Dallas Morning News Debuts “Strange” Podcast

Christopher Wynn has quickly become one of our favorite advocates of the arts in Dallas. He was for years the Deputy Editor of FD magazine and now is the Arts and Culture Editor at the Dallas Morning News. At the helm there, he’s behind a new and major effort to push the DMN into audio storytelling. One of his first efforts is “Strange,” a podcast Christopher hosts dedicated to “fascinating people telling their true stories of an encounter with the strange.”

The first episode could not be a more compelling debut, with chilling encounters with the Boston Strangler, Charles Manson, “eerie, screechy, scratching noises,” and a pekingese? Special kudos to Jason Reimer for his excellent score and production. This is how a podcast should sound.

Listen now: Strange, a Dallas Morning News podcast.

Home Studios for the Voice Actor

Part One

After a recent session, as we were saying our goodbyes, the voice actor asked me, “can I ask a technical question?”

He, and many others before him, wanted to know how he could improve his home studio setup. He was having some trouble getting the sound he wanted, but was left wondering if it was his mic, or the preamp, or the converter, or maybe he needed a de-esser, or could it be his cable?

He emailed later:

Oh, man. Entering into the home studio world is like crawling down a hole with no bottom. It just keeps going and gets more confusing. I’ve read so many blogs, articles and forums. I’ve watched videos ranging from some guy’s cell phone all the way to professionally produced training videos for Lynda.com. There is so much confusing science and conflicting advice out there that any confidence in my choices only lasts a short while.

Yeah, I’ve been there. Having fretted over hundreds of thousands of dollars in gear purchases and studio construction over the decades, I still sometimes find myself wondering, “will this finally get me ‘the sound?’ But, there’s also that, and this other one. And this one is just so shiny!”

It’s taken me longer than I’d like to admit to grow confident in my ears, my understanding of audio, and the recording choices I make. All the marketing, pseudoscience, subjectivity and conjecture can be overwhelming.

But confident I am—finally—and I’d like to share some simple recipes for a good home studio.

First, let’s investigate “real” studios. They can be expensive and intimidating. All the gear is gold-plated, it seems, and only the best neodymium-clad zero-oxygen copper triple-isolated quad cables are used. But half of it is a load of crap and, to an extent, selected for highly subjective or aesthetic reasons. However, there are a few key aspects of commercial studios you should strive to imitate at home:

  1. Real studios have great acoustics and isolation.
  2. Real studios pay attention to signal flow.
  3. Real studios are built to always be working, and have backups.
  4. Real studios know that “if it sounds good, it is good,” regardless of any other factor.

I’d like to point out that I didn’t mention any gear; no mics, preamplifiers, compressors, converters—nothing of the sort. While there is definitely a minimum bar to meet in choosing your equipment, gear by itself will not make yours a great home studio, particularly if your goal is to create professional-quality voice-over recordings. Still, we’ll get to some equipment recommendations in later posts. For this post, let’s go back to Number 1 on that list above, Acoustics and Isolation.

Acoustics and Isolation

The acoustic and isolating treatment of the recording space is the number one priority of the home studio builder. Provided you’ve got a microphone and recording setup, do nothing else until you’ve got the acoustic and isolation elements good enough, and then work on upgrading your equipment.

“Acoustics” are different from “isolation.” Acoustics are the quality of the sound, like perhaps the focus in a photograph. You want the subject to be the center of attention, and if there is any background, you want it to frame the subject as to enhance its artistic portrayal. Isolation is the ability to block out unwanted, extraneous sounds from your recording, which could be likened to someone photobombing a picture. No one likes to review carefully captured photos only to realize some cretin in the background has made rude gestures in most of them. Both acoustics and isolation are handled differently, with isolation being the most difficult.

Acoustics

For the voice artist, your goal is a clean, uncluttered capture of narration. And that’s luckily easily achieved compared to some of the types of sound environments studios try to create for recorded music. You’re going for “dead,” or a lack of any acoustic character of the room you’re in. No caverns or cathedrals, tiled bathrooms, or echoing staircases, which create reverberant acoustic environments that are often added in music production. Just your voice in a dry vacuum.

Unfortunately, a normal, untreated residential room will be replete with unwanted echoes, reflections off the floor, ceiling, walls and furniture. In addition, low frequency sounds will often slosh around in an uncontrolled room and can make the recorded sound too boomy or too thin. Or sometimes, incredibly, both.

“Echoey,” “boomy” and “thin” are not the adjectives you think of when describing a good voice-over. Certainly not professional, and barely even acceptable for auditions.

To fix this, the first place to look will be a closet, full of clothes. Climb in, close the door and start speaking. You should immediately hear the characteristic dryness of a well-damped room. All those clothes are acting as acoustic absorbers, and they are by happenstance arranged rather perfectly: lots of layers of soft, absorbent materials hung loosely with air gaps between them. No joke—you could work your entire career between a few slacks and some winter coats

Despite its acoustic properties though, closets do often lack ergonomics. They’re too tight and dark to work in comfortably, and there’s that vague smell of mothballs. So you’ll want to create a dedicated workspace that feels more comfortable, but retains the acoustic aspects of the clothes-filled closet.

Let’s start small. Most microphones used for voice work have a cardioid pattern, The word takes its root from the Greek for “heart,” like “cardiologist” does, and means that the microphone “hears” in a heart-shaped pattern:

Cardioid Pickup Pattern

This heart-shaped response pattern causes a cardioid microphone to be most sensitive to things in front of it, less sensitive to sounds at the sides, and least sensitive to sounds coming from behind. Assuming you know which side of your microphone is the front, we can use this pattern to our advantage.

Grab some soft blankets, a duvet, or anything else you think might replicate the soft and absorbent qualities we found in the closet. Find a solid corner in your room and nail, tack, glue or prop up the absorbing materials to both walls of the corner. Place your mic so that its front is facing the corner, and the back is out to the open room. The mic will be “hearing” the corner most, and not the rest of the room.

Even better, hang the blankets some space away from the wall. This way, any soundwaves that do escape through the blankets will have to travel through a bit of air before hitting the reflective wall and bouncing all the way back to your microphone—a lot of work for air molecules to accomplish.

All this can sound much better than the bare room, but we can do more. Next, let’s drape a blanket around the top, sides, and back of the microphone to even further attenuate room reflections. You’ll need a frame of some sort to do this properly. It could be some quickly nailed together 2x4s or PVC piping fitted together in a small cage tall enough to surround the microphone and leave about 9-12 inches of space all around.

This is the basic premise of acoustic treatment: stop unwanted reflections from entering the microphone by absorbing them before they can bounce back and into the recorded signal. Absorb that energy with soft, fibrous material in as many thick, loose layers as possible.

Clothes and blankets can work well, but there are other materials with better absorbing characteristics. As you get more serious, or if you grow tired of sagging blankets on your wall, you’ll want to construct something more permanent and effective. In a later post, I’ll provide plans for more permanent treatment—the very same we used in the construction of our studio’s booths.

For now though, we’ll turn our attention to:

Isolation

Stop and listen a bit to the room you’re in. If I quit typing for a moment and listen critically to the sounds in my home office, I can hear:

  • Traffic
  • The refrigerator
  • Rain drops from the gutter
  • My computer’s fans
  • The cat grooming himself two rooms away
  • A bird
  • A plane
  • A few errant clicks and pops that I can’t quite place

And I don’t have the heat or air conditioning on, which would have drowned out a lot of it. None of these (especially the HVAC) belong in a voice recording; they’re pollutants.

Preventing these sounds from getting into your recording is going to be tough. There is simply no fast, easy or inexpensive way to achieve isolation from the noises of the outside world. The heart of the problem is that air, the main medium of sound, will find any available way to get around, over, under or through an obstacle. Worse than that, sound that hits a barrier will also make that barrier vibrate, and those vibrations will cause the air on the other side to vibrate, which is how sound transmits through solid objects. The only solution is a massive and airtight room, and that’s expensive in cost and effort.

Until you’re ready for that expense, you’ll have to make do. Find a windowless room. Record in the early mornings, late evenings, or whenever your home is at its most quiet, free from the traffic and bustle of your neighbors and family. Turn off everything you can that makes a noise: the HVAC, the fridge (don’t forget to turn it back on afterwards!), and any other appliances that might be wheezing, chattering, whining or clicking. Place your computer in another room, or cover it with a blanket (providing some airflow) to muffle its fan and disk noises. Put towels under the door and shut it.

But these are all stop-gap measures, so in a DIY, unisolated recording environment, it is crucial to be mindful of the noise around you as you record. Did a plane just fly overhead? Redo the take. A car with a booming radio drive by? Rerecord. Always be aware of your surroundings—because the microphone definitely will be.

That’s about all you can do until you’re ready to commit to some serious expense and construction. When that time comes, look for a future post in which I detail how we achieved isolation at our studios, and how you can do the same in your home.


 

In the next post, we’ll look at signal flow, a critical piece of knowledge that helps separate professionals from amateurs.

The Incredible Magical Exploding Audiobook Industry

Yes, you read that headline correctly—the audiobook industry is exploding. How exploding, you ask? In 2014, audiobooks were a $1.47 billion industry. By the end of 2015, the industry had grown to somewhere between $2.6B and $2.8B. The NFL doesn’t have those kind of growth numbers. Offer any CEO in the world the promise of nearly doubling her business every year and she’ll snatch your hand off.

These numbers are so colossal I couldn’t even fit them into an article. I’m going semi-listicle on this sucker. You may think it’s because I’m a marginally talented and relatively lazy writer, but I prefer to think it’s because these numbers are just TOO BIG to fit into traditional prose.

  • Feed The Beast – Audiobook Production Ramps Up
    • 2013; 20,000 audiobooks produced
    • 2014: 36,000 audiobooks produced
    • 2015: 43,000 audiobooks produced
  • E-Books, Shmeebooks
    • 3.88 million audiobook downloads in 2015
    • 2.47 million ebook downloads in 2015
    • ebook sales fell 11% in 2015, audiobook sales rose 38%
  • Libraries!
    • Digital audiobook circulation in libraries in 2015 was 43 MILLION (36% growth over 2014)
  • Who Buys Print Books Anymore?
    • 2013-2014: Audiobook unit sales up 19.5%, compared to 4.2% for print
    • 2014-2015: Audiobook unit sales up 37.8%
  • Everyone Wants A Piece
    • Audible.com and Audiobooks.com run the market
      • Audible alone has more than 225,000 titles
    • A boatload of other companies are jumping on the bandwagon
      • Scribd, Playster, BITLIT, OverDrive, Baker and Taylor, 3M, Nook, TuneIn, and MORE

OK take a deep breath. Have a sip of water. It’s staggering, isn’t it? You okay? Breathe. Breeeaaathe. Maybe you should sit down.

Now that you’ve calmed yourself, regulated your heart rate a little, let’s take a step back and look at all these crazy numbers. Aside from being exciting for investors, this is great news for authors and narrators. This continual (and massive, did I mention it was massive?) growth can only lead to more great work getting into more people’s ears. And that is a beautiful thing to hear.

Spoke Media’s Audiobook Overview For The New Narrator

Part 3 – You Can’t Work If You Can’t Speak

Audiobooks are a marathon. A double marathon. A double marathon where there’s only one camera from ESPN and it’s trained on YOU the entire time.

It can take a lot out of you. Talk to an audiobook narrator right after they’ve finished a session, ask them how they feel. You’ll be lucky to get a disinterested grunt. Perhaps the words “food” and “nap” might be semi-intelligible.

You’re talking and talking and talking. You’re focusing intensely on the script and performance for hours. It’s exhausting. If you don’t properly prepare yourself, you can wear yourself out very quickly. Your voice may give out mid-session or you may not be able to record on consecutive days. Not a great way to show people you’re a pro who can be counted on.

Here are a few tips to keep you from breaking down (and possibly weeping).

Warmups

Tongue twisters are great and can be very useful for narration, but the most important thing to consider when warming up for an audiobook is endurance. This is not a sprint. Breathing exercises, long tones, whatever you do to open up your airways and warm up your vocal chords. You need to prepare yourself for the long haul, not just short bursts. We’ll have more details on specific warmup routines in future posts.

Stay Hydrated

This cannot be stressed enough. Water is your best friend. And hydration starts long before the session. Your body takes time to process fluids, so the water you drink in a session only does so much. Make sure you’re staying well hydrated a few days prior to and all the way through recording.

Pace Yourself

Take a 5 minute break every hour or so. You should target 30 minutes of audio recorded for every hour in the studio, but it’s important to stop and stretch even if you haven’t quite hit that milestone. Do your best to push to hit your 30 minutes, even if it means going for 75 minutes, but make sure you’re not working for longer than that without taking a quick break. It can be easy to lose focus or stress your voice when in the booth for too long a stretch, and leads to diminishing returns in the long run.

You’ll find that the more you narrate, the longer you’ll be able to go in a single stretch, but you have to build up your endurance first. Don’t try to be a hero and end up going mute for a week.

Food Tips

Everyone’s system is different, but here are a few rules of thumb:

  1. NO DAIRY. This cannot be stressed enough. Ingested before or during a session, dairy leads to slight mucus and sinus issues in most people. Even subtle issues of this nature can pose a significant problem.
  2. Apples are your friend. The opposite of dairy, apples do a great job of clearing up mucus and other issues. Citrus will work as well but apples are really the best tool for the job.
  3. If Apples aren’t doing it for you, you may want to try seltzer or possibly even cola. But be careful: sugar can wreak havoc on the voicebox and those bubbles can lead to stomach noises. This remedy is best used as a last resort and only in moderate doses.
  4. Stomach noises can be a problem. Usually the best way to avoid this is by having a reasonably hearty breakfast and giving yourself plenty of time to digest between breakfast and your session start. But, again, everybody’s system is different. If you find yourself having severe stomach noise in session, it’s best to down a couple of slices of bread to soak up the gurgles, as unpalatable as that may sound to some. Still hearing the grumbles in your headphones? Trying holding a pillow (carefully and silently) over your belly while recording.
  5. If you find yourself drying out easily, well, did you really hydrate the night before? If so (be honest…), then you may want to try electrolyte water. I’ve found that it helps some people retain moisture better.

Well it’s been exhausting just going through these 3 lessons, let alone actually getting to the narrating. But you have made your way through and have hopefully learned well. Godspeed, young narrator. The world awaits.

Spoke Media’s Audiobook Overview For The New Narrator

Part 2 – Fail To Prepare, Prepare To Suck

Congratulations! You made it through Part One! Hopefully we’ve started you off on the right foot. And starting off on the right foot is key. In life, love, and audiobook narration.

Here are a few tips to keep you from wasting anyone’s time—least of all your own—the next time you get behind the microphone.

Prepping Books

When cast for an audiobook, you will receive a PDF of the script a few days or, if you’re lucky, a few weeks before the session date. Prior to the session, you should read through the book to get an idea of plot, characters, character development, and unfamiliar pronunciations. Even if you’re recording at your own pace at home, you always want to prep the book in advance, if for no better reason than to avoid the classic horror story of the audiobook world: “Yeah, I got all the way to the end and found out the main character was supposed to have a French accent. Had to rerecord the whole thing.”

Catastrophic dialect choices aside, there are a few other pitfalls you can avoid by marking the script. Notes in the margin, color coding character dialogue, underlining words that need to be stressed in a given sentence—that sort of thing. Some narrators develop their own complex system of notation for emphasis and phrasing. This provides a roadmap when in the booth and can help guide you smoothly through the book without having to pause to sort out confusion. That being said, there are some who do better with no marking at all. I would recommend starting with marking your script and then scale up or down as needed.

Marking a script can be done easily with pen and printed script pages, but I would advise all narrators to become comfortable with the app iAnnotate. It allows you to easily mark up the script on your iPad. In addition to saving paper, it saves time in the studio that is usually lost to page turns and paper noises. If you must use paper, DO NOT print front and back—one side only. Page turn noises are a no-no and you can’t read front-to-back pages without turning the page. Capice?

In addition to paper or iPad (or any other tablet), you can also use a Macbook Air, but not regular laptops. Anything with a solid state drive is fine, but anything with a spinning drive is not. Why? Noise. No matter how sleek, laptops with spinning drives make too much noise to keep around a microphone.

Pronunciations

Always research any pronunciations of which you are not absolutely sure. Here are some reliable pronunciation sites:

Dictionaries

People, Places, Things (more notable proper nouns can usually be found on the above sites)

If a proper noun can’t be found on one of these sites, Google can be a useful asset. And you can often find interviews, speeches, or other programs mentioning a tough-to-find proper noun on YouTube.

Google Translate can be another useful tool, but I usually go to forvo.com first for foreign language questions, particularly questions regarding proper nouns.

Scoured the internet and still haven’t found what you’re looking for? Pick up the phone! Search for phone numbers for the people or places you’re looking for and call up and ask. You’d be amazed how many people are tickled pink (or at least oddly amused) to hear you’re calling to research an audiobook.

Wardrobe

You’re primary concern when you dress for a session should be comfort and lack of noise. Fortunately, these two parameters complement each other perfectly: pajamas are the way to go! Jeans are fine, but for the most part you want to avoid stiff or starchy fabrics. Dress shirts are usually the worst offenders.

It’s also a good idea to dress in layers. Sitting (or standing) still in a booth for the better part of 4-6 hours can lead to odd temperature fluctuations.


Hooray! Part 2 completed! You’re nearly there! Once you finish Part 3 you’ll be ready to conquer the narrating world!

Kidding. You’ve still got a long way to go. Do not ever underestimate your competition in this business. There are many talented voices out there and there’s always someone waiting to take your seat. One great way to keep getting called back? Don’t waste anyone’s time.

Stay tuned for Part 3 next week!

Spoke Media’s Audiobook Overview For The New Narrator

Part 1 – How To Talk Good

So you’re a new narrator. Welcome. Maybe you’ve been an actor for a while and are just getting into voice work, or you’re a VO looking to expand your skill set. Or maybe people have just always told you you’ve got a nice voice and you bought a microphone and decided to make a go of it. However you got here, it’s good to have you. Welcome, you valiant fool.

Audiobook narration is an entirely different beast to anything else an actor does. If you’ve done a title or two already, your vocal cords can attest. It is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s more than that—everyone can talk, but few people can narrate. As my partner Lindsay once put it, “You can walk, right? Ok, now walk 30 miles. And walk in a manner that makes people want to watch you the entire way.”

Even with that high bar to entry, it is a crowded field with a lot of talented competition. How do you stand out? How do you create staying power? Start with developing the fundamentals. Over the next few posts, I’ll be giving you an overview of the basics every audiobook narrator needs to perfect.

In Part One, I’m going to start with the most fundamental of fundamentals—making people want to listen to you.

Telling A Story

Audiobook narration tends to fall in a narrow band of style the listener wants to hear. By the same token, it’s important to find your own voice within that narrow band. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

The most important thing to remember when narrating an audiobook is that you are telling a story. Whether it’s an epic fantasy or straightforward nonfiction, you need to draw the listener in and tell the story. It sounds simple enough, but it can be easy to forget. So many new audiobook narrators do excellent with dialogue because they’ve come from other fields of acting where dialogue is king, but their narration can fall flat. And in audiobooks, narration is king.

In an audiobook, there are no other cues but your voice. No visuals, no Foley, just your voice telling a tale. Speed up and intensify during action scenes. Express the struggle of lifting an anvil when narrating a line about lifting an anvil. If the book says “he paused for a moment,” leave a pause. Use your voice to set the scene, not just to read the words.

You need to be clear in your elocution so that everything is immediately understandable, but not so precise that you sound as if you’re trying to enunciate every word perfectly. You need to guide the listener through a sentence or a paragraph, emphasising the appropriate words or phrases. But do so subtly; be sure to flatten the peaks and valleys of your emphasis.

“Conversational” is everyone’s favorite word in VO work, but it is particularly pertinent when it comes to audiobook production. The most important thing to remember is that you’re telling a story to one person. You’re not on stage, you’re not performing for a crowd, not projecting to the back row—you’re sitting down to tell a story to one attentive listener.

Pacing

Pacing is a key element to audiobook narration. There’s a certain rhythm you want to hit and it often will feel slower than you’re used to at first. Dialogue is a little more flexible, but with narration you want to make sure that you’re at a steady pace, not rushed, not dragging. Give yourself space to speed up when it’s pertinent, slow down when it’s necessary.

This comes into play not only with the words you’re speaking, but the spaces you’re leaving in between. Leave an extra beat or two between paragraphs when a scene changes. Leave about a 2.5-second pause after reading “Chapter 1” before beginning the first paragraph of Chapter 1. Leave a similar pause at a page break (a larger than normal gap between paragraphs, where there will often be a symbol, usually [* * *]).

The key is to go slow enough that the listener can keep up, but not so slow that it feels like the story is dragging along.

A Few Other General Tips

No ums, uhs or additional words allowed. No stutters for effect unless written in the text. If this feels a bit awkward or rote, try playing with stretching certain words or using space in place of those other devices.

Commas, periods and question marks must be acknowledged as sacrosanct! Or utterly ignored! It depends. The more books you do, the better feel you’ll get for this. Most of the time, it’s very important to acknowledge a given punctuation, otherwise the sentence makes no sense. But other times, ignoring punctuation can help give narration a more natural flow.

“Etc.” should be read as “et cetera,” “e.g” as “for example,” and “i.e.” as “that is.”

DO NOT contract words. If the page says “do not”, don’t say “don’t.”


Got it? Good. Go read it again. Internalize it. Live it. Breathe it. Next time, we’ll discuss how to prepare for an audiobook so you can save yourself time—and frustration—in the studio.

Until then, become one with the knowledge. Failure to adhere to the guidelines above could lead to acute Lack Of Work—the VO’s mortal enemy.

How Do I Find The Right Audiobook Production Company?

If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’re an author who has recognized the potential for your work in the exploding audiobook market, and you’re trying to figure out how to get your book off the page and into the earbuds. You have come to the right place, my friend. Today we’re going to be talking about just what to look for when finding an audiobook production company.

I’ll begin with a caveat (because who doesn’t like a good caveat?): the most important piece of any audiobook production is the voice. Your first priority should be finding a narrator who gives you goosebumps. Fortunately, a good audiobook production company can help you do just that. A good audiobook producer who has experience working with many actors can often provide you with a deep pool of talent to choose from, even arrange auditions for you. But it’s up to you to decide who is the perfect voice for your story.

So you’re on the hunt for a voice that makes you tingle, and you’ve found a few reputable looking audiobook production houses that have connections with a lot of good talent. In whose hands do you put your precious work, a book that you’ve sweat for, bled for, spent countless hours in front of your laptop questioning your life decisions for?

Let’s narrow the field.

Question 1: What Have They Done?

If you’re hiring someone, you look at their resume. Seems obvious enough. But make sure you’re digging in as deeply as you can. Take a listen to projects the production company or its directors or executive team have worked on. Most audiobooks are free to sample online at the major retailers like Audiobooks.com and Audible.com.

On the technical side, you’ll want to listen for noise first and foremost. Is there an audible hiss going on? Many audiobooks will have at least a small amount of hiss noise (called Noise Floor) but the less the better. Compare each production company’s Noise Floor and see (or hear, I suppose) how they measure up. Also on the technical side, listen to the actors’ breathing and mouth noise. Is the breathing excessive or non-existent? Is the mouth noise unbearably distracting? Does it make you not want to listen? Chances are other people won’t either.

On the artistic side, does the performance draw you in? Look for narrators that really get you going. As Quincy Jones said, “If it doesn’t give you goosebumps it doesn’t have a chance touching anyone else.” You should also listen for phrasing and shaping of the narration. Does the narrator guide you through the story so that everything is clear and you don’t feel like you’re rushing along or missing something? You might have found a winner.

Question 2: Do They Use Directors?

Back in the Dark Ages (read: pre-2005), before the arrival of reasonably affordable home recording technology, an audiobook was an incredibly expensive production proposition. You had to rent out expensive studios, manually punch-in each take perfectly, and edit on tape (actual magnetic tape). Because there was so much money going in, producers and publishers needed to ensure they were getting the best possible product coming out. So every session had a director, just like you would have on a movie set, guiding the actor through the narration.

The technology boom of the last decade has been incredible. It has lowered production costs immensely and has made it possible for even the smallest of independent authors to bring their work to a broad listening audience. But as costs have shrunk, budgets have shrunk accordingly, and one of the first things to go has been the director. Many producers and publishers now feel that an experienced actor can do just fine by themselves

This is true, sort of. A cream-of-the-crop actor can certainly perform spectacularly without direction, though if you’re hiring an actor of that level you’ve likely got the budget for a director. That aside, even the best actors benefit from an experienced second opinion in the room. It helps to ensure that the final take is the right take.

But most actors are not of this caliber. Most actors, even incredibly experienced and talented actors, have trouble delivering a consistently excellent performance throughout the course of an entire book. It’s nearly impossible. It is a marathon unlike any other work an actor does, and it can be very easy to get lost along the way when you’re recording an audiobook that is 8, 10, 12, 14, (I could go on) hours long.

Want to make sure your book is the best audiobook it can be? Make sure you hire a director.

Question 3: Do They Do A Full, Separate QC?

What’s the second thing to get dropped for budget reasons, after the director? The Quality Control Editor (or QCer, as I like to call them). A QCer’s job is to listen to the final product all the way through while reading along, making sure there are no mistakes. They listen for missed or mispronounced words, and odd noises or poor edits. They also listen to make sure the pacing and breathing feels right and that the acting is, quite frankly, ‘good acting.’

Many audiobook production companies now cut that step from the process. Instead, they’ll have the editor read along while editing and try to catch the missed words and acting nuances while also trying to edit out all the mouth noises and odd breaths and awkward punch points—I’m exhausted just from typing all that. And even if you were a superhero editor who could do an amazing job under those conditions, there will still be a handful of things that get missed. And if you’re the last person to listen to it—who polices the police, you know?

So there you have it. The audiobook production world can be a minefield if you’re not prepared to navigate it. Subpar performances, distorted audio, outtakes in the final product (yes, projects have made it out into the world before with people laughing, eating lunch, burping…), mispronunciations, nonsensical phrasing, bad acting, heavy breathing—there’s just SO MUCH to watch out for and there’s often so much material to go through. Make sure you have an experienced team taking the same time and care with your audiobook that you took with your book. Your work deserves it.

 

Home Studios for the Voice Actor

Part One

After a recent session, as we were saying our goodbyes, the voice actor asked me, “can I ask a technical question?”

He, and many others before him, wanted to know how he could improve his home studio setup. He was having some trouble getting the sound he wanted, but was left wondering if it was his mic, or the preamp, or the converter, or maybe he needed a de-esser, or could it be his cable?

He emailed later:

Oh, man. Entering into the home studio world is like crawling down a hole with no bottom. It just keeps going and gets more confusing. I’ve read so many blogs, articles and forums. I’ve watched videos ranging from some guy’s cell phone all the way to professionally produced training videos for Lynda.com. There is so much confusing science and conflicting advice out there that any confidence in my choices only lasts a short while.

Yeah, I’ve been there. Having fretted over hundreds of thousands of dollars in gear purchases and studio construction over the decades, I still sometimes find myself wondering, “will this finally get me ‘the sound?’ But, there’s also that, and this other one. And this one is just so shiny!”

It’s taken me longer than I’d like to admit to grow confident in my ears, my understanding of audio, and the recording choices I make. All the marketing, pseudoscience, subjectivity and conjecture can be overwhelming.

But confident I am—finally—and I’d like to share some simple recipes for a good home studio.

First, let’s investigate “real” studios. They can be expensive and intimidating. All the gear is gold-plated, it seems, and only the best neodymium-clad zero-oxygen copper triple-isolated quad cables are used. But half of it is a load of crap and, to an extent, selected for highly subjective or aesthetic reasons. However, there are a few key aspects of commercial studios you should strive to imitate at home:

  1. Real studios have great acoustics and isolation.
  2. Real studios pay attention to signal flow.
  3. Real studios are built to always be working, and have backups.
  4. Real studios know that “if it sounds good, it is good,” regardless of any other factor.

I’d like to point out that I didn’t mention any gear; no mics, preamplifiers, compressors, converters—nothing of the sort. While there is definitely a minimum bar to meet in choosing your equipment, gear by itself will not make yours a great home studio, particularly if your goal is to create professional-quality voice-over recordings. Still, we’ll get to some equipment recommendations in later posts. For this post, let’s go back to Number 1 on that list above, Acoustics and Isolation.

Acoustics and Isolation

The acoustic and isolating treatment of the recording space is the number one priority of the home studio builder. Provided you’ve got a microphone and recording setup, do nothing else until you’ve got the acoustic and isolation elements good enough, and then work on upgrading your equipment.

“Acoustics” are different from “isolation.” Acoustics are the quality of the sound, like perhaps the focus in a photograph. You want the subject to be the center of attention, and if there is any background, you want it to frame the subject as to enhance its artistic portrayal. Isolation is the ability to block out unwanted, extraneous sounds from your recording, which could be likened to someone photobombing a picture. No one likes to review carefully captured photos only to realize some cretin in the background has made rude gestures in most of them. Both acoustics and isolation are handled differently, with isolation being the most difficult.

Acoustics

For the voice artist, your goal is a clean, uncluttered capture of narration. And that’s luckily easily achieved compared to some of the types of sound environments studios try to create for recorded music. You’re going for “dead,” or a lack of any acoustic character of the room you’re in. No caverns or cathedrals, tiled bathrooms, or echoing staircases, which create reverberant acoustic environments that are often added in music production. Just your voice in a dry vacuum.

Unfortunately, a normal, untreated residential room will be replete with unwanted echoes, reflections off the floor, ceiling, walls and furniture. In addition, low frequency sounds will often slosh around in an uncontrolled room and can make the recorded sound too boomy or too thin. Or sometimes, incredibly, both.

“Echoey,” “boomy” and “thin” are not the adjectives you think of when describing a good voice-over. Certainly not professional, and barely even acceptable for auditions.

To fix this, the first place to look will be a closet, full of clothes. Climb in, close the door and start speaking. You should immediately hear the characteristic dryness of a well-damped room. All those clothes are acting as acoustic absorbers, and they are by happenstance arranged rather perfectly: lots of layers of soft, absorbent materials hung loosely with air gaps between them. No joke—you could work your entire career between a few slacks and some winter coats

Despite its acoustic properties though, closets do often lack ergonomics. They’re too tight and dark to work in comfortably, and there’s that vague smell of mothballs. So you’ll want to create a dedicated workspace that feels more comfortable, but retains the acoustic aspects of the clothes-filled closet.

Let’s start small. Most microphones used for voice work have a cardioid pattern, The word takes its root from the Greek for “heart,” like “cardiologist” does, and means that the microphone “hears” in a heart-shaped pattern:

Cardioid Pickup Pattern

This heart-shaped response pattern causes a cardioid microphone to be most sensitive to things in front of it, less sensitive to sounds at the sides, and least sensitive to sounds coming from behind. Assuming you know which side of your microphone is the front, we can use this pattern to our advantage.

Grab some soft blankets, a duvet, or anything else you think might replicate the soft and absorbent qualities we found in the closet. Find a solid corner in your room and nail, tack, glue or prop up the absorbing materials to both walls of the corner. Place your mic so that its front is facing the corner, and the back is out to the open room. The mic will be “hearing” the corner most, and not the rest of the room.

Even better, hang the blankets some space away from the wall. This way, any soundwaves that do escape through the blankets will have to travel through a bit of air before hitting the reflective wall and bouncing all the way back to your microphone—a lot of work for air molecules to accomplish.

All this can sound much better than the bare room, but we can do more. Next, let’s drape a blanket around the top, sides, and back of the microphone to even further attenuate room reflections. You’ll need a frame of some sort to do this properly. It could be some quickly nailed together 2x4s or PVC piping fitted together in a small cage tall enough to surround the microphone and leave about 9-12 inches of space all around.

This is the basic premise of acoustic treatment: stop unwanted reflections from entering the microphone by absorbing them before they can bounce back and into the recorded signal. Absorb that energy with soft, fibrous material in as many thick, loose layers as possible.

Clothes and blankets can work well, but there are other materials with better absorbing characteristics. As you get more serious, or if you grow tired of sagging blankets on your wall, you’ll want to construct something more permanent and effective. In a later post, I’ll provide plans for more permanent treatment—the very same we used in the construction of our studio’s booths.

For now though, we’ll turn our attention to:

Isolation

Stop and listen a bit to the room you’re in. If I quit typing for a moment and listen critically to the sounds in my home office, I can hear:

  • Traffic
  • The refrigerator
  • Rain drops from the gutter
  • My computer’s fans
  • The cat grooming himself two rooms away
  • A bird
  • A plane
  • A few errant clicks and pops that I can’t quite place

And I don’t have the heat or air conditioning on, which would have drowned out a lot of it. None of these (especially the HVAC) belong in a voice recording; they’re pollutants.

Preventing these sounds from getting into your recording is going to be tough. There is simply no fast, easy or inexpensive way to achieve isolation from the noises of the outside world. The heart of the problem is that air, the main medium of sound, will find any available way to get around, over, under or through an obstacle. Worse than that, sound that hits a barrier will also make that barrier vibrate, and those vibrations will cause the air on the other side to vibrate, which is how sound transmits through solid objects. The only solution is a massive and airtight room, and that’s expensive in cost and effort.

Until you’re ready for that expense, you’ll have to make do. Find a windowless room. Record in the early mornings, late evenings, or whenever your home is at its most quiet, free from the traffic and bustle of your neighbors and family. Turn off everything you can that makes a noise: the HVAC, the fridge (don’t forget to turn it back on afterwards!), and any other appliances that might be wheezing, chattering, whining or clicking. Place your computer in another room, or cover it with a blanket (providing some airflow) to muffle its fan and disk noises. Put towels under the door and shut it.

But these are all stop-gap measures, so in a DIY, unisolated recording environment, it is crucial to be mindful of the noise around you as you record. Did a plane just fly overhead? Redo the take. A car with a booming radio drive by? Rerecord. Always be aware of your surroundings—because the microphone definitely will be.

That’s about all you can do until you’re ready to commit to some serious expense and construction. When that time comes, look for a future post in which I detail how we achieved isolation at our studios, and how you can do the same in your home.


 

In the next post, we’ll look at signal flow, a critical piece of knowledge that helps separate professionals from amateurs.

Press Release: Dallas Primed To Exploit $2.6B Industry

Audiobook sales are growing exponentially and Texas may soon be home to many of your favorite narrators.

DALLAS, Texas – March 1, 2016 – Whether you credit the success of Serial, lengthening commutes, or even the distracted nature of the second screen world—audio entertainment is booming. There were 4 billion podcast listens in 2015 and audiobooks have turned into a $2.6 billion industry. Content creators are hustling to keep up with demand as more and more listeners continue to seek aural entertainment.

“It’s been incredible to watch the audiobook industry grow over the last decade,” said Spoke Media CEO Keith Reynolds, a former audiobook director at Audible.com, the world’s largest retailer of audiobooks. “They used to be for the blind and for niche audiences of audio fans. Now everyone listens to their books.”

Indeed, audiobook sales have more than doubled since 2011 while the average age of listeners has dropped from 51 to 39 over the same period. And as it continues to become easier to purchase and listen to audiobooks, with offerings like Honda’s Road Readers program and Audible’s Whispersync technology, these trends look set to continue.

So what does this mean for Dallas? The DFW area has long been home to a thriving voiceover industry. Many of the video games you play, the ads you see and hear, and the cartoons you watch are voiced by actors living in Texas and recorded at studios in the DFW metroplex. But very few of those actors and studios are involved in audiobook production.

“I thought that was strange,” said Reynolds. “There’s this incredibly deep pool of talent that’s going virtually untapped.” He hopes to change that with Spoke Media, a company he recently founded with partner Lindsay Graham. Before leaving Audible last summer, Reynolds saw Dallas as the perfect place to open his own shop. “I really couldn’t think of a better place to be right now. It’s like this little hidden gem. I’m really hoping we can do a lot to help raise the profile of Dallas and Dallas voice actors in the audiobook world.”

“I’ve always wanted to voice audiobooks but the opportunities just weren’t around,” said Eric Vale, a popular voice actor who works on everything from the Dragonball anime franchise to video games like Borderlands 2. “I’ve done a couple of titles now with Spoke, and it’s been a lot of fun and a completely different challenge.”

Spoke does work on media that’s a little more familiar to the Dallas scene. “We’re actually currently scoring a feature-length film and we just finished the music and voiceover for a couple of radio spots,” said Graham, who has been composing and recording music for films and ads in Dallas for the last decade. “So we’re really doing a little bit of everything. If you can hear it, we can do it.”

The company will also be bringing new original content to the podcast world. They’ve partnered with Dallas web publication CentralTrack.com to produce a narrative news show, Dichotomy, featuring Texas Monthly contributor Jose Ralat and hosted by Joshua Kumler of local hit Bar Politics. “We’re also working on a show with The Wild Detectives and we’re in production on a fictional drama that we think is going to be very addictive. The script is thrilling,” said Graham.

“We are very excited about everything we’re working on, but audiobooks will always be my roots,” said Reynolds. “They are a unique challenge in the voiceover world and there’s something very gratifying about bringing a great story to life.”

You can learn more about Spoke Media at www.spokemedia.io

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