Slow the Heck Down

I’ve been in the booth, doing my audiobook recording, and I’ve learnt so much already. It can all be summarised in two words, “Slow Down”. Just take some time and slow right down.

I was keen to get started, to just hammer this thing out and get going. Yeah, well that may work for writer’s block or when I’ve got a story in my head and I know what all the bits are. That’s typing. Typing doesn’t care about speed. If I make a mistake while typing, great, I’ll go back and correct it and move on. That’s not possible when it comes to recording audio.

In the booth, milliseconds count. I can’t stop and have a scratch midway through a sentence. Once I start speaking, I must continue until it’s time to stop. If my mouth is gummy and I choke and cough and mutter profanities, all of that is recorded. To cope, I’ve developed a mechanism and it involves, you guessed it, slowing down.

But first, a horror story: I gave the story my full attention. I put aside the day to do the recording of all the chapters (surely, it won’t take all day!) and locked myself in the booth. After chapter 3, my mouth was dry. OK, lunch, water, have a rest, get back to it. Maybe I’ll have a listen to see how it’s sounding. Hmm, no good. I’m mumbling and not speaking clearly, and talking too fast. Bother. OK, that just means I start again, and this time pay attention to how I sound as I’m talking (the headphones come in real handy at this point).

I’m guilty, you see, of mumbling, of speaking (way) too fast, of dropping consonants and flattening vowels. Thing is, I’m not conscious that I do it, not until you play a video with me talking. I’ve been told many times, by many people, in many ways, “Jez, slow down.”

Start again. No probs, got three chapters done again by Joey o’clock, went to pick him up, came home and had a listen. Still no good. I’m still talking too fast and not clearly. Fine, I get it. Slow the heck down.

I worked into the night, persisting, cracking through the first couple of chapters (again). The next morning I came at it, ready to go, ready to speak clearly and slowly. I started early and got used to listening to myself as I spoke, correcting mistakes as I went, keeping a pace. By the afternoon, I had all chapters done. Perfect. Late lunch, but who cares? I clicked on the play button and died. Ba-bow. Bad news, Jez. The little microphone drop down in Audacity hadn’t been set to the studio mic, rather the internal computer mic.

I had been recording my voice, muffled and indistinct, from within the booth while the microphone on the laptop was outside the booth. There was nothing for it.

The entire day’s recording was utterly, unspeakably, useless.

If I had slowed down, taken the time to check the settings before and replay the clip after each chapter, I would have spotted it in the first hour and only lost a portion of my day. As it was, I was in a royally gloomy funk for the rest of the evening. I had lost a day’s worth of work, had a sore voice, a massive headache and nothing to show for it.

All this means I’ve gotten into a process when it comes to recording – turn on my computer outside the booth, plug in the mic, load up Audacity, make sure it’s on the right bloody microphone, sit down, lock the booth, get thirty seconds of silence and sip some water.

Then I breathe. I use my hand as a metronome. I listen as I speak and, if something doesn’t sound right, I correct myself and try again. Then I check on the chapter as soon as I’ve finished it. It’s slower, but it’s a whole lot better.

The NT-USB Microphone

I should say a few words about my choice of microphone for recording the audiobook. The site says that the NT-USB has a JFET impedance converter with bipolar output buffer. To tell you the honest truth, I have no idea what means in terms of audio quality or pickup or fidelity. I’m sure there’s an audiophile out there who knows and you’d be doing me a solid by explaining what it means.

What I can say, just from using the microphone in the booth, is that I absolutely love it.

When I was a little tacker, I discovered the joy of recording my voice on an old cassette player. You’d press the record and play button down, talk into the little mic bit and then hit stop, rewind, play again and, hey! that’s me! Joy! Wow! Ew, is that what I sound like? Really?

The scratchiness of the recording was evident. The hiss and hum, and the clunk of the buttons as you fumbled about to press them, it all meant that recording on a cassette player was a novelty at best.

Then came the microphone. Wow, this is one of those things they use on TV during the sports, right? Yeah, same thing. Kinda. It wasn’t much to look at, just a beaten up, battery powered pencil mic that you clicked onto the cassette player and fed in the vocals. The quality that came from using it was noticeably better, to the point where you could almost believe you were recording sound like the professionals. At least, that’s what I thought when I was six.

Fast-forward to now, and I’ve got this Rode beasty looking at me in the sound booth. It’s nothing too complicated to look at – there’s a stand, a pop-shield, a USB cord dangling from the bottom and a little knob on the side. Plug it in and a little light appears from behind the grill, letting me know it’s time to get to work.

One of the things I really, really like about it, apart from the simplicity of it all, is the headphone jack on the side. My first thoughts were, “Why? Why do I need a headphone jack if I’m talking? Is that for listening to the music to do karaoke? Is it to push in white noise?” It turns out, among other things, the headphone jack is so I can monitor what I’m saying in real-time.

Sounds silly? I thought so, too, until I tried it. I talk, and I hear myself in the headphones. Wait, you say, if you talk, you can hear yourself, anyway. Yeah, but not the same as if you were talking to yourself outside of yourself. That sounds wrong, but it goes back to that time where you record your voice and play it back and think, “Is that what I sound like?” For whatever reason (audiophiles, step up) the voice that you have inside your head when you talk is not the voice that others hear.

Bizarre, I know, but it’s true.

So while I’m speaking, I can hear exactly as I sound, while I’m speaking. And let me tell you, it’s an eye-opener and a time-saver. No longer do I need to play back what I’ve recorded to hear how it sounds, I can hear it straight away and correct myself before moving on.

I’m sure the headphones can be used for karaoke or voice-overs, since there’s a little dial above the jack to adjust how much sound comes from the computer and how much comes from the microphone itself, so you can mix in and hear just how you’re sounding. Pretty neat, it you ask me.

The best thing about the mic, though, is the quality of the sound. I’ve experimented a bit, leaning forward and back, speaking loudly and whispering, and the mic happily grabs all the sounds, all of them, from the loudest yell to the tiniest nose-whistle. It gets the rain on the roof outside the booth, the hammering of the guy next door. That’s ok, though, because I can trim out background noise with software afterwards, and adjust the floor to remove unwanted fluff.

All things considered, I’m well chuffed with my choice of mic, and I’m looking forward to punishing it over the next few weeks.