INTERVIEW: Grammy-winning sound designer Michele McGonigle

This week, we’ve been speaking to Michele McGonigle, head of audio production at Hachette Audio and a 2014 Grammy winner, about her career in audiobooks so far.

An accomplished sound designer, McGonigle recalls her first steps in pro audio, tells us why she decided to specialise in audiobooks, and talks about her work on acclaimed titles such as Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folk Tales and Stephen Colbert’s America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t, which won this year’s Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album…

Where did you do your studies, and how did you start out in the industry?

FIT for undergrad and then SAE New York, later on, once my career was established. I started in audiobooks in late 2000 after answering an ad for a recording studio manager at an audiobook production facility, Talking Book Productions (TBP). My boss said he hired me because I was in a band.

My first day there I was told I’d be producing audiobooks instead of managing the studio – instant promotion just for showing up! – and the rest, as they say, is history.

How did your education prepare you for the world of pro audio?

FIT opened the door to broadcast and media and allowed me to take courses that whet my appetite a bit further. Being hired at TBP gave me the skills and tools to succeed at a high level. When my career was strongly established I felt it wise to go back to school and brush up on my skills (officially) as well as learn some new tricks, which SAE provided tenfold.

What made you decide to become a spoken word/audiobook sound specialist?

Honestly I fell into it and decided to stay. It’s such a wonderful world. You meet amazing and talented people and it combines the best of many worlds and interests of mine – audio production, reading, composing, acting, creative collaboration and so on.

Can you tell us a little bit about Hachette Audio?

Hachette Audio is one of the major audiobook publishers, winning five Grammy Awards in the last 11 years, (three during my tenure). Hachette Audio has also won many Audie Awards, including Audiobook of the Year three years in a row.

You were heavily involved with the making of Stephen Colbert’s America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t, which won the 2014 Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album. How does this rank among your other award wins?

This title was great fun to work on as everyone involved are all dedicated and passionate professionals. Colbert and team are seriously talented, funny and creative people who appreciate the talents and skills of others. Doing the sound design for this title allowed me to create multi-layered beds and go big, something we don’t generally do on audiobooks.

Can you tell us about some of your other recent assignments?

My recent projects include Lemony Snicket’s File Under: Thirteen Suspicious Incidents with an amazing cast; Dreams of Gods & Monsters by Laini Taylor, The Farm by Tom Rob Smith.

What are you working on at the moment?

Gus & Me by Keith Richards and Theodora Richards, a wonderful picture book by Keith with art by his daughter. Upcoming projects include Steve Earle’s I Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye.

Which project are you most proud of and why?

A great many, but to name a few, in no particular order:

1. Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folk Tales. This audiobook was performed by a diverse group of acclaimed actors who have donated their time and talents: Gillian Anderson, Benjamin Bratt, LeVar Burton, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Whoopi Goldberg, Sean Hayes, Hugh Jackman, Samuel L. Jackson, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Debra Messing, Helen Mirren, Parminder Nagra, Sophie Okonedo, CCH Pounder, Alan Rickman, Jurnee Smollett, Charlize Theron, Blair Underwood, Forest Whitaker, and Alfre Woodard, with a special message to the world’s children from Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Both Johnny Clegg and Vusi Mahlasela composed and recorded original music for the audiobook, which is directed by Alfre Woodard, and proceeds from the audiobook benefit the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. 

Hachette Audio – the performers, writers, illustrators, and the many other talented professionals, engineers, illustrators, studios, manufacturers – and other companies involved have all donated their services.

I worked on this title, producing and editing much on my own time and during lab hours at SAE. I even directed Hugh Jackman a couple days after having surgery…I went straight home after the session, but was happy I was able to work with him.

2. The Secret Series by Pseudonymous Bosch Books 3-5: Mr. Bosch is a witty and talented author who creates fantastic characters and worlds for them to live in. These books were multi-voiced by a fantastic cast, with sound design and music so much fun to work on.

3. Room by Emma Donoghue: a truly engaging story and cast of wonderful actors, also multi-voiced.

4. The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon: a dark story allowed for dark sound design.

5. So Cold The River by Michael Koryta: a wonderful paranormal title, which allowed me to do eerie sound design.

What would you say your main strengths are as an audio professional?

Producing, (coming up with creative executions and following through); editing and sound design.

What advice do you have for other women looking to get into the business?

Work hard and stick with it. Regardless of what aspect women are performing in whatever audio industry, they will run into challenges, so they must keep in mind that they worked just as hard as anyone to get where they are and that they are part of an elite few.

Be proud of accomplishments, own up to mistakes, (you learn from them) and make sure to keep on, even when it seems you are being forced out or down. Many try to make women feel less than; so ladies hold your heads high and be confident in your knowledge, talent and skill.

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