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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Audiobook creation lessons learned: Small things that can make a big difference

Welcome to the final step in this "lessons that Donovan learned while exploring the magnificent and confusing world of author-recorded audiobook narration"! In this episode, I'm going to cover a couple of things that can make a big impact in the final recording, but that don't really cost much (maybe a little time, but not a lot of money).

So after talking about the lessons I've learned about the direct input of sound (mic & preamp), and its capture and eventual manipulation (DAW software), today I will cover the lessons I've learned about optimizing the environment.

Creating a home-based location for recording is one place where you can really spend only a little bit of money and significantly improve your recordings. In my particular case, I decided to switch up the orientation of the recording area; instead of recording right in front of the computer, my office has what amounts to a small vestibule coming off the main hallway (see image to the right). It occurred to me that by closing the door (which I would need to do anyway) and putting acoustic foam and other noise-deadening materials up, I might be able to turn it into a very small recording studio. It happens that before my father passed away he had intended to turn one room (now, a bedroom) into a recording space but was never able to finish it, so there was acoustic foam tiling already in place in there (but, as I noted, it's a bedroom now and not suitable for recording space). So I started removing some of the tiles from the walls in that room and putting them up on the back of the door, and the wall to the right in the image. I wanted to try to avoid having to re-glue the panels, so I opted to use large binder clips; since the foam is very compressible, I could use the clip to hold the tile, and then place a pushpin on the wall or door from which to hang the clip. It works quite well and has significantly improved the quality of my recordings. Here are some images of the current setup:


As you can see, I've got two of the 12x12" panels on each of the two directly-facing walls. What you can't see in these photos is the underside of the shelf above, which I lined with the bottoms of foam and cardboard egg cartons, which I was able to wedge in and didn't even need to pin or glue them down, and cover them with a soft scrap piece of upholstery sample from years ago (long story, don't ask LOL) which I pinned up with some thumbtacks. Nothing in this particular set up cost me anything directly, they were all recycled from something else (even the pillow, visible on the left side of one of the above images … something that will eventually be replaced with cut-to-fit pieces of the remaining foam from the other room). To replicate this yourself, you could spend less than $25, really. One set of 12 panels of 12" x 12" acoustic foam on Amazon ( ) can be had for about $15, and of course the egg cartons you would just get when you finished a dozen eggs (just, of course, make sure to only use ones that didn't have any eggy spills in them!). Larger bundles of the same size panels can be had for about the same per-tile cost (roughly $1.25/tile). If you need to replicate the same kind of thing I did with the egg cartons but don't want to use actual egg cartons, of course, there are similarly-shaped foams available, and you could cut them to fit.

Logistically, there are still a couple of other challenges. While this does help, I still need to be able to read the book I'm narrating (no, I don't have my books all memorized, and none of the other authors I know have their books memorized either). So right now I'm holding my iPad, which is less than ideal. I'm working on creating a small lectern I can have off to the side (since I want to speak off-axis to the mic anyway, to help reduce the pop & sibilance noises), which can hold my iPad and my wireless keyboard (to control the recording software on my computer). The XLR cable from the mic is quite long, and easily reaches the amp connected to the USB port on my computer, so there are no problems there.

The other issue is the side where the camera is, in the above photos. I have been using a couple of small blankets clipped together with binder clips and pinned to the wall on the left and right, but they sag in the middle and are a pain to get up and down. Next, I plan to put up a curtain rod (which I don't have yet) and a blackout curtain (which I do have, but no way to mount it yet), and slide the curtain back and forth. This will greatly simplify the process of closing off that area and also add to the dampening of the sound (especially from the windows which are behind the camera in the photos). I do still have those windows covered with polystyrene foam (which has been there for years) and a double layer of thick towels pinned & clipped to the wall around the windows.

So, as you can see there are steps you can take to create a more recording-friendly environment. These are steps that with some creativity and out-of-the-box thinking you can not only save some money but drastically improve the quality of the recorded sound. I have done a couple of test runs, and the sound is so much better that it was not only easier to work with, in Audition, but I was easily able to get it to meet the technical requirements of ACX (something I was struggling with before!) and sound excellent. I am sure that you can have similar, and even better, success! I look forward to hearing your feedback and your own experiences if you have any to share then comment below!
I plan to do a revision of my youtube videos covering the audiobook creation process, so look for those coming in the next few weeks (I'll probably wait until I get the curtain up to start that process). As always, if you have questions or ideas post below! Thanks for reading!

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