Let’s make an audiobook

Entering my final, honors year at university I am taking on a professional internship module and my project is to produce an audio book from start to finish. I thought this is a good opportunity to record and post about the process and my experiences as I go on this learning journey, it might help others!

Here is (the slightly changed) description of my assignment:

 “The project involves recording and editing narration for a children audiobook written by a Scottish author, as well as creating a fully sonically realised auditory backdrop for the story. This should incorporate the use of manually created sound effects in a manner similar to Foley within cartoons, as well as location recordings, and where necessary library sound effects. Scenes will include pertinent sounds to enhance the narrative and immerse younger listeners in the story so that it becomes a sonic cartoon. The final output will be a complete sound design and original narrative delivered as a file ready to be uploaded by the client to an audiobook service. A voice-actor, or pre-recorded narration will be supplied by the client as well as any licensed music, should they wish it. All of the sound effects, editing, mixing and mastering will be provided by the University”

The Author, The Actor and The Script

The script is a roughly 70 sparsely written pages which takes just over an hour to read up.

In order to have a better feel of how the client (ie: the author”) imagines the text to be read and performed, I have organized an online pre-read session with the voice actor and the author.

Originally, I was planning that the actor will read the script to the author, but by his initiative, it happened the other way around! The author wanted to read the story for us and gave the actor free hand on the delivery of the characters.

The first recording day
A recording day was planned. The book has nine chapters and I have recorded each chapter in one take, making short brakes between chapters. There are several different approaches how the recording session can be conducted, the actor and me has found a way which proved to provide good dynamics and has fit well to the way we could work with each other.

First, I have asked the actor to restart the entire paragraph if a mistake is identified immediately. Eventually we have figured a way which has suited the recoding process better and the actor has taken a few second pause before the sentence with the mistake was re-performed.

After about 5 hours recording, fatigue set in and mistakes started to be more often made, I have decided that as all material is recorded, we have call it a day.

Recording space, equipment and position

The space:
An acoustically heavily treated, small room at the university, was used for the recording session roughly around 3mx3m (9x9ft) . The room was designed as an auralization room for conducting 3d and binaural sound research. It was quite perfect, but I could not use the control room, so I have set up my own gear

The gear:
The microphone is an Ali Express Special, named “U87”. This mic is a recreation of the Rode NT1 microphone, and my experience is good with it.  The recordings sound nice. The only unusual thing is that it was assembled with the diaphragm other way around, although I have figured that out before, so I was setting it up the right way around (backwards that is).

For preamp and recorder, I was using a Marantz PMD661 MKII the gain was set to 5-6. That was the very maximum for gain and even than I had to dial back at times when the character voice has higher dynamics in it.

The Position
I have positioned the mic offset to the direction of the actor’s mouth roughly about 30 degrees with the distance of about 15-20cm (4-6”), using a shock mount microphone holder and a conventional stand.

I have marked the position of the actor on the floor so the same space can be taken up with ease after breaks.
The resulting recordings are clear with a lovely subtle room-tone and requires almost no gain for a desk- mix.

After the first recording day, have listened all the files through, selecting the best takes and snap-editing the restarts, so I have a straightforward file by chapters. The script must be matched up perfectly to the spoken word. At this occasion a few uncorrected mistakes were spotted, so I second recording day had to be organized.

Pick up session
Apart from the extra cost of the voice actor’s time, the recordings themselves can be tricky to match up to the first day’s recording. That is because of the lower energy (less excitement about the session) in the actor’s voice. The actor also has to have the ability to match the dynamics of his/her voice to the previous session.

Second Proofreading
Once all the relevant paragraphs with the errors were rerecorded, it is time to make sure that we have everything spoken correctly and we have all the parts of the book which have to be recorded.
For that, the pickups had to be inserted at the relevant section.

At this point no processing is taking place apart from a few crossfades, but I have taken the opportunity to match gain levels within each chapter. Now this is not a process of normalization. During normalization, it is very easy to lose the energy and the dynamics of our talented voice actor. I match up the gain using a combination of aural and visual inspection and matching everything up manually using the clip gain function in Pro-tools. The Izotope RX package has an excellent tool for handling gain, but I am planning to use that for matching the gain level between the chapters later on.

In the next post I will be writing about editing, enhancing and mastering our dialogue .

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