This month, I’m spending a lot of time recording an audio version of The Case of the Dragon-Bone Engine, so I thought I’d give you a quick walkthrough of the process. This is only the third audiobook I’ve ever recorded, and I barely comprehend the basics of audio editing, so this is far from expert advice! Still, I’ve learned a lot along the way and I’m excited to give you a quick glimpse into this month’s project.
Most posts I’ve found on the topic of home audio recording jump straight into the technical details, often leaving out the big prerequisite, which is reading practice. You can record in the world’s best sound studio and still end up with a poor quality audiobook if you don’t practice reading first. Thankfully, I’ve had a great deal of training in public speaking, acting, and reading aloud to an audience, which is immensely helpful in preparing for audiobook recording, but I still make sure to practice before recording.
If you listen to audiobooks at all, you’ve probably encountered some impressive actors who can produce hundreds of different voices and accents for the characters. I’m nowhere near that level (though I feel like my skills improve every time I listen to legends like Michael Kramer and Kate Reading), and you certainly don’t have to be on that level to produce a good audiobook either, but it is very important to practice your vocal skills. Practically every source I’ve found differs on the most important ways to practice for an audiobook, so I’ll just boil down the gist of what I’ve found both through research and my own practice:
The most important thing is confidence. You have to be familiar enough with the text to sound as if you’re simply talking, not reading. If you aren’t comfortable with the words coming out of your mouth, you’re more likely to stumble over words, and even if you don’t make mistakes, your uncertainty will be audible in the final recording. At the same time, don’t get flustered or worried if you do make mistakes. You can always do another take and edit out the errors. Also, it’s ok if you can’t do twenty accents or pitch your voice super low and super high: what’s more important is to alter your cadence, speed, enunciation, and general vocal quality to convey emotion and character. Does this character speak slowly and deliberately, or quickly and nervously? Does he put a lot of force and emphasis into his words? Does she talk down to everyone she meets? Do they always sound sardonically amused with life?
Now for the technical stuff. Experienced podcasters or youtube creators can give much better recommendations on recording equipment than I can, but the long and short of it is this: microphone technology has advanced far enough that you don’t need super expensive recording equipment to get good results. I’m using a Blue Yeti microphone, which costs a little over a hundred dollars and produces very nice sound quality despite the fact that I’m recording in my home office, which has no soundproofing or acoustic improvements. When I recorded “Magic & Motor-Cars” last year, I built a PVC pipe frame around my desk and hung pieces of old carpet from the frame to create a DIY sound booth. However, there was no discernable difference in audio quality with or without that precaution, so this time around, I’m not bothering. It seems that the quality of the microphone is more important than the acoustics, so long as you’re not in a particularly noisy or echoey space. I do pick up the occasional louder noise from the road outside, but it’s easy to filter out in editing.
On that topic, I record and edit in Audacity, which is one of the most highly recommended open-source audio programs. It doesn’t have the most user-friendly layout I’ve ever seen, and it took me a little while and a lot of tutorials to figure out how to use it, but it does what I need it to do with a minimum of fuss and bother. To start with, I streamline my process by doing a lot of editing while I record. This is a huge advantage to sitting in front of my computer as I record instead of being in a separate sound booth. If I mispronounce something, skip a word, or don’t like the intonation I put into a sentence, I just pause the recording, delete the sentence I messed up, click record again, and start fresh from the beginning of the sentence. This means that when I finish reading the chapter, the resulting audio file is already free from mistakes and unsatisfying takes. Then I run a few filters to reduce background noise, delete any clicking or hissing noises, and adjust the audio levels to match Audible’s requirements, and that’s it.
Once I’m happy with my recordings, I publish my audiobooks using ACX, which is Audible’s self-publishing service; essentially, it’s the audio version of Kindle Direct Publishing. If you create an author account on ACX, you can either hire a freelance voice actor to record your book for you, or upload your own recordings directly. Unlike when you publish a Kindle book, you don’t select the price for your audiobook: Audible calculates the price for you based on the length of the recording. Personally, I find this a bit of a relief, since I hate trying to figure out reasonable prices for things. When I uploaded “Magic & Motor-Cars” to Audible, I also discovered that ACX didn’t do a very good job of predicting how long it would take for them to review my audiobook and approve it for sale. That was a bit annoying, since it meant I couldn’t set a release date for the audiobook, but it was 2020, so hopefully they were just short-staffed and they’ll be able to approve my future books more quickly.
In any case, ACX has some fairly clear guidelines for uploads, as well as some tutorials that helped me figure out some of the basics of audio editing. Between that, the fairly impressive tools build into Audacity, and the good-quality microphone, I’m able to produce good quality audiobooks at home. I still feel a bit lost at sea when it comes to the more technical aspects of audio production and editing, but I’m learning more with every recording session, and hopefully The Case of the Dragon-Bone Engine will be available from Audible soon!