Your Home Audio Studio: Workspace or Padded Room?

A vital consideration for audiobook producer/narrators is the physical space where the activity unfolds, namely the audio studio that serves as your environment while working through your projects.

If you don’t get this part of the process right, you won’t have a professional product when you finish your audiobook and put it out there for the pubic.

Your studio must do a number of things: (1) it must reduce the incidence of unwanted sound finding its way into your recording, (2) it should optimize the quality of the sound you do want, namely your voice, and (3) it has to provide a comfortable work space for you, the narrator, that can also accommodate the necessary hardware. For a large number of audiobook narrators, all this must be provided for within the setting of the place you live.

Consider the challenges of that scenario.

When you set out to record an audiobook at home, you quickly become aware that what you regard as a sanctuary apart from the world at large, is in reality a chamber of noise. The cacophony creeps into every corner of the house and invariably finds its way onto that pristine audio track you are trying to create.

Your neighbor is trying to start his vintage motorcycle in his driveway, revving all 900 cc’s to keep it from coughing to a stop. The air conditioning compressor is just below the window where your studio is located. The clock chimes in the living room, the doorbell rings, the telephone jangles, the rain hits the metal light fixture on your neighbor’s house like a drummer tapping a stick on his high hat. And until now you had no idea that your house is on the glide path for nearly every aircraft flying within a 200-mile radius.

You must find some way to isolate yourself and your mic from all that sound so it doesn’t show up on the waveforms you lay down on your recording software.

If you have unlimited funds, a great option is a professionally built “portable” sound studio that can be assembled fairly easily and set up in a relatively small space. These ventilated soundproof rooms do the trick nicely, but they can also set you back $6000 – $12000. Add that to the investment you need to make in mics, audio interfaces, headsets and the like, and you’re talking some heavy hits on the bank account.

A better solution is a homemade studio. And you don’t need a degree in acoustics and construction expertise to make a very serviceable studio that will produce high quality recordings and fit into your living space.

To construct the studio I use, I initially found some old moving blankets that were left behind after one of my many relocations. I screwed two of them to the adjacent walls in a corner of my attic. I arranged my recording equipment against one of the now padded walls and did a test.

It seemed to be working fine until the first of five aircraft that day buzzed over my roof. I had reduced the room echo, but obviously I needed more isolation from the sonorous environment that is my home.

After a lot of experimenting and lot of failure, I ended up with what you might call a small hut (cell?) in the corner of the guest room. I got more moving blankets, and hung them from four sides of a framework of PVC pipe that I purchased at Lowes.

To make the frame, I simply cut the lengths of PVC with a hacksaw and joined them together to form a 4 x 6 foot cubicle using the appropriate connectors.

The booth rests on the wall-to-wall carpeting and has room for a table, a chair and my audio gear. I found that an inexpensive mattress topper from Target fit nicely over the top of my booth like a roof, while providing sound deadening and pretty good sound insulation with its foam construction. I attached everything to the PVC with inexpensive plastic cable ties.

As I have used this little room within a room, I have added refinements—a piece of sound deadening foam here and there to reduce echo even further, a towel on the surface of my table, a very small table for the mic bracket because of the bass thump that my hand produces when I hit the larger table, no matter how gentle that tap seems to be, a quieter chair that doesn’t squeak when I shift my weight.

Overall the set-up works quite well. I can record hours of nicely deadened sound in relative comfort with minimal intrusion of extraneous sound. (Some sounds will invariably get through, but I can stop and rerecord small segments when that happens.)

There is one significant downside, however, to even the best constructed home studio. It can be hazardous to your health—your mental health, that is.

When you have been sitting for several hours in a dark, sensory-deprived space reading to your microphone, you can loose touch with reality.

As a case in point, there was a time in the middle of a particularly lengthy and challenging recording when I suddenly had the distinct sense that I was about to “wig out.” My voice assumed an unnaturally high pitch, I began to sweat, I got claustrophobic, my ears were ringing. I had to get out of there.

As I staggered through the moving blankets and out into the surrounding room I must have looked like the colonel played by Alec Guinness in the movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai after he was released from the small iron sweatbox the Japanese had confined him in as punishment for his lack of cooperation as a World War II POW.

I recovered quickly, but I also gained respect for of the potential consequences of staying confined too long in a small padded room talking to myself.

Oh, Oh! Here Comes a Cold!

I have just begun two new audiobook projects. Having been intrigued with the idea of branching out from non-fiction after finishing the grueling, 411-page French and Indian War narration, I took a look on the ACX site for some promising fiction titles. My friend, Carl Hausman, has had success in narrating several books in the western genre, so I went looking for something in that vein.

I found several, and downloaded the auditions for a couple of them that seemed like something I might have a shot at, so to speak.

I recorded the two audition scripts and submitted them for consideration by the rights holders.

The first one I submitted was for a book by a talented writer named Darrel Sparkman titled Spirit Trail. I liked the story, and the writing was lively and engaging. A day or two later I was offered the project. And the rights holder asked if I would be interested in producing a second book by the same author titled Osage Dawn. I was.

I’ve made a good beginning on the two books, which I find more entertaining to narrate than some of the more erudite material I’ve done recently. And I get to be an actor playing all the parts.

Just as my momentum was beginning to establish itself, however, I had to pause for a few days due to a hazard faced by all of us who do this stuff, namely I got a head cold.

I get one every fall after I go back to teaching. It could be from my students, or from my grandchildren, who find the latest and greatest rhinovirus within a few weeks of beginning school. I studiously avoided contact with the girls when they came down with colds a couple weeks ago, so I suspect mine was delivered via some errant contact with the artifacts of academic activities generated by my Millersville University students.

Whatever the source, the colds I get have the diabolical trait of invariably settling in my throat. My voice becomes a resonant but sick-sounding basso profondo for a couple of days and then just goes a way completely for a few more days. A week or so later, it returns to its usual baritone, subject occasionally to the disruption of a rumbling cough erupting from my chest.

There is no chance of recording narration for a book project in the voice -deepened phase of this process. In fact one project I recently did included strict written guidelines that specifically forbade submitting anything done under the influence of cold symptoms of any type.

If this enforced hiatus had to occur, now is probably as good a time as any. If I were on a deadline to submit a project, I’d miss it, throwing off not only the expectations of my client, but possibly necessitating some heroic juggling of commitments and plans that would be disruptive if not ruinous on some levels.

I do have a submission deadline for a sample of the second western quite soon. It’s a very short recording, though, and my cold appears to be in retreat, so I’ll probably make it alright, though it will be tight.

Because I foolishly believe that cosmic justice dictates that I’m only required to acquire one cold per season I’m confident that I’ve now put my brush with infection behind me for now.

So I’ll soon head back into my cozy dark studio, sit before the mic, my western books displayed on the computer screen and my voice emanating vibrations in its normal register.

Wish me luck, Pardner.

You’re Finally Done Recording, But…

Well I just finished narrating a 411-page book about the French and Indian War. The completed recording is nearly 18 hours long from start to finish. I began the project in mid June and completed it at the end of September, working, not full time, but steadily the entire time. This was a particularly challenging project, not only because of the seemingly endless hours of recording, and the fact that I had to cut the printed book apart to record it rather than using a PDF or Word file on a screen; I also had to look up hundreds of pronunciations of French names, titles and places.

As if that were not enough to tax one’s endurance, creating a credible vocal performance of a book is by no means the end of the story. The producer is still responsible for creating a “clean” recording with no omissions, extraneous sounds (stomach growls are picked up and rendered with uncanny accuracy, for example), audible editing clicks, air conditioning hum, street noise, long pauses, mouth sounds, barking dogs and roaring motorcycles out on the street, to name a few of the sources of objectionable noises that can creep into a recording.

There are also a number of technical processes to execute that will enable you to meet the exacting audio parameters specified by the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), which vets the project and clears it for posting to Audible. Using special software, the recording is run through several steps that apply adjustments to the equalization, normalization, compression and limiting processes of said recording. (I just do it; I don’t know what they mean, really.)

And, oh yes! There is still the small matter of listening to the entire recorded book, manuscript in hand, to make sure that it is a completely faithful rendition of the printed text. (Or, as in my case, asking my wife to take on this tedious assignment.)

In other words the narrator also functions as editor, sound engineer, producer, proofer, and quality assurance coordinator.

Once the recording undergoes this lengthy regimen of processing, it is converted to an MP3 file and uploaded to the project’s ACX web page. The ball is now in the court of the rights holder. He or she, or sometimes they, will check the recording and either approve it as submitted, or enumerate changes that need to be made by the producer before it is officially accepted and made available to the public for release.

This approval process for a short book—say two to three finished hours—may consist of the rights holder listening to the recording in its entirety. For longer projects, like my 17-plus-hour project, it is far more likely that there will be a thorough spot check of the recording with an assumption that the consistency of the producer will kick in to render a product that can safely be put up for sale on Amazon, iTunes, and elsewhere.

The technical aspects of audiobook production are not that difficult to master with perhaps a little help from someone with a modicum of technical background to guide you through the weeds here and there. But there is a lot of time involved in completing these and other post-production activities, all of which take place after the heavy lifting of recording is finished.

Only when the rights holder has pronounced the project acceptable can the producer/narrator breathe a sigh of relief, turn out the lights in the announce booth and take a much needed break.

Getting Good Audiobook Projects

There are two main ways that I obtain offers to do the audiobooks I narrate. They both work through a website called the Audiobook Creation Exchange or ACX, which exists to connect book authors or publishers with narrators and vice versa. With one exception, the books I have done so far were the result of auditioning for the opportunity to produce a specific book that has caught my attention. Another of the first books I did came as the result of an author finding me using the narrator profile that I posted on ACX.

The profile is a brief presentation that summarizes my work and hosts brief audio samples of work that I believe reflects my strengths as a narrator. Some samples are from books that I have narrated that are currently for sale on Audible, and others may be excerpts from other works that show how I handle various genres.

To use the audition process I go to the ACX site and find the listing of books posted by rights holders (usually either publishers or authors) seeking narrators. At any given time, there may be hundreds of titles to select from.

For each book there is an excerpt that can be downloaded to my computer. If the script looks like something I might like to perform, I record the audition and submit it as an MP3 file to the rights holder via the ACX site. The rights holder considers all the auditions submitted and selects one narrator to do the project. An offer is made to the narrator and terms of payment are agreed upon. This is either a payment based on a rate per finished hour of the project, or, more frequently for relative newcomers like me, a share of the royalties from sales of the finished audiobook.

After doing a number of projects, I have learned to be somewhat discriminating about the projects I seek or accept. There is a plethora of self-published books out there that are sold on Amazon and some of them can be real clunkers. Too often the author skips the step of having an editor check for and correct errors. I’ve run across published books that are for sale on Amazon that include incomplete sentences, words that don’t exist, incomprehensible sentences and paragraphs, and whacko ideas from the lunatic fringe.

Facing this landscape, an experienced narrator will do a bit of investigation before auditioning for or accepting a project. There is a link on the ACX site to the Amazon listing for available projects. There you can find out more about the author, read reviews, and read a bit further into the book than might be available from a short excerpt that constitutes the audition script. You can also look up authors on their websites, find other works by the author, and determine publishing connections.

I must admit that the books I have produced have not always been literary masterpieces, and I have become a bit more discriminating about projects I’ll try for or accept. After all, my name does appear on the Amazon listing for the audiobook, and a search of my name will bring them up as books associated with me, so a bit of discrimination is warranted in this process of finding projects.

As one accumulates a body of work in audiobook narration, it becomes clearer where your strengths lie, and you can find better projects to try for in those genres. So don’t look for me in the sci-fi or romance genres. I tend toward the non-fiction, philosophy, and academic areas. Even these kinds of works can sometimes be poorly written and inappropriate, however, so caution is always a good idea before jumping headlong into a project that might be problematic in some way.

I also commit to spending many hours reading these books and then listening to what have I recorded. So if only to retain my sanity, doing a bit of research on potential projects can be a worthwhile part of this fascinating process.

Pronunciation: The Narrator’s Albatross

As an audiobook narrator you are expected to deliver a performance that is free of distracting or incorrect elements. Something as simple as a stomach rumble that is picked up by your very sensitive mic or a motorcycle passing by whose engine noise penetrates even the most carefully padded audio booth make you stop and redo the copy that was intruded upon.

That kind of thing is easily remedied, but the bugaboo of many of us who sit before the mic in the lonely booth is pronunciation. I am currently narrating a history book about the French and Indian War. In some 411 pages, the author explores the actions of the people and the impact of the policies of the French government that ultimately led to their defeat.

Here is a fairly typical passage from Chapter 2

Jean-Baptise de Machault d’Arnouville served until February 1757, when he lost the same fight with Pompadour that had toppled Argenson. He was replaced by Françios Marie Peyrenc de Moras, who was succeeded in May 1778 by Claude Louis d’Espinchal, marquis de Massac. In October of that year, Massac was replaced bu Nicholas René Berryer, who clung to power until October 1758…

I’m sure a French language scholar would breeze through that list of names and titles, but though I have a French name, I am no Maurice Chevalier when it comes to sounding like an exemplar of my heritage.

The solution is to fly to the Internet. There are numerous sites that can help, but some are limited in the range of names they will help you pronounce. YouTube can be a resource, but the selection of videos devoted to Claude-Louis d’Espinchal, marquise de Massac are far fewer in number than the numerous postings featuring cats falling into bathtubs.

One site that works well for me is How to Pronounce, which seems to recognize most anything you enter into the query box, which then takes you to several recorded audio pronunciations in nearly any language you can think of.  But for your narration do you want a French pronunciation of the name or an English pronunciation? It depends on how you want to approach the overall project. My choice is to go with an English pronunciation rather than slipping suddenly into a mellifluous rendition as a native speaker might.

Next step is to practice the pronunciation until its sounds right to your ear. Your job is to interpret the passage in a way that communicates the author’s meaning to listeners. You can’t do that if you suddenly go into a halting recitation of the name and title that just gets the job done. The pronunciation cannot be the focal point of your reading. It has to sound natural.

All this takes a great deal of time if you want to get it right. If you just guess at the pronunciations you don’t intuitively know, you are very likely to get the recording back from the publisher with a request to do them over. You don’t want to have to go back over an 18-hour recording and find and correct every mispronunciation of Machault d’Arnville everywhere it pops up in the 411 pages you just spent weeks recording.

You get better at finding and executing a credible pronunciation as you gain experience, but this is one element of audiobook narration that accounts for the fact that you’ll likely spend three hours or more for every “finished hour” you produce.