Recording an audiobook – 5 lessons for ACX success

Recording an audiobook isn’t easy! But after two tries, my audiobook Writing for Audiobooks passed the quality test. Here’s what I learned, so you can get it right first time.

First off, I have a radio background. I’ve learned writing and presenting techniques from working for BBC radio, writing journalism and radio drama, and presenting for Swiss Radio International. But getting production right for ACX it wasn’t straightforward! You do need some technical foundations to record your audiobook.

So you have a radio background, I hear you ask? Then why was recording an audiobook such a fail first time?

1. Learn narration AND technical skills

People who present on air aren’t the same as people who build studios. As a presenter, you know how to read and use a microphone. You know about levels, popping, mixing and editing. But you don’t learn about sound equipment, acoustic room treatment, room tone problems, graphic equalising and mastering, and other parts of the process needed to prepare sound clips for ACX submission.

Usually, on-air radio presenters work with an existing studio, and don’t need to understand the technical specifications.

And studio specs are tougher than you might expect. I’d done plenty of field interviews using portable recorders such as the Zoom H4N Pro. But sound quality for field interviews is pretty forgiving. Live radio which flies past in a moment is also pretty forgiving.

Audiobook recordings aren’t! They’re made for careful and close listening. They may be heard more than once. The listener experience is intimate. Audiobooks seek to draw you in, not blast you with full-on forceful presenter energy. And the quality is compressed for online. So the quality needs to start out high, or compression might accentuate the flaws.

I made two full book recordings which were rejected, before I got it right.

Here’s what I learned:

2. Treat your room space – it really matters

I started off trying to record in my living room. It sounded awful – echoey and boomy. I moved into a small box room. Still too much echo. I persuaded myself it sounded bearable and sent it in to ACX. Rejection! Too much room tone.

What’s room tone? It’s the sound of the quiet room, with nothing else in it. I had a quiet room, but against this gently echoing background, my voice didn’t stand out enough. The ‘signal-to-noise’ ratio was wrong. Speaking louder didn’t help, as it just made my voice strained and poppy (that annoying breathy p sound).

This isn’t about obvious acoustic problems such as barking dogs, chirping birds, rumbling traffic, squeaky chairs, ticking clocks, people speaking, and other hazards in the immediate environment.

This is about treating the room space after you’ve eliminated all these hazards.

Stage 1: Get rid of birds, dogs, clocks, traffic.

Stage 2: Be amazed at how much ambient noise your microphone still finds in the room.

What to do:

Create a padded space. Ideally, think padded cell! That thick wadding is useful not just for preventing injuries – it also keeps pesky room tone and echo right down. And no one can hear you scream!

OK, so it’s not easy to rig up a padded cell. Luckily, it doesn’t need to be lockable. Just use a clothes horse and put a thick quilt over the top. Clip it to a door to create a tent.

Any smooth surfaces will reflect sound, including walls, floors and ceilings. So minimizing smooth surfaces with thick fabrics will really help.

Audio-treat any shiny surfaces. Lay a thick rug on the table. Stuff cushions in the windows. Put a thick felt on the tabletop. The aim is to muffle acoustic reflections, aka echo.

A quick fix some people use is to get under a quilt and record there. It’ll cut out echoes and sound just like a pro recording studio.

If you don’t believe me, try it! It’s important to get a sense of what an “acoustically dead” space sounds like. Record yourself, and contrast it with your voice outside the quilt.

You’ll be amazed at the difference.

3. Choose your microphone wisely

Microphones are very personal, and what works for one person won’t work for others. In addition, each microphone has different qualities and is designed for different purposes. So you need to do some research.

A vocal mic designed for live stage work and rock bands is a different beast to a mic designed to pick up classical percussion or stringed instruments. A workhorse vocal mic (eg the Shure SM58) is great for live singers who have big voice projection. Some mics (eg the dpa 4099) are great for instruments such as the violin or acoustic guitar, which have a big dynamic range.

Recording an audiobook is a different acoustic situation. It calls for different tools.

I often see people recommending condenser mics. Usually, those people have nice voices!

Condenser mics are sensitive, like high definition TV. They pick up everything, in a bright, nuanced, beautifully detailed fashion.

This is great if you have a wonderful sonorous voice without clicks or lip smacks. In the same way that if you’re a beautiful peach-skinned young actor, HD is fine.

But for some of us, condenser microphones are just a bit too faithful.

As a woman with a quiet voice, speaking at higher frequencies, I found a standard condenser microphone didn’t cut it. The issue was “transients”, including mouth clicks, which weren’t easy to remove in post-production without losing quality.

So, my BBC colleague recommended a Beyerdynamic ribbon mic – the kind often used in BBC studios. I got the M160 and my uncommon problem was solved. But the price for these has gone off the charts recently! USB mics are great, too, and you may do extremely well with a USB workhorse such as the Blue Yeti.

What to do:

Test the water. Visit your local radio station and ask to try their mics. Ask what they use, and what they’d recommend for your voice.

What not to do: ask a musician. My friendly neighbourhood musician recommended a workhorse vocal mic for stage. This kind of mic is used by singers with loud vocal projection and excellent lungs. But this is very different from the intimate, close quality needed for audiobook narration.

What else not to do: ask your local hall, church or school audio technician. Again, they’re technical experts, but more used to mic-ing up speakers, performers and instruments in large echoey spaces.

You’ll be reading your audiobook with a more intimate, friendly projection, possibly under a quilt. A very different job!

4. Practise your diction – it really matters

For speakers and performers, diction is the art of reading clearly.

Basically, unless your everyday voice is beautifully articulated Eliza Doolittle rayne in spayne style, you’ll need to practise.

If you’re like me – a quiet-voiced introvert – you may find your reading sounds too blurred and unclear, not cutting through.

My vocal style was fine for general radio presenting, but not for the close-mic’d performance style needed for recording an audiobook. What’s fine in a fleeting, fast medium doesn’t necessarily work for the intimacy of audiobooks. Especially when compressed into mp3 format.

What to do:

Firstly, record yourself and listen back. Then compare your voice with audiobook samples online.

Chances are, your voice sounds flatter, less expressive than you expect.

This is normal. We’re not used to hearing our own voices. Since they’re right next to our ears, we often find them overloud, and compensate to reduce the impact. Expression then takes a hit.

So, to get your radio presenting style to sound “normal” for recording an audiobook, you need to punch up your delivery.

What to do? Experiment! Try a more animated, excitable version of yourself. Try a singsong version. Mark up your script with key words to emphasise. Aim to land on those words and make your sentences as shapely as possible.

Record this and listen back. Better? If you’re doing it right, it’ll feel a little unnatural at first.

5. Punch up your voice projection

Next, try to oomph up your projection. If you have a naturally deep, resonant voice, you may be fine. But if you have a quiet voice, you may need to punch things up a bit, to make sure the signal-to-noise ratio is good enough.

To project your voice more, try for louder volume and ‘hitting the back of the room’.

This isn’t about straining yourself. You’ll only get a sore throat.

Just stand up straighter than usual and aim to reach imagined people in the back row of a hall. Stay a safe distance from the microphone to avoid popping.

If you’ve ever done public speaking, this feeling will be familiar. But with a microphone in front of your face, your instincts may be to project to the mic. And then you might hear yourself relayed back through generous speaker or headphone amplification! As a result, people’s voices in a studio often pitch quieter than they do even in normal conversation!

This can be made worse by the effect of headphones. When you hear loud volume in your ear, you may instinctively drop your voice even more. Especially if you’re going for a more intimate audiobook recording style. So, turn the headphone volume low.

Tip: Try reading without headphones to get a sense of how it feels physically. Remember this projection level when you put the headphones on.

5. Simple voice exercises help projection and diction

It may be surprising, but many people don’t open their mouths much in normal speech. They may not really need to, if others are close by and the surroundings are quiet!

But a half-closed mouth is like a half-closed door – little sound gets out.

So if you’re speaking into a mic and struggling to get a good signal-to-noise ratio (aka you’re too quiet), opening your mouth wider can make a real difference to volume.

Stretching and vocal exercises that can help:

  • Yawn aloud – a long, luxurious yawn. This will open your throat and release your relaxed natural tone.
  • Practise exaggerated vowels – aa ee eye oh you. Stretch your mouth.
  • Relax your facial mask – the muscles of your face – and jaw by rubbing to release tension. Like a mini massage! Jaws are often a source of tension.
  • Flop over like a doll and swing your arms to relax your neck and shoulders – another potential source of tension.

Even simple yawning before a voice session can really help to release your voice.

If you want to take this further, there are lots of voice training videos for beginners online.

Above all, don’t try to record for too long. I wanted to get my audiobook finished as soon as possible, and spent over five hours reading.

But the difference between the beginning and the end was really noticeable. My voice started to sound croaky and tired. My projection was less expressive.

Of course, experienced voiceover narrators may be able to read for hours on end. But if you’re starting out, give yourself a break! It’s hard work, and needs practice.

All that said, it’s loads of fun, too, and highly satisfying to hear your recorded book up there on Audible. So if you like a challenge and enjoy reading your writing aloud, go for it!

Hope these tips help you to do a great narration job and knock it out of the park!

FAQ – Can I record an audiobook at home?

Yes! It’s perfectly possible, and many professional audiobook narrators have home studio setups. In the long run, it’s a lot cheaper to set up a home studio than to hire studio time. However, you’ll need some essential kit, and a way to minimize unwanted sounds and echo in your chosen recording space. It’s unlikely you’ll get a good enough result for Audible by recording on your mobile phone!

Is recording an audiobook difficult technically?

Yes, it’s quite a technical job, and audiobook recording isn’t for everyone. Plenty of people have mastered publishing their own ebooks, but audiobooks call for very different technical skills. As well as reading and performing, there are three more technical areas you need to master: recording the audio in good quality; editing the raw files; and mastering the edited audio clips. The initial recording or sound ‘capture’ stage calls for most technical skill. If you don’t get this stage right, it’s very hard to improve the recording to a high enough standard for Audible.

Is it easy to narrate your audiobook?

It depends. If you want to make a recording for friends and family, a simple microphone or even mobile phone may be enough. If you want your narration to be accepted by Audible, that’s different. Audible has stringent technical as well as narration standards. Don’t underestimate the skills needed for compelling narration! Ideally, you need a clear, attractive voice, engaging storytelling and interpretation skills, and lots of stamina. It takes several hours to record an audiobook, and even experienced narrators can begin to sound hoarse, or lose the energy in their voices after a while. But if you love a challenge and have plenty of patience, you may enjoy audiobook narration.

Still unsure? Here’s some info to help decide whether you’re ready for recording your audiobook.

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