Audiobook Adventures Ch. 3: Going for Effect

Or did you think finding your own voice was just a metaphor?

My summer project rolls along very well, committing the four novellas of my Shards of Light series to audiobook format as a DIY adventure. In previous chapters I’ve tried to offer some encouragement and a few pointers on the how-to of recording your own voice. As I set down this installment I’m about halfway through: Books 1 and 2 are submitted and I’ve recorded the first few minutes of Book 3. In future chapters I’ll have more to say about the submission process, and a few wild guesses about marketing a-books.

But now, it’s time to think about the effect of your book. I mean, the special effects and other touches you want to add, besides the voice.

To What Can You Aspire?

Adding F/X to your tale probably requires some thought, because the range of things is so wide open. Listening to other books on tape might give you a better idea: my impression is that a LOT of them today are pretty “pure” and just focus on excellent narration quality without white noise. And that’s great, if you have a pro studio and a pro reader. Personally, I hearken back to those tales on LPs that we had as kids (never mind what an LP is, I’m too tired to explain. A huge CD, got me?). There’d be a burst of music at the start, and running up and down between scenes. And some noises, like drums, or explosions or gunshots at the appropriate points. Honestly, the sky’s the limit. And can it be overdone? Yes, yes I’m sure it can! I’m reasonably sure I’ve overdone it too. But purple sound (our version of purple prose) is just a question of taste in the end.

I think we can reasonably deal with four categories of F/X in this post and I’ll try to give a little flavor of each:

  1. F/X that generate purely from Audacity itself
  2. F/X that you find (I’ve been using Freesound.org)
  3. F/X that you create
  4. Music and other licensed material

I won’t be touching on #4 here, except to say yes, it’s serious and you have to get a license to use pretty much any snatch of music you have in mind. I’ve done it once for a trailer and I don’t think it’s cost-effective. Truth to tell, I’m in a musical family and I’m ambitious to get my daughter or wife’s talents on track, and THAT in most cases I WOULD be free to use. But not here. And notice Findaways advises against using music (a rule I have already broken by singing on Book 1. But that’s just me singing, I own it).

Have the Audacity

I’m using this freely available online tool to record my tales, and it has a whopping Effects menu. Some of these you will have to use, like it or not before you publish: these are effects such as Normalize and Compression, and I’ll touch on those next time. But there are about a zillion effects and combinations thereof you can try right out of this one menu. I’ve regularly used about a half dozen including:

  • Amplify (mostly for DE-amplifying sounds)
  • Echo  (terrific for internal dialogue such as when your hero is having conversational thoughts)
  • Paulstretch (a quick way to distort the voice- I used it for times when someone communicated via magic. Speak extra clearly!)
  • Bass Boost (not as easy to use but it can give a little added JamesEarlJones to your track)

There are only two general rules, or warnings, I would give you for any of these effects. First, ALL of them require some experimentation. With Echo, for example, you highlight the section of your track that you want to sound spooky, and select the effect: then you get a sub-menu with choices to make. Guess! The sub-menu usually has a “default” setting and I have found that it’s never right for me. But you can also usually Preview what the first few seconds will sound like. Foozle with it, that’s a technical term we dilettante sound engineers use. And remember Undo. Second, and this could be a little depressing, there is a chance, whenever you highlight an area and do something to it, that you will create a click at the start and end of the section. Oy… but not always, and of course what you have from last time about how to get rid of those clicks still applies. Yeah, it’s work. But it’s not breaking rocks, come on now.

BTW

As you might notice there are Effects in the menu called Click Removal and Noise Removal. I’m quite sure these can be used  effectively to do what they say, but I have had zero success with them and have been using the tricks I outlined last time instead. The abilities of this tool are well beyond my skill level. But if you can use them, all hail.

Going Shopping

I confess it’s really fun to use an audio-library like Freesound when searching for effects. Most of the items there are free to use (with citation), and I create a Word doc with a list of each one, the creator’s screenname, the link to the effect, etc. Say something in your tag-file or intro to let folks know. You can also just daydream on a site like this, searching randomly and seeing what’s there that you might want to use.

The method I use is to download the effect, then in Audacity it’s File-Import-Audio and bring in the entire thing. The tool creates a new track at the bottom and puts the effect at the START of your track. Which is probably not where you wanted to use it. Take note of the position of your effect, the place you want it to be (look at the ticker on the bottom that will tell you): then go back to the beginning, highlight the entire effect, Cut, move to the right spot and Paste. Foozle. Undo. You’ll get it. Often-times an effect brought in like this will be quite loud, so use Amplify (with a negative number) to bring down the level. Check the start and end of the effect for clicks, and smooth them off. Often, I only use a few seconds of the effect, just cut and drop the rest.

I can’t say how often I decide to use an effect, whether it’s X per chapter or just something I know would be interesting. I go back to those sound LPs, and try to create the imagery that came to me as I listened to those. Come on, have some fun!

Effects from “official” sites like this are terrific for outdoor-environment, weather and other background noises. You get a lot of synthesizer-driven sounds that are comically wrong for a genre like fantasy, but in another world who knows? It’s incredible how many things people have tried.

DIY Sounds- It Worked When You Were Picking Words

I won’t rant too long, but be aware that sometimes you want to install an effect and the best way is to just do it. Search the libraries, sure, do that; but if it’s a tiny clap, or crumble, or chuckle, just record it yourself. You can lay it in “live” after you have your narration following the same rules: put the cursor a few seconds before the moment, hit Record, a new track starts and then you just do the sound at the right moment. Oops? Undo!

If you add maybe four effects to a half-hour chapter, you will have easily 12 to 20 separate tracks lying all across your screen. No worries, it all collapses down when you create the final file. I advise going back over the chapter several times, again just like proofing a text:

  • Once when you’ve laid in the narration, to be SURE you didn’t include any “aw, crap” or doubled paragraphs, or even extra pauses while you were catching your breath.
  • Once more after you’ve added your effects, just to check them. Back up the view using Ctrl + 3 over and over until you can see across the entire piece on your screen. Position the cursor just before each effect on the lower tracks and play, to be sure there are no entry-clicks or that the sound level isn’t off (use Amplify to back off the effect if it’s too loud)
  • And one last time in “Post Production” which I’ll cover next time, just before you convert the file and set it aside for publication. It’s ALWAYS worth another listen!

I hope this is proving useful to you in the quest to create your own audio-book, or at least amusing as you think about doing so. Next time I’ll quickly cover what you need to do to get your “raw” file ready for publication through online distributors. Ar Aralte!

Audiobook Adventures Ch. 2: If at First

Or did you think that finding your voice was just a metaphor?

Last time I encouraged you to think about narrating your tales and extending your platform by creating audiobooks. Whenever you’re ready, here’s a little advice about the next steps.

The Tale is Yours

I won’t spend a lot of time talking about how you want to sound, whether this voice or that is better or if you should try on different tones for your characters. These are purely artistic choices–important sure, but who am I to say? The pace of your reading, whether you speed up or drop your voice, and a million other choices are in your hands, like it or not. Listen to what you’re recording– remember, we KNOW you don’t like the sound of your own voice, we covered that. Listen PAST that, think about whether this would be good to hear if you were hearing it for the first time. Other than that, I don’t think I could advise you.

But once you have a piece of it read into the machine, you’ll find yourself in exactly the same situation you were in that moment you finished writing the draft. You got there, wrote the final word, maybe capped it with “The End”.

But it wasn’t, was it?

You. Have. To. Edit.

And now that you’re reading the tale aloud? Same thing.

Editing the Recording

For those who came in late, I’m using the Audacity utility and a nice Pronomic mike to record and edit the second tale in my Shards of Light series entitled “Fencing Reputation”. I’ll record anywhere from a third of one chapter to the whole thing in an early-morning session lasting around an hour.

Look at the Squiggles. No Seriously, Look

Here’s a clip from what I’ve done:

The bigger, connected blobs are your voice speaking (or perhaps some other noise happening!) and the thinner, radio-wave squiggles over the center-line are “silence” (but really the background of your studio environment). Rather than another thousand words, let me mark it up for you:

Tips:

  • Don’t worry about making new tracks. You will have to stop, go back and listen, check your sound, etc. And when you come back to record more, the utility creates a new track. But that by itself doesn’t show on the recording.
  • Pause between sentences! Pause between paragraphs, pause for effect. It’s OK to pause! And if you listen to it and discover your pause was, um, too long (ham actors, I’m looking at you) (which means of course, that I’m also looking in a mirror), you can trim it.
  • When you are ready to restart recording, set the cursor with a click a little ways back into your previous track. Then when you hit Record, it will automatically start a new track, and that way 1) there isn’t an obvious “bump” or click between the end of the first track and the start of the new, and 2) you can time the pause better to continue reading just where you left off. The track plays the last thing you said and you can hear it.

Useful Tools- Just Like Writing

Recording is so much like word processing I almost feel I shouldn’t tarry for these things. Please note as I write:

  • You can click with the mouse to place the cursor anywhere in your recording- just like your WiP
  • You can click-drag to highlight a section for cutting, copying or pasting- just like your WiP
  • You can also click to mark the start of a section, scroll over or down and Shift-Click to highlight a large area at once- and I’m not going to keep saying what this is like, capeesh?
  • Really, this utility is quite Intuitive. And let me emphasize where some of these important tools can be quickly accessed here before continuing:

But, I Mean, It Sucked

You don’t like how it sounded? Of course you can re-record it. There are two methods to use here and I heartily recommend the first one.

  1. By listening to yourself carefully and frequently as you go, you’ll get a good idea whether a take is a “keeper” or not, even as you read. You generally know when you’ve stumbled on a word. Or repeated, or stuttered, or said “s–t”. Take a pause (maybe say distinctly “trying again”) and then begin at the top of the paragraph or sentence. Then you can clip out the bad take rather easily and NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW!!! :: Insert evil laughter here ::
  2. If you somehow miss that this happened until long afterwards– such as when you are finalizing the recording for export– you’re in a bit of a tricky situation. Listen to the “bad” take several times. Then position the cursor maybe a sentence BEFORE what has to go, and hit Record. A new track appears, you listen to the run-up and then calmly read the same bit again right along with yourself. This can be a little unnerving, and you can always Undo, then Record again. Once you have a good second take, highlight that take, Copy it, then highlight the bad take on the track above and hit Paste. Bingo, the good take lays on top of the bad one and completely replaces it. If your new take was longer or shorter it’s fine because the track will bump up or down to fit. Then scroll down to the good-take track and delete the whole thing, you don’t need it anymore. Whew!

Those Darn Clicks

Here, quite honestly, is where I spend almost all my time actually editing a chapter. Little clicks and pops can show up whenever you cut or paste (especially if you’re not careful) and some are just spontaneous. Be sure to listen to the offending section a couple of times to be sure it wasn’t just a figment of your imagination

BTW, Important Point- whenever you click back into your track to listen to something again, you will very likely hear a click or pop, often quite loud. That pop does NOT ACTUALLY EXIST. More later.

As you give the chapter your first full “proofread” (proofhear?), you will likely notice some pop/clicks. I can’t give you a clear rule about what these sounds look like on your track, but you can definitely isolate them by highlighting a small section and playing it to check.

Again, I can’t tell what a click always looks like. But THIS, this here is ALWAYS going to produce a click:

It’s a question of that wave-line touching the center.

That’s the key.

That’s where the mystery-pop comes from when you click back to hear something again, you’re coming into the middle of a wave. But don’t worry about it. Now lining up one of those wavy-thin lines directly on center can be ridiculously tough. Here are some editing tricks I’ve learned that can help, in the order I usually try them.

Tip:

Remember that you can Zoom In on the track with Ctrl + 1 (zoom back out with Ctl + 3, and use Ctl +2 to return to “normal view”).

  • First Method: Half-Rests and Whole-Rests. See those rectangles that lie either just above or just below the line? In music, the top-box is called a half-rest, the lower one a whole-rest. Here endeth the music theory lesson, but the point is this. When you make a cut to get rid of a click, aim to cut from the middle of a “rest” to the middle of an identical rest. Get it? Either from a bottom-facing box to another bottom-facing box, or vice versa:

This works a high percentage of the time for me, the resulting cut plays through without a pop. But if it doesn’t work, if it creates two new pops, try:

  • Second Method: Pure Cut. This doesn’t work as often but it doesn’t take long. Once you’ve isolated the area of the pop, simply highlight it moving from a “space” to a “space”:

If the offending pop is in there, you can sometimes eliminate it and if you fail (creating a new pop) then you haven’t lost much time trying. Undo and try:

  • Third Method: Fade to Ssshh. This is the trickiest and creates a noticeable effect, but in a pinch it will work, especially if you’re taking a “beat” as actors say, a real pause for effect. Locate the pop as closely as you can. Highlight from before it to just after and click on Effect- Fade Out. Then highlight an area from just before the Fade Out ended to a spot close to your next speech, and click on Effect- Fade In. This will create a brief moment of silence but with the ambient noise fading then rising, almost like fade-to-black in a movie.

Slaying the Click-Dragon

As I said, when you’ve done this, including when you’ve realized there are one or two of these fershlugginer clicks you just can’t get rid of, then you will have a nice raw track of your chapter. I reserve the rest for another installment because effects and prep are either a) optional and/or b) lots of fun, or finally c) mandatory and not fun, but easy.

You are getting there! And so am I- as of this writing my files for The Ring and the Flag are accepted, my artwork has been revised and I’m just waiting for the new version to post. More news about that later this summer too.

Reading your tale aloud is the best proofread, and now it’s rehearsal too! Get on it.