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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!

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!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Audiobook creation lessons learned: Microphones and their preamp pals

As I noted in my last entry, I have learned a few lessons attempting to setup my home writing studio in a way that would permit me to record audiobooks as well. Today, I wanted to further expand on the first point: microphones are critical, so don't skimp on them.

If you've followed along the earlier postings, I initially attempted to do this whole process for less than $100. What I have found is that you might be able to find a good mic second hand for that price, but I don't recommend skimping on this item. Mics for less than about $150–300 are just too low-quality (meaning they introduce hiss or are noisy) to be good for this process. Capturing the highest quality audio possible makes the editing later much easier, and that equals a good microphone.

I researched several options, and what I ended up with is the Røde NT-1A ( ). Other options in that category include the audio-technica AT2035 ( ) and the SE Electronics sE2200A II ( ).

I went with the Røde option for a couple of reasons. All of the microphones in this price range (as you might expect!) are pretty similar in performance. The NT-1A came as a kit and included the XLR cable (more on this in a minute), a pop filter, and shock absorber mount for the mic stand. Some of the others can be found online with bundles that include these things, as well. I read a lot of reviews, on Amazon but also on other sites ( and for example), and the NT-1A, in particular, is well-received and is one of the microphones recommended by ACX.

This kind of microphone (condenser mic) requires power to operate, and thus the inclusion of a power cable is essential. Both because of this need for power, and since it makes sense to have a pre-amp anyway (to allow you to get the best quality input to your recording software), one thing to also consider is the pre-amp—and, particularly, a pre-amp which provides "phantom power." Essentially, what this means is that power is not provided by a separate cable from that use to transmit the sound signal; they both travel over the same wiring.

Here, there are choices on top of choices:

  • How you connect to your recording software (most likely USB but there are other options!).
  • How many instruments or microphones you plan to connect.
  • On-board filtering or compression (audio compression).
  • Other included features (some come with a license for certain software tools, or for plug-ins) does the preamp's manufacturer offer.
To make it simple, I'll point out that you really must consider three things:
  • Phantom power supply (via XLR cable, almost always) and how much
  • Gain controls (allows you to dial in how much boost the sound will get from the preamp)
  • Output to the computer (USB, Thunderbolt are two popular, with USB more popular)
All of the other considerations are secondary, "nice-to-have" features for starting out.

First, the power. Since your condenser mic will require power, and will almost certainly use the XLR connection type, your preamp must provide that power and provide it via XLR. Now, XLR just refers to a particular connection type; it's a shielded multi-prong plug, just make sure both the mic and the preamp have the same number of prongs. The other consideration here is the voltage. Commonly, 48V phantom power is used for powering the mic, although there are 24V and 12V options as well. Best bet is to pick the microphone you want, and then select a preamp that will provide the correct phantom power (the NT-1A, for example, can use either 24V or 48V, which means more options for selecting a preamp).

Second, the controls. Gain controls will be pretty common for any preamp, but they should be easy to adjust, and easy to read.

Third, consider how you will output to the computer. Since most of us in this situation will have USB, that is a fine way to go. If you require another option (like RCA, Thunderbolt, or Firewire), then, of course, you'll be looking for a preamp that uses those connectors instead.

There are lots and lots of options, even with these basic considerations. What I ended up getting was the Focusrite Scarlet Solo USB ( ), which is a pretty basic preamp that won't break the bank. It has the XLR connection (and 48V phantom power) that my Røde NT-1A microphone requires; it has a dial for the gain control (and, an LED light band around the control, which lights green when the sound is "in the green" and lights red when the sound might clip); and it connects via USB. It also has a 1/4" jack for a monitor (I use headphones), and a volume control for the monitor jack. It also has a line-in (say, for an instrument), as well as RCA left & right output (if you prefer RCA connections instead of USB).

Finally, one additional thing to keep in mind is how to support the microphone. Even if the mic you choose is the kind you can hold in your hand, you likely will not want to do so for long stretches of time recording your audiobook, so I recommend considering getting a stand to hold your mic. In my case, I got the Samson MK-10 Microphone Boom Stand ( ), but there are a ton of other options out there. In addition, you might consider taking a trip to your local secondhand store and buying a mic stand there.

All told, including tax, I spent less than $400 on the mic, stand, and USB preamp. This is a pretty reasonable investment, I think, to get good equipment as a starting point. As we'll see in the next couple of installments, this is far and away the most expensive part of this process, and there are some serious soundproofing upgrades that can be had for less than $30 (which I will cover in a different blog entry).

My next post in this series will cover some of the lessons I've learned with the software, so stay tuned for that! I'll see you in a couple of days!

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Audiobook setup changes

So I've been working on a few things in the background, one of which was a new setup for doing my audiobook recording.

As much as wanted to try to make the recording work out by spending less than $100, I wasn't able to make decent recordings at that level (others might, I just couldn't do it). So I was able to do some research, and get better insight about where to save, and where it was important to spend some money. Here are a few lessons I've learned.

  • First lesson: don't skimp on the mic. A prosumer microphone can be had for $300–400, and will make a huge difference in the quality of your recordings.
  • Second lesson: the software you choose is secondary. Great quality can be had using Logic Pro, Audition, Audacity, Garageband, Pro Tools, and several others.
  • Third lesson: you can skimp on the amount of money you spend to soundproof your recording space, because it can be done fairly cheaply.
Over the next few days I'll be re-examining each of these things, and detailing my experiences in blog entries. Hopefully, that will be enough to set you on your way to setting up your own audiobook recordings!