I was asked by Andi to write a guest blog post about the process of producing an audio book. “Silevethiel” is my first audiobook and I’m learning as I go. So, below is how it went for me, and the obstacles that came up along the way.
Long before I was hired for Silevethiel, I knew I needed to get training. Every craft takes time, and even if you think you’re a natural, you’re probably not. I love to read, and since I have no friends I like to imitate co-workers and have conversations with myself in their voice. That way I can pretend that I do have friends. As a result people often told me “you should get into narration.” Actually, they usually said “stop imitating me you freak,” but I think they meant “you should get into narration.” But just because I’ve always liked reading and imitating voices didn’t mean I could do it professionally. So, I sought out a teacher.
I found a gent named Pat Fraley online and learned from him for nearly two years before I even auditioned for my first book. That guy is the best, with decades of experience in voice over and I still have tons to learn from him. In other words, the learning won’t stop just because I’ve landed one job.
Anyone interested in getting into audio work should check him out. You can find him online at PatFraley.com.
The training itself cost money, so I didn’t go buy expensive equipment. I dusted off my wife’s old defunct laptop which for years had only worked as a paperweight, and spent time on google to figure out how to get it running again. With that now working I found open source audio recording software called Audacity, (google it, it’ll come right up) installed it, and used the built-in microphone on the computer for my first few months of training. As time went on I upgraded to a USB microphone and learned about audio editing and mastering. The point is that I didn’t go and buy expensive equipment with my credit card before I needed it, because credit companies like to be paid back, with lots of interest.
After about two years of learning I started auditioning. I did eight auditions and was rejected on all of them before Andi hired me for Silevethiel I even failed my first audition with Andi. I first auditioned for The Lost Heir and didn’t get the job. But it turns out her husband, whom she refers to as “Honeybee” in her books and blogs, recommended me for Silevethiel. So I freaking love that guy. Honeybee and I need to start hanging out. I’d need a nickname too, of course. I thought of “Bumblebee” but it turns out that name is already owned. So there will be no dynamic duo of Honeybee and Bumblebee. But maybe Honeybee and Dung-Beetle? I’m sticking to the insect theme. Isn’t it weird I don’t have friends at work?
I watched a video on the ACX website where audio narrator A.C. Brey gave a ton of great advice. He said you must give yourself plenty of time, since your first book will take up to a month. Andi gave me two months, so I thought I’d be done with a month to spare. My wife forbade me from telling Andi I’d have it done quickly, which is good because the job took me two months.
“But Dan,” you ask, “why did it take so long?”
I’m so glad you asked. Read on.
I had no idea how noisy my house was until I needed long stretches of quiet. I thought I lived on a quiet residential street, but evidently, I live next to a superhighway. On this superhighway it is always rush hour, even late at night, and none of the cars have mufflers. We get buses, trucks, cars with base that can actually shake the fillings in my teeth, marching bands, mariachi’s, polka band fights, and Michael Bay action sequences. I’m pretty sure most of the final scenes of “Avengers: Endgame” were filmed outside my window. Before I ever auditioned I built an isolation booth out of PVC and moving blankets, but that really only helped with echo, not noise isolation. So I made sound reducing panels out of insulation wrapped in sheets that I put in my windows when I recorded. The panels accomplished two things: they helped to further reduce sound, and now the neighbors think I’m doing something illegal.
Once I got my first job, I bought my first studio quality microphone and interface. Anyone who wants to know about equipment should check out “Booth Junkie” on Youtube, where a guy named Mike DelGaudio provides tons of high quality free training. So I hooked up the new equipment and after I finished recording all the chapters in the book I went back to edit. Listening back, I discovered that my microphone is great, and it records everything. By everything, I mean in the background I could hear my air conditioner, the computer fan, the cars passing by even from many miles away, the helicopter that evidently hovers over my house at least twenty hours a day, the wasp bussing outside my window, even my neighbors fighting (they like to curse). Why, you ask, did I not edit each chapter right after recording? Because ACX recommends that you do all of your recording first, and then mastering (more on that fun topic later). It was my own bright idea to combine editing and mastering. That idea was not so bright because not only did it not save time, it doubled my production schedule as I had to record the book twice (though I still made the deadline with a few hours to spare). I am so glad I didn’t listen to my wife and tell Andi I’d be done early.
This is one of the many things that I learned from Pat Fraley. You have to separate your characters voices so the listener knows when different people are speaking. So, I read the manuscript three times: once before the audition, once to write down terms with pronunciation issues, research the characters themselves (Andi was kind enough to give me a pronunciation guideline) and finally once to decide on character voices and performance. All joking aside I was very intimidated by this book. Why? Because a general consensus among audio narration coaches is this: an American will never be able to pull off a whole book of multiple British accents. When I auditioned for Andi, I decided to give an all British cast a go since there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell I would get the job.
I got the job.
The rule is “garbage in, garbage out.” Basically, that means you have to get the best audio from the initial recording. Mastering can make good audio great, but it can’t make bad audio good. Plus, even though most recording software has features that can eliminate background noise, ACX doesn’t allow that since it corrupts the data. So I recorded with the previously mentioned sound panels in the window, in my small booth, with the AC turned off. Good thing I live in an extremely hot climate. I also recorded with one ear in my closed back headphones, the other out. That way, as I recorded one ear was listening to the audio going into the microphone while the other was listening for noise from my beloved super highway, helicopters, birds and noisy neighbors. If I even thought I heard a noise, I’d stop, mark the audio file, and re-record the section. It often took up to an hour of recording time to get just ten minutes of usable audio.
At this point I finally had all of the chapters recorded and edited. I was in the home stretch, and so I went on to mastering. I assumed I was prepared for this as I’d spent a great deal of time reading and practicing this. After I edited and mastered all of the chapters, and did a final listen through for quality check, I was ready to upload the files to ACX.
Still, I’d heard so many horror stories from folks who kept failing ACX quality check, and I didn’t want to join their ranks. Luckily, I found a plug in for Audacity that will check if your work meets ACX requirements before you upload. So I downloaded the plug in and checked my files, and of course none of them met standards. So, back to google and YouTube. Eventually I found the proper information, but not before finding plenty of videos and blogs which were titled “Mastering Fully Explained in Four Easy Steps,” or words to that effect. They went much like this:
“Welcome to Mastering! I’m your host, Audio Tech Guy, and I’m here to tell you that mastering is super important. It can make a good recording great, but it can’t make a bad recording good. So, get good audio, and master it properly. And that’s mastering! I hope you enjoyed my video.”
I couldn’t help but notice there was no instruction on mastering. So I kept looking, and found many more gems like this:
“In this video,” the announcer began, “we’ll teach you how to master. Mastering is super important, and it is what really makes a professional stand out. If you don’t master properly, you’ll look like an amateur. So, now you know how to master. Make sure not to skip this step! Please like and subscribe!”
My favorite went like this:
“Mastering,” the man on the video said “is the final step in the process. It is what will make your audio sound clear, sharp, and professional. It is very complex process, and really too complex for this video, so I’m not going to talk about it. I hope you found this helpful. Now go to Patreon and give me money.”
You get the idea. This went on for a while, but eventually I found a few sites online that described how to actually pass QA (quality assurance) with ACX, and what steps to take and in what order. So, I wrote those steps down, on actual paper, and have them tacked to my bulletin board where I refer to them all the time.
So, after all of that, I was done and was able to upload my audio files on the very last day of the deadline. Then all I had to do was wait to see if Andi would approve it. Of course as I waited, I convinced myself that the next message I got from her would tell me that all my work was terrible, she couldn’t fathom why she hired me and that I was fired. Then the strangest thing happened.
So please check it out, and I hope you like what you hear.