’re this age.”

One of the things I coach is to not take your characters too far. If it’s a man and it’s a male character, and you do a voice that’s really gravelly, something that’s quite abrasive on your vocal chords, you may not have a voice by page 400. I caution them to be very careful on that. Plus it’s also abrasive for listeners to listen to. You want to make sure your voice is not to a point where the listener goes, “Oh my gosh. That voice is wearing on me.”

JV: So particularly in fiction, I would guess there are a lot of characters. And you’re expected to do character voices.
Cindy Jo: Yes. And you have to go between character and narrator, character and narrator.

JV: That indeed becomes a great acting job, a great voice acting job. You have to be really good.
Cindy Jo: Absolutely. And it does require practice and training, unless you’re a born natural.

JV: Is this something any experienced commercial voiceover artist could slide into easily?
Cindy Jo: Usually. The biggest challenge, and people can overcome it all the time, is just to not sound announcer-y, to sound like you’re reading a story to someone. That’s what people have to keep in mind when they read audiobooks. You have to put yourself in a place. It’s like radio; you’re talking to one person and you’re reading them a story, and so you can’t be an announcer. You have to be a storyteller.

JV: When did you start teaching audio book reading?
Cindy Jo: About four years ago. It was just after I met Susan McCollum at the event, Voices 2010 in Century City. Susan is an experienced voiceover artist and coach in the San Francisco area, and we got to talking. She said, “I have classes in narration, commercial, animation, and I’m getting requests for audiobooks, but I’ve never read an audiobook, so I’m not qualified to teach the class. Would you like to come up and be a guest instructor?” I said, “Well, I’ve never taught before, but I’ve done hundreds of these. I know what I’m doing.”

I went up and she has wonderful students up there. I taught the class, and it went quite well. Now I go up two to four times a year, and she puts a class together. I’m very spoiled. I drive up and the class is there, and I teach. We’ve had repeat students now, and I take that as a compliment. I do more advanced work with the people who have taken the class before. That’s fun too, because we can really get in the trenches together, and I can teach them some additional skills that they’re going to need.

JV: These classes that you’ve been doing have been in San Francisco, but you’re getting ready to do one in LA. Tell us about that class?
Cindy Jo: Right. Susan in San Francisco has been encouraging me to teach down here in LA, so I finally decided it’s time. First of all, we spend Friday evening with me playing them examples of different genres of audiobooks, because there are a lot of different styles out there. It’s interesting… every time I think I’ve encountered every style, or every way a book is constructed, something else comes along and surprises me. So I will be playing examples for them and telling them how the audiobook industry works, the process of how a book is produced from start to finish.

Then on Saturday morning, we’ll be talking about the Audiobook Creation Exchange, www.ACX.com. It’s a new website. It’s actually owned by Audible. It’s where authors post their books if they want them made into an audiobook. Readers have profiles on there. Anyone can put a profile on there and submit auditions to these authors. The authors put some text from the book on there, and the readers record it and submit mp3s.

When the author picks whichever reader they would like to use, the reader basically works as a producer. They are responsible for recording the book, editing it, and delivering a finished product to ACX. Then they upload the mp3 files to ACX when the book is completed. It’s a great way for new readers to get started, and to get some titles on their resume, which helps them get in with the big publishers. I have someone who comes in to speak about that who’s an expert on that because I haven’t personally used it.

He’s also going to talk a little bit about the home studio setup, which I’m also not an expert on. Then we’ll spend the rest of the day having the students read selections of fiction and non-fiction that I’ve picked out for them. I have them do profiles prior to the class, so I know the vocal range, their experience, the classes they’ve taken, what their interests are in books; and then I pick selections for each individual that are different. They will work on those, we’ll read those, and at the end of the day, I wish them well, and I’m there if they need a hand. I’m also going to be producing demos for people. If they’re ready and if they would like to, we can get their demo done and get them out there pursuing some work.

JV: As I’m sure you know, the voiceover business, for commercials anyway, is way overcrowded with VO artists. Is it the same way with the audiobook arena? 100 auditions and maybe 1 hit?
Cindy Jo: You know, it was with the big publishers, to a certain extent prior to ACX -- not anything like commercials. Now with ACX, it’s just opened all kinds of doors and opportunities, and I know numerous people who are just booking jobs on there like crazy. It really has opened up the doors. Also, because audiobooks are just exploding right now, the publishers are starting to produce more books than they’ve ever produced before. In fact, Penguin Random House just added four new studios for a total of ten. So they have ten studios going pretty much all day long at their facility in Woodland Hills. There’s a reason they added four new studios. They’ve got the work. So there is plenty of work out there to be had, and it’s a great way for voiceover artists and actors just to add another tool to their kit, another way to generate income.

JV: What kind of rates do established readers get?
Cindy Jo: Every place is different, but in my experience, for established readers, it’s about $250 dollars per finished hour, which means after it’s edited. $250 dollars per finished hour of audio, which means it’s also to their advantage to be as efficient and accurate when they’re reading as possible so it takes the least amount of time, which is the case in anything that you record.

And ACX doesn’t pay that. The publishers do. ACX negotiates with the authors, and you can do a royalty share or a flat rate, whatever terms you come to with the author, if you’re selected as the reader.

JV: Take a 300-page book, how many finished hours with that be?
Cindy Jo: That’s hard to say. If it’s fiction and it has characters, it’s slower than a straight non-fiction technical read, or if the font’s different. So it’s really hard to say. Audiobooks can vary in length. I’m doing one next week that’s a young adult book that’s three hours. But then again, I did one last August that ended up being 41 finished hours. He was in the studio for a long time, but it was a very lucrative job for him.

JV: So are the readers always doing this in the studio with a director?
Cindy Jo: No. But it has been determined that the product is better generally when a reader has a director and they’re in a studio. But that’s not always the case anymore. For people who book something on ACX, they’re usually recording at home or in a friend’s studio or something like that if they can, to keep the cost down. But it is better if they have a director. I know, for example, at Penguin Random House, they do both there; they have those new studios set up to either have a director sitting there, or they’ve got the equipment sitting in the booth for someone to do punch in self-recording. I know a handful of readers there that actually are efficient at that, and they will hire them to do that. There are three or four people I can think of that they have doing that there. There may be more that I’m unaware of.

And the directors are there as a backstop. They check your pronunciations or if you miss words. It’s like with any copy, you can miss words, or you insert words out of nowhere. They’re there as a backstop and to help you with your characters, to help you stay focused and just stay on track basically. And you can hear a difference; unless it’s someone who’s incredibly experienced, you can hear a difference.

JV: I can see how it would take me 8 hours to read a decent sized book out loud. Do readers go into a studio and have a full 8-hour day?
Cindy Jo: Usually, it’s about 6 hours with a 30 minute or 1-hour lunch in the middle of the day. It’s usually about 10:00 to 4:00, because that’s all they can do. It’s so intense.

JV: Can a reader go into a studio and knock out a 250 page book in a day?
Cindy Jo: Oh, no. The average number of pages per day is 70.

JV: What about the folks that can’t get to LA for your class? Do you have any materials or upcoming webinars or anything similar in the works?
Cindy Jo: I’ve just been focused on this first class right now, I haven’t put anything together yet, but I’ve been considering doing webinars and also short, maybe two-hour classes, Audiobook Aerobics, where you just run through some quick paces, do some exercises. So there may be some other things coming up soon.

JV: What do you love most about what you do?
Cindy Jo: The people. I would like to say the stories, and the stories are wonderful, but it’s really the people involved, because we all have a passion for literature, especially when it comes to young adult books and getting books and recordings out to children. Oftentimes the young adult books are used to teach children in other countries how to speak English. They listen along with the recordings and follow along with the print. So all young adult books have to be completely word accurate for that reason. Otherwise, we can confuse these children.

I think it’s the people and the passion for what we do that I really think is a high spot for me.

JV: Any parting thoughts for our readers?
Cindy Jo: I hear this often: “Gosh, I read to my children and grandchildren -- if I could actually do that for a living!” If people have a passion for reading, especially people who have children or grandchildren they’ve read to -- it could be voiceover artists in other areas or just people in general who may have a talent for it -- I think it’s a great opportunity for them to take what they love and turn it into something that can become income-generating for them, and it would be something they would feel good about doing and have a passion for.

Visit www.unlocktheaudiobookmystery.weebly.com for more info. Cindy welcomes your correspondence at unlocktheaudiobookmystery@gmail.com.

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