Monday, January 6, 2014

Recording My Own Audiobook: A Beginner's Journal Part 1

The intention of this blog series is to document my experiences recording and distributing the audiobook version of my novel Smoke Monkey International, which I released as both an ebook and a paperback last year. I also want to stress right here at the beginning that I have no idea what I'm doing. That's kind of the point. I don't know how to engineer, mix, edit, or upload an audio file. I don't know if I'm recording an audiobook, a podcast, or a podiobook. I don't have a recording studio or any real recording equipment. But what I do have is a new baby, no free time, and a can-do attitude Christmas gut.

Deep Background Information - Readers of this blog (chuckle, chuckle) know that I love audiobooks. I listen to them compulsively on my bike commute to and from work. I do this mainly because it's the only form of reading I can do anymore. Actual books put me to sleep, literally. So my familiarity with the audiobook format is one thing I do have going for me. The other thing I have going for me is my novel, which I think is good. People seem to enjoy it. 

The very first step I took was to contact a music producer friend of mine (okay, we were friends in high school and haven't really talked since) and ask for advice. I was hoping he'd be so impressed that I'd written and published a novel that he would offer to produce the audiobook for me, add his name to the credits, write some killer bumper music, and use his contacts to help market it far and wide. He did indeed offer to let me use his studio and his sound engineer, but only during off-hours since he needed the studio during the day. Work and family life prevented me from taking advantage of this opportunity, which would have required me to drive to the other side of Los Angeles at night and on weekends many, many times. To which I say, I'd rather just stay home and get drooled on. What this offer did do was force me to put a number on just how many hours I expected this whole process to take. Once I thought seriously about it, I realized it was going to take over 50 hours, just to record. Probably longer. I can't set aside a chunk of time like that. The only way this is going to happen is if I do it myself, with my own stuff, in bits and pieces, whenever I can get a minute free. 

Day One - The project starts in earnest on Christmas morning when I get an Apogee MiC. My recording buddy had told me I could do this whole thing myself, with a computer, as long as I had a good microphone. So now I have my passably good microphone. I decided on the Apogee MiC after doing a lot of research in the internet. I had it in my head that I wanted to record the whole audiobook on my iPad, using Garageband, because of the portability and simplicity. The MiC was almost universally recommended for iPad users. The price seemed right too. $199 was reasonable - not too expensive and not too cheap. 

Because I'm on vacation at this point, and have no time to myself, I can't really start recording the book. But I do have a chance to fool around with the mic and Garageband, just to understand the basics of the program. Garageband is a very simple and intuitive program, as I heard it was. I watch a few tutorials about voice recording on YouTube. Educating yourself on technical matters by reading and watching stuff on the internet is a tricky matter. I've found a lot of conflicting information, or information that applies to certain versions of software or hardware that are slightly different that what I have. I learn from one article that in order to record a long track you need to set Garageband's tempo down to 40. Another post said all I had to do to record a long track is to set the "song section" length to "automatic". That seemed to make the most sense and it also seems to work so far. If you don't change this setting your recording will loop back to the start once the end of the track is reached, and you will then start recording over your own track. 

Day Two - I'm back in town and still have another week of vacation, so it's the ideal time to start the recording process. Other than the massive time commitment required for this project, the other major problem I have is the lack of a quiet space to record. Everything I've read about recording stresses the importance of finding the right space. I live on a noisy street and a noisy alley. People have suggested closets and cars in garages as the best options for home recording. But I have a better, stranger, and far more satisfying option in mind. I build an old-school couch cushion fort and layer the whole thing in blankets. 

It's hot, stuffy, cramped...and very quiet inside. It'll work for now. The next step is to set up the hardware and software. I put the mic in its stand and place it on a coffee table that's at head level when I sit on the floor. I plug the mic into the iPad and start up Garageband. I select the Audio Recorder option. I set the song length to automatic. There are two different screens you can set up to monitor your recording. The default screen, which shows a nice graphic of the mic level. The other screen shows you a vertical display of the tracks. For some reason, in order to see the recording effect options, or the vertical track display, you first have to record something. Then these options appear. I mess around a bit with the effects and quickly realize "dry" is the way to go. So I'm ready to start reading...

One great thing about Garageband is that you can set it to run in the background while you use other apps. I'm able to bring up the ebook version of my novel on the Kindle app and read directly from my iPad. This is ideal since reading from the iPad doesn't make any noise and you can set the font size nice and big, so you're less apt to make mistakes while reading. 

Actually reading the book, of course, is the most important aspect of this project. I've been a teacher for years and because kids these days are mostly incapable of reading assigned texts, I spend a lot of time reading out loud to my students.  I'm not going to get into whether or not this is "good teaching." Okay, yes I am. Conventional thinking says it's bad for a teacher to read Catcher in the Rye to his students during class. I do it because otherwise half the class would not experience the text and would not be able to complete related assignments. Besides, I'm not going to pass up the opportunity to yell at my students, "Sleep tight ya morons!" or, simply, "Fuck you!" My point is that experience has made me a good reader. But I do not have a good reading voice. My voice sounds gravely when recorded, almost like there are lingering puberty issues. I know that I will not be able to alter my voice throughout the reading process in a convincing and consistent way. And I don't want to sound like a phony either. So my voice is what it is and it'll have to do. But there are further complications. My book has an internal dialogue that I need to read in different ways so the listener knows there are two voices in the conversation, not just one. Additionally, there are many scenes with multiple characters. So I will need to read these character voices. I don't know how to do this, or at least not in a professional sense. I'm not an actor. There are three options for dealing with this. First, I can ignore the issue, save time and energy, and just read everything in my own voice and let the listener sort it out. Second, I can do my best to read different voices and try not to be a perfectionist about the outcome. Third, I can get help from friends and have them read other parts. While the third option would certainly complicate the process logistically, it sounds like a good solution. However, in listening to audiobooks I find I dislike it whenever there's a change in the narrator. For example, I'd rather have a male narrator fake a female voice than have an actual female take those parts. So, I'm going to attempt the second option and read voices. This will be a lot more fun (which is the main point of doing all this anyway, right? It's not like my audiobook is going to make me any real money). I locate a chapter in the book with multiple characters and press record. 

After many attempts, I mange to work out the seven different voices I will need. There's the narrator, the main character, the main character's subconscious voice (part of the inner-dialogue), an angry Vietnamese guy, a serious college kid, a stoner college kid, and an angry and frustrated college kid. I'm sure I sound like a huge racist when I read the Vietnamese guy's voice, but it's certainly clear who he's supposed to be. The other voices require more subtlety. I spend several hours stopping and starting and rehearsing and cursing. My cushion fort seems to be working out well. When I'm done with the chapter I take down my fort and move to a desk to listen to the results and see what I can do about improving the sound quality.

I pop my earbuds in and have a listen. Yikes. Major problems. First of all there's a lot of popping certain letters. I knew this was going to happen. In my mind I assumed it would be easy to edit this stuff out. Given Garageband's limited and simplistic editing capabilities I realize I can't just edit them out. I need to get a screen of some sort. I look online and learn  I can make my own screen with pantyhose. Beyond that problem, and the problem that I still don't like the way my voice sounds, is the problem of overall sound quality. My voice sounds too realistic, too clear, too much like it was recording by a guy sitting on his floor inside a cushion fort. I need some kind of mask or filter to make my voice sound "right." It's the same kind of difference between camcorder footage and film. The iPad version of Garageband gives you very few options when it comes to adjusting the sound quality. Certainly nothing I do solves this problem. I read some more stuff online and realize that fixing this problem is no simple task. It's the reason people pay a lot of money for professional equipment, or why people hire professional audio engineers to record audiobooks. There is no cheap easy fix for this. 

But I'm done for the day. 

No comments:

Post a Comment