So you want to record audio books…


The indie author boom has brought about the necessity for more and more audio book talent. But just like how self-publishing affords a lot of people who dream of being a writer (but shouldn’t bother), the same holds true for recording ebooks. I wanted to take a moment to lay out the challenges of recording audio books so anyone considering making a go at it can either say, with authority that, yes, they can do it… or run screaming.

me_micI’ve recorded audio books for a number of years. I know the ins and outs from both sides of the mic. Most people assume it’s just a matter of hitting record on their computer and reading a book. Oh, would it be that simple. It’s not. In fact, it is my hopes that, by the time you’ve read this post, you will have been turned away from the desire to record. Why? Because it’s not easy. ¬†And flooding the market with talent and skill that is “less than” does more harm than good.

Let’s break it down.

Time

For every ten minutes of finished audio book, you will have spent nearly sixty minutes of real time. Think about that — if a book is seven hours long, that equates to over forty-two hours of work. My current going rate is $100-200 dollars per finished hour (depending upon the book and the author). So that seven hour book winds up (best case scenario) at $33.00 per hour. And then you have to factor in that the human voice can speak for about two hours before it starts sounding tired. So completing the recording process for a single book can take quite some time and even more effort.

Turned off just yet? ūüėČ

Skill

You also need skill. This isn’t just the ability to read a book aloud — you have to:

  • Read clearly
  • Differentiate characters (without going overboard)
  • Control your breathing
  • Speak outside of the standard vocal range
  • Help the reader understand what is happening

You may think you’ve got it made, because you are a master of dialects and voices. That doesn’t always translate well. Remember, you’re speaking into a mic which happens to love subtlety… and that is the key. Sometimes the difference between characters need only be a slight change in pitch or tempo (or both). You don’t want to go overboard with characters — otherwise you wind up with a circus on your hand.

Your primary tool in this endeavor is your voice — and that voice¬†must¬†be pleasing and, in most cases, free from regionalisms (unless asked for by the author). If you’re not sure whether or not your voice is up for the task — record yourself reading a book and hand the recording over to someone you trust. Have them listen and respond. If their response isn’t a WOW! You best rethink this.

Hardware

The single most important piece of hardware you need is a good condenser mic. You can’t use a built-in mic or that cheap-o mic you bought at Target. I use a Blue Yeti condenser mic and it does a marvelous job. I’ve been using it for about two years now to record Zombie Radio as well as audio books. ¬† Without a good condenser mic — do not even bother recording your first word. This mic also needs to be set in cardioid mode and you must have a pop filter in place (otherwise your plosives will be out of control). It’s also incredibly important that you always record from the same position in front of the mic and the same distance from the mic. Although these variations can be controlled by your software, it’s best to keep as much continuity as possible. There may be days between takes and you want to always be able to set your environmental variables exactly the same — which leads us to…

Recording “studio”

Not all of us have access to a professional grade recording studio.. That doesn’t mean you can’t get audio-book quality¬†ambient¬†sound. Here are some observations I’ve taken in while helping others:

  • Make sure your computer is under your desk and the fans pointed away from the mic. If you have to, put up a shield between the PC and the mic.
  • Use curtains or blankets hung up to mask out ambient noise (I have a thick curtain that I drop from the ceiling that blocks the sound of an aquarium behind me).
  • Always record with headphones so you can hear even the faintest of sounds being picked up on your recording.
  • Make sure your¬†environment¬†is ALWAYS the same. Take notes if need be.
  • If you’re still getting ambient noise, purchase an acoustic shield (like the CAD Audio Acoustic Sheild).

Software
You will have to use a piece of software to edit your work. I record and edit with Audacity. It’s free, cross-platform, and open source. Here’s the thing — know the software before you dive in. Test it, play with it, kick the tires as much as possible. You’ll need to know how to adjust the bit rate, cut, splice, convert, and much more. If you aren’t comfortable with your software, it will show in your product. And trust me on this — working with audio editing software isn’t like using a web browser or word processor. You really need to know what you’re doing.

As you record, you must listen to every second of your work. You will make mistakes that you don’t catch as you record. When that happens, you have to go back and re-record that section. That is where splicing comes in handy.

Your voice

Finally, you have to know how to use your voice. Know your resonators and how to make full use of your vocal range, avoid ‘ticks’ and other sounds that can sneak out of your vocal apparatus — especially your sinuses. You also must know how to feed and care for your instrument. You have to drink a lot of water — and no caffeine while you record. Keep sprays at the ready (like Entertainer’s Secret) and never record with a cold.

Finally

I’ve had to break the news to some people before — that they just didn’t “get it” or “have it”. If, after reading this, you have any trepidation, simply walk away from the idea. If, however, you do fully believe you have what it takes, sign up on Audio Creators Exchange and start sending out auditions.

If you’re still not sure, feel free to send me a link to a sample and I’ll give a listen. I’ll be brutally honest with you.

Recording audio books can be a very fulfilling career. It can also be frustrating, exhausting, and you may spend more time recording and sending out auditions than you do actually recording for pay. That’s just the nature of the beast. But if you have what it takes, and can work with the hardware and software, don’t¬†hesitate¬†to dive in and join the growing ranks of audio talent!