Portsmouth Avenue Ghost Audiobook

After the events of Jolimont Street, the Narrator and the Professor are pariahs in their own town. It was already a struggle to get cases to investigate, so it is only natural that they would venture somewhere more populated. With a big town comes many people, not all of them natives, and with that comes, you guessed it, more voices.

Madam

You’ve got Madam. Middle-aged and well-to-do, she was also the head of her family and at war with her other half. She needed a manicured voice, one that held power and poise, not at all flighty or weak, even though she is confused. She must keep a brave face, in spite of everything.

She’s actually a Texan, apparently, but you get the idea.

My biggest issue was not so much the femininity of the voice, rather my tendency to start speaking like Her Majesty the Queen. In fact, I’ve found that with a lot of the voices, I come close to sounding like parodies and I need to actively check myself, pause, and start again.

Mister Belfiore

Mister Belfiore is Italian. I don’t think that comes across so strongly in the book, but that’s who he is in my mind. He plays a more prominent role in Cooper Alley, so I had to make sure that whatever voice I used, I could maintain between books.

I started with my go-to voice for Pantaloni, breathy, old and heavily accented. Nope, no good. Too old, too breathy. Still, it’s a starting point. What I needed was a somewhat younger version, someone in their 50s or 60s.

Salvatore Lo Leggio: Il suono di un violino. Una poesia di ...
Like this dude

I backed off on the accent some, sang the ‘Franco Cozzo’ song to get in the mood and left him a little wheezy.

Zindello

Now for the main event: Zindello. I haven’t any Romanian friends, and if I did, I’m sure I wouldn’t any more for the terrible disservice I have done to the vocals.

I have watched Eurovision. I have seen the various countries and heard their accents and tried to mimic a few. Pah, who am I kidding? After a few words, my mouth degenerates into a generic Eastern European drawl, located nowhere in particular between Russia and Lithuania.

Still, it’s Zindello. It’s the self-assured strutting man who knows what he wants and how to get it. He’s this guy:

In my mind, Zindello is somewhat more youthful, with a more sculpted moustache and beard.

His voice is forceful, he comes across as brash and bold and dangerous. He knows about everything he needs to know about. He likes to be in control. No, he must be in control.

Throw in the usual ruffians, the hotelier and what have you, and Portsmouth Avenue comes out a very hard book to do voices for. It certainly took the longest to date, if only because I needed to frequently stop and re-adjust my voice to get back into character.

You can find Portsmouth Avenue Ghost in Audiobook at most outlets but, as at the time of writing this, Audible hasn’t gotten around to it. There’s some kind of hold up with the publishing gods. Maybe I haven’t sacrificed enough virgin sardines or something.

Google Play
Apple iTunes
Kobo / Rakuten
Chirp

Hampton Court Ghost Audiobook

It wasn’t too long coming, I hope.

Hampton court posed its own challenges. Female voices, specifically. How do I take my voice and make it sound more feminine? More than this, there were not one, not two, not three but four women to deal with. Annie and Miss Fitzgerald were ok – although I think Miss Fitzgerald ended up sounding similar to the Professor – probably because they were older.

Lisa and Sally, though, they… they were tough. Lisa had to have a condescending tone in her voice, be a bit haughty and snooty, overly affectionate and bossy. Sally was quite the opposite, being bubbly, chipper, and homely. And, of course, they were both young.

I couldn’t ask for help with this. It was a mission I had to face on my own. And so I did. For Lisa, I took on a breathy, higher pitched voice. It took a good ten minutes to get it ballpark. At first she was squeaky and not at all lady-like. It oscillated between a mouse and a baritone until I landed somewhere in the middle.

2781 Best images about 19th C. Photography - Women on ...
Oh, don’t be so dramatic! It is a small thing.

The best I could do was imagine someone like this in my head and try to match her voice.

Sally took longer. For her, I needed something a little younger. Cue the baby voice. Nope, no good, too young. So I experimented a little, holding my noise, squishing my face. Then I relaxed my cheeks, letting them flop about a bit. It’s hard to explain.

Think of Richard Nixon:

President Nixon refuses to hand over tapes in 1974 - NY ...
“I’m Richard Nixon, and I wholly endorse this product or service!”

He’s got those jowls that flop about a bit, giving a kind of hollow sound to the mouth. Not that Sally has jowls in my mind’s eye. She’s more of a happy-go-lucky button that sees the good in the world before the bad, a tad naive, but not stupid. Only, I couldn’t get that playfulness in her voice to come through and, after experimenting a lot, I came to the conclusion that I could only do so much with the equipment God gave me, and that the whole ‘hollow-cheek’ thing would have to do.

Now I’m really sorry for Sally.

I’m really happy for Hampton Court Ghost, though, because that is up and out on Audible and Google and Chirp and all the good places!

Number Six

Number six of what? Of the Paranormology series, of course! There are so many avenues I could have taken, and it seems that every time I start one of the books, I set myself up for some to and fro before I can settle on just how it should be. I have learnt my lesson, though, to make sure I know what I’m going to do (at least in rough terms) before I go plodding along, and to keep asking myself, “Does this make sense?” while I’m doing it.

During my lunch breaks earlier on last year I tapped out the skeleton idea. It wasn’t so great. I flopped it about, got rid of some rubbish, added a bit of this and that, and had a look again. Not too bad, this time, not too shabby at all. There were elements that I particularly wanted in there, one of which was a psychic medium, with a play between scientific analysis and psychic phenomena.

The setting has changed from the previous books. The protagonist and the Professor have moved to Exeter, permanently, because there are more opportunities for the Professor’s research, and the narrator has landed a job with Mister Belfiore, the clock maker. This means the setting is within a city, as with Portsmouth Avenue, only the protagonist has become familiar.

The other thing I really wanted was to bring some humanity to the Professor. He can get cranky, and he certainly has his failings (how very human), but humanity is more more than this. We get to see that underneath his cantankerous exterior, he is vulnerable and fragile, and that there’s a good reason he’s as skeptical as his is about everything.

So, how far along am I? Happy to say that I’ve finished the first draft and I’m going to sit on it for a bit. First, I need to make the front cover and get the blurb sorted. Once that’s done, I’ll be finishing off some of the Audiobook work for the other books. After this, it’s back for round two and getting some eyeballs on.

Which reminds me: If you’ve ever wanted to be part of the creative process and give the book a going over in draft two, drop me an email and let me know. I’d be very appreciative.

Eh? What’s that? What’s it going to be called? Well, the working title is Dreyford Alley Ghost, however I’m not one hundred percent sold on that, so we’ll see.

Edit: I wasn’t sold. I’m now running with ‘Cooper Alley Ghost’.

The Bullet Audiobook

I started the audiobooks off with The Bullet. Why? It’s short. It’s slow. It’s silent.

Short

I needed, more than anything else, to launch an audiobook off the ground and see how it flies. Unfortunately for The Bullet, it’s my Woobie. The book I abuse when I want to ‘Test the Waters’ and see how things work. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed writing it, and I enjoyed reading it out loud, but since it was the first of my AudioBooks, I made the most mistakes with it.

Because it is short, it lends itself to being the one to be thrown in the test-tube to see how it reacts. Because it is short, it gets pushed around, it gets forgotten. Because it is short, I could finish the audio and see how difficult the process would be.

Slow

I stammer. It’s a thing I’ve got going with my mouth. The jaw moves, the lips move, but, quite often, the words don’t form properly, and I find myself yammering out the same syllable again and again. It’s very difficult to control, and I often don’t say what I truly want to say, because I know that if I try, I’ll mangle the words up. Sometimes I’ll sit and practice saying a sentence just to build up enough confidence to get it out. Too often the topic has gone stale and I’ve missed the opportunity.

The Bullet, being a slow, rhythmic piece, forced me to pace over the words, bring my normally rambling and mumbling mouth to account and put effort into forming words properly and slowly. I don’t remember how many takes I did of the first few paragraphs, or even the chapter. Each time I’d listen and realise that I was stammering and rushing through my words.

Silent

Voices. I’m not bad at voices. I’m not great, but I’m not bad. Joey tells me. He likes my various accents. I know that a true Scot would laugh at my attempts, and a Londoner would scoff, but that’s not what I’m aiming for. All I really need is a way to associate a voice with a character.

Still, adding the necessity of dialogue on top of the rigours of the audiobook proper was way too much to handle. As such, The Bullet, having no conversation, is a prime choice for a book upon which to cut my teeth. I could speak freely, then, with no need to put on a voice or persona or accent. I could just be me and concentrate on speaking slowly, properly, carefully.

I am pleased with the end result. The Bullet is still my little friend, that book that I kick around and abuse when I’m unsure about things.

Beaumaris Road Ghost – AudioBook

Doing audiobook work takes it out of you. It’s not enough to just quack the words as they appear. You need to stay engaged and use intonation and adjust the tempo and pitch. You need to constantly monitor your words, avoid repetition, keep the tone of the language. And then there are the ‘accents’.

Beaumaris presented a new set of challenges. It was no longer a two-character affair (ignoring the cab driver) like in Grosvenor. I now had to come up with voices for Professor Felix, Mister Brown and Professor Pinkerton, along with members of the academic Board of the University.

It is at this point that I need to apologise to those native speakers whose accents I have mangled. It’s the price one pays, I suppose, doing voices for an audiobook – if the characters all sound the same, there are no cues for the listener to know who is saying what.

To make matters worse, in many parts there is dialogue between the players, so it is necessary to jump between the voices in order to keep things flowing. As you can imagine, sometimes the voices get muddled together. I take a drink of water, mark the error with a beep and carry on.

That doesn’t always work, though. In some instances, I completely lose what a character sounded like and have to go back – physically exit the booth, pause the recording and rewind to a spot – to hear myself. I’ve found a trick to help with this, though.

For each character, I have a phrase that encapsulates their general speech. For Felix, it’s, “That sounds about right, then.” For Pinkerton, it is, “Be that as it maaaaay…” For the Professor it is, “Laddie, what are you getting at?”

By saying those phrases in my mind, and visualising their face, I can jog my vocals back into character. The faces? Ah, yes. When writing the book, I had the characters in my mind’s eye – it’s just a still, like a photograph of what they would look like, nothing in particular. Felix is a portly, fluffy, rose-cheeked kind of guy who prolly gets into the whisky a wee bit:

Significant Scots - Professor Alexander Melville Bell
Actually one Professor Alexander Melville Bell, but he’s a decent Felix.

Whereas Pinkerton is a dark-haired, straight-laced gent who looks at his peers over his nose.

Related image

The Professor, weirdly enough, pops in my mind as something like a wild-haired Bernie Sanders slapping on a white Abraham Lincoln beard. Something like this:

And he’s got that grumpy look about him too.

Go figure, that’s just what my mind conjures up. I guess what I’m saying is that, when it comes to dropping and picking up character voices, it’s a lot harder than you might think, and you should consider all avenues to jog your vocals back into line.

Anyhow, as for the book, the audio went well enough. I learnt a lot from The Bullet and Grosvenor Lane Ghost. Still, it was rejected on the first round because I hadn’t uploaded one of the tracks properly. Not a big issue, just one of those things.

You can find Beaumaris Road Ghost at:

Publishing That Audio Book

And so the time came to click that little button: Publish.

Whether it’s on Smashwords or Amazon’s KDP or Findaway Voices, it’s a bloody hard button to click. The cursor dances around it. The mouse button doesn’t seem to click properly. Joey comes asking for something or other. Either way, the gremlins and gods conspire to prevent that button from being clicked.

Who am I kidding? Me, obviously. Just press the damn button already. It’s only a mouse click, after all. Two glasses of whisky later and a stiff self-reprimand, I get to the point where I’m about to do it. No, wait, I’d better check over it all. I’ve already checked it twice, but hey, let’s go for a third time. There comes a wave of angst, followed by paranoia, followed by the chill of ‘what if…’

What if I make a complete fool of myself? What if my voice is too nasal, too dry, too Aussie, not Aussie enough? What if I’ve mispronounced a word or skipped a sentence or edited out a crucial piece of prose? What if I should have used the Grosvenor Lane music for the intro? What if, what if, what if?

One more shot of whisky, one more attempt to blind my conscience and fool my censure and just go for broke. One more shot to hit the damn button that will release me from my anguish. After all, if I don’t publish, what was all the work for? If I do publish, and fail, so what? So what? So. What.

So… I take a breath and steel my nerves with whatever alcohol-free neurons I can muster, slap my already-red cheek for the last time and straighten my back. It has a curious effect, sitting up straight does. The spine clicks into place, the muscles stretch, rejoice. I feel empowered.

My glass is empty. Joey is in bed. The cat is asleep on the couch with Wifey. The computer fan hums. There are no more distractions. No more dancing cats on YouTube. No more, no more. Nothing left between me and the button.

It’s just a collection of pixels, anyway. About a hundred or so wide, forty or fifty deep. Push the button.

I’ve come this far. I can stall another week, yes, spend another week going over what I’ve already gone over. Yes, or I could push the button!

I’ve nothing to lose, except my credibility, but do I even have that any more? Is that measurable? Is that quantifiable? Who cares, just push the button.

I push the button. It’s a bothersome, annoying anticlimax. No fanfare. No sounds or rewarding animations or trumpets. Just a confirmation. A bloody confirmation. Well, that’s all I was after, anyway.

And so the button was clicked, Grosvenor Lane Ghost was published and the waiting game begins.

Findaway Voices Audiobooks

The time came to just get the rotten thing up, up onto the grand international platform of electrons called the ‘internet’. I had tried ACX, but that was ruled out by geography. I mean, in this age of inter-everything, I didn’t think it would be an issue. Go figure.

So I turn to Smashwords again for help. They are teamed up with Findaway. I had just finished Tedrick Gritswell Makes Waves and, at the end of the publishing cycle, the Smashwords website suggested using Findaway to get vocals for my book.

Well, that certainly sounds like a nice idea, but I wanted to try it myself, first, before going the whole hog. The good news is that they carry many of the same requirements as ACX, but no restrictions to geographical boundaries. What’s more, like Smashwords, they do this aggregation thing called ‘Voices Plus’ where you publish through them to lots of other channels, not just Audible. This I can get onboard with.

I’ve never liked the whole ‘exclusivity’ thing. You know, “Only deal with us or else!” I think if something is available here, it should be available there, and there and there, otherwise you’ve got bullying and monopolies and all of that.

So the uploading process is alright. You need a cover, square, 3000 x 3000 pixels. Big. As you can imagine, the dimensions don’t quite work with the standard rectangular book shape. No worries, though, you can always insert the book into a square and add some text to the left or right of it:

So with the Bullet, I used the original cover and ‘squarified’ it. With the Paranormology series, starting with Grosvenor Lane, I’ve pushed the book to the right and put the necessary meta on the left. Too easy. Thankfully I already had my books in a large-enough format, so that meant getting it to 3,000 squared was less of a challenge than it might have been.

Opting into Voices Plus is optional, which is cool (I like that you aren’t forced to use their tools). By doing so, you are enrolled to all of the channels you can think of, and then some, and then some more. Pretty neat:

And while writing this, I think some more were added. Audiobooks, man, it’s like the next thing or something.

Uploading your audio is pretty good, too:


You fill in the bits: Title, subtitile, author(s), narrator(s), dates, etc. Then you upload each chapter, plus title, front matter, afterwords, etc. You can review them as you go, rearrange them, download them to check, etc.

My only problem was that my internet connection was crappy. Uploads of only a few kBs sometimes, and then it would cut out half way through. I would literally start an upload, go have a shower or mow the lawn or read Joey a story, come back and see if it passed or failed. On many occasions, it failed. Boo.

With better internet, I’m sure you’d have a better time. I can’t fault their servers for my lazy electrons. After this comes the grand part – publishing!

ACX?

If you have a search on the web for ‘create a damn audiobook’, you will inevitably stumble across ACX, Amazon’s Audiobook Creation eXchange. You read up on how it all works.

Looks like it functions as a collective of authors, narrators and producers, ready to put together a bunch of audiobooks. More than this, there are options, man, options! I’m a fan of options. Not too many, because then you get overwhelmed, but I like to be able to choose what suits me.

As a narrator, for example, you can sign yourself up and get a gig doing the reading side of things. As an author, you can put your book up to be read. Sounds pretty good so far. But what if, as an author, I want to narrate it myself? Sure thing, that’s fine, too.

Great. Let’s go with this. How does the royalty side of things work? Well, there are three options – either pay outright for a narrator to read my book, share the royalties of the book with the narrator, or do it myself. Easy.

I like the idea that I can collaborate with someone to do the narrating. Some of my larger books, see, would be a struggle for me, so I wouldn’t mind sharing the royalties at all. It’s one of those win-win situations.

So I go through the motions, sign up, look at the different options, figure out how I’m going to do it, and there’s a decent page on how to encode the sound files. There’s also the necessary part of reading out the title and author and narrator (they’re very particular about this) and the closing statement (must contain ‘The End’) and things like that. All good, I can handle this just fine.

I’ve gone over my files, encoded them properly, made them mono rather than stereo, checked the size, formats, added the top and tail, checked the amplification… all the chapters there? Yup. All sound right? Yup. What about the credits? Yup. It’s all looking good. Then… disaster.

In one of the little forms I need to fill in, I select from a drop-down that I’m from Australia. Uh, why is there a red box showing? What does that say? Oh, wow, really? ‘Unfortunately, at this time, ACX is only servicing citizens of the UK and the USA.’

I live in neither.

There I was, dangling high and dry like an octopus on a clothesline, wondering if I’d just blown all that work for nothing. All the building of the booth and the microphone and the mistakes and blunders, was it all for nought?

“No,” I think, “That’s ridiculous. There has to be another way.” Another way… Can I find another way?

Funnily enough, I did. And it’s called ‘Findaway‘.

What’s in a Decibel?

What’s in a decibel? A lot, apparently. I’m no sound engineer, you can be assured of that. I’ve done lots of stuff about physics and sound propagation and all of that, and I can describe to you how decibels work and even how to do some calculations based upon distances and densities and things. Great. Top stuff.

Doesn’t really help when it comes to the raw practicalities of getting Voice Over work done right for audiobooks, now. Well, that’s not totally true. It helps a bit. You see, when it comes to submitting an audiobook for ACX, there are some strict guidelines issued that, if breached, will result in rejection of the audio file (not audiophile, that’s something else).

As you can imagine, there’s a desire to have quality, consistent recordings sent up for the listeners to enjoy, and one way to at least ensure you won’t bust the eardrums or have the audience screaming “What? What did he just say?”, is to keep the recording between some ‘loudness’ values.

Peak? -3dB. Floor? -60dB.

Easy peasy. Just make sure you’ve cleaned out the noise from the signal, quieten out any top-end values to be under -3dB and you’re good to go.

Wait, there’s one more thing: The RMS must be between -18 and -23 dB. RMS? RMS. Remember back to your signal processing days? Root Mean Square. Take the root of the mean of the square of the signal, and you end up with an ‘average’ signal, without the need to discard or negate the negative side of the signal (since squaring will make it positive).

OK, so what’s that all about? Yeah, good question. It means the average loudness of your voice needs to fit between these two values. Not too loud, not too soft.

Well, that’s me done because I’m a naturally soft speaker. All my files fell below the -23dB cutoff. Better give it up and go play ping-pong, yeah? Nah. Because with Audacity, I can amplify the signal and boost it up to something more in line with the requirements. Thing is, amplification of a signal also amplifies the noise, so that needs to be removed as well (otherwise the clip fails the -60dB floor test).

To help out, there’s a tool for audacity called ‘ACX Check’ that can be downloaded. Get it from : https://wiki.audacityteam.org/wiki/Nyquist_Analyze_Plug-ins#ACX_Check

That helps out a lot, letting you know if you’ve managed to get into the realm of happiness, if you’ve got some bad noise somewhere, or a pip that blasts past the -3dB threshold. The only thing I’ve found is that the RMS calculation takes into account all sound blocks, including breaks and pauses, meaning that the RMS figure is artificially low for a sentence with a pause in it.

Now, if I take the value and ramp up, then check it with the ACX Check, it may pass the RMS check, but then fail the noise check. So I then take a sample of the voice along with the silence, and the RMS check fails, but the noise floor passes. Where that leaves me, I don’t know.

I’ve resubmitted the sound files after going through them all and tweaking the amplification, so I’ll let you know how it goes.

More on the Whole Voice Business

When it comes to doing the voicework for the audiobook, I’ve found that there are definitely some dos and don’ts. If you’re thinking about doing the same, be sure to see if these pointers apply to you.

Clothing. Wear soft, natural fibres. It’s cold here, so I had on some heavy cargo pants and a polyester vest, and the mic picked up every little microscopic movement I made. Noisy clothing will quickly ruin your take, so ditch them. Do it in undies. Go naked if you need to, just steer clear of corduroy, nylon or any other noisy clothes. You’ll naturally shuffle in your seat from time to time, so don’t rely on just sitting still. That said:

Sit Still. No, really. If you’re fidgety from sitting down for a long take, pause, take a break, walk around, have lunch, go to the toilet, clear your head. Not necessarily in that order. Your body wants to move, but while you’re doing a take, keep still. On that note, keep your head at a constant angle to the microphone. The pickup for the mic will vary as the angle, so if you’re overly animated while talking, you’ll hear a change in volume.

Check your settings. Check and double check and check it again, before and after you record, and check it in between chapters. Want to waste a day? Don’t check it. It only takes a few seconds and it will save you time. Record in Mono at or above 44.1 kHz, at a rate of 192kbps or above. If your gear doesn’t support this, get new gear.

Have water handy. Stay hydrated. You think you can talk for an hour straight? Two? Five? How long before your throat gives out. Take regular breaks to drink, rest your mouth, stretch your lungs. Use lip balm (I had to after the third time around). I’ve read about not eating cheese or having milk, since this produces phlegm. I can’t say much about that, but I can attest to avoid eating spicy or oniony foods. I was burping so much, I had to stop every other sentence.

Mark your mistakes. Muck up? Say a short, sharp ‘Beep’ and start again. Speak too fast? ‘Beep’. Mispronounce a word? ‘Beep’. Want to say that sentence again, but with difference emphasis? ‘Beep’. Let out an unexpected belch? ‘Beep’. The Beeps might sound like you’re polluting your sound track, but actually you’re providing markers to yourself to draw attention to a portion of audio. Like underscoring a word, a beep shows up after to let you know that whatever just happened was probably wrong.

Go slow. If you need to pause between sentences, go right ahead. If you need to pause after a comma, feel free. If you need to swear, shake out the jumbles and flibble your lips back into shape, do so. The software editing part at the end of it all allows you to crop out the pauses quickly. Yes, it’s more work, but it’s even more work if you happen to stuff up a sentence because you didn’t take the time to read ahead or get your enunciation right.

Read ahead. It’s your work, right, and you know what you wrote, right, word for word, right? Nah. Not at all. You’ll be reading sentences that you’re only just rediscovering. Like reading a book, sometimes the clue to the character or situation happens after the significant fact. “Go away,” she mumbled. Oh, right, mumbling. “Go away,” she huffed. Hmm, huffing. “Go away,” she laughed. Mirth, got it. ‘Beep’, go back, do it again.

Breathe. Sounds obvious, but I reckon breathing was one of the hardest parts to overcome. There’s a natural tendency when talking naturally to take breaths whenever. It can be while talking, halfway through a sentence, halfway though a word. Do your best to overcome your desire for a breath by pausing, breathing a little more and resuming your speech.

I’m sure with plenty of practice, this will all become second nature. Nah, I don’t believe that for a second. More like, ‘with plenty of practice, your get better at spotting where you’re going wrong, and have the maturity and discipline to take active measures’.