Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Five Things I Learned Recording My First Audiobook(s)

As has previously been mentioned, the audiobook The Ghost Box, by Mike Duran, is now available. I'm also pleased to say I'm polishing the final edits on Timothy Ayers'Cruel Messenger and currently recording another three. One is a sort of "ghost-reading;" the author is paying me -- well -- to produce the book and walk away. The second is of course the continuation of Reagan Moon's adventures in Mike Duran's Saint Death. And the third is a novella I was only very recently contacted about and am very happy to be a part of producing. Details on that one later.

I'm thrilled to continue my work in audiobook production and expand my newfound freelance business in that arena. But this is still actually pretty new for me. In fact, The Ghost Box and Cruel Messenger were contracted within weeks of one another and were the very first audiobooks I had the pleasure to narrate. And with firsts come lessons! Since I'm still finalizing the latter book and those lessons are still at the top of mind, I thought I'd share them with you -- because you're interested, right? That's why you're here, after all!

The following is not in order of importance, but in order of "appearance."

1. The Pleasure Read
I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this because in general time to do this isn't necessarily guaranteed. However, it is a wonderful luxury if you can get it. I had the chance to read both The Ghost Box and Saint Death before starting work on the audiobooks (truth be told, I had bought both and read the first before I even knew there would be an audiobook). If you're able to build the time into the contract, a pre-read is valuable. Don't take notes. Don't read it as a narrator. Read it as a reader. This will give you an idea of timing. It will prepare you for jumps and gags. It will allow you to put character voices in your head. It really is useful.

But it's not strictly necessary. Sometimes, even more useful is the...

2. Author's Notes
With Cruel Messenger, I received a character list from the author. Not only did he provide a list, but also some general notes on characterization as he heard them. Now, this could be more than necessary -- on some level, the author does need to allow the narrator to do his or her thing. But, having notes helps. The short version is this: if I'm going to find out one to 100 pages AFTER starting to do a character that he or she speaks with a southern accent, it's extremely helpful to go into it knowing that in the first place. This is what this author did for me. I didn't have to guess about how the characters' voices were going to be described in the book, because he told me up front. That is a vital time-saver and, for the authors reading this, will save your narrator a TON of aggravation.

3. Consistency
Again, not a lot of time is necessary on this. If you're a pro, you know how important it is to have a consistent sound. This means settings are standardized. Production is standardized.

Since my studio is in my home, one of the major house rules is, "nobody touches Daddy's equipment." This goes double when I'm mid-project. Every time I turn on the mic, it sounds the same as the time before. Every time I close out a chapter, the audio is compressed the same way as the chapter before it. Again, if you're a professional, this is academic. However, it's an important reminder largely because of...

4. The Sound of Silence
I'm going to spend a minute on this, because it made my life very difficult with my first audiobook, and pushed the release date back at least a week.

With a very, very few exquisitely- (and expensively-) engineered exceptions, there is no such thing as a perfectly silent room to an open microphone. The low level hum of Life On This Planet that the human ear mostly fails to notice is what most people call ambience, and what ACX (Audiobook Creation Exchange) and sound engineers call "Room Tone." ACX, with whom most of us will be producing audiobooks, has a requirement that each chapter or section submitted (i.e., each separate file) must have a couple seconds of Room Tone at the front and another few seconds at the tail. Do not cheat this. You can't simply eliminate the sound and opt to give them pure silence, because, A, though I've never tried it, I'm reasonably sure the ACX Quality Check team won't be fooled, and more importantly, B, because you're shooting yourself in the foot if you do. Room Tone allows your listener's ear to adjust to the ambience of recording before your voice starts. In other words, it keeps you from sounding like a recording. Further, it allows for consistent editing.

The problem is, Room Tone has to be basically flawless. Yes, there's a hum to any given environment, but basically, your needle doesn't move. You're not making a discernible noise. And if there is a discernible noise, your Room Tone is useless. When I sent my first files off for Quality Approval, easily a third of my chapters were rejected specifically and only because of noise in the Room Tone segments. Because of this difficulty, and how important it is to your final product, I would say Room Tone is possibly the most important five seconds in your entire production.

Fortunately, this issue taught me a valuable and time-saving lesson. It's very, very hard to create 5 seconds of pure Room Tone for every chapter. So don't. Here's what I do:
Set up my microphone, ready to record my first chapter. Hit Record. Say... something. Anything. Maybe "Room Tone Recording." Or, "Why am I doing this myself instead of hiring a professional?" Whatever. It doesn't matter. It's not going to be there long. After you say something, walk away and shut up. For at least 60 seconds. Do nothing after you walk away. The desire here is an empty studio space in which nothing is happening. Once you've recorded a full minute of nothing, come back in and stop the recording. Next: produce it. Any compression and normalizing you normally do to your chapters, do here. After you do that, trim out the best, most silent 3 seconds, title it "Room Tone End," and save it as a high quality file. Trim one second off that, save the remaining 2 as "Room Tone Beginning."

And then, simply drop them in as your last step before saving every chapter. highlight and replace the front and back of your chapter (everything before and after you talk) with your Room Tone. Just copy and paste. As long as you're consistent in your recording per #3, this will work just fine for your entire book -- and if you're really consistent, it'll work across several without ever having to re-record it.

5. Edit As You Go
With the first two books, I didn't know what I was doing, time-wise, and so didn't manage it well. At the end, after I was finally finished the narration, I was still quite far from actually being finished. This is no good for your voice, for your time management, or, ultimately, for your morale. With the books on which I'm currently working, I've found a much better system that has multiple benefits. I record 2-5 chapters (depending on length), and then walk away and edit them. This provides my voice with necessary rest, gives you some finished files, and really helps break up the day. Furthermore, when you have a lot of editing to do at once, the tendency and temptation will be to move quickly and get sloppy. By breaking up your editing into a shorter group of files, you'll be mentally prepared to pay them the attention they deserve. Believe me: you'll thank yourself for taking the extra time (he says, waiting for ACX to finish replacing some old files with cleaner edits).

On top of that, be sure to finalize production on the files before moving on so you can submit or upload them. This will allow your author or publisher access to the finished files and moves the entire approval process along more quickly.

Well, thanks for reading. If you're new to audiobook recording, hopefully this helped you out. If you're an Old Pro, maybe this puts you in mind of the things you learned after the first few attempts. Hey, if so, drop them in the comments. And if you have any questions, drop those off, too! Commenters with a valid email address are automatically entered to win a free audiobook!