Rolling Your Own Audio Books

Photo of Michael Faris sitting in chair

Why not do it yourself?

I started checking out audio books to listen to on my mp3 player. I downloaded some free classics that I found on Librivox. These are mostly public domain books read and recorded by volunteers. Having read some of these books in the past, I had an idea of what to expect… but I was mostly disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong. I fully support their noble cause and salute their efforts to preserve literary heritage.  But there has to be better quality material available in the way of audio books.

For me, lengthy novels like Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea quickly became boring and difficult to follow. The same of shorter ones like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Why was I dissatisfied? Aside from sound quality, which was rather poor to good in my opinion, there was something about the intonation or pace that I didn’t like. But hey! What can you expect for free. ..and what can a really good audio book sound like?

So I went to audible.com. Here I found much newer, popular books read by professional people. Yet I chose to purchase another classic: Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, narrated by Frank Muller. The book was over nine hours long. Sound quality was way better, and the narration was excellent.  After that I purchased Henre Charriere’s Papillon, narrated by Michael Prichard. I had seen the movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, and loved the story, but the eleven-hour audio book was even better!

So what made those books better? OK, the sound was produced by professionals, people who specialize in recording quality… and it’s what you would expect. The track was all normalized, optimized, tweaked filtered and whatnot to create the best possible results using current mainstream technology. But more than that it was the narrator’s tone, inflections and perhaps the soul that he put into the reading.

True, a great storyteller needs a good story to do his thing, but the life he breathes into characters becomes the spice to the essence of the tale. His voice paints a vivid picture made more complete by his intonation. He adds character to characters. They take on more meaning just from the way he expresses the words used in dialogue and descriptive writing.

Of course, the professional audio books cost money to produce and to own. They are often subject to digital rights restrictions, which severely limits the ability to transfer them from one device to another. This is intended to prevent unauthorized downloads and free use of the material. But is it really necessary for the newbie author?

So the big guys have produced professional quality audio books by famous and popular authors selling anywhere upwards from ten to thirty dollars or more that are difficult to give away or share due to DRM. (Personally I would love for someone to steal my material and pass it all around… Heck,  make it go viral! It’s free promotion for me. I can see nothing but benefit by not using DRM. But that’s a whole different subject).

This model works for an established author with a track record. He gets great reviews and wide distribution as well as premium space in the brick and mortar bookstores. The business plan is structured so that everyone along the path of production, sales and distribution gets their cut of the proceeds from the project. Nothing really wrong with that model, except that it requires prior establishment of and considerable investment by the author.

But what about the fledgling author just starting to flex his wings? The one without the budget. And what does it mean to the writer with several published books under his belt that wants to expand into audio versions of their work? Does it really take big bucks to produce and market your own audio books? Can a person produce a good audio recording on their own?

I’m thinking that along with the flood of new technology comes a vast opportunity for creative writers. Obtaining the software and learning to record your own narrations is simple. All you need is a modest investment in a good microphone, and a computer with a sound card plus speakers. The rest depends on your ability to tell a good story.

Notice I said tell. You might believe you can write a good story, but can you tell one? Have you listened to your recorded voice? What do others say? How well does your work come across when it is narrated, rather than absorbed by looking at the printed page?

Words can only half describe the author’s real meaning. The other half comes from the subtle inflections and emphasis of the voice. An author may even feel that no one can read it like they wrote it, except maybe themselves. Punctuation and  diacritics can only go so far in describing speech. The very same printed words when spoken by different people can sound so different.

So if you can write a good story, and you can tell a good story, what’s to prevent you from making your own audio book?

In an effort to find out, I obtained a dynamic microphone and downloaded Audacity, a free program for recording and editing sound tracks. I made some tests in my relatively quiet office, laying down tracks of my voice while reading some of my material. After comparing samples made with and without the pop-filter, and testing different mike positions and volumes, I attempted to do an entire short story.

Right off the bat, I stumbled and stuttered, causing me to pause and reread portions many times. But I would stop and patiently repeat the words until they came out the way I intended for them to sound. The whole process took about an hour to lay down the raw track. However, the editing process takes a lot longer, especially if you factor in the learning curve. For me, it took approximately six hours of recording and editing to produce what I felt was an acceptable file.

Audacity is a cool program that anyone can use. It records in .wav format, which is an uncompressed file that will play on any Windows Media Player. When you open the file it is graphically represented on a timeline from left to right. Sounds are represented as groups of squiggles that form definite shapes.

Audacity Screenshot

Besides the ability to cut and paste, there are dozens of effects that can be applied to any selection. You can amplify or soften the volume, fade sections in or out, change pitch, eliminate pops and unwanted sounds, adjust the high, mid-range and low tones and take advantage of many other professional features to edit the sound.

I archived my edited track as a wav. file and saved often as I progressed. When finished, I was able to import the file to mp3 and transfer it to my portable player.

Now I was excited. I invited my wife to go for a ride with me in my pickup truck. (She had no idea!)

I casually plugged the player into the deck and turned the unit on. I kept glancing over at her as the piece began, watching her reaction.

She sat there looking out the window, not really paying attention at first, but as it soaked in, she cocked her head and stared at me in amazement. “Hey! That’s you!”

We both burst out laughing. It sounded pretty good. Not bad for a novice.

So my next questions are: Why do you need to hire out this service? What is it about the process that you cannot do yourself? It would seem that pushing your art to the next level would be an inviting challenge, worthy of your creative abilities as a spinner of great yarns.

So for an online test, I have recorded one of my poems – Completely Stumped by Michael A. Faris. How does it sound to you?

I’d like to hear from some other folks that have tried this. Let me know your experiences and conclusions. I especially want to know how indie authors view DRM.

Until next week,

Michael Faris

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Comments

  • Daniel Ottalini  On March 5, 2012 at 3:12 AM

    The funny thing is, right after you liked my post, my brother had just finished doing an audio recording of the first chapter of my soon-to-be-published novel Brass Legionnaire. I think if you did something with an audiobook and sneak peak chapter 1 preview, it would be a double-whammy of publicity. You could even make it a triple whammy if you put your audiobook up on youtube – video, audio, and written promotion all at once. Even cooler if you read it yourself (I, of course, conned the sibling into doing it :-) )

  • James Burke  On March 15, 2012 at 7:01 PM

    I tested creating an audio book from my manuscript- Kellys Reef. Using Michael’s microphone and saving in Audacity I was able to clean up and produce an MP3 of the first chapter as a test. I’m sending that to my writers group to get their input.

    I was a very easy process and anyone can quickly learn how to edit with Audacity to produce a good read.

    In this market with the chances of an agent and publisher rapidly diminishing, authors need to look at marketing to the self-published paper print books, e-books, and audiobooks

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