The sound of reading: Pelham engineer Peter Acker empowers the age-old tradition of oral storytelling

  • Audiobook engineer and producer Peter Acker works in the studio of his Pelham home, where he runs Armadillo Audio Group. STAFF PHOTOKEVIN GUTTING 

  • Where the magic happens: The sound booth at audiobook engineer/producer Peter Acker’s home studio in Pelham. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Audiobook producer Peter Acker works in the studio of his Pelham home, where he runs Armadillo Audio Group.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jarrett J. Krosoczka, the Northampton children’s book author and illustrator, works on the audiobook of his memoir, “Hey, Kiddo,” in Peter Acker’s studio. Courtesy Peter Acker

  • Peter Acker, left, with author Ocean Vuong and, at right, independent producer Robert Kessler. Courtesy Peter Acker

  • Peter Acker, left with author Jonathan Shay, center, and actor David Strathairn. The latter did the reading for the audiobooks of Shay’s “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America.” Image courtesy Peter Acker

  • Audiobook engineer/producer Peter Acker in the studio of his Pelham home where he runs Armadillo Audio Group.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2021

You could say he gives writers a voice — an additional voice, that is.
But as Peter Acker sees it, what he’s really doing is part of a long tradition of oral storytelling that dates back thousands of years.

“The spoken word, passing stories down, predates the written word — that’s how communication happened,” said Acker, a longtime audiobook producer and engineer. “Storytelling is sort of an innate part of our being, I think. We’re just naturally drawn to stories.”

For over three decades, Acker, who lives in Pelham, has been recording a wide variety of authors reading their work, or working with professional narrators or speakers who read others’ books; his company is called Armadillo Audio Group. During that time, he’s watched the industry move from using reel-to-reel tape machines to record onto cassettes — the original “books on tape” — to recording books on CDs, to the varied options of today’s digital world, when people can download books directly to their smartphones.

Along the way, audiobooks have become a big business, with annual sales of over $1.2 billion in the U.S. in 2019, according to the Audio Publisher’s Association, and with an estimated 70 million Americans listening to those titles every year.

Acker, who grew up in New Hampshire and has worked out of his Pelham home for about 16 years, says the growth in audiobooks is likely to continue: “I don’t see a ceiling,” he notes. In part, that’s because so many people seem pressed for time, from jobs that follow them home through emails and texts, to the demands of raising children and any other number of distractions.

“Life makes it hard (to read),” he said. Being able to listen to an audiobook while you’re commuting to work, or doing chores around the house, or perhaps when you’re too tired to read and want to hear a story but don’t want to sit in front of a TV, is one of the appeals of the medium, Acker says.

“In many ways (an audiobook) is more satisfying than a printed book because you’re really engaging on a different level. ... When you have the human voice expressing emotion and information, I think you’re just drawn in more than if you’re reading a book.”

Theater of the mind

Making these recordings is more complicated than having someone simply read into a microphone. As a producer, Acker, who’s turning 63, is also something of a coach.

At his basement studio in Pelham, where the person reading sits in a soundproof room while he monitors the recording in a separate room, Acker says he works closely with clients to get them to keep an even pace and tone in their reading. There can be any number of starts and stops during a session.

“I start with an orientation with everyone,” he said. “We do a rehearsal. I have them read 15 minutes of a book so I can hear them and get some sense of their rhythm. We’re also starting to build a relationship, and that’s important. The days are long, and reading for six hours takes a lot of energy.”

“I have to listen for fatigue in the voice,” he added. “And after we take a break, is it a seamless transition from when we stopped, or has the person’s voice shifted a little?”

He’s recorded a number of Valley-based writers such as Mo Willems, Barry Moser, Emily Nagorski and Ocean Vuong; he recorded the latter reading his celebrated debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” in early 2019 alongside another independent producer, Robert Kessler, for Vuong’s publisher, Penguin Random House.

Another client was children’s and YA writer/illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka, who recorded an aural version of his acclaimed graphic memoir, “Hey, Kiddo,” in part with Acker (some of the audiobook was also recorded in Worcester).

That audiobook of “Hey, Kiddo,” by Scholastic Press, won the 2020 Odyssey Award, given to the producer of the best audiobook made for children and/or young adults. Acker said he was happy to work on the project; he recorded Krosoczka and a number of other people who were part of the cast of characters from the original book.

That audiobook “is a classic example of theater of the mind,” Acker says. “Scholastic turned a graphic novel into something that works beautifully as a story you can listen to … I’m thrilled with the way they put it together.”

This kind of work doesn’t come cheap. Acker says he charges between $350 and $500 per “finished hour” of a book, which represents all the time he spends fine-tuning and fixing a recording. Typically it takes 2-2½ hours to get one hour of finished narration, he says, and additional editing will push that ratio higher.

Vuong, in a post on Acker’s website, says he had a great experience working with him: “His sharp eye and ear, decades of hard-earned experience, and crystalline attention to detail is felt every minute in the booth — and turned a first timer like myself into a smooth-sailing, fluid, even capable, audio book narrator. Most importantly, he made it fun and joyful.”

The beginning

Acker’s entrée into audiobook work came via radio, where he began his career as a producer and program editor. He later began recording freelance commercials for various companies and doing some “corporate-type work” that he found unsatisfying before getting a chance in the 1980s to record several audiobooks with novelists Louise Erdrich (“Love Medicine, “The Beet Queen” and other titles) and the late Michael Dorris (“A Yellow Raft in Blue Water”).

His work also involves fixing recordings made by narrators working elsewhere, where odd situations can crop up.

“There are a lot of people working out of their home studios, and so the complaints can be like, ‘My neighbor’s got a chainsaw going, I have to stop and wait,’” he said with a laugh. “So then you have people working in the wee hours of the morning when it’s quiet but they’re tired, and then they’re making mistakes, they’re mispronouncing words … sometimes (I) have to a do a lot of massaging.”

He originally planned to have his studio in Pelham in the upstairs of his home. Then, shortly after he moved in, he noticed huge C-5 transport planes, likely from Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, periodically flying overhead, and he quickly moved operations to his basement, which he soundproofed with rubber membranes sandwiched between extra layers of sheetrock.

Along the way, Acker has also hosted David Strathairn in his studio. The noted actor came to Pelham a few years ago to record audiobooks for “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America,” the two noted books by Franklin County writer and retired psychiatrist Jonathan Shay about the links between PTSD among modern combat veterans and the trauma of war revealed in ancient Greek epics.

Another thrill, he says, was working on the audiobook for “Buried in the Sky,” a bestselling account of a disaster on K2 in the Himalayas in 2008 when 11 climbers died on the mountain on one day.

“It was an absolutely gripping story, and hearing it read made it all that more intense,” he said.

Business slowed this past year due to COVID-19, Acker notes, especially in-studio visits, though he’s still working with audiobooks initially recorded elsewhere. Yet audiobook sales have only increased during the pandemic, according to a number of reports, and Acker thinks he knows why: “It seems we want to hear good stories more than ever.”