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Audiobook Adventures Ch. 1: Getting Started

If you missed my opening post about doing a-books… well, seriously what is wrong with you? But I am, and now I’ll relate a bit of how I got started and operate when making an a-book. I’ll be primarily involved in creating a-book versions of my series Shards of Light during summer 2018, and this post finds me with Book One ready to send off and Book Two well underway.

A-Book Shopping List: Ingredients for Talking the Tale

You will need:

  • Recording/editing software, and I will be referring to the free download Audacity throughout. I’m sure there are others but this came recommended and is one of the leaders. The online help manual is quite good. Tons of stuff in it I don’t use.
  • Quality microphone, and on this point I cannot stress highly enough the importance. If you already have one “lying around” the house, it’s quite possibly not good enough. The laptop inboard mike? Just no. Ask around online, check with a friend, but solve this problem before spending your time recording. Test it out on a two-minute stretch and listen: is there “background noise” that doesn’t exist in your background? Out. My set up was a gift, and the price in euros was three figures long as far as I can tell. The stand and spit-ring are certainly nice-to-haves.
  • A really good tale, which I optimistically assume you already possess. Microphones and recorders are a lot like paper and pens; they’re quite agnostic to genre, length and any number of other factors. Failure to record is a great deal like failure to write– your decision.
  • The voice, how about yours? I’ll be writing as if it’s you doing the talking here, though I suppose you could try:
    • Your spouse (just think of how much you enjoy it when they stand over your shoulder while you do a chore for them, telling you what you’re doing wrong. That will give you a sense of whether this is a good idea.)
    • Your child (cheap labor, certainly, but you might have to pen some excuse notes to teachers. Also could be tough if you’re writing gritty crime-erotica and your kid sounds like Shirley Temple.)
    • A trained macaw, stranger off the street or a really dedicated fan of your work. Certain travel expenses, animal cruelty laws, and the potential for home invasion arrests or restraining orders would be extra
    • Yeah, go with your own voice, lots of advantages. Caring about the way you wrote the tale, for one thing– or did you think that finding your voice was just a metaphor!

Download Audacity, plug your mike into the PC, open the software and look around. I won’t go into detail about the use of Audacity, a lot of it is pretty intuitive. But here’s one tip: check here to be sure it’s using your microphone, and not just defaulting to your PC!

What Am I Looking at Here?

Again, this will be most useful to those using Audacity. The opening screen looks like this:

Once you start recording– click the red button, duh– a track will leap into being with what looks like a scratchy line on it. “Shit” you exclaim, forgetting that it’s a recording. And right there is the swear word, like some kind of seismographic reading.

That’s because what you’re about to do is earth-shaking, get it?

A few more swear-words and some fumbling with the mouse later, you hit the yellow “Stop” button. Click on the green triangle to Play, and you will hear that swear word again, only this time it will sound like James Earl Jones said it, or maybe Dame Judy Dench, or Barney Fife, Roseanne, anyone else, just… that can’t be you, can it?

Not Me, No Way

It’s astonishing to me how many people have never really heard the sound of their own voice. There are two groups of people in this regard, and if you didn’t like what you just heard, you are standing in the group that has 100% of all people in it.

Nobody likes the sound of their own voice*. Not at first.

So. Deal.

  • Because people like to hear tales told by the author, that’s a fact. They buy it.
  • And because this is the way you get the book out for cheap (paying a narrator’s fine, but I’m here to tell you how to do this yourself).
  • And because– I mean this sincerely– this can be a lot of fun.

Listen to the sound of your voice and go ahead, be critical. Change what you can, leave what you can’t. There are people in your life who love you and they probably feel great when they hear you speaking.  You could be one of those people!

Back to the recording, and one of the greatest things about Audacity. Ready for the miracle?

Undo.

Right up under Edit, you can see Undo Recording. Click to remove that naughty word from existence. Then try again. Of course, there will be times when you make a mistake and don’t realize it until later. But there are tons of times when you WILL know, and this is a very handy time-saver. It also works great when you are trying out F/X on a certain section, like Amplify or Echo. Don’t like what you just heard? No worries, Undo and try a different setting or strength.

Narration is Performance, Yo

You can do this as well or as poorly as you like. Again, kind of like writing. Probably the biggest mistake you can make here– maybe the only one– is to think that your reading has to be a finished product the first time out of the box. Is that how you write? No?

So. Prepare. Focus. Smile a little before you talk. And be ready to not worry and try again.

  • Get the mike at a good level and distance for speaking (test it, remember Undo)
  • Personally I like to sit on a stool, because a chair compresses me too much, it inflicts a sag into my middle which prevents me from supporting the sound. Upright would also be fine, but my mike stand is a bit wobbly at that height, and also I can’t reach the PC controls easily. You will find the right height, at which you’re not too pained or relaxed to read your best.
  • Script big enough to easily see. I use my tablet because a) I want the PC screen free to show me what Audacity is recording, plus b) the distance is too far to read where I’m sitting, and c) paper pages make noise! On my Kindle I can size the font easily, plenty of backlight, etc.
  • Glass of water. Trust me.
  • I like to rinse with mouthwash to clear the tongue and throat. Otherwise you can get that sticky-flapping sound when you talk and it’s distracting.
  • THINK about the scene ahead. Listening to other a-books will give you a sense of how far to stretch your voice (it can be overdone, and I think I have overdone it myself at times). But you also want to think about pacing, raising and lowering your own volume, injecting emotion where needed. Avoid rendering the entire chapter in some version of iambic pentameter (you know, da-dump, da-dump, da-dump…). In other words…
  • Read TO an audience. Picture them listening. They haven’t heard this before, they need to know what’s going on.

Laying Out the Track

You. Can’t. Fail. Unless you give up. Read the tale, stop when you want, go back and listen, see if it’s a keeper. It’s no different than using highlight-delete on a rough draft. No, it’s not- and stop arguing with me about this.

One thing to consider is whether you want to lay out “the whole thing” in one track. Let’s say you’re trying for Chapter 1 (could be anything, but I picture chapters coming in around 4-6k words). Some folks say that the listening audience wants something around a half-hour long, and that would be my rough guess but don’t get too hung up on that. So we’re trying for a chapter here.

If you Record, Stop, Undo and Record again, Audacity will lay out a single track for you, one line of seismographic line-bumps. Let’s say you read the first three paragraphs, and after a couple attempts you find something you like. Especially early, it’s important to listen to what you’ve recorded because it will help you see if you’re too close or too far, and also whether there are background noises on your track. To some extent you can’t affect these, but it’s something to consider. My home AC system is a very quiet hum and I don’t think it’s too distracting, but sometimes my refrigerator knocks like an old car and that will kill a take completely. Again, no big deal.

But whenever you decide you have something worth keeping (meaning you don’t Undo it), when you start to Record again, Audacity will immediately create a second track, below the first. If you position the cursor at the end of your first track and hit Record, it will pick up from that point but in a second track. On the replay, it will move right through. This is true if you want to add a sound effect later (don’t worry about it now), the point to keep in mind is that you could end up with a stack-o’-tracks and IT IS FINE. I’ve had dozens in some of my chapters, but the listener doesn’t see that, it all comes out as a single track.

Experiment, get used to the sound of your voice, try again and realize nothing is any more permanent in the recording than it is with your writing. Next time I’ll touch on the editing process where you will need to spend a lot of time . Again, JUST as you do with the writing.

Enjoy!

 

*- When I wrote this statement I was relying only on my personal opinion about what was true. Little did I suspect there’s a TED talk to prove it! Check that out if you doubt me, and also if you want to be horrified by what your voice is already telling people.

In fact, your voice comes to your own ears through your bones. So yeah, sounds different. But the more you record and listen to yourself, I find, the more this difference fades away- whether it’s because I’m modulating my voice or just getting my ear more accustomed, I don’t know.

Can You Hear Me Now? The Audiobook Adventure Continues

Since my last post in April, I have become increasingly absorbed by the effort to convert my tales to a-book format and I thought I’d report on that for anyone considering the same. This and following blog posts will be my answer to What I Did Last Summer, when fall 2018 arrives.

What in the Lands Am I Doing?

To be clear:

  • I’m leveraging the Smashwords-Findaways partnership announced earlier this year, where I can drop a finished product in the queue and they will handle distribution to two-dozen-plus outlets on their own. So that’s not the work I’m doing, I’m taking advantage of the offer for someone else to handle that.
  • As I said before, I absolutely insist on reading the narration myself. THIS is the work I’m doing now. As a day-job dilettante, my limited time can only go so far, and I feel a
    Spartan helmet optional. Coffee, so not.

    bit stuck on the next novel anyway, so this has been a good alternative (as well as a fun outlet for a desperate ham actor such as myself).

If you’re not interested in the first bullet, these posts are probably not for you. If you don’t feel you can handle the second, then this is not your work, but I still feel you should consider this outlet for your tales; there are of course many ways to get a narrator on your own and oversee their rendering. If folks want I could bring in some fellow indies to comment, and I did have the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Karin Gastreich once upon a time who had a terrific experience of doing just that. Perhaps in a later post we can check in with her again and see how it’s going.

But for the most part what I’ll be commenting on here relates to the points above:

  • Later on, I’ll post to report about how the distribution and sales appear to be going on the books I record.
  • Over this summer, while that is still baking I’ll talk here about the challenges and fun of actually creating one’s own audio book. You heard me (well, you read me)– you can do this if you like. Or you could just laugh at me trying to do it, that’s always an option.

Try, Try Again: the Need for Equipment

My first announcement turns out to have been a bit premature. The files I submitted, from my a-book version of The Ring and the Flag, were based on a recording I had done years ago and which, as I discovered, were not adequate to Findaway’s technical guidelines. The microphone I used to record the tale at that time was one of those omni-directional sticks that came for free with some computer game I bought back before Pentium was a thing. I swear to you, it said “Made in the Philippines” on one side, and on the other in very tiny letters “Viva Marcos”. So, yeah, poor quality.

Where is that noise coming from?

This was an epic struggle all by itself: I searched my entire house for the best room to read

in, made multiple tracks of each paragraph, and slaved away on my editing software (Audacity, by the way, fabulous program, high marks) to get the whine, the hiss-noise, the white fuzz out of the background. No soap, I sounded like Demosthenes trying to speak over the roar of the sea. Honestly, it could not have been less than a hundred hours that I spent altogether, for six chapters of around a half-hour each, to get one decent take of each section where my voice was louder than the whine the mike produced, from nothing, just from being that ridiculously cheap.

“This time my instrumentality is unbreakable.”

This was the product that Findaways rejected, probably for purely technical reasons like the kbps of the output. But I can admit now, it truly sucked. I cannot bear to listen to that version anymore.

Fortunately, I now have a dazzling-great Pronomic microphone sent to me by the incredible omnivorous publisher Katharina Gerlach at the Independent Bookworm, and I cannot begin to describe how much easier this job is now. I plug it in, open Audacity, and hit record. Then I start to read the tale And. That. Is. All. Background fuzz, white noise all gone: I used to have to keep my mouth in a range from the mike of about the width of a quarter, or I’d over-amp and under-amp. Now I can gesture, rock back, turn my head as I speak; and the mike picks it up, don’t get me wrong, but it sounds on the track just as if I had gestured, rocked back, turned my head. Background is clear and clean.

I’ve raved about it on my Facebook page, and at least two people have asked me where they can get one. Unfortunately, this brand (Pronomic) doesn’t seem to be available in the US, and I’m no expert but I’m sure products of similar quality are available. I can only recommend that you ask around to someone who knows recording equipment; the investment is absolutely crucial, but it’s a once-and-done and a pearl beyond price if you are thinking about doing this.

Does the Job TOO Well?

Some of my frustration (hardly worth mentioning compared to the old days) came with the mike picking up too well. I record with headsets on and they are noise-cancelling. So if one of the cats saunters into the room for a post-breakfast snack, I don’t hear it. But on the replay I laugh out loud; every dish-clink, each lip-smack is clearly there. I recorded the last scene of The Ring and the Flag, where Justin reaches the end of his mission, on a quiet Saturday afternoon with my ladies out of the house. On the opposite end of the ground floor here, thirty feet away, I had left the back porch door open a foot to let in the air. Across the back yard, maybe another thirty YARDS away, a single songbird was chirping how happy she was to have young ones in the nest or something. I heard nothing until the replay of course. Here I am, laying down the track of a marvelous city parade to the arena :: cheep! ::, with guards and litters and cymbals clashing :: chirp-eep! :: and Justin racing against time to reach the conference before the :: cheepy-cheep :: voting… OK, Take 2.

But all this moaning to make a point. It’s easy to do again. And I’ll talk about that next time.

How Long Will it Take?

I haven’t made precise measurements of the pace, but based on recording sessions I’ve done on this go-around, I would say you are going to be recording for roughly an hour per five thousand words of text. Your technique will probably vary and I’ll have more to say about the way I do it next time. That is what you’ll need to get a usable version of each sentence/paragraph. Editing that 5k section should take another hour, maybe two, and then if you wish to add F/X like music, echoes, etc. that’s rather open-ended. Personally, I love that stuff and can’t say enough about the resources of a site like Freesound. But you may want a purer track, fewer distractions, or maybe you haven’t really thought about your options there. I would liken the use of sounds in an a-book to that of word-art in an e-book. My tales on paper have ink-splotches, larger font when heroes are speaking, bloody marks on letters, and more. Something to consider.

Read the Tale Aloud– Not Selling Yourself Short

I have long been an advocate of authors reading their drafts aloud as a means to improving the work. Yes, I’m a ham actor, it’s true, and a Game Master of long standing and while we’re at it, probably the most ridiculously extroverted non-celebrity you’ll ever meet. So sue me. But when you read aloud, you catch repeat words, bad construction, breaks in the flow, and things that just don’t make sense. Habits you’ve become blind to in your enthusiasm, or fatigue: mistakes you are either leaving to a beta-reader to catch, or letting slip through to your readers to cluck their tongues at. I don’t argue it’s the only way. Just the best one I’ve found.

And now– see, this is the genius– if you decide to go a-book and narrate your tales… it’s also rehearsal!

Don’t try to kid a kidder!

Do you ever plan to be a famous author? And what would that entail, hmm, perhaps a public reading of your work in a library or bookstore? An excerpt to thrill millions on radio, whenever Terry Gross interviews you on NPR? Think about it, people. No sense dreaming of the Powerball if you don’t buy a ticket. Read your work. Out Loud.

And after you’ve done that a while, leave the microphone on.

 

More reports soon! Let me know what you’d like to, um, hear about my audiobook adventure.