Saturday, 26 September 2015

Producing an Audio Book is Harder than Painting the Mona Lisa

In my experience, and I have done both. With audio book production, much can go wrong and often does. I shall relate to painting Da Vinci’s masterpiece at the foot of this article.

I started producing audio books in January 2015 knowing nothing about sound equipment and learned everything the hard way from scratch. Here’s what I learned:

Don’t Go Cheap on Audio Equipment

Sound Editing for Audio Books
Initially, I brought an off-the-shelf condenser mic that gave a tinny edge to my voice and recorded plosives no matter what I did (even with a pop filter and standing some feet away). I sent it back and went for the Rode which solved everything. It gives a warm, clear sound and it comes with its own pop filter – studio standard. You can’t go wrong with a Rode microphone.

My Scarlett Solo interface, PC and Audacity free sound editing software and my homemade recording booth (fashioned from a table stood on its side, covered with duvets and lined with acoustic foam) meant I was good to go

Or so I had thought.

I didn’t bank on the following:

Being Patient for the Quiet Moments

Few people can afford a soundproof room, so I had to sit for endless minutes waiting for aeroplanes to make their transits. And this includes tractors, lawnmowers, birds chirping and rush hour traffic. Sometimes you have to pack your gear away and wait for a quieter time or simply wait. In my case, I found myself recording in the evenings.

Be Careful with the Noise Removal

Noise removal is a handy tool on Audacity that enables you to remove unwanted background noises, such as fridges, traffic or rain. Going too heavy on the noise removal can ruin your vocal recording. Sometimes, background noises can sneak into your recording and noise removal can work wonders so long as the sound frequency does not overlap your vocal range, otherwise, it can make your voice sound weird – chirpy. It is better to record again when it is quieter than to overuse the noise removal. I wasted hours of recording time getting to grips with noise removal.

Atmospheric Conditions During Recording

The sensitive mic will be affected by atmospheric conditions, such as humidity and temperature. The Rode doesn’t not seem to like cool damp air. It prefers warm and dry. Atmospheric conditions will affect the recording in subtle but noticeable ways.

The mic also needs space! OK so you don’t want unwanted echoes that result from a large room with hard surfaces, but don’t place the mic in an overly-enclosed space, or the recording will sound ‘clothy’ or claustrophobic, losing some clarity. I place my mic at least a foot from any surface within my rather cramped acoustic booth. This lesson cost me hours of recording.

Vocal Techniques

Accents are hard to master. I had to listen to hours of YouTube clips and practicing sounding out the nuances of dialects. Don’t go heavy on the accent, or it will sound like a parody. Not every word has to illustrate the accent, only certain syllables.

The voice gets tired after an hour or so of recording. That’s it. You can’t force it, it’s not a machine. You have to rest it, show respect. Keep healthy, hydrated and rested. Again, put the gear away and start again tomorrow.

Time Consumption of Sound Editing

For every hour of recording, expect at least three hours of sound editing. You have to edit out outtakes (and there will be plenty), plosives, clicks, unwanted background noise and lots more. You also have to fine-tune the pauses between sentences to attain the desired pace of the audio book narration.

Editing the Book

Saying sentences aloud will expose issues with writing style. You have to cut long sentences to permit the breath, cut repetitive sentences that result in a monotonous passage, or stilted sounding dialogue. Read aloud before recording.

Is Narrating and Producing Audio Books Hard?

Mona Lisa in Progress
Things go wrong for no explainable reason. Sometimes the recording is awful and who knows why? You have to do it again another day.

Painting something as difficult as the Mona Lisa means you can paint over mistakes, build and improve the painting through layers. It is a skill that requires dexterity of hand and visual astuteness. Audiobook production requires a spectrum of skills. Editing skills, a good voice, the ability to tackle accents, to be a sound engineer, to have a keen ear, to troubleshoot, to have an instinct for pace. And what about audiobook cover design and marketing? The list goes on.

A painting can be salvaged. A horrible recording has to be scrapped and started from scratch. It’s tiring, complicated, frustrating and anything but therapeutic, but I am glad I did it. Audio book creation has been a momentous experience and I have learned a lot. My new found skills can be used to many other uses.

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