In recent months I unpacked two boxes of books and discovered I had put away for safekeeping a trilogy of novels set in the Star Wars universe published way back in the early 1990s under license and with the blessing of George Lucas. The novels I allude to are Timothy Zahn’s The Thrawn Trilogy. They consists of Heir To The Empire (1991), Dark Force Rising (1992) and The Last Command (1993). Still to this day, Zahn’s novels are the best Star Wars books I’ve read. And while I would dearly love to read them again, I just don’t have the time. I decided to go online and see if an audiobook version would quench my thirst for adventure. More specifically the further adventures of Luke Skywalker and friends.
Anyway audiobooks can be a whole lot of things. But more than anything audiobooks are often immersive and entertaining. They are a great way to make a book or story come to life. The challenge of course is to see what audiobooks are available and if they are worth sitting through. Often it comes down to one factor for me and that is the narrator. Are they going to make it unbelievably fun? Will they bring drama and tension to the story? Will I hang on their every word? In regards to The Thrawn Trilogy and book one – Heir To The Empire, I am actually spoilt for choice with professional undertakings to fan-made adaptations.
Talking of fan-made adaptations, I discovered a great new narrator on YouTube, who ticks all of my boxes when it comes to audiobooks. In short, Joshua Tatum aka JTcrusader is a big fan of books. More importantly he loves to read them out loud! He is also a Star Wars fan, so you can imagine he has absolutely every reason to get it right. No pressure Joshua. But seriously, Joshua is a breath of fresh air. When I began listening to his audio adaptation of Heir To The Empire, I couldn’t switch it off. He was engaging but more than anything he was able to narrate the action and perform all the dialogue in different character voices to a tee. It’s fair to say after thirty-two mesmerising chapters, I had some fan questions of my own, so I decided to reach out to Joshua. Here is some of what we talked about.
Joshua tell us a little bit about yourself and what led you to become an audio book narrator?
Before we begin, I want to thank you for reaching out to me. I honestly didn’t expect anyone to request an interview regarding the production behind this audiobook, much less writing an entire article about it, but I’m very humbled that you decided to do so! So a little about myself. My name is Joshua Tatum, and I’m the narrator for the fan-made audiobook adaptation of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire. This is the first audiobook I’ve ever produced, and it’s been quite the journey leading up to this point. I’d say that my story as a narrator began when I was in middle school and my father sat me down to watch Rankin Bass’s animated adaptation of The Hobbit from 1977. John Huston’s vocal performance as both the narrator and the voice of Gandalf in that film completely immersed me into the story, and was my first introduction to Tolkien’s books. That movie greatly inspired me to dive into the world of narration and voice-over. My journey as a narrator began with reading to my younger brothers when they were too young to read themselves. As stated before, I loved the Hobbit, and many of the actors both read lines from the book and voiced the characters in that movie. So, I decided to read to my brothers in a similar style, crafting voices that suited all the characters and then integrated them along with the narration. I read Tolkien and Star Wars books to them for a good portion of their childhood. They often told me that my narration and voices made the books extremely enjoyable to listen to, and they still encourage me to this day. I took a break from book narration when my brothers entered high-school, but I trained my voice in other ways. I’ve been a singer for many years, serving in my church’s worship band and in my local community choir. After graduating from college I did some narration for employee training videos and product demos at my job. However, I still had the desire to make audiobooks, but I could never find the time. Then the year 2021 came around, and suddenly, I was working remotely from my house. I finally had the time that I needed to begin my first audiobook project, and after several months of hard work, Heir to the Empire has finally been completed!
Tell me about your love for Star Wars? Why did you choose Heir To The Empire as your first audio book?
Like many others, my first introduction to Star Wars was the original trilogy of movies. I loved each and every one of Lucas’ films. I was a young kid when the prequels were being released, so I’ve grown to appreciate them almost as much as the originals (minor flaws and all). I couldn’t get enough of Star Wars growing up, so after watching the movies an uncountable number of times, I started getting into the expanded universe material. Interestingly enough, I didn’t actually get around to reading the Thrawn Trilogy until much later in life. However, I spent a great deal of time getting into other Star Wars stories that were either directly connected or heavily inspired by it. I’m a big fan of the Jedi Knight series of games, Knights of the Old Republic 1 & 2, The New Jedi Order books, Jedi Apprentice, Dark Empire, Star Wars Tales by dark horse comics, and countless others. Once I did get around to reading the Thrawn trilogy however, I knew that it was something special. Timothy Zahn did such an amazing job expanding upon Star Wars, and when you realize that he only had the original movies to draw upon, it’s no wonder that their impact on the franchise is still felt all these years later. However, despite their reputation, I’ve realized that many of the younger generation have never read these books. I took a liking to all the characters instantly, and already had some idea for the voices in my head. It was then that I decided that my first audiobook was going to be Heir to the Empire, using the same narration style that I used with my younger brothers all those years ago.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced to date as a narrator and how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge that I’ve had to face throughout the course of this project has been maintaining good sound quality. Unfortunately, I live next to a busy highway, so I tend to get a lot of traffic noise (which can make sound cleanup a challenge). When I first started production on the early chapters, I was recording from my couch. I quickly realized that both the background noise and overall sound quality were not on a level that I was satisfied with. So I did some research and learned that recording from a car is one way to improve sound quality (especially if you cover it with moving blankets for acoustics). I used this setup for around 50% of the audiobook. For every recording session, I would cover my car with blankets, place my microphone stand inside my car, and feed my microphone cable through the car door to keep out the noise from my computer fan. Once the recording session was over, I would tear everything down and relocate my computer for audio editing. I did that for every chapter (until chapter 24). It was then that I learned a very important lesson, for long-term projects such as this, you need to have a workflow that is feasibly maintainable. Otherwise, you risk the possibility of burnout. So, I made the decision to make my own permanent sound studio inside my house. It would be more receptive to traffic noise (which I learned new audio tricks to reduce), but more importantly, I could now record with little to no prep-work. The lesson to learn here is: know when to make compromises, especially when the completion of a project might depend on it.
The first image (below) is my old car setup, the other four are of my current sound studio:
What’s something about the audiobook process that might surprise my readers?
There were a great many things that I didn’t know about making audiobooks until I actually started. As I mentioned before, one of the aspects of making audiobooks that I didn’t know about was the importance of good recording quality. There are additional things to consider too. You need to have good posture, drink lots of water, do vocal warm up exercises, make sure that your words are clear, and learn how to edit sound settings to get the best results. But the biggest thing that I’ve learned is this: the narrator needs to be as much of a character as any of the actual characters in the book. The narrator’s attitude and delivery are extremely important, because it’s their job to bring the words to life. The narrator sets the stage for every scene, they voice the internal thoughts and emotions for every character, and create necessary tension for moments of action and drama. The narrator must be able to exude happiness, anger, sorrow, fear, curiosity, apathy, pride, meekness, introspection, and even comedy whenever the situation calls for it. If you don’t do that, then the narration quickly falls flat, which can disconnect the listener (and even the narrator) from the book entirely. Here is a metaphor that I like to use: a good narrator should read as if he/she was telling a story around a campfire. In that setting, you need to have both confidence and charisma to keep everyone invested, and audiobook narration works the same way. Chapter 11 is where I realized this the most in Heir to the Empire. I won’t spoil what happens in that chapter, but let’s just say that the narrator takes center stage and is required to give their 100%.
How long did the entire book (Heir) take to record and produce? I understand you also had initially some glitches to resolve early on?
In total, it took roughly 6 months to record the entire book. However, as you’ve stated, there were some complications. I managed to catch COVID halfway through the project which did put me out of commission for about a month. Additionally, before I built my sound studio, there was a lot of prep work required before recording which slowed down the production cycle. However, I was intentional with the amount of time that it took to finish the project. Releasing each chapter individually allowed me to improve my craft with every publication. Every chapter was its own distinct experience to complete, and I’m content with knowing that I was able to make the best audiobook that could with the resources I had at the time.
What equipment did you use to weave your magic?
Ah, great question. The microphone that I used throughout the entire audiobook was an AudioTechnica AT2020. They sound great, and are fairly cheap compared to most high-end microphones. Of course, a good microphone only goes so far. Setting up your recording environment for soundproofing and acoustics are very important too (something I’ve been learning over the course of this project). For sound editing, I used a standard PC laptop with Audacity (open-source software for editing audio).
Joshua, you are very good at character voices. Did that take time to perfect? What was it like reading the different character lines and then voicing them?
Thank you for the compliment! Crafting voices is easily one of my favorite aspects of building an audiobook, and one of the most challenging. I usually spend a great deal of time deciding upon the voices for each of the characters. The way that I usually go about making a character’s voice is to first carefully observe how the author describes them in the book. How old are they? What is their personality? Given the context of the character’s position or status, what kind of voice would be best appropriate? Does their voice ever change? Sometimes, I would even search online for pictures of the characters to help visualize how that person might sound when talking. Above everything else though, I want to make sure that the voices sound genuine, and are as accurate to the book’s description as possible. The voice that I crafted for Thrawn is a good example. In the book, Thrawn’s voice is described as being cool and modulated, often taking deep breaths before speaking. Very calm and collected. This is how Thrawn is often depicted in most media (Star Wars rebels being a good example). However, what people often miss, is that Thrawn’s voice changes drastically throughout the book, much to the dismay of everyone around him. There are times when Thrawn’s voice is described as being suddenly so cold and dark that he seems like a different person. There are other times when Thrawn “loses control” of his voice and then he falls back on his old voice and becomes “all calm business again.” Then there are moments that Thrawn takes on a special tone of voice when “explaining the obvious”, or an “almost dreamy” voice when describing his art. When taking all of that into consideration, I came to the conclusion that Thrawn’s voice needed to be focused around breath control. Thrawn is a master of deception and “masking” his voice to fit the situation. His true voice is the cold and dark tone that scares everyone, which is evident in the way that he talks to the Noghri people, which are fiercely loyal to him, so he doesn’t need to put on an act around them. Thrawn takes deep breaths whenever he’s putting on one of his masks, so I give him a calm voice with a lot of breath in those moments. However, once the mask is gone, I take all the breath away from his voice to indicate that he’s no longer faking it. That’s how I try to approach all of my character voices. This makes the recording process of the audiobook a unique challenge, since I’m technically voice acting and narrating at the same time. And just like with any other voice acting production, I often had to do multiple takes of character dialogue to make sure that the lines were being delivered properly. It takes a lot more work than just reading through the book with my normal voice, but it’s incredibly satisfying when it all comes together!
A little over thirty years ago Timothy Zahn blew my mind about what Star Wars could become. I wish it had been considered for the basis for a new trilogy but unfortunately it wasn’t. Despite that I think from the entire 3 book series but more specifically from the beginning with ‘Heir’, Mara Jade – the Emperors Hand was my favourite character. (For those not familiar with Mara Jade, she seeks revenge against Luke for The Emperor’s death.) Joshua, do you have a favourite ‘Heir’ character and why?
Oh, that’s a difficult choice to make. I really like Grand Admiral Thrawn’s character in Heir to the Empire. However, I’m also a big fan of Talon Karrde. I think that Thrawn and Karrde’s characteristics complement each other extremely well in this book. You have the terrifying tactical genius of Thrawn go head to head with a charismatic master improviser with a heart of gold in Talon Karrde. Mara Jade is a great character as well, so that’s a tough choice. As of right now, I think its a tie between Talon Karrde and Thrawn for my top spot.
I understand you are working on the sequel in Zahn’s series Dark Force Rising? What can you tell me about its early development?
Yes, its still in early stages. I’m doing some pre-reading to formulate the new character voices. My recording studio is already set up, so I plan to start working on Dark Force Rising very soon!
Finally Josh, is there a author whose book outside the Star Wars universe you’d love to have the opportunity to narrate?
I’ve always wanted to make a Bible audiobook with voices for all the characters. I’ve actually started to record the Book of John, which I’ll be uploading to the channel along with chapter 1 of Dark Force Rising.
Cool interview. I had the first book and I enjoyed it, but don’t remember anything about it anymore. I never got around to the other two.
Thank you John. I loved all three books. Don’t worry you can reacquaint yourself with ‘Heir To The Empire’ via Joshua’s audiobook adaption on his YouTube channel. It’s entertaining and very easy to listen to in your spare time.
I wish I had time for audiobooks, but if I’m listening it has to be music as too many reviews to do.