Voice matters #1: setting up to record audio books

Having spent lockdown refreshing and republishing three novels and also writing and publishing the fundraiser ‘Born to be a Life Changer: A Guide Dog Puppy’s First Year’, I decided I needed to look into the world of audio books. Many, many people love audio books so they are an excellent way to expand a writer’s audience. However, the first thing I learned is that production is expensive if you commission a professional outfit to do it for you. That is no surprise, because there are technicians, narrators and production staff to pay for, and it’s a time-consuming job – narrators have to read and familiarise themselves with the book, and then an average novel can take up to two hours of recording to get one hour of usable material. A quote I got for ‘Flight of the Kingfisher’ was for £260.00 (+VAT) per finished hour with an estimated final duration to be between 9.5 to 10.5 hours, dependent on the narrator’s natural pace of speech and how the story is constructed. There are four novels I’d like recorded, and at an estimated cost of around £3,000 per novel that’s quite an upfront investment for an author to make.

My next avenue of research was looking into how authors can narrate and produce their own audio books, and whether it’s a worthwhile project to attempt. On the plus side no-one knows the story lines and characters as intimately as the person who created and wrote them and, with the right equipment, it can be done in the author’s home if there’s a suitable space. BUT, the right equipment and software needs to be researched, sourced and purchased (another upfront investment), and then comes the task of setting it all up and getting to grips with the sophisticated technology. Also, that suitable space has to be set up as close as possible to an acoustic chamber to deaden both outside and reflected noise. Beyond all of those practicalities, there is still a very important aspect to consider: YOU, the author. The questions you must consider and answer honestly, are (1) do you have a pleasing voice; (2) can you read aloud really, really well in an appropriately entertaining fashion; (3) can you invest the time and effort? If a professional outfit takes around two hours to produce one hour of audio, then an amateur will surely take much, much longer, at least until they’re used to the demands of narrating 100,000 word novels.

So, though it’s hard to imagine recording my books for hours on end and then using unfamiliar programmes to edit and do what’s necessary to end up with a professional, saleable audio book, I decided I’d like to try. After all, you get nowhere by putting up barriers before you’ve even tried, right?

I began by recording snippets on my mobile, then listening closely and critically to how I sound – am I reading too fast or too slow? Is my voice a monotone or too excitable? Will my reading style hold a listener for a couple of hours? It’s quite hard to be objective because we don’t like the sound of our own voices when we hear them on a machine, but I’ve put some clips on social media and so far the response has been positive. Here’s my makeshift recording area, using a microphone stand and muffler (unfortunately the microphone that came with it is rubbish) and free software:

As you can see, the microphone stand is perched on two filing trays on top of a box file. The mobile phone is supported by a glass ornament so the microphone part is right behind the muffler. When I’m recording I place the laptop at the far end of the desk as its fan is quite noisy, and what I’m reading is placed on my left. It’s about as amateur as you can get, but it’s fine for rehearsing. I’ve got used to hearing my voice now in playback, and I really enjoy narrating, so that’s a good start.

But there’s so much more to it than simply sitting in a chair in front of a microphone and reading out loud to yourself. You have to imagine there’s an audience listening to you. It’s tiring and bloops are inevitable, so I’ve been recording short pieces and splicing them together. If I’ve made a mistake I’ve started again… and again… and again, until I’ve managed to do the piece in one take. My husband took a look at what I was doing and said that if I was serious about producing audio books I needed to get serious about how I recorded them. He researched home studio equipment, ordered it, and it arrived as I was writing this blog!

The next job was to set everything up in my writing studio in the garden. We can’t create an acoustic booth without more expense, so we hung curtains around the desk to deaden voice reflection and outside noise. It’s quite cosy in there!

hanging curtains to muffle sounds

I’ve yet to read the manuals for the equipment and software, and when I’m ready I’ll start with ‘Born to be a Life Changer’ as I’ve had requests for it from quite a few Guide Dog owners. I plan also to narrate my humorous fantasy ‘Orders From Above’, the paperback and ebooks of which are being launched on 1st June.

I’m both excited and apprehensive, and in my next blogs I’ll let you know how I’m getting on!

Jane, May 2021

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