How to make an audiobook with ACX – more tips for narrators, producers and authors

A week or so ago I talked about making audio books with ACX, the self-publishing arm of Audible. From the author’s end it’s relatively simple – pitch your book, listen to auditions, guide the narrator and review chapters as they’re posted on ACX. But at the other end of the line, the narrator/producer is spending 4-6 hours on each finished hour you hear. What are they doing? When you listen to the files, what problems should you be alert for? And if you’re narrating and producing your own book, what do you need to know?

sandy n me

audiocloseupI put these questions to my narrator, Sandy Spangler.

Sandy: First I print out the pages of the text. Then I review them to refresh my memory and make notes about pronunciation or content/emphasis. Then I prep the ‘studio’ – which is my closet. I set up the laptop and hook up the mic and headphones.

Each chapter (or chunks if they are long) gets recorded in one go because the laptop needs to be outside of the closet, away from the mic or we can hear the fan. I hit record, then shut myself in with mic, headphones, and a glass of water.

Roz: You need studio-grade equipment to meet the quality standards for an audiobook. Podcasting gear won’t cut it. Equipment notes follow at the end of the piece. Back to Sandy.

Sandy: I monitor the audio as I go via headphones. Any time there is a mistake I do a retake and keep going so I don’t interrupt the flow.

Roz: Watch for these when you’re reviewing the uploaded files. Even with the most meticulous narrator, a repeated phrase or two can slip through. The finished quality is the responsibility of both of you!

Sandy: I usually catch around 98% of the errors. The tough ones are when I read a word incorrectly but it sounds right at the time (like make instead of makes) so I don’t catch it. Sometimes I can fix it while editing but sometimes I have to re-record the word or sentence. That’s a pain because it holds up the workflow.

The only time I come out is when I need to check a pronunciation – Roz has some pretty atypical words! Oedema? Nebulae? Roentgen??

Roz: Sorry about that…

Sandy: I record six or so chapters at a time, until my voice gets tired, then load them onto my main PC for editing. I splice together the chapters if they are in chunks, then compress the audio and equalize so the sound quality is good. Then I listen to each chapter and follow along using the printed manuscript to make sure it is correct. I try to fix any mistakes, and make a note of the ones I can’t. I also adjust the pauses between lines so it flows dramatically.

Roz: See the first post about establishing the perfect pause!

Sandy: I listen for the best takes and remove the bad ones, and cut out extra noises like mouth clicks and breaths. I usually end up listening to each recorded line at least twice, sometimes as many as five or six times. I spend more time on the dramatic passages because those feel important to get right.

Roz: This is like the writing process!

Sandy: Once a chapter is complete I run a range check to make sure it fits within the ACX parameters. I adjust the volume as needed, then export it as an MP3 ready to upload.

Incomplete chapters waiting for pickups get put aside until after my next recording session so I can drop in re-recorded lines. Sometimes the new lines need to be tweaked to get them to match the original recording – different days can sound quite different.

sandy's micEquipment

Sandy: Do your research before spending money on equipment. Get the best setup you can afford because when you are recording a solo speaking voice there isn’t much to hide behind, and there is only so much you can do in post-production.

Most audiophiles recommend a high-end microphone with a pre-amp to convert the analogue sound to a digital signal. The pre-amp is almost as important as the mic, so if you go this route you have to spend quite a bit of money to get a good sound. If you are planning on doing professional recording full time this is probably the way to go.

USB microphones have a built-in pre-amp, but traditionally sound tinny and aren’t warm enough for audiobooks. However, they have come a long way recently because of the huge rise in amateur voiceover work for video blogs and podcasts. The mic I bought is a high-end professional brand (Shure PG42) and tuned for voice recording. Since this voice project is a bit of an experiment for me, I wasn’t prepared to buy a full mic/pre-amp system, so I invested in one of the best USB mics.

There are some great resources out there for mic comparisons, such as this one. The other advice I would offer is to give yourself a crash course in post-production – for compression, equalisation and to remove mistakes and odd noises. There is a ton of great info on the web, such as articles like this …and video tutorials like this. ACX also has some very useful tips.

Roz again:

Oh cripes, two names that sound the same!

This really caused a hiccup, and made me rather unpopular with Sandy. Listening to her chapters, I discovered I had a Gene (the main hypnotist character) and a neighbour Jean. On the page, they are perfectly distinct, but in the ears… they sound the same. This gave Sandy some extra rerecording and messed up our schedule.

I talked in my previous post about the pronunciation guide. When you write this, check you don’t have two names that a listener might get confused!

Ooh, knotty word

Less of a problem, and certainly more amusing, was a word that didn’t translate well to a US accent. There’s a line where Gene, the hypnotist, is described as wearing a ‘knotty’ jumper. In Sandy’s voice it came out as ‘naughty’. I imagine comics letterers have the same problem with ‘flick’.

This might not have mattered, except that the knotty jumper occurs again in tense scenes that would be rendered farcical if the listener thought a character was wearing a ‘naughty’ jumper. We decided to stay the right side of serious and replace it with a less troublesome ‘rough-knit’…

..

UPDATE: we’re now finished and you can find the finished audiobook here (US) and here (UK). And you can find out more about My Memories of a Future Life here.

mmaudioheads bigger

In the meantime, do you have any questions or tips on working with audio? Do you listen to audiobooks? What do you like or not like about them? Share in the comments!

Stop press! Once your audiobook is finished, you’ll need to market it. Joanna Penn has some great tips in this post.

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  1. #1 by philipparees on April 27, 2014 - 10:33 am

    As one contemplating an audio book this was very enlightening. I gather that ACX discourages musical or natural sound additions which ,in my case, would break up the possible monotony of a single voice. Any knowledge or thoughts on that?

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 27, 2014 - 6:15 pm

      Hi Philippa!
      I wondered if music or sound effects would be expected, and as you say, ACX advises against it. I talked to friends who listen to audiobooks, especially literary books, and they said they’re happy to let the text do the job and provide the variety. Also that there’s less ‘acting’ than you’d expect from the narrator, as their role is to be a conduit for the writer’s voice in the reader’s mind. So the less interference and ‘performance’, the better.

  2. #3 by Patti Larsen on April 27, 2014 - 12:24 pm

    Roz, how do you get around ACX’s issues with non-American users? As a Canadian, I’ve been unable to use their service because I’m outside the US. If you found a way to circumvent the, please let me know!

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 27, 2014 - 5:54 pm

      Hi Patti! ACX have just opened to the UK – which is how I got around the problem! I was one of the guinea pigs and have been giving them feedback on the usability etc. I don’t know if they plan to launch in other territories but hopefully it won’t be long, as there must be plenty of people who’d like to do this. I know I’ve been hoping it would come to the UK for ages!

  3. #5 by DRMarvello on April 27, 2014 - 1:18 pm

    Thanks for sharing your production process. Great info and lots to consider. Your uncovering of some of the “knotty” problems with translating the written word to the spoken word was particularly enlightening.

    I don’t listen to audiobooks, which is one of the many reasons I’ve resisted creating them. Without a basis of comparison, I wouldn’t know if I was getting something good. Between that and the substantial monetary investment, the risk is too high for me. I might look at audio again if I write a book that could be expected to earn out the production cost in my lifetime. ;-)

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 27, 2014 - 6:19 pm

      Hi Daniel! This is definitely a learning experience!
      You’re right about the financial investment, which is why it’s great that ACX offers the royalty split. However, they cut the royalty they pay to narrators and authors, which means it takes longer for a book to earn out, and narrators are less likely to accept a back-end deal.
      You might look into publishers for an audio-only deal. A few of them are looking for books that would translate into audiobooks. Griffinwood is one I know of; they did Joanna Penn’s religious thrillers. There are sure to be others.

  4. #7 by Katie Cross on April 27, 2014 - 1:41 pm

    Oh, thank you, thank you Roz! I just posted about doing an audiobook through ACX, got an audition last night, and then had all these questions regarding what my responsibility in this process was. You answered all of them!

    Thank you! A true God send for me today :)

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 27, 2014 - 6:23 pm

      Thanks, Katie! Hope you get a few more auditions – it’s early days yet. Have fun!

  5. #9 by Elizabeth Hein on April 27, 2014 - 3:20 pm

    This is wonderful information. I am considering making an audio book and this post has got me thinking about possible issues to address before I start.

    • #10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 27, 2014 - 6:24 pm

      Thanks, Elizabeth! Check out my other post too – there are more issues I solved there. And good luck.

  6. #11 by ED Martin on April 27, 2014 - 5:46 pm

    This is great info. My novel is currently in audiobook production, and while I have every confidence in the professionalness of my narrator, it’s interesting to read about the production process, what can go wrong, and how to fix it.

    • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 27, 2014 - 6:25 pm

      Thanks, ED. In any situation where you have to spot mistakes, it helps to first know what you’re looking for! Good luck with your book.

  7. #13 by Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt on April 27, 2014 - 6:00 pm

    Roz, thanks for all the great detail about the process of creating an audiobook.

    I’m curious: did you consider doing it yourself? ‘As read by the author’ version?

    That is the way I’m tending, for now – and gets around the problems of knowing words and being thoroughly familiar with the story. It introduces the ‘non-professional’ narrator problem.

    I’m sure it depends on the writer, but think it is at least something to try, especially if you have years of voice lessons behind you, as I do.

    I may look to our local community college for a recording studio – possibly get students involved as producers. I think they have all the equipment.

    Alicia

    • #14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 27, 2014 - 6:32 pm

      Hi Alicia!
      I did consider doing my own narration. In fact, when I first launched the novel I recorded myself reading the first 4 chapters as a free taster – http://mymemoriesofafuturelife.com/2011/09/01/download-free-audio-of-the-first-4-chapters/ . A kind friend took my sound file and added effects etc, but it’s basically rough.

      I do have some vocal training, but in singing rather than narrating. I decided with this audiobook that I didn’t have the expertise to do it all myself, or judge my own results, so I was better seeking someone who did – especially with the technicalities. Plus I like Sandy’s voice on a recording better than mine!

      But if you have the experience and the gear, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t produce the book yourself. ACX has advice on that.

  8. #15 by Sandy on April 27, 2014 - 7:50 pm

    Hi all! This is Sandy with one additional equipment note from the narrator side of things: if you are the producer/narrator, you need to invest in a studio-grade pair of headphones. You may be tempted to skimp here, but don’t do it! It is vital that you can hear every error, so you don’t let any mistakes get past you either during recording or post production. You also need them to block out any external noise (so they must cover your whole ear), as well as be comfortable to wear for long periods of time.

    Mine are an industry standard that came highly recommended by all of my professional audio friends: Sony MDR-7506.

  9. #16 by Fantasy Angel on April 27, 2014 - 7:58 pm

    Reblogged this on Avid Reader.

  10. #17 by Sandy on April 27, 2014 - 11:59 pm

    One other note on the length of time you should allow for production, from the ACX website (this includes all phases of the process):

    Q: How long does it usually take someone to produce 1 finished hour of an audiobook?

    We have found that it generally takes a total of around 6.2 hours for a Producer to complete one hour of an audiobook.

    Here’s how you get there:

    It takes about two hours to narrate what will become one finished hour.
    After the narration is recorded, it then takes an editor (who might be the same person as the narrator) about three hours to edit each finished hour of recording.
    And then it’s a wise move—we might even say STRONGLY recommended—to run a quality control (QC) pass over the finished project. This means spending time re-listening and suggesting words, sentences, or sections to re-record. And that takes about 1.2 hours for every finished hour.

    More info here: https://www.acx.com/help/production/200474640

    • #18 by Sandy on April 28, 2014 - 12:39 am

      I mention this because creating a quality audiobook takes a lot longer than you think. It’s worth the effort, but be prepared for the time investment if you are taking it on yourself.

    • #19 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 28, 2014 - 7:22 am

      Crikey, 6.2 hours!!! Holy smoke.
      I’ve amended the beginning of the piece. Crikey.

    • #20 by Sandy on May 18, 2014 - 5:56 am

      I believe their estimate is an average over a wide range of books (from something straightforward and instructional to very dramatic fiction). Looking back on the project, I believe it took me at least that long – possibly longer for the more dramatic scenes – so take into account the type of book you will be recording when you do your time estimate.

  11. #21 by Charlotte Gerber, Mystery Author on April 28, 2014 - 3:39 am

    Reblogged this on Charlotte Gerber.

  12. #22 by Deb Atwood on April 29, 2014 - 12:05 am

    I always listen to audiobooks during my commute. A great narrator can bring a book to life; Wolf Hall is just such an example. I was captivated from start to finish. My book group complained about the problem of ambiguous male pronoun references, but that was not a problem for me. No matter how many “he’s” there were, the instant the narrator spoke I knew who was on stage.

    Your comment about naughty/knotty made me laugh and pointed up the importance of regions when searching for narrators through the ACX system. California English uses many homonyms, so Californians are pretty adept at discerning meaning through context. For instance, in CA English, marry, merry, and Mary are all pronounced the same, which mystifies New Yorkers. (However, we don’t generally describe jumpers…er, sweaters as knotty. We’d say nubby or rough woven, so good catch there.)

    One suggestion for unfamiliar words or accents: have a native speaker make an audio file to send to your narrator. When I searched for a narrator for Moonlight Dancer, I found almost no female narrators familiar with East Asian languages, let alone Korean. Since my novel contained about 50 Korean words, I had a native Korean speaker make a tape that I emailed to the narrator. It wasn’t perfect as my narrator continued to pronounce the “a” like sang when it should have been pronounced like song. So that brings up one more consideration: money and time. I asked the narrator to correct the beginning and end, and let the rest slide. If I could have afforded to pay her for extra time, I would have made more corrections, but that was not an option, and I tried to be mindful of her time-to-production ratio. I recommend listening to many excerpts in similar genres and with similar accents when choosing a narrator.

    • #23 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 29, 2014 - 4:57 pm

      Hi Deb! Ooh, I do like Wolf Hall, though I read it the conventional way. You’re right that a good narrator can make the dialogue clear to follow – and without even using different ‘voices’. And what a terrific book that is. I’ve got Bring Up The Bodies on my TBR pile at the moment.

      Vowel sounds are such fun! I’d heard that example before of merry, marry and Mary. English folks are just as baffled by that as New Yorkers, I dare say. Another time I’ve noticed that ‘o’ vowel (as in the troublesome ‘knotty’) was curious for Americans was when I was on a podcast and the interviewer introduced me. In UK English, ‘Roz’ and ‘Morris’ are pronounced with the same sound, but this guy made two distinct sounds – Rahrzz Mawrris.

      It becomes a more serious problem with a foreign language, though, and your example – and solution – is great. That’s a real lesson from experience. Thanks for sharing it!

  13. #24 by Joe Cottonwood on May 1, 2014 - 6:29 pm

    Is Sandy satisfied with her USB mic? First she says that analog mics and pre-amps are recommended, then she goes with the cheaper system. Is the sound okay? Will it pass muster at Audible?

    • #25 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 1, 2014 - 7:42 pm

      Joe, I know she did a lot of research before taking the plunge. From my end, listening to the completed chapters, the results are good – incredibly clear sound and a warm tone. I used to use Shure mics when I was singing in a band and they’re very kind to the voice. I shall nudge Sandy to see what she can add!

      • #26 by Joe Cottonwood on May 1, 2014 - 7:56 pm

        Thanks. I look forward to her response. Let me add that I’ve done over the last five years about a hundred hours of podcast recording using the best USB mics of the time but never a Shure. The sound was always on the harsh side, and certain sounds like “S” screeched like fingernails on a blackboard. I’d love to find a good USB mic, so I hope Sandy is happy with hers. I hope to do an ACX recording of my new book in my own voice.

        • #27 by Sandy on May 1, 2014 - 10:39 pm

          Hi Joe! I can’t speak yet regarding the ACX response to my recording because we haven’t submitted it yet (it’s still a WIP), but to my ear it sounds as good as the ACX “quality” sample sound clips and I am very pleased with my purchase. I am sure there are higher-end mic/pre-amp combos out there that sound better, but the PG42USB is tuned for voice and it shows. I also use a pop shield which is a must for professional-sounding recording when using a condenser mic. I have had no problems at all with harsh “S” sounds.

          It sounds good enough that if I ever decided to upgrade, I would buy the mic and pre-amp someplace I could return it if I wasn’t satisfied, and do a side-by-side sound test to see if it was worth it.

          • #28 by Joe Cottonwood on May 1, 2014 - 11:43 pm

            Thanks, Sandy! I’ll give it a test. (Buying from Amazon, I can return it if I don’t like it.) Best of luck to you.

            • #29 by Sandy on May 2, 2014 - 1:30 am

              It also comes with a shock mount, which is a nice bonus. There is a windscreen you can buy separately as well – I tried it but decided that using it along with the pop shield was a bit too much.

              Let me know what you think, and good luck!

  14. #30 by Wolf Pascoe on May 2, 2014 - 10:21 pm

    Thanks for this, Roz. Makes me want to make another audiobook. (Sort of like a woman wanting another baby after forgetting the pain of the previous delivery. . . )

    In the photo, I noticed some bare walls in the (I assume) recording closet. Any troubles with too much echo?

    I love what you said in your response to Phillipa about the narrator as conduit for the writer’s voice in the reader’s mind. (As to “performance,” less being more.) It reminded me of the practice of some directors to ask the playwright to read the play to the cast at the first rehearsal–so they can hear it as s/he imagined.

    • #31 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 2, 2014 - 11:11 pm

      Hi Wolf! Glad you enjoyed the post. No, you’re not allowed to make another audiobook until you’ve got that novel finished that I know you’re working on. Let’s hope that’s an incentive….
      Sandy hasn’t mentioned any problems with echo and the files I’ve been hearing are very crisp. It’s quite an intimate sound; very close to the ears. If you look, she has kept one shirt at the back – perhaps that provides enough damping!
      What a lovely idea to have a playwright read the text. To me, one of the joys of creating a book is to get to the stage where I’m serving the material – happy to kill darlings, abandon ego and making the best of the idea. I imagine this must be similar to the way an actor has to take a leap to fit inside a drama and find what is in the text.

    • #33 by Sandy on May 18, 2014 - 5:52 am

      Yes, I hung fuzzy blankets on the back wall and on the inside of the door. There wasn’t a lot of echo to start with (it’s a small closet), but the blankets did improve the sound quality.

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