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Bringing audiobooks to life in the Valley

The next time you’re stuck in gridlock on the 405 listening to an audiobook, squint past the guard rails and mini malls:  There’s a chance that book was recorded mere exits away.

Behind a wrought-iron gate in a residential area of Northridge, Deyan Audio Services sits on what looks like a country estate, with manicured lawns and tall privacy hedges. The recording studio is also the home of owner Debra Deyan; two of its nine recording booths are down the hall from her kitchen, where a pair of snow-white German shepherds bound in to play. There is something about the arrangement — the ghostly dogs, the gardens, the cloistered rooms — that feels fanciful, like Dickens does L.A.

“It makes sense that audiobooks were really birthed in Los Angeles,” Deyan says. “You can’t read sitting on a freeway.”

She opened Deyan Studios in 1990 with her husband, Bob, who initially worked in radio but had the prescience to seize on the audiobook when it was still a fledgling medium. Audiobooks weren’t a household item, or even a household word: The term wouldn’t be established by the Audio Publishers Assn. until 1994.

In the beginning, they recorded onto quarter-inch tape at home in Van Nuys, hounding publishers for meetings and scouting up-and-coming talent. “We would go to theater in L.A. three or four nights a week,” Deyan says, to persuade actors “to read in our closet.”  

Since those early days, the studio has won a bevy of Audies, the industry’s highest honor, for books as diverse as Thomas L. Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded,” Libba Bray’s YA novel “Beauty Queens” and “Rich Dad Poor Dad” by Robert T. Kiyosaki and Sharon L. Lechter.  Deyan’s audiobooks have been nominated for 12 Grammys, winning five. 

That first makeshift studio was a far cry from Deyan’s current state-of-the-art facility, which opened the night before the Grammys in 2013.

“We threw this really lavish party with ball gowns and tuxedos…Our clients flew from New York and drove up in limousines…The highest pinnacle of our lives was that night,” Deyan says. Although in a tragic coincidence, that same night, Bob began exhibiting symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. “He stepped out of bed that same exact night that we opened this facility and fell,” Deyan recalls. “Six weeks later, he was in a wheelchair, paralyzed.”

She walks me down a hallway lined with framed photos and handwritten notes to her husband. Scores of friends came over to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS, and Deyan Audio received a special achievement Audie from the audio association that year. 

“They held marathon readings… all sorts of celebrities came out and helped… He was a tour de force,” Deyan says, her voice breaking. Bob died in 2014, but the studio he built with Debra continued to grow. That year, she founded the Deyan Institute of Vocal Artistry and Technology — the first school of its kind — and the studio continues to work with the big five publishers on every aspect of audiobook recording, from casting to mastering.

Audiobooks are one of the brightest spots in publishing: Sales for 2015 saw an increase of 20.7% over the previous year; in the first half 2016, audiobook downloads were up an additional 31.1%.

“The breakout moment happened in 2008, when [audiobooks] went up on iTunes,” Deyan says. “I could probably only sell a murder mystery to a dentist’s wife… I wouldn’t sell the same Agatha Christie book to a 25-year-old music consumer.” Deyan saw that iTunes had become a hub for a generation with eclectic tastes in not just music but also books: “It opened up different genres.” 

The digital revolution has also made production more affordable. In the beginning, audiobook forerunners like Books on Tape, another California company, were limited by the expense of producing and distributing the many cassettes it took to contain a single book. “There might only be 50 books in their catalog,” Deyan recalls.

Now that most people download their audiobooks from the Internet, that’s changed. “Audible is able to have thousands of choices for you,” Deyan says.

In fact, to expand its catalog, Audible placed an order with Deyan Audio to record 700 titles in 60 days. Deyan employees reverently referred to this event as the “Audible Boom,” denoting historical import, like the Renaissance or maybe the Gold Rush.

The Deyans used the Audible Boom money for the down payment on their house. “We thought — and everyone in the industry thought — that it was going to be banging like this forever,” she says. “We didn’t understand that it was one moment in time that you got this windfall.” The boom has inspired novice narrators and seasoned voice-over actors alike to build their own home audio setups. Deyan, however, remains a top-of-the-line, one-stop shop.

Actress and narrator Elizabeth Knowelden, her dark hair loose, was at work on “Maid of the Kings Court,” a historical romance novel by Lucy Worsley, which she read from a tablet. “We’re just getting to a good part,” Knowelden said when I arrived. Deyan’s audio booths have the luxury of windows —  actors can make eye contact with engineers (or reporters) during marathon recording sessions and enjoy some natural light. This was Knowelden’s third day working on the audiobook, and each session lasted six or seven hours.

While I listened in, Knowelden stopped to re-record the most delicate nuances — a click of her tongue, a glottal stop — missteps that I found nearly imperceptible. Knowelden, who is from London, has a kind of British ur-voice: Her annunciation was voluptuous, her vowels plump. When she spoke, the pedestrian word “rose” sounded petal soft and luxe.

Deyan feels that her company’s strength — and what makes or breaks any audiobook — is authentic casting. Unless the author is particularly famous (“You’re not going to have somebody do Deepak Chopra’s audiobook —  that would be ridiculous, because everybody knows what he sounds like”), working actors perform books, and Debra is fastidious about accuracy, sometimes spending months looking for an actor with a mastery of character —  or setting-specific accents or languages, like Russian or Hmong. P.J. Ochlan, who has narrated more than 200 audiobooks and is co-founder of the Deyan Institute, agrees, adding that an audiobook narrator’s deepest loyalty lies with the text.

“You need to get the author’s tone, the vibe of the book,” says Ochlan. “You’ve got to stick to the author’s intent.” Like any role, narration is a performance, which requires an emotional connection to the script, but it’s also “verbatim work” — something as seemingly insignificant as creating a contraction where one doesn’t exist, for example, is cause to re-record.

Knowelden circled back to fix a contraction. Listening to her read aloud in that soundproof booth — the surrounding silence of which had heft, like the comforting weight of a heavy blanket — I was instantly soothed.

It reminded me that many of our first experiences with books are not interior or solitary. Even before we can read, we are read to.

agatha.french@latimes.com

@agathafrenchy

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