APTIPS Online Handbook

Many years ago, my life as a professional VO guy started with a simple little makeshift “fortress” that was located in a corner of my bedroom floor. It wasn’t very elegant, but it certainly got the job done.

Although I’m currently doing 90% of my daily VO work from inside a professional home studio, there are times when I’ll find myself on the road… or in some remote location… and to this day, I still use many of the tricks I learned when I first started out.

Whether you’re ready to start recording something right now, or just curious about a few DIY methods in audiobook production, I hope you learn something useful from the information I’m sharing here.

Audiobook Production 

A Few Tips For Independent Publishers

by Darius Marley

Copyright © 2019 Darius Marley, LLC

ONEm² AUDIO (TM) is a registered trademark of Darius Marley, LLC

All rights reserved.

The reader agrees to indemnify, and hold harmless the publisher of Audiobook Production – A Few Tips For Independent Publishers against any and all claims, demands, suits or loss, including all costs connected therewith, and for any damages which may be asserted, claimed or recovered against or from the publisher, by reason of personal injury, including bodily injury or death and/or property damage, including loss of use thereof, which arises out of or is in any way connected or associated with the material contained within Audiobook Production – A Few Tips For Independent Publishers.

TASCAM is a trademark of TEAC Corporation, registered in the U.S. and other countries. Other company names, product names and logos that might appear in this document are the trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.

On the cover: Closeup of the humble yet legendary TASCAM DR-40 digital recorder. This is a highly dependable, affordable, portable, and straightforward piece of professional gear that can be used for a variety of audio recording projects.

Before we get things started, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. I wrote this book for the following people:

  • You are an indie publisher, with at least one finished book.
  • You’re not interested in spending $3000 on audiobook production.
  • You would like to turn your book into an audiobook, on your terms.
  • You want to make a unique connection with your readers.
  • You’re not interested in becoming a certified audio engineer.
  • You know this book won’t suddenly turn you into a “voice actor.”
  • You’re not afraid to do research, or to learn new things.

Most importantly, you’ve already stared into the Abyss, and when the Abyss stared back at you, it looked like a blank computer screen.

For writers, there’s nothing scarier. It’s also incredibly exciting, because we love a challenge. It entices us to take risks, and to do tedious things many times over until we get them right. It’s what drives us to weave fictional characters, plots, and worlds together, so we can share them with our readers.

I mean, what could have been more tedious than editing your first draft… or draft number ten? How about formatting your book? Scrounging up quality beta readers? Designing the book’s cover was not so easy, was it? You even hired a lawyer, and set up your own publishing company! Then there’s the endless pursuit of acquiring positive reviews. Building an email list. Consistently sending out newsletters. Perpetual marketing, marketing, marketing… ad nauseam!

Wait, you want more encouragement? Okay. I’m a professional audiobook narrator, and I think you should at least try to produce your own audiobook. Your readers are going to love it, even if you don’t sound like any famous or professional narrators out there. You know why? Because they already love your story, and now they will get to hear it told with YOUR authentic voice.

Are you ready? Let’s do this!

Here’s the all-time, number one, most common question newcomers have always asked me about producing vocal recordings:

“Do I need a special kind of microphone?”

Hey, I understand the logic. Any time we see anybody doing anything that has to do with recording or broadcasting their voices, there’s always a very impressive-looking microphone in the picture. It’s easily the first thing that catches the eye, and it certainly lends a particular gravitas to the scene.

Surely the “secret” to a great recording must be all about the microphone, right?

Wrong. The most important thing about making a good vocal recording, is the environment. Bad rooms make bad recordings. Nothing will make up for a bad room. Period.

If you think I’m being overly dramatic, I want you to stop and think about where you’ve heard some real-world examples of bad audio. Have you ever called somebody, only to develop the sneaking suspicion that they answered your call while they were in a bathroom, elevator, or stairwell? Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. The voice on the other end of the line sounded like it was coming from inside an echo chamber, and it didn’t sound very pleasant at all.

  • Try to imagine an entire audiobook sounding like that.
  • Imagine your audiobook sounding like that!

It’s important to remember that most of the top vocal microphones are designed to capture as much detail as possible. In the wrong environment, this threatens to include ambient noise and other unwanted stuff. In fact, a room that sounds bad to a cheap mic, will sound extremely bad to an expensive mic. On the other hand, a really cheap mic might be good at rejecting unwanted background noise, but it will most likely fail to accurately capture many subtle characteristics of your voice, which defeats the whole purpose of narrating your own audiobook in the first place. If it doesn’t even sound like you, then why bother doing it yourself in the first place, right?

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. We’ll talk about equipment later. For now, we’re going to focus on identifying the characteristics of a suitable home environment where it might be possible to record your audiobook, because there’s no point in going any further if you can’t manage to get that part sorted out.

In order for you to even attempt to produce the best recording possible, you must understand the difference between a soundproof room, and a room that has been acoustically treated.

Don’t be tempted to “foam it in.”

Do you recognize the stuff in this photo? It sure looks cool, doesn’t it? Most people call it “soundproofing foam,” which is quite inaccurate. People in the audio biz usually like to call it acoustic foam, which can be confusing to anybody who isn’t familiar with audio terminology.

The bottom line is, this stuff will not soundproof your room, no matter how much of it you hang from the the walls, glue to the ceiling, or pile onto the floor.

Do yourself a favor, and just forget about the foam. You won’t need it right now, and you probably never will. Instead, let’s start taking the mystery out of the mystical dark arts of audio production… by sticking our fingers into our ears.

When you stick your fingers into your ears, you’re effectively soundproofing your ear canals. This works because your fingers produce an airtight seal, which isolates your eardrums from the energy produced by external sound waves that travel through the air. You’ve also provided a physical barrier that obstructs sound. On top of that, your body mass is absorbing vibrations too. All of these things add up, and result in sweet, sweet silence.

However, this technique is not very effective while you’re eating popcorn. No matter how hard you push your fingers (please don’t try) into your ears, you can clearly hear a loud crunch, every time you chew. This is because the vibrations produced by chewing are being conducted through your teeth, jaws, and whatever other conductive material your head happens to be made of, until it easily reaches your eardrums.

Are you starting to get the idea?

A soundproof room, is a room that has been isolated from unwanted external sources of sound. It doesn’t matter whether those sources travel via vibrating air particles, or if they attempt to propagate through a more solid conductive material. A properly soundproofed room is really just a big isolation box.

So, how does this information help you? Well, unless you plan to spend a substantial amount of money on a major construction-and-retrofit project, you will most likely never be able to achieve a truly soundproof home environment for casual use. That’s okay, though. All you really need is a fairly quiet room to make great things happen. It’s all about getting as close as you can to the ideal, without stressing yourself out. That’s what I did during my early days as a VO guy. A little ingenuity can go a long way, when you’re just starting out.

How do you know if the room is quiet? First of all, trust your ears. If you’re hard of hearing, ask somebody to help you. Scout around for an area that seems quiet, then really stop and listen. Can you hear nearby traffic? Construction noise? Your neighbor’s TV? What about dogs barking, and children screaming? Keep searching. Your readers don’t want any of that stuff on your audiobook.

An awesome scenario would be a spacious living room that is isolated from the sounds of the outside world, has wall-to-wall carpeting, a vaulted ceiling, lots of soft furniture, and plenty of artwork hanging on all four walls. A large bedroom would be okay, too. Even a smaller room can work, as long as you aren’t hearing outside noises that can’t be shut out.

Once you’ve found a spot without any obvious outdoor noise bleeding in, I want you to do the fingers-in-the-ears trick we talked about a little while ago. Hold them in for about ten seconds, then pull your fingers out, and listen carefully.

Do you hear any sounds? Like a hungry predator, you’re looking for anything inside the room that might be making the slightest noise.

Be patient, and be persistent. Refrigerators, analog clocks, oscillating fans, bubbling fish tanks, the AC… all of these things make noise. On a normal day, you probably don’t even notice them. What can be turned off? What can be moved out of the room while you’re recording? If you can hear it, then it will most likely get picked up by your microphone.

Try to think outside the box.

Have you heard about some professional voice actors who successfully turned their hallway closets into completely functional voiceover booths? Yes… it can be done, but it requires quite a bit of structural retrofit. Unless you plan to make a solid living as a narrator, you shouldn’t try to attempt this kind of home improvement project!

I’ve converted a spare bedroom, and the process involved not only buying a literal truckload of specialty materials for doing general construction… I also needed to get permission from the building owner, rip out the entire floor, install a new floor, and hire a contractor to make sure my new VO booth was built to last. I could have built something much simpler, smaller, and cheaper, but I wanted to make sure I could spend multiple hours inside the booth every day, without feeling like I’ve been sealed inside some kind of sarcophagus.

You might think I’m exaggerating, but I can’t overstate how important comfort is, in this line of work. Cramming yourself into a small and poorly-lit enclosure will only complicate things, and possibly even lead to a claustrophobia-induced panic attack!

At this point you might be thinking: “Cool. But what does this have to do with me?”

Well, reading a book out loud might seem like an easy gig to most people, but you’ll find out just how “easy” it actually isn’t, when you’re barely on page eighty-six of your five hundred-page book, and you’re ready to scrap the whole idea of doing an audiobook, because you’re tired of contorting yourself to fit inside the hallway closet. You’re finding it extremely difficult to stay consistent when you’re sweating and cramping-up inside a small enclosure, and you’re stressing out because you know that consistency is a major factor when it comes to producing a decent audiobook.

You want some hard numbers? Okay, smartie. If the average novel is approximately 100,000 words long, then the audiobook version of that novel could easily be around 10 hours long. It could even be longer, if it’s read at a slightly slower tempo, or if there are frequent pauses added to the performance for effect. Let’s not forget that you’ll invariably make mistakes, do alternate takes, and run into pronunciation issues, which could easily double your entire working time inside the booth. Everything you do adds up very quickly when you scale to fit the timeline of an audiobook recording project.

This is why I’m against indie publishers cramming themselves inside a closet, or any other similar confined space. When you’re attempting to do the marathon-run of the VO world (also known as ‘long-form narration’) you’ll always want to give yourself as many advantages as possible.

It’s always about location, location, location. 

This space does not present an ideal scenario for audiobook recording. There’s a rug covering most of the floor, but the exposed parts are polished granite tile, which is absolutely terrible for producing vocal recordings. There’s also nothing hanging on the walls, which leaves a lot of vertical real estate to reflect sound waves. There’s also a big, hollow window box right next to the futon, which adds another potential source of trouble. The ceiling is not very high, either.

It’s going to be a challenge, but this room will be okay, because it’s quiet most of the time (which is the most important thing) and because there are a few tricks I can use to kill my workspace until it’s dead enough to start a recording session.

This is no time to be squeamish. I’m going to show you how to mercilessly capture, trap, and smother sound waves, until they cease to exist. With a few strategically-placed common household items, it’s possible to give almost any quiet workspace a sufficient touch of acoustic treatment.

Does this sound crazy to you? Believe me, sound waves are your best friends, until they become your worst enemies. Sometimes they do crazy things. I think it would be nice if they simply stopped whenever they hit an object, but they don’t. They love to bounce off reflective surfaces (like bare walls, windows, and floors) and they tend to scatter all over the place. This process repeats until they are out of energy, which is more than enough to spoil your recording session.

When working with audio, there’s always a compromise. It’s known as the signal-to-noise ratio. Signal is good. Noise is bad. Remember the bathroom/elevator/stairwell phone call we talked about earlier? While you’re recording your audiobook, the biggest source of sound waves should be your mouth, which is what you want. Unfortunately, your voice will also fly past your intended target (the mic) and then bounce around you at sonic speed, literally! You don’t want that to happen, because your vocal track will exhibit reverberation, which is a fancy way of saying echo.

  • Your voice is the signal, but it can also be the source of noise.

Thanks to the Earth’s breathable atmosphere (gasp!) sound waves are virtually unlimited in their ability to infiltrate every nook and cranny within reach. Although these waves dissipate and degrade rapidly over distance, the average house isn’t nearly big enough for that to happen in a way that’s helpful to you. You’ll need to construct artificial barriers that will force those waves to lose their energy, before they get a chance to reach your mic, and interfere with your work.

Let your inner child go wild!

If you were anything like me during your childhood years, then you enjoyed building a few “blanket forts” in the family living room, or in your bedroom, or any other place you could get away with. Well, now it’s time for us to think like kids again.

Do you have any chairs, clothes racks, or other “structural” items kicking around? It’s time to break out some blankets, too. They’re soft and fluffy, and they are also great for absorbing those pesky sound waves. Go nuts, and grab as many blankets as your arms can carry. Actually, pillows are good too. Avoid anything with crinkly or stiff fabric. That’s what you’re going to need, to build your very own adult-sized makeshift VO fort.

As you can see in the photo, I’m using folding chairs to create a structure that forms a “booth” that I can sit inside of. Look closely, and you’ll notice that I’ve used some blankets to pad the inside of the box. If I didn’t do that, the exposed folding chairs would leave flat, hard surface areas for sound waves to potentially bounce around and affect my recordings. This is why I told you to grab as many blankets as you can. When in doubt, more blankets are always better.

See what I’ve done with the clothes rack? This particular item is very important. By positioning it directly behind me, it’s going to act as a backdrop, which will catch and diffuse sound waves that bounce around the room. I’ll make sure to hang two layers of heavy blankets there, which will really give stray sound waves something soft to collide with. If you don’t have a clothes rack, chairs will do nicely too.

How about that stack of books on the seat of the futon? That’s where I’ll put the digital recorder. It’s important to adjust the height of the recorder to match the level of your face, because the microphone needs to be as “on axis” as possible. Once the height has been adjusted, I’ll cover my stack of books with a towel (extra sound absorption) before I start recording. Then I can simply sit on the floor and get to work on that audiobook. It’s not the most luxurious studio in town, but it’s definitely going to get the job done, without forcing me to work in unbearable conditions.

The mighty DIY sofa VO fort.

Here are the results of building a typical ad-hoc home recording studio. As you can see, I’ve created a suitable spot to keep my reading material and a digital recorder in front of me during the session. I’ll talk about them in greater detail, soon. Right now we’re only focused on building a decent VO fort… because without a functional location to make your recording, everything else is pointless.

Be sure to note the following things:

  • A blanket “wall” behind me, to capture stray sound waves.
  • Lots of noise-trapping blankets formed into a workspace booth.
  • Plenty of space to comfortably read while sitting down.
  • The room is well-lit, and there’s plenty of fresh air.

Without a proper chair or back support, it’s not the kind of VO booth I would want to spend all day in, but I could spend about an hour or two working here, before needing to take a break.

The impromptu remote VO fort.

What happens if you need to borrow somebody else’s space to record your audiobook? As long as they don’t mind you hijacking their entire supply of blankets and a few pieces of furniture, it’s really not a problem.

I dropped by my sister’s house for a visit, after I told her that I was in the process of writing this book. She wanted to see my technique in action, so I went ahead and provided a quick demonstration.

Like the other forts I’ve already shown you, this one also shares a few basic properties:

  • A blanket “wall” behind me, to capture stray sound waves.
  • Lots of noise-trapping blankets formed into a workspace box.
  • Plenty of space to read while un-comfortably sitting on the floor.
  • The room is well-lit, and there’s plenty of fresh air.

Are you beginning to notice a pattern here?

The hotel room VO fort.

I was on a business trip, and one of my agents called me about an emergency VO gig. I had my trusty field recording kit with me, so instead of missing the opportunity, I simply built this little VO fort using whatever I could pile up and scrunch together inside my hotel room.

Yes, that’s an office chair on the bed.

I also hung a heavy quilt from one of the closet doors, which provided a nice diffuser.

Amazing, right? Thousands of people heard my voice in Dubai, and they would have never suspected that it was produced this way, in a hotel room in Southeast Asia.

Muahahaha… it was the perfect crime. I even had time to put everything back, before the housekeeping lady showed up!

As you can see, I’ve applied my usual construction principles:

  • A blanket “wall” behind me, to capture stray sound waves.
  • Lots of noise-trapping blankets formed into a workspace box.
  • Plenty of space to read while un-comfortably sitting on the floor.
  • The room is well-lit, and there’s plenty of fresh air.

Okay, okay. I think you’ve seen enough of my VO forts. Right? It’s time for you to take the tips I’ve shared with you, and find ways to apply them to your own unique location.