Audiobooks are on the rise, and since they’re so popular, audiobook producers are in high-demand. Here, Guestblogger Marc Graetz offers a professional insight into the world of recording audiobooks and explains how to narrate them and the equipment you’ll need.
- From Supporting the Sight-Impaired to Entertainment
- How Do You Narrate an Audiobook?
- Good Reading
- What Gear is Good Gear?
- Build Your Own Setup
- Acoustic Booths
- In Short
From Supporting the Sight-Impaired to Entertainment
The first audiobooks were recorded as early as 1932 by the American Society for the Blind. By recording excerpts from The Bible, the US Constitution, and some Shakespeare plays before committing it to vinyl that could hold around 15 minutes of speech per side, the first-generation audiobooks were initially intended to aid the sight-impaired. Up until very recently, the audiobook section of public libraries were specifically designed for sight-impaired book lovers, but these days, you don’t even need to step into a library to pick up your six-CD audiobook edition of The Lord of the Rings. You can simply stream it directly to your phone. Digital audiobooks aren’t just more compact but easier to ‘read’ during the daily commute – even when you’re driving, making them more popular than ever. And since they’re so popular, it’s actually rare that a title hasn’t been converted into audio form – whether fiction or nonfiction.
How Do You Narrate an Audiobook?
The reader of any fiction will immediately imagine the ‘voices’ of the characters in a book as well as the action and backdrop, and in this way, it’s the reader that guides their own experience. As such, the voice of any audiobook narrator and their specific reading style can make or break the experience of an audiobook. Some well-known actors and personalities are often asked to read audiobooks, and some authors also record their own books which doesn’t necessarily work out, since being a good writer doesn’t automatically mean you’re a good narrator – simply because reading is actually voice acting. I’ve often put a book down (if you can use that term when talking about audiobooks) because I just couldn’t listen to the reader any longer. I won’t name any names… But luckily there are some excellent audiobook narrators out there, whether actors, or writers, and the first that springs to mind is Stephen Fry, who famously added his own magic touch to the entire Harry Potter series.
Being a good narrator has everything to do with the tone that you choose. It’s essential that you use the right tone to suit the genre and feel of the material. For example, a novel will sit somewhere in the middle of the voice acting ‘spectrum’; should have a much less dry tone than the news; and a much less heavy feel than more literary storytelling. Good reading should leave enough room for the listener to create their own image of the action and the characters involved as they take in the story. Also, pay attention to a character’s dynamics as they speak, so if the author states that a character is whispering, then whisper, and don’t be afraid to scream blue murder if the character that’s speaking is out of their minds with rage. Taking things further, if I’m reading a children’s book, of course, I’ll make sure that each character can be recognised immediately by their voice – but this needs to be done with far more subtlety when reading a novel, if at all. You could even compare the process to playing an instrument, and view your voice as an instrument. I mean, with a trumpet, you can play anything from a gentle love song to a fast jazz number; and from a hard and regimented march to a punching rock riff.
Singing has even more common with narrating than playing an instrument, which makes sense, since both use the human voice. However, there is a very significant difference in volume between speaking and singing, and this is important to note when it comes to recording. If I were to speak the opening line of a William Blake poem into my microphone, recording it with software (like Ableton Live, as seen below), and then record a second take where I sing the same line, the waveforms (the generated ‘image’ of the recording) on my screen alone would indicate that the take that I sung is much louder (the waves would be much bigger) than the spoken take. As such, reading actually requires a little more attention to detail, because to make sure that the volume is at the right level, I have to turn up the input level of my audio interface. Just doing this puts the recording in danger of picking up all of the other little noises happening in the recording space, which is exactly why having the right equipment is essential.
What Gear is Good Gear?
Since I’m not especially technically minded, and have very little understanding of audio equipment, I had a chat with one of the audio engineers that I regularly work with to pick up some tips for building a good beginner’s studio for recording spoken word.
They immediately recommended a Focusrite pack that comes including a Focusrite Solo audio interface, a Scarlett microphone and cable, and a pair of headphones. This complete set comes in at under £200. A bargain! But, if your ambitions are a little higher, or you have the budget, you could opt for a two-channel interface from the same Focusrite Scarlett range, the Rode NT1-A microphone bundle, which comes with a pop-filter and a shockmount, and a pair of Beyerdynamic DT770 PRO headphones. This gives you a complete and professional home studio setup for under £400. If you really want to boost the quality of your recordings, you could also add a reflection filter. This is a kind of temporary vocal booth which helps prevent the ambient noise (all the other little noises in your recording space) from reaching the microphone.
Build Your Own Setup
The equipment I’ve listed above is, of course, just an example of a good recording setup. If you want to put together your own custom setup, just made sure that it includes the following:
- A Studio microphone with a cardioid polar pattern
- An audio interface with at least one microphone input, phantom power, and a headphone output.
- Alternatively, you could use a good USB microphone. This will mean that you won’t need an audio interface. Read more about the pros and cons of using a USB microphone here.
- Some studio headphones. Choose closed, over ear headphones, so that the sound won’t leak into the microphone as you record, and they’ll remain comfortable even if you’re working in them for a long time. Make sure that they’re high impedance headphones (over 100 Ohms), unless you plan to mix in more detail and the headphone output you’ll be using will be able to deliver a higher output. Note that smaller audio interfaces and more compact recording equipment tend not to be able to do this as standard.
- A pop-filter, to counter the harder ‘P’ and ‘F’ sounds of human speech, to leave you a more balanced and even sounding recording.
- A shockmount, to prevent any vibrations from being transferred from the microphone stand to the microphone (when heavy trucks pass the house for example). Make sure to check that your microphone will fit the shockmount before buying.
- A reflection filter. Using one of these can be a good idea if the room you record in doesn’t have the best acoustics. It makes sure that your voice doesn’t echo around the room so much behind the microphone, so that your eventual listener doesn’t have to listen to the sound of the room as well as the sound of your voice. Remember – when it comes to recording speech – the dryer the better. Read below for more about acoustic treatment.
- Note: if you’re planning to make professional level recordings, then I recommend starting with a budget of at least £500.
If it’s your first time, before you start recording, have a look at this blog to get some helpful tips!
Since I have the privilege of living in a converted convent, the acoustics aren’t the best for making dry recordings, so I’ve built my own little vocal booth that I’ve walled off with thick acoustic curtains. This gives the recordings that I make in Ableton Live (the recording software that I use) a much warmer and rounder sound than without the curtains. But this setup doesn’t necessarily filter everything out, because to achieve that my little booth would need to suppress noise by more than 30dBs, which I can only do by installing some thick acoustic panels. So, if you really want to make a living reading audiobooks, then building a real vocal booth is an option. It can be an expensive solution, so I only recommend it if you’re certain that you’ll make all of your recordings in your home studio. While you’re designing your booth, bear in mind that you’ll be spending a fair few hours in there. Ventilation (as long as it’s silent) and enough room for setting up a table and an ergonomic chair is also important. Your table will need to be big enough to take a laptop or computer and interface, your microphone, the book you’re reading and any notes and other bits and pieces you’ll need. My little makeshift booth is a spacious 150cm by 150cm, which gives me the level of comfort I need to work long hours.
A few examples of some ready-made vocal booths:
Audiobooks have more-than proved their value within the last few years. Even people who swore they would never let go of their paperbacks are now enjoying the medium. As such, the world of audiobook production is only expanding: from audio equipment developers to engineers, from voice actors and readers to streaming services and libraries.
So, how did it go? Have you finished your first audiobook already? Let us know in the comments.
» Studio Microphones
» Audio Interfaces
» USB Microphones
» Studio Headphones
» Reflection Filters
» Acoustic cloth
» Recording Booths
» All Studio & Recording Gear
» Broadcast Stands
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» So, Can You Connect a Microphone to Your Computer?
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» How to Record a Full Choir
» What’s The Best DAW For Beginners?
» How to Record Audio on a Budget
» Buzz, Hum and How to Get Rid of it
» Ribbon Microphones: The Pros & Cons
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» The Difference Between Dynamic and Condenser Microphones
» Polar Patterns Explained
» What is Direct Monitoring?
» Recording and amplifying vocals for beginners