Do you want to narrate your own audio book, but are not sure how to go about it? This is the second 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—Narrating in Your Own Voice!, I shared an interview that I did with CC Hogan on whether you have the right voice to narrate your own book and how to use your voice to do so.
Assuming you have decided to narrate your own audio book, you must then have a studio in which to record. The studio may be one you set up in your home or it may be a professional studio that you rent. Either way, these studios must have certain elements in common so that your recording is pleasing to listen to and will meet the distributors specifications. What are these elements and how do you recognize them?
I will continue my interview with CC Hogan. CC has over 35 years’ experience in sound engineering and producing/directing for both music and dry voice with internationally known musical and voice talent in professional recording studios. CC is also an author and narrates his own audio books. You can find out more about him from his website at www.cchogan.com
CC, why do I need a recording studio? Why can’t I just record into my smartphone to produce my audio book?
It comes down to the quality of the recording. There are a lot of bad quality recordings out there, even on Audible and other such sites. As audio books grow in popularity, and people get used to better quality productions, poor quality recordings suffer by comparison and people will not listen to them. It is all in how you want your audience to perceive you.
So, you must decide what quality sound you want to produce and whether you can produce that quality sound in a home studio or need to rent a professional studio.
Without going into technical details, so much is about the space in which you record. Click here for a video version of me, narrating a paragraph from “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens. This video was recorded on my iPhone, including the iPhone mic. It does not sound too bad, considering, because the voice booth is properly insulated and treated. But notice the mouth noise and clicks, especially around 0:25-0:30 sec or so. It is not as good as when I record on my main mic with professional editing and mastering. Give a listen to a similar read from “The Christmas Carol” for comparison. Note how much smoother and richer this sounds.
CC, what do I need to look for in a studio?
First, let’s start by talking acoustics. It is important that the inside of the booth or studio area is treated so that your voice sounds nice. In a good studio, the voice booth should not only have sound proofing or a layer of pretty foam but should also have a design that stops sound bouncing around and coming back on itself, which makes it sound like you are in a box.
In studio design we try to avoid parallel walls to help get rid of this bounce back. We also use “bass traps” to try and reduce problematic lower frequencies. Acoustic design is complicated, but fun! The sound of the studio can make a significant difference to the listenability of the recording.
Second, the studio should block extraneous noise that you do not want in your recording. We measure the amount of loudness in decibels (dB). For instance, Dolby specs for a movie theatre sets the level at around +85 dB – nice and loud but won’t damage your hearing!
In audiobook specs, you will see references to “noise floor.” This is the ambient noise in the room when there is no added sound – like someone speaking or singing. For audiobooks, they look for a maximum of -60db, but in a professional recording studio, you would expect for it to be much lower than that!
A badly sound-proofed room will suffer from noise from outside. The noise may be from within the building, such as refrigerator, air conditioners, water coolers. It may come from outdoors, such as traffic, airplanes flying over, or lawn mowers. It can also come from sound within the studio, such as computer fans or other electrical equipment. All of these combine to create a hum that needs to be blocked. Think of the constant sound of a city – we call that Skyline in the trade – and that is what the studio needs to block out.
There are techniques in digital recording that can lower or eliminate low-level noise. iZotope RX7 is brilliant at this. However, if you are paying for a studio, you should expect that the studio is built correctly in the first place and no post-production repair work is needed.
As a side note, NEVER use what is called a “noise gate” to remove noise between words or sentences. The noise floor in the gaps should be at the same level as during the words. Otherwise, you get the feeling of the sound falling away, which can be odd and put listeners off.
Third, the studio should have the equipment necessary for recording. This includes:
A professional studio should have professional recording gear. This may be a Mac or PC based Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) or a dedicated DAW. A lot of studios use ProTools, Cubase, Nuendo and so on, and some use all of them, depending on the client’s needs. These will be connected to a professional digital or analogue recording desk.
They will use high-end professional mics, such as the industry-standard Neumann U87ai.
Monitoring will be done through professional quality speakers. Believe me, there is a huge difference between the monitors we used in studios and speakers you use in your home, both in sound quality and in price!
All of this equipment should allow you to easily record your narration, replay it, and correct your mistakes. When you listen to your narration, you should sound like yourself, without changes in the tone or quality of your voice. The sound engineers should then be able to take your recording and work their magic on it to remove mouth noise & clicks, make the final product sound great, and meet the distributors specifications. If this is not possible, then I would question whether they are a commercial operation and advise you to look elsewhere
Fourth, the studio may provide the services necessary to clean up and master your recording in order to meet the distributor’s specifications. Recording is only the first stage. As I mentioned previously, afterwards the recording will need to be edited and mastered. In addition to hiring a studio there are some other people you could involve.
- Directing: You could hire a Director/Producer (different names for the same job). They will listen to you as you record and stop you when you make mistakes, correct your emphasis, make sure you pace is correct, you are pronouncing words correctly and so on. This adds cost on the front end, but can reduce the amount of editing significantly. Often you will find that a good sound engineer is also a producer and will combine roles – but they will charge you for it. Don’t expect this as a free add on.
- Editing/Mastering: Once you have finished the recording stage, the audio needs to be edited and mastered. You have three options: 1) get the studio to edit, 2) employ an outside editor, or 3) edit yourself.
- Normally, the most expensive editing would be at the studio because it is using studio time, not just a person.
- A third-party editor will probably be the next most expensive. However, you should check in advance what system they work on and make sure they can accept and work with the audio files that the recording studio sends them. A good editor will prefer that you record on a non-destructive DAW, such as Protools, Cubase or Reaper. This is because it will contain any previous takes, even when you have re-recorded over the original take: the original take is still layered underneath. So, if the editor wants to copy a nice breath from an earlier take, he can do so.
- Editing and mastering the recording yourself will be the least expensive in terms of dollars, but the most expensive in terms of time, as you will need to learn how to do it and may need to pay for additional software or plugins to existing software to help you.
- Proofing: Even if you don’t hire a director and you do the editing/mastering yourself, you should still hire an outside proofer to listen to your recording for mistakes and glitches that you missed. It is very easy to miss things and even pros do.
Before you make a final decision to rent a studio or hire help:
- Listen to sample recordings from the studio, director, proofer or sound engineer you are thinking of hiring. They should be able to provide a resume of their work, references from past customers, and samples of their sound. A good clue is popularity. If a studio is booked up with ad agencies, film and tv companies and so on, then they are probably producing a good quality product.
- Be sure that you know what they will require of you in order to complete your project in a timely manner to specifications. And be sure that you understand their billing. Studio rent and hiring a studio sound engineer is usually per actual hour of use. Proofers and editors charge based on the number of finished hours of the recording, not the actual amount of time that they spend.
- You need to make sure that you will be able to schedule your recording sessions. If you have a book that is more than two hours of finished recording, you will not want to record it in one go –you will get too tired. So, you may want to book a series of two or three-hour sessions. It is difficult to estimate how many sessions because different scripts can be easier or harder to record, and if you are inexperienced you will make many more mistakes. Better to correct them at the time, if you can, rather than do pickups later.
And a final note:
Before you hire any services beyond the recording studio, you must make sure that you have everything recorded correctly, including retakes. You may not want to return to correct mistakes (pickups) because of your budget. If it is a busy studio, you might not get a booking, and if you use a different studio, you might never get the sound to match! Some people book provisional second sessions for pickups, then cancel if they are not needed. But be fair to the studio and make sure you come to an arrangement that works for you both.
This is great information, CC! But I don’t have the money to rent a studio or hire outside help and I am not under a time crunch to produce this book. How do I set up a home recording studio?
The next post will give you suggestions on how to set up a studio in your home, in Audio Book Recording Basics: Setting up a Home Studio
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