So you want to create an audio book and you want to narrate it yourself, huh?
Well friend, I have three goals with this article.
First, I want to talk you out of the very foolish notion of narrating your own book.
Second, if you’re a fool and want to narrate anyway, I want to convince you to go hire some time in a professional recording studio, with an audio engineer so all you have to worry about is reading out loud.
Third, if you’re BIG damn fool—like ME—and want to record yourself at home, I want you to get ready to do it right.
This is my tale of woe…
How hard can it be? Oh to be young and naïve so many days ago.
Turning your book into an audio book is a good idea. I don’t have results back to report on just yet, but from everyone I talk to, producing an audio version of your book is a fairly easy way to setup a whole new royalty stream, usually at a much higher price than your regular book, and you can even earn referral commissions every time you get someone to try Audible.com.
Should You Narrate Your Own Book Or Hire Voice Talent?
The question as to whether an author should ever narrate her own work is a hot debate in author circles. What else would we get worked up about when we’ve exhausted the unfairness of the Amazon Kindle Unlimited program and debated which shade of blue looks best on our possible book colors.
It seems like half the people you ask say authors should never narrate their own book, because professional narrators sound much better. They have a more pleasing voice to listen to. It’s all about the reader, er, listener experience. And the great news is that authors can hire professional narrators for free, using the ACX platform. Well not free, but no money up front, you just agree to pay them a percent of the royalties. That’s a sweet deal all around.
But others feel that readers/listeners want to hear the actual author. It’s part of the experience. Like going to an author’s reading at your favorite bookstore—back when bookstores actually existed.
I decided to narrate my own book not to save money or future royalties, but because for non-fiction I do think most people want to hear the author’s own, imperfect voice.
So I decided to narrate my own book. Which takes me back to,
How hard can it be?
I heard Brendan Burchard brag that he just walked around his apartment in his underwear talking into his MacBook. Click Save and voila, an audiobook!
When I do things, I like to do it right. And I plan on doing many audio books in the future. And maybe even a podcast. So it’s time to buy stuff!
I found out that a real high-end microphone podcasters rave about is the Heil PR-40, so I got one…and the fancy accessories that make me look like a radio DJ.
I downloaded a copy of Audacity, a commonly used audio recording program. Which happens to be free.
I read a very good book, The Stressed-Out Writer’s Guide to Recording Your Own Audiobook by Kirk Hanley, which goes through Audacity settings right through “mastering” the final audio files and uploading to ACX.
Even though I read how to do it all from beginning to end, I value time more than money so I decided to hire an audio engineer who would be able to confirm I setup the software right, and who could master the final files, and upload them to ACX/Audible.
I highly recommend you find an audio engineer to work with, at least on your first recorded book. You can ask for referrals in Pat’s First Kindle Book group on Facebook, or search for “audio book” on Fiverr.com, and then select the “Mixing and Mastering” link on the left side of the screen.
I ended up hiring Chris Snelgrove at Darkfire Productions, and he’s been patient and good to work with. (WARNING: He’s VERY detail oriented so have some thick skin as he tells you straight out all the many ways you suck and how you can get better. Keep reading for details…)
So I went into this pretty cocky. Hey, I’m a paid speaker, my content is great, and I have expensive audio recording equipment.
Not only that, my basement office is basically a bunker. Three walls of cement, a thick door, gotta be totally soundproof. Or so I thought.
Configuring Audacity for ACX Audio Book Recording
The first thing Chris taught me was to download a free copy of Audacity, and how to configure Audacity for ACX Audio Book Recording. Depending on whether you are using Windows or Mac, where the menu choices or buttons are will be a little different but basically you need to:
- First, set the Audio-Host setting to “MME”
- Second, set the Recording-Device to the correct microphone. This is a common mistake! Many people plug in their bazillion dollar microphone into their computer’s USB port, and don’t realize that Audacity is still set to the default choice which is usually tiny-tinny microphone built into the computer. If you’ve plugged in a microphone into your USB port, the correct setting is probably “Microphone (USB Audio Device)”.
- Third, set Recording Channel to “(Mono) Recording Channel”.
- Fourth, set the Project Rate (Hz) to 44100.
- Fifth, go into the Edit menu, then click Preferences, then for Meter/Waveform dB range set to “-96 db (PCM range of 16 bit samples)”
Record a Chapter At a Time – Each Chapter Is Its Own File
For ACX, you will upload each chapter as a separate file. So an ideal file naming convention is just the book title followed by the chapter title. For example, “15 Secrets of Time – Chapter 1” (without the quotation marks of course).
When you begin to read each chapter, you need to stay silent so you are recording room tone for a long time (like 10 seconds). Your audio engineer will eventually leave just one second of room tone at the beginning of the file before your first words.
Your first words for each chapter has to be the chapter information. For example you would say “Chapter One” pause and then start reading your chapter. Of if you have named chapters (non-fiction), you would start with “Chapter One. Richard Branson’s Secret Productivity Tool.”
You also want to leave a lot of room tone at the end of the chapter recording before you hit the stop-recording button on Audacity. Your engineer will edit it down to one to five seconds, but leave your engineer plenty of tone to work with.
Finally, no single chapter/file can be longer than 120 minutes. And let’s face it, if you wrote a single chapter that takes two hours to read out loud, you got bigger problems than recording the audio version.
The All Important And Maddening “Room Tone”
“Room Tone”, also called “Noise Floor”, is the sound recorded by the microphone when you are trying to be as quiet as possible. But it’s not silence like you think it would be. In fact, even when making Hollywood movies, everybody on the set will shut the hell up and they’ll record “tone”. This is the “sound” that will be used whenever there is an audio problem and they need to cover it up.
As an audio narrator, after you’re done doing your thing, the audio engineer (maybe also you) needs to go in and cover up any weird coughs, burps, bumps of the microphone, stomach growls, whatever.
Why don’t they just paste in a half second of true silence, you may wonder? Because true silence sounds weird. It doesn’t sound like silence, it sounds like the speakers have cut out. So you need to record room tone to match the general ambient noise of the recording session.
So Chris told me, “You need to start recording in Audacity and stay absolutely still and quiet and just record room tone. And it needs to be -55db or quieter.” (You can actually see your sound levels on screen with a little meter that bounces up and down.)
How hard can that be?
I click record and sit there, and watch the little audio meter flicker up and down on the Audacity screen and even though I can’t hear anything with my ears, visually it looks like a pack of banshees are screaming into the mic. It’s way too loud. WTF?
Ahhh, even though I’m sitting in a concrete bunker, I realize that the air conditioning is on, and there is a vent out in the hall. Even though my door is closed, you can barely hear the hiss of the AC, and the mic is picking it up.
OK, shut off the AC. Hit record button and…
…the level is still too high. WTF?
I listen to a quiet room and wonder what it could be. Suddenly I realize that my fluorescent lights have a faint hum that I really never noticed before. OK, shut the lights off. Yes, I’m basically now in a dark vault but the glow of the dual monitors casts plenty of light.
Try again. WTF?!
Damn, one of my monitors is actually making a little bit of a buzz. Never noticed that before!
I shut that monitor off, and listen to silence…and see the audio indicator bar STILL way higher than Chris’ requested -55db.
This is ridiculous. I’m sitting in a cold dark silent vault. Chris must be a perfectionist, maybe he told me wrong, how much more quiet could anyone be anywhere?
And then I notice it. I hear it. It’s the hum of the computer fan. I have a desktop computer, sitting on a carpeted floor, about five feet from my microphone, but the mic still picks it up!
Son of a b…that’s amazing. So I need to shut off my computer in order to get the noise floor down to an acceptable level. But then how do I record without a computer?
Ahh, I’ll use my Macbook Air. Macbook doesn’t have the loud whirring fan of my desktop.
OK, download Audacity for the Mac, set all the settings, plugin the USB mic. Hmm, doesn’t recognize the mic. Shut down, restart, now it sees the mic.
OK, finally, I have a room that is quiet enough to record in. Sigh.
Echoes, Creeks and Phantom Dogs, Oh My!
The next step was to record just a couple book pages to create a test file. I wanted to send a few pages first to Chris the audio engineer just to make sure everything was indeed right, before I went ahead and started reading chapters.
So I printed out a few sheets of paper from my book, made sure I was sitting in my dark, nearly silent vault-like room, and began to read. (Note, I previously sent myself a pdf of my manuscript via email, then opened the attachment on my iPad, thus I could read in the dark, from my back lit iPad, and there also wouldn’t be any sounds of paper rustling or mouse clicking).
I read for a couple minutes, then saved the file in Audacity, then exported it to WAV format, and uploaded it to Chris via Dropbox.
Voila! See, that wasn’t very hard after all. Triumph!
“This file sucks,” said Chris.
“You mean like I should read with more enthusiasm?” I asked.
“No. I mean it would get rejected by Audible, the sound is horrible. The problems are:
- Way too much echo. You want a warm sound. You sound tinny.
- You bumped the mic or the desk or something, and didn’t even realize it. You can see the sound spike if you look back at the audio file.
- Your S’s are too hot, are you sure you have the microphone in the proper position? Is your wind screen on the mic correctly?
- I can also hear you smacking your lips when you talk. Your lips are sticking together. If you can’t fix it, try to not close your lips all the way when you read.
- Your chair is squeaking throughout as you shift around.
- Oh, and I think I hear your dog barking.”
Holy crap! I’m a professional speaker, have top notch audio equipment, am sitting in an enclosed room in a basement, and I still can’t get a freakin’ file to work.
Of course in my frustration I blamed Chris.
Chris must be a perfectionist. This is crazy. How does everyone seem to just rattle off an audio book so easily?! My ergonomic chair cost hundreds of dollars; there is no way it squeaks. There is NO way my test file has all those problems.
Except Chris was right. I listened back and could suddenly hear all the things he told me about. Well, I don’t own a dog, so don’t know what that was about, but everything else was legit.
But in the words of one of history’s greatest parachute-pants-wearing philosophers, I’m too legit to quit!
The problem with my bunker was that the sound was bouncing off the walls. Now just so you understand the situation, and how hard it is to be your own audio person, I have carpet on the floor and filled up book cases on every wall and soft ceiling tiles on the ceiling. So it’s not like I was recording on top of tile floors with mirrored walls. I thought it was a PERFECT room for recording.
Chris recommended that I get one of these little boxes—a Portable Microphone Voice Box.
It’s like a sound room, but just for your microphone. It’s like a one foot cube that you put your mic in, so the sound gets captured in the foam all around the mic. You can make this yourself very cheaply, but I just bought the one on Amazon.
For my next test recording, in addition to the new box, I drank a lot of water ahead of time and applied a lip balm to try to help with the lip smacking. I found traditional Chapstix actually made my lips stick together more, but this Blistex Moisture Melt is almost like a gel. When my lips touched and opened they didn’t seem to make as much noise.
I also tried to move slightly further away from the microphone, and turned up the “mic gain” (the sensitive) in Audacity just a bit to compensate for me being further away.
I replaced my expensive desk chair with a $5 stool that didn’t squeak or creak.
Instead of having a glass of water ready for the recording, I actually made a cup of Throat Coat organic tea. This is a secret of professional speakers and I think it really does make a difference. If you plan to record for more than one hour in a day, you’re vocal chords are definitely going to feel it, and you’ll be able to hear the difference as your voice slowly degrades throughout the sessions.
Finally, I recorded another test file, and this time, Chris said much better, we’re good to go.
How Do I Interrupt Thee? Let Me Count The Ways.
[Dear reader, I must pause to convince you that the following really did happen. It’s going to sound so contrived, but I assure you, my life is really this annoying on any given day.]
Rock n roll! Time to do this thing. The painful long process of getting the sound right is done, now I can bang it out. “test”
Check all the settings in Audacity, got my special tea, shut off my phone, ready to roll, click the record button…
“Chapter One. The Power of 1440. Can a single number—” WOOOSHHHH!
Damn it, I forgot to turn the air conditioning off. Do that, try again.
“Chapter One. The Power of 1440. Can a single number—” GRRRRRRRRR!
What the hell is that? Oh geez, it happens to be a rainy day, and the sump pump is going off. OK, unplug the sump pump and hope my basement doesn’t flood in the middle of my recording session. Try again…
“Chapter One. The Power of 1440. Can a single number—” WHEEEEEE!
WTF? That’s the landscaper weed whacking outside. But it’s raining! Why would he be here now? I wait an hour for the landscapers to leave. Try again…
“Chapter One. The Power of 1440. Can a single number—” VROOOM!
You have GOT to be kidding me. The cleaning people showed up and they are now vacuuming the floor above my head. They never come until the afternoon, but of course, they decide to show up three hours early today. I wait two hours for them to leave. Try again…
“Chapter One. The Power of 1440. Can a single number—”
RUSTLE RUSTLE RUSTLE!
Like he can’t see I’m working?
Oscar knows never to bother me when I’m in my office.
He’s so anti-social I can’t believe he would pick NOW to come talk.
Oscar is such a jerk!
I proceed to narrate and record my book over two painful days. It got to the point where I could read each chapter and using the punch and roll technique, only pause two or three times to make a quick edit and then to proceed. (NOTE: “Punch and Roll” basically is the process where the narrator stops the recording everytime there is a flub-up, then moves the cursor back a few seconds or where a natural break is occurs, and then clicks record and starts recording from that point in the text. This saves post-editing time. You are basically editing along the way. Mistake-pause-backup-start again.)
Every time I hit the record button, my stress levels climbed just knowing that any second the doorbell might ring from the UPS man or a smoke detector might go off, or perhaps a small fire or lighting strike would occur.
Every time I would finish a chapter. I would click “Save” which saves the Audacity file, but then also Export to WAV which is the format Chris-the-engineer wants to work in.
I uploaded all the files to Chris via DropBox and a few days later he ran some audio filters on it to adjust all the levels, he cropped the beginning and ending room tone as required, and manually fixed my biggest lip smacks and other problems the best he could.
I haven’t yet uploaded to ACX but am confident they’ll be approved without problems.
So, you still want to narrate your own audio book? Good. Glad I didn’t scare you away. Hopefully you’ll learn from my woes and have a little less traumatic of an experience than I had.
As always, hit me with questions at info @kevinkruse.com