An audiobook is seen as a new way of taking in a great story. Whether you love horror, westerns, science fiction, drama, romance, fantasy, business strategy, personal finance, legal thrillers, new age wisdom, or just about anything else, there’s an audiobook for it. If it can be read, it can be heard.
In a way, the audiobook is really an even older form of knowledge transfer than the written word. Since the first human families told each other not to hang around where tigers hunted, people were relaying tales as compelling as any modern procedural.
“Yeah, that cave by the river. The last time the moon was full, Ooog walked into that and we haven’t seen him since. There were a bunch of bones in a pile nearby, that Wagawaga says wasn’t there before. The village shaman is the only one here who can put two and two together, and he says not to expect Ooog around to help with the harvest, okay?”
I’m on the edge of my seat. You too, right? At some point that shaman figured out how to write this stuff down, and the great argument about personality-based behaviorally targeted training kicked off from there.
We all know that one: It’s harder for some people to pay attention to written words, but not so much for listening. I’m a great reader and discoverer on my own time, but I find when listening to a podcast that I have to rewind it a lot (for the millennials – rewind means to take the play head back a bit to re-hear something. As an X-er, I can’t really help you with whatever a play head is. Ask those folks who know what dropping the needle is all about).
Anyway, some people are great at listening to a podcast or an audiobook. Now, I should take a moment here to note that audiobooks and podcasts are not the same thing, and really shouldn’t be recorded the same way. Podcasts often have music bumpers and backgrounds and involve more than one person ranting about something. They’re also not read, the way this is. Can you tell? I consider it a personal goal to make sure people can’t tell. But this isn’t always easy.
It is usually very clear and obvious when someone is reading something. In podcasts, which are usually interviews or people bantering, it’s mostly off the cuff. An audiobook or blog post like this one is written first, then read. But it’s still best if it sounds like something coming at you from the top of my head.
Some authors have even taken a different approach to writing because of the rise of audiobooks. One quick trick is to hear it in your head as you write. Right now, this is written as if it’s a guy with an overdone Chicago accent. Dah Bears. Yeah, dat one. But it could just as easily take a different direction for some Oxford don with his simultaneous lesson schedules instead of some yankee wanker.
Ironically, being from Boston, I have a terrible Boston drawl. It sometimes takes a few minutes to get into a character, so I’ll watch a video. Maybe that Casey Affleck Dunkin Donuts ad or the famous Baby Whale video.
Beyond accents, voices can take a multitude of different characters. People can be:
- Nasal (Did I do that?)
- Grainy (Get off my lawn)
- Gravelly (Found someone you have)
- Deep (No, I am your father)
- High (Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking, just a moment)
- Thick (64 slices of American cheese)
- Hollow (We will add your technological distinctiveness to our own)
- Expressive (Why the North Pole of course)
- Noir (Where I go, the wind follows)
It’s possible to add or subtract age to a voice, too. When narrating, I bump into a lot of women’s and kids’ voices as well. That…can be a challenge. It’s not about high pitch, but more about resonance. What I do is think about something called a head voice. Like singing falsetto. If you can do a Michael Jackson voice, you’re there.
Now, all the same rules apply, Dahlink!
Many audiobook listeners don’t love the voices, by the way, and sometimes it’s better to keep it subtle. The only drawback is in long exchanges of dialogue without attribution. These happen more often, too, because hearing “Blah blah blah” he said, “Yadda yadda yadda” she replied, “Doo bee doo bee doo” he said…gets a little clunky. This is where character differences become important.
The best authors write their characters with varied attitudes. You can sense this from their dialogue. Some characters are just wry or sarcastic all the time. Some are deadpan. Some have a comedic cadence and a natural sense of timing. Others are just always…awkward. People can creep you out saying the same thing that someone else says in a very charming way. These are just some of the unspoken signals people send to each other, and it crosses the line from vocal audio production to psychology. Which itself is another fascinating subject, those little vocal cues. Most people know about the smile. Sound like you’re smiling. You can also evoke super-depressing ideation using your voice. This is the sort of thing I think about a lot when producing an audiobook.
The narrator is unique in an audiobook, because it’s really the main character. Rather, it’s the character that does most of the talking. Why should the real main character, who probably has five percent of the words in the book compared to the narrator, have all the fun? Unless the author asks for a flat narration, I like to let the narrator emote a little. When there’s sadness, express sadness. When all is well, be happy. The narrator can add tension, fear, suspense, and express action. The narrator can slow it down or pep it up.
As far as the technology, it’s really fairly simple. I have a laptop, and yes, it has a fan, which makes noise. The mic in the same room picks this up all the time, and my studio is fairly quiet, so it’s pretty rumbly. This is why in any professional studio that gear stays out of the room, often called a booth. Mine is separated by a thick insulated wall and ceilings, with wall baffles and carpeting on the floor. The computer is outside the booth and connected to a wall screen so I can read and control the rig with the mouse. A remote keyboard helps, too, so I can type character names and find words in the text.
The other two primary components are the microphone and the interface. That’s a box that turns old-school analog audio from the mic into a digital signal the computer can store and process. It also includes the audio output for headphones and speakers. Back in the day, the mic interface used a multipin connector and needed a special adapter for the computer. Today’s interfaces use USB. Now, sometimes these are combined in what’s called a USB mic, which saves a lot of space and hassle.
BUT… the mic is a really important tool, and so is the preamplifier and A/D converter inside the interface. Professional studios think of these as the holy grail for optimizing the sound quality. With a bad mic and a bad interface, it doesn’t matter how golden your voice is. Does that mean a combined mic & interface is a useless brick? Absolutely not. The makers of these are among the top makers of audio gear in the world.
I’ll add that a good pair of cans and studio reference speakers are also critical. How are you going to process your audio with junk from the dollar store? And the dollar store does sell these things. So, just… don’t. They’re not too expensive. All told, you can get all this gear for a few hundred bucks. Not the PC of course, but that’s something you have anyway, right?
Now to the software. You’re going to need some kind of editing program. A lot of podcasters use free stuff that can be downloaded and used to clip up their WAV files and output MP3. You might record a chapter that takes an hour to read. If you’re efficient like I am, you can clip out a few long breaks or rereads (I’ll trip over a phrase once in awhile), and still have 45 or 50 minutes. A lot of listeners like the breaths in between, so I don’t gate all of those out, and you can even use breaths for effect. Trust me, it makes no sense for someone to run screaming from a zombie if they didn’t take a breath first.
Now what was that I said about a gate? Like in music recording, there are a few important processing tools available within any good audio recording and editing application. These include:
- The equalizer, which lets you tailor the highs and lows at different frequencies to accommodate your voice, and sometimes adjust for shortcomings in your mic, preamp, and speakers or headphones. This is another reason not to skimp on any of that.
- You also want a compressor, to crush your audio signal to a smaller dynamic range, so it’s never too quiet and never too loud. People are listening in their cars or in other loud environments, so they need a fairly consistent level.
- Another tool is the noise gate, which cuts out background noise. Technically, this shouldn’t be critical if you record in a quiet studio, but you don’t always have an optimal environment.
This is the part where I tell you what I use: Pro Tools, with the built-in seven-band EQ, the gate and the Maxim limiter. I punch up the track volume by 6dB as well, but this varies depending on the technical requirements of the publishing and streaming website.
Of course, the best equipment in the world doesn’t matter if you’re that guy who can clear the Thanksgiving table with your boring diatribes. But even here you’d be surprised what listeners will put up with.
My kids watch YouTube videos about gaming where the narrators drone on, monotone, eating the mic, yelling, flat, whatever. It doesn’t seem to matter. Some folks make a brand out of it. It’s amazing. All the rules go out the window, because maybe they’re not really rules. Like I said at the beginning, people have been telling stories forever, and let’s face it, if grandma couldn’t warn the kiddies about the tiger in the grass because she was boring, none of us would be here.
Now, the folks in radio have been doing this forever, but they’re in an industry that most of us will never get anywhere near. That’s one reason podcasts and audiobooks are so interesting. Any dope can get the equipment, learn a couple of skills and get into it. It’s truly the democratization of storytelling.