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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Audiobook creation lessons learned: Software matters? (Not really)

Welcome back to my review of my "lessons learned" about creating your own audiobook narrations. Today, I'll be covering some things I've learned about the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software used to capture and manipulate your narration.

One of the biggest revelations was that they all basically do the same thing, and they basically all do it pretty well! Truly, the major differences between Logic Pro, Garageband, Pro Tools, Audition, Audacity, SoundStudio, and most others comes down to two things for the most part:
  • Interface, and
  • Price.
There are some other differences between them, but in my experience, most novice users will not see too much of a difference between them in terms of their features.

So, with that in mind, let's start with the first point, the interface differences.

Some of these DAWs are really rough for a novice just starting out (I'm looking at you, Logic Pro), and didn't make any sense to me. Others of you might get it right out of the gate, which is awesome!

Without belaboring the point too much, let me break down a little bit what you need to be able to do with a DAW:
  • Record audio;
  • Edit audio (removing mistakes, accidental sounds, excessive pauses, etc);
  • Manipulate the sound (filters, compression, noise reduction, etc), also known as engineering the sound; and,
  • Output properly formatted sound files for ACX.
All of these software packages (and many others) will do all of these things more or less reasonably well. They will all record through multiple interface types (usually, you tell the Operating System which input to use, though some do come with their own interface for deciding which interface), will all allow you to cut (or, if needed, insert) audio out of the file before processing it, have the ability to compress, normalize, amplify, and perform noise reduction as well as other engineering feats (such as reverb, limiting, gates, and so forth), and then create a sound file that is suitable for submission to ACX.

There are definitely some differences when you get to the price levels. Free or inexpensive apps (GarageBand, Pro Tools | First, Sound Studio, Audacity) generally tend toward having limited tools, whereas more expensive options have more complete tools and even multiple options for each tool.

Without going into too much detail (this is a lessons learned article, not complete coverage of each software package), there is good value in GarageBand (macOS and iOS only, $4.99 for either, though I am under the impression that you can get GarageBand for free from the Mac App Store if you've recently bought a Mac) and Audacity (macOS, Windows, and Linux, free). Either tool could be your only tool. Sound Studio (macOS, $30) has a pretty basic set of features, as well; I had problems with the input volume being way too soft despite the gain settings on my preamp so I no longer use SoundStudio for my audio capture.

One free tool that I absolutely cannot recommend at all is Avid's Pro Tools | First. There are several reasons for this:
  • Projects are limited to cloud storage on Avid's servers (that is, no local storage on your own computer), and you can only have 3 of them (total).
  • Pro Tools | First projects cannot be opened in any of the paid Pro Tools software (nor can First open other version's projects), meaning that you can't use the free "| First" to start out, testing the Avid software to see if it works for you, then upgrade to the paid tools and use your existing recordings. Period. (I know, right? DUMB).
  • Pro Tools | First will not export to MP3. So even if you wanted to record just one project as a test, knowing you wouldn't import later (because you'd complete the process end-to-end and start the next one from scratch), you still couldn't send it to ACX because there's no option to get MP3 out of the software.
  • Although Pro Tools | First is listed as supporting AAX (and only AAX plugins), it only supports certain AAX plugins that are purchased from their in-app Store.
Basically, Pro Tools | First seems designed to anger users enough to pony up for the full Pro Tools when they realize how useless the | First software is. Incidentally, I'm not the only person who feels this way. My advice is to steer clear of Pro Tools | First, period.

On the paid side, I was not able to afford any of Avid's offerings (the cheapest was $600 for a single license, though it could be cheaper for monthly subscriptions), and even their "free trial" requires purchasing a $50 USB key (!! Yes, really!). Also, their free trial is of an older version of the software (11, the current is 12). So, basically, Avid is a company whose only function seems to be to separate people from their money, and not really giving them any benefit for it or reason to trust them (while assuming that their customers will all steal their software), and Homie don't play that.*

So, I ruled out all of the Avid offerings (I did download Pro Tools | First and tried to get it to work, but its limitations meant that I had no reason to consider their other offerings). You might have a different experience, so, by all means, consider checking it out. Just be aware that it has significant limitations. One thing I do like about Avid's offering, for all of the other flaws that are present, is that you can buy the software outright (see later).

The same is also true of Logic Pro X (macOS only, $200), that once you've bought it it's yours. Also, significantly, Logic Pro X will import your existing GarageBand projects. So you can work in GarageBand for as long as it suits your needs, then upgrade to Logic Pro after your first audiobook sells enough copies to bring in the $200 cost for the higher-end product.

Along with that cost, however, comes a pretty steep learning curve. I was able to set aside enough to buy a copy of Logic Pro, and I'm still learning how to use it.

The other tool I put my hands on was Adobe's Audition (CC 2017, macOS or Windows, price options below). This tool was much simpler for me to get into, and I had no problems making sense of the interface and the included tools. The effects rack is awesome—it allows most of the filters, compressors, and other tools to be stacked into a sequence, and actively ... well, "sampled" is the best way I can describe it. You can select most (but not all) of the filters available, and they are put together—in sequence—and will modify the sound you hear on playback. They won't permanently affect the sound file until you "apply" the rack so you can experiment with the sound quite a lot.

Anyway, I found Audition to be the most usable of the tools overall. A major drawback is the fact that you can't buy the software outright. Unlike Pro Tools or Logic Pro, the only option for Audition (and, indeed, all Adobe products anymore) is to pay a monthly fee for a whole year (there is an option to, in essence, rent Audition by itself for one year for $240 or all Adobe apps for $600 for one year, but that does not give you the right to keep the software after the one year period is up). It is cheaper for a one-year subscription than Pro Tools is outright, but Logic Pro is cheaper even than that and you have a perpetual license for either Logic Pro or Pro Tools. I am not a fan of this forced subscription model (if you don't want to renew next year, you lose all rights to use the software, which I think is absolutely insane … especially considering how expensive it is).

So, what I'm doing right now is paying month-to-month to use Audition (monthly $30, or $20 if you commit to paying every month for a year) while also learning Logic Pro's interface. Also, keep in mind that you can use Audition for a month as a free trial.

I have to say that I really, really dig the Effects Rack in Audition (and the interface overall). I just don't like the pricing model. I'd really love it if we could rise up with a loud voice and tell Adobe that software subscriptions as the only model is totally disrespectful, and get them to offer the software that you can actually own. That's a rant for another day, however.

In my next blog post, I'll go over my lessons learned about the recording environment. This is a place where you can get a lot of bang for very little buck.

*: As if to pour lemon juice on a paper cut, Avid's website crashes Chrome tabs every time I visit their site. It's almost as if they're begging me to dislike their products!

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