Making an Audiobook
An audiobook producer explains how its done
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As we've been making our books available in audiobook versions, I have been pleasantly surprised by the high level of artistic and technical finish that is consistantly achieved.
I was so intrigued by it all (such as, how do little two-word edits get inserted so that you can never hear that the audio file has been changed?), I asked Emma Calin and Oscar Sparrow of Gallo-Romano Media to spill the beans, to explain the magic. Because making a good audiobook is far more than just reading into a recorder, much more.
It was Emma and Oscar who produced the lovely audiobook version of Les Woodland’s Tour de France: The Inside Story.
Q: One happy consequence of the digital revolution is the availability of moderately-priced, downloadable audiobooks. But, making an audiobook, it’s a lot more than just plugging a microphone into a computer and reading from a book on the shelf, isn’t it?
A: Yes – but it depends on the effect you are after. If you are a bit of an old hippy like Oscar who listens to rough Bukowski poetry, that grainy amateur effect is the fix. He once wrote a poem complaining that all the cleaned up tracks of Edith Piaf lacked the crackle and fragility of the old 78rpm records. There's a whole bunch of turntable analogue amplifier guys out there. An audiobook however needs to be professional. In the way that fairy princesses never have gurgling stomachs, audio narrators don't appear to breathe/gasp. The editor (that's me) has the power. It's like being able to make that ball hit the goal when the guy actually missed the post.
Q: You’ve produced more than a few audiobooks. How did you end up in the audiobook business?
A: Firstly in doing books written or edited by ourselves. Both stories and poetry come to life when read aloud. I believe that all writers should write as if their words were for actors. (It kinda worked for that Shakespeare guy). It gives a writer a flow and humanity. It really changes your writing style and makes you think about what a sentence is trying to say.
Q: Judging by the audio track’s superb sound quality, I’m guessing you have a professional studio?
A: That's a lovely compliment. I'd like to say we have a big studio. In reality we have ways of deadening sound and some high quality audio equipment and these have to be fairly portable as we spend time in both the UK and France. We have dedicated rooms where we set up our “sound booth”. In a sense, a studio for audiobooks should not be big. It's not a concert! It's another human just like you telling a story privately as if you were having dinner or a drink.
Q: How is your studio set up? Tell us about it.
A: We record in two locations. Oscar's house is in France. My house is in the UK. Oscar likes to work in a small space which is really like talking to a friend across a table. This psychological setting is really important for him to get the mood. We set up a temporary booth in the corner of a carpeted room, with big cushions, blankets and towels. We have boom microphones with suspension mounts so he can get the mic in exactly the right position – he’s quite animated and likes to be able to move around and gesticulate and get in to character. The sound quality is essentially down to the amount of deadening of echo/resonance in the room and the actual technical quality of the microphone. We always use the same mic for the same book. Even apparently identical units can vary. We love our Samson CO1U studio condenser mic. It's very directional and that is a fantastic advantage. A lot of extraneous sound never gets to interfere. The microphones plug in to the USB ports of the computers we use and we run Audacity (a digital software package) to control the audio levels and capture the recording as well as for editing and producing the book.
Oscar prefers to work without an audience when recording audiobooks so I generally leave him to it. One of the biggest issues when reading an unabridged book out loud is that few books are written with performance in mind. Long sentences with clauses, sub-clauses and parentheses are like linguistic gymnastic conundrums for the narrator. There are many, many takes required to give meaning to a complex sentence. Some narrators use software with “punch record” facilities – where you essentially rewind to just before the mistake and then punch in and record again from that point.
Oscar Sparrow at work
At the end of the recording session you have a track that is true to the text and then it can be polished and processed to remove extraneous noises. We find this just doesn’t work for us. It spoils Oscar’s “flow” and slows him down (he can be such a luvvie!). So, he uses a little clicking device to create a big digital splodge on the recording track, when he makes a mistake and then carries on. In the editing the first thing I do is go through the recording - these clicks show up as big red lines on the waveform so I can easily spot them and remove the offending section. It is time consuming from an editing point of view but it’s the only way we can get the quality we like. By the way, the device we use to create the “splodge” is a low-tech five dollar dog-clicker training gadget! It fits on Oscar’s finger and he can click it to indicate a mistake, without stopping the recording, and then start reading from where he went wrong.
Q: Did you have to redo things to deaden sound and echoes? What about outside noise?
A: Outside noise is an issue – mainly when we are working in France because of church bells. Essentially you can set up a studio with a carpeted room, towels, curtains, cushions and all manner of clothes pegs. Don't forget that most great photographs were taken on the hoof in the great outdoors. The editor has the power to airbrush away a lot of stuff.
Before becoming a romantic novelist and sound engineer I worked marketing voice processing software systems for automated telephone switchboards – which involved a fair amount of sound recording and studio work, so this audio work is not new to me. Audio book production for me is the synthesis of art and technology.
Q: Audible talks about “room tone”. What is that?
A: We make sure to record ten seconds or so of silence at the start of each session – this is our basic noise level and will exist behind the voice on the track too. It is the sound of the room and is consistent background noise. Audacity allows us to remove this noise and have a very flat “room tone” on every track. One gets quite good at recognizing noisy breaths as they have a characteristic waveform shape. Each chapter has to be checked minute by minute for extraneous noises – sometimes they can be removed completely and replaced by the “room tone” or the section can be highlighted and attenuated until inaudible. The one thing I cannot do is remove ringing telephones or text arrival notifications…. Ahem Oscar!
Q: So what pickup equipment do you use? Special microphones, that special shield-goodie (Pop filter?) to reduce explosives?
A: We use Samson CO1U studio condenser mics. We love them. It's like a spanner that never slips on a tight nut or a bike that never slides out on that chancy bend gravel. We use them on suspension mounts on a big boom arm stand so we can adjust position. Yes – we use a pop screen. These devices go between the mic and the narrator’s mouth to stop any strong ‘p’ and ‘t’ sounds from making massive explosive sounds and distorting the recording. Apparently one can create these screens using ladies’ stockings and a wire coat hanger… sounds like a recipe for a romance novel to me! We use a proprietary commercial pop-screen that clips onto the mic. I say “we” because Oscar can be a bit bare-back maverick at times if he thinks I'm not looking. I am the engineer. He is the “Artist”.
Q: When we were first investigating audiobooks, Les Woodland and I thought about doing our own recording and production. Then we learned about the stringent technical requirements Audible has for audiobooks it sells. The capital investment and hours of work convinced us we should let this job be done by professionals. When you entered the field were you surprised by what was needed to make a good audiobook?
A: Yes and no. Like a lot of activities, the jargon is often more complex than the job itself. If you asked me to condense the art of audiobook into a few words I'd say – Good story, a voice sympathetic to the subject and a patient, patient editor. When we started we took on stuff that no one wanted to do for no money just to learn the ropes. If you can't do accents and can't act – here's the time to learn. The resources are all out there. If you can't use sound editing desk controls – well, get off your butt and slave through the tutorials, ignore your family, let your bike rust in the garage, tell the cat to go live with the neighbours if she doesn't like the reduced service. It's a bit of old fashioned frontier out there for all of us.
Q: What sort of computer and other audio equipment do you use to produce audiobooks?
A: We use a combination of laptop PCs and Macs - all running Audacity which provides not just the recording but also the post-production editing and polishing capability. We use memory sticks and backup hard drives to give us portability between countries and to make sure we don’t lose any work. We use a strict file-naming protocol so we can make sure we don’t ever overwrite raw data and can track back to the initial recording if necessary.
Q: Editing and revision usually takes several times longer than writing the initial draft. Is that true about audiobooks? After the book is voiced, do you have to go over it and polish it?
A: Yes – a ten hour long finished book will take probably more than twenty hours in the recording studio for the narrator. Usually it’s hard to record for more than about twenty minutes at a time – the narrator tends to lose concentration, mouth gets dry etc., so you need to break the book into manageable segments. The editor then takes at least double this time to listen to and polish every chapter. Then a final quality check of the whole book against the written text will also require another full ten hours. So a ten hour finished audiobook will have taken about 60-70 hours to record and produce.
Emma Calin, the technical wizard
There are always corrections of course. A lot of “errors” are solved by a careful reading of the book in advance. This is someone else's baby – they gave birth to it. They know its sound and tone. The narrator is feeling his way into a private world. There are many ad hoc conferences between us. We make sure to set up the recording each day and check the levels are within tolerance so that the listener will not know that it was not all recorded in one take. It’s better to get it consistent on the raw recorded track in the first place. Technical stuff such as clipping can be solved and polished away but the better the initial track the better the finished product. Sometimes a section does not quite get the feel of something. Oscar is very sensitive to this sort of thing. There are many false dawns before the sunrise.
Q: What do you usually have to correct?
A: The problem with humans is that they breathe. When the sentences are long I feel sorry for the narrator as he can end up gasping for air. When they are not breathing they snort, sniff, slurp and scratch. When not so engaged they move, change accent, skip lines, invent words or lose concentration. This is the minute by minute diet of the audio editor.
Q: This is done with a sound-mixer program? May I ask what you use?
A: Everything for us is done using Audacity [Chaiman Bill note: I feel so smart. This is the program I use for the audio portion of our YouTube videos]. We can chop bits out, make them louder or softer and blend sections together. We can also remove noise and process the sections to give consistent sound quality. My own voice tends to have too much sibilance (I make too much SSSS sound) and so any recordings I make have to be put through a de-essing function on Audacity. Oscar does not have this problem so his voice pretty much goes out unadulterated.
Emma Calin editing an audio file with Audacity
Q: When I listen to a finished track, it astonishes me that after editing and perhaps after inserting a corrected phrase, it’s seamless. I know where the edit is supposed to be, but I can’t hear it. How do you do that?
A: We make sure that all recordings are processed in the same way so that when we insert or correct a section the human ear just cannot detect the difference. Sometimes however you find that a paragraph has a “tone” of feeling. Often the superimposed “chunk” is completely re-recorded from a way back. It's actually easier that way.
Q: At Gallo-Romano who does all this audio fine-tuning?
A: Oscar (the poet) is the “Artist”. It's me - Emma (the romantic novelist) who does the technical work. Ho hum!
Q: Do you enjoy this aspect of the business?
A: Yes – I love it. All those great painted ceilings of guys like Tiepolo are like soaring statements of philosophy and poetry. They were created by fallible, mortal beings with stiff necks and lead poisoning from the paint. Art may imitate life but in audio editing and cycling it imitates suffering. Climbing an alpine pass may be portrayed as classical heroism by a good journalist. To a cyclist it's about a 34 chain wheel and a 27 rear sprocket. Domestiques and audio editors go together. Narrators and sprinters kiss the girls, give interviews, accept bouquets and thank their exhausted team.
Q: Do I remember correctly that Oscar read from a Kindle reader rather than printed pages? Why?
A: Kindles and e-readers don't rustle and the pages don't stick together. The font size can be varied at will. Since getting an e reader, that is how he has read.
Q: You once mentioned “pre-reading” preparation. What do you and Oscar do to get ready to read a book?
A: I usually “spot” audiobooks on ACX that I think we could try. A book about cycling would always blip on our radar. The first thing to do is to read the whole book. We have to know the “tone” and “manner” of the author. We are both writers ourselves so we like to think we know what other scribes are trying to convey. Writing a book is a huge mission and a massive achievement. Only those who have done it know the pain behind the scenes. In the case of this book we had a lot of discussion about how “French” to make the French people. Too “French” is pantomime. Not enough is merely an accented English. We wanted to convey the unwitting comedy of a type of civic French importance and formality. See our video about this at the bottom of the page!
Q: You research names in advance, don’t you? I noticed you got 1950’s Swiss rider Hugo Koblet’s name right. It is Ko-Blett, not Ko-blay and you guys didn’t make what is an easy error.
A: Oh yes – Oscar spends hours researching names of people and places. He even watches interviews on YouTube to hear names/places pronounced and there is a useful website called Forvo which provides pronunciations of many place names etc. Even then, not everyone will agree.
Q: One of the things that makes cycling fans crazy are announcers’ and commentators’ mangling foreign names. They are a well-informed crowd and expect the experts to get it right. Oscar’s pronunciation of French and Italian names, to my ear, is spot on, which goes a long way to making listening to the book a relaxing and enjoyable experience. Does he speak French and Italian?
A: Oscar is more or less French when he is not singing opera in Italian or doing his own performance poetry in English. The French think he's French but weird. They think I'm normal but Belgian if you please. He has worked in France and Italy and speaks both - often mixed up. He's raced bikes, driven trucks, worked for Interpol and thinks audio acting is where it was all leading in his destiny.
Here's Oscar Sparrow's video describing how far he goes to get into character when he's creating an audiobook: