Audio Book Recording Basics: Setting Up a Home Studio

Do you want to narrate your own audio book, but are not sure how to go about it? This is the third in a series of blogs that will give you guidelines on how to narrate your book, what to look for in a recording studio and the basics of setting up your own, featuring advice from experts in these fields.

In our last blog, Audio Book Recording Basics: What to Look for in a Studio, I continued my interview with CC Hogan on how to choose a recording studio. But what if you do not have a budget that allows you to rent a professional studio? In this blog, CC will tell us how he set up his own home studio, using the knowledge that he gained in his 35 years as a professional sound engineer.

CC, in the last interview, you told us that a recording area should have good acoustics and be able to block extraneous noises.  How does one determine whether an area of the home will meet these criteria, without first purchasing lots of fancy equipment?

The first thing you should do is learn to use your ears.  And the best way is with a decent set of professional closed-back headphones – those are ones that do not allow sound to leak in or out. Earbuds simply won’t do it.

In recording we use something called “A-B-ing”.  Basically, that is just comparing two things; before and after, if you like.  You would be amazed how much I do that, even when recording voice overs.  For instance, when I am applying equalization, I will switch between turning it on and off to determine whether what I am changing is making things better or worse!

When working out your sound issues for your recording room, what you need to do is compare the sound with the mic on and the mic off.  So, using your smartphone, record your room.  Don’t make any noise, just stand there for a couple of minutes.

Now, wearing good headphones, play it back with the volume turned up.  Start and stop the recording – that is your on and off.  If you hear a huge difference between on and off, then you have some work to do. The ideal will be getting to a point where you can hear very little difference.

You may have a good idea what time of day your recording area is noisier.  I never tested for time of day, I just sound proofed my studio so that it didn’t matter what time of day I recorded. When you are recording in a home, you are going to have sound leaking through, and that may affect the time of day you wish to record.  That is what your ears are for.  I live in the country and sound proofing is not a major problem, but I sometimes must stop because I hear traffic or my phone is ringing.  I wait for this to pass and carry on.

People often think major studios are all designed using complicated equipment, but the engineers’ ears are more important; they are the best analytical tools you have.  And they are free. You have to remember that some of the best studio spaces I have worked in were built decades ago.  One, IBC in London, was first built in the 1930s.  These spaces were created by people walking around clapping or shouting or hitting a drum and using their ears to work out where the problems are located. You can learn a lot about a room that way.  But as I said previously, A-Bing by recording and playing back, will probably tell you more than anything.

Often, novice narrators are advised to set up a recording area in a clothes closet.  Is this sufficient? 

It kind of depends on the closet!  I think people choose it because it is full of clothes and sounds quiet.  Of course, there is a good chance it will sound boxy.  And if it has thin walls, it might not be very sound proofed. (Note also that you must be able to fit inside it with all of your equipment and the clothes!) Basically, start with the quietest and most convenient room.  Remember that bigger rooms will take a lot more treating, but they can sound better if you get it right – less chance of sounding like you are in a box.

How can a recording area be modified to block noise and be acoustically pleasing? 

To block noise, you need thickness and mass.  In pro studios we also use space around an inner room, but that is not practical at home.  Sound can come from anywhere and anything. But remember that it is always transmitted as waves.  The heavier the sound lagging (or insulation as you say in the States) and the denser it is, then the harder it is for the wave to penetrate it.  How much heavy lagging you will need to add to your walls, floor and ceiling will depend on how much noise you are cutting out.  The meter on your DAW will tell you if there is something coming through the mic and your ears will tell you what and where that is coming from.  Building a standalone booth is an obvious solution, of course, but that might be overkill unless you are planning to make a living from this.

Once you have sound proofed your room, to sort out the acoustics you simply need to reduce the reverberation, that is, the amount that the sound bounces around. Nice thick soft stuff, like blankets and old duvets, will get you started.

What is a bass trap?  Do all studios need them? 

Bass traps are basically for reducing lower frequency reverberation.  Bass frequencies go in, but then are trapped (usually in the corner of the room) and don’t come out again. They are typically what makes a room sound as though you are in a box.  The size of the bass trap will depend on the size of the room and how loud the noise is.  In a big orchestral studio, the bass traps are massive, sculptured and lined boxes built into the walls to deal with all those timpani and bass drums.

In small rooms for your much quieter voice, you may need to use thicker foam in corners to stop the room from sounding boxy. That kind of bass trap can be bought online easily.  Worth doing and not expensive.

The sound meter in my DAW says that the room noise level is below -60 db but I can hear a hum?  Can I ignore this, or do I need to trace it down?

This is back to an A-B comparison. If you can hear a hum, then so will everyone else.  You need to track it down and get rid of it.  Use your ears again.  Just use on-off comparisons to help listen for problems.

I can feel a slight vibration in the floor of my recording area that is coming from the mechanicals in basement (or the apartment below me). How do I treat for that? 

To start with, if you can’t hear it, it may not be a problem, but assuming it is, you need an acoustic floor.  This is basically a layer of thick rubber matting like neoprene or another acoustic treatment, then a new floor laid on top of it but not screwed down through it – like click together laminate flooring, for instance.  You don’t want those vibrations coming up through the screws!

In general terms, what equipment will I need in my home studio?

We mentioned in the last blog that your DAW (digital audio workstation: the software you use to record and edit your narration), should allow for non-destructive recording. There are many DAWs on the market. It is beyond the scope of this blog to review them all. You might start by checking out the user groups for each DAW on Facebook or YouTube videos that compare them.

The choice of microphone is important.  In an ideal world you want a cardioid condenser mic that is run through a good quality audio interface.

You are not just looking for a nice large capsule inside, which will pick up your voice better, but also for the cardioid pattern.  This is the field around the mic where it is most responsive.  The cardioid pattern has a nice round shape at the front of the mic for 180 degrees, but only a little bit at the back of the mic.  This allows you some movement at the front when you get excited without going “off mic” but it doesn’t pick up much in the way of reflections from behind the mic.  The top end mics have a range of patterns but for general voiceovers, cardioid is the way to go!

The mic must be hooked up to your computer either through an audio interface or USB connection. I know USB mics sound better now, and may be less expensive, but they are not great.  The industry standard is the U87ai from Neumann, but even second hand these are a couple of thousand dollars.  However, there are a number of companies that make great condenser mics that are far cheaper. Again, it is beyond the scope of this blog to compare them all. There are many YouTube videos that compare mics and many blogs with information on how to choose one.

Rather than a USB connection, I advise you to get a decent audio interface with DSP so you can monitor as you go.  DSP stands for Digital Signal Processing.  It means that some of the processing is done by the interface itself, so you don’t have to rely on your computer and DAW to do everything. Most basic interfaces work this way.  At low budget levels you won’t get latency free.  Latency, a delay caused by digital processing, is the curse of digital recording. This wasn’t much of a problem with analogue because it wasn’t being converted from analogue to digital and back again.  Also, the DSP will allow you to monitor the mic directly and not via the computer/DAW. Most interfaces from Steinberg and Focusrite work that way.

Other than that, you need a really good mic stand.  Decent condenser mics can be heavy, and cheap stands are not always up to the job.  The mic will slowly get lower and lower….

Really good headphones are a lot cheaper than top level speakers.  I never edited on headphones in the studio, but my control room was properly isolated, acoustically treated, and had thousands of dollars’ worth of monitors.  However, professional headphones cost a couple of hundred dollars tops (unless you go completely nutty).  Go for something like Beyerdynamic DT 770s.  They are comfortable too.  One note of warning:  Wearing closed back headphones all the time is not wonderful for your ears.  Rest regularly!

Because you don’t want to put your computer or laptop inside your recording area, (the noise from the fan might show up when you record), you might need a remote control for the DAW, even if that is just a keyboard extension – Bluetooth or whatever.  When I record in my booth, I can’t see the computer screen.  I am not interested in it, to be honest; I am interested in the script.  I use a remote to wind forward, backwards, go into play, and to trigger recording.  On my setup I have a foot switch which I sometimes use if I am in arm-waving mode! Some DAWS like Cubase, have an iPhone remote where you can see a simplified version of the screen on your phone.

If you really must see what you are doing, get a small secondary monitor to put in the corner of the recording area out of the way.  Desktop computers often have secondary HDMI display outputs.  You can even buy apps for you smart pad that will extend your windows desktop to your tablet.  Haven’t tried them!  But your primary focus must be on your script.  When you are in the booth, you are a performer, not an engineer.

This is great information, CC! Thank you so much! Your information and expertise has been very valuable.

CC provides much more information on how to set up a studio and narrate audio books on his website at https://cchogan.com/audiobook-tips-a-short-guide/ Don’t forget to check out the books that CC has written and narrated at www.cchogan.com.

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Have you tried narrating your non-fiction book, only to find that you sound deadly dull? Are you wondering how to capture and keep your audience’s interest and attention to your non-fiction audio book?

The next post, Audio Book Recording Basics —Narrating Non-Fiction: Reading or Acting? will feature internationally renowned narrator & coach Sean Allen Pratt. Having coached hundreds of other narrators who have successfully used his techniques, Sean is recognized as THE authority on how to narrate non-fiction. He will share the following insights on how to engage your audience using:

  • The “TED Talk” performance concept that Sean uses for all of his narration projects
  • Scoring your text before you narrate and how to do it
  • “Paragraph colors”—finding clues in the text to help you create variety and capture your audience’s attention.

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Are you looking for a narrator with a warm, yet professional and authoritative voice?

If so, check out my demos and contact me at The Voicing Expert !

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