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.

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’.

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.

His Master’s Voice

I’m in this writing game and it’s a lot of fun, it really is, and it’s very stressful and it’s eye opening and all sorts of things. I’m happy that I took the plunge, even though some days I want to just switch it all off and forget I ever began. There are many, many ups and downs, so many times when I think I’ve got the hang of it, only to realise I’ve been doing it all wrong.

Embarrassment, shame, elation and triumph. Success and failure in unfair measures. That’s the gag. My skin has grown in thickness from the paper-thin cling wrap in the early days to its current, Gold Coast leathery hide. I’m not a pachyderm, just yet, but I’m getting there.

So when there comes an opportunity to go one step further, to stick my arm in a bit deeper and stroke the Wood Beast, I’m up for it. That opportunity comes in the form of… wait for it… audio books!

That’s right, yours truly has (reluctantly) decided to put his voice on the line.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that there are many out there who wouldn’t think twice about getting behind a microphone and reading aloud. Me? Yeah, nah, I’m good. No, really. I like doing the writing bit, that’s fun, I’m not sure that, er, yeah… can we not?

Writing affords the opportunity to correct mistakes, to really ponder over just how you wish to communicate with the audience. You can get your magical red pen and make marks and adjustments and go back to edit them at your convenience.

Speaking is a on a different level. Sure, the matter is already written, so that’s the hard part done, right? And you’ve got editing software to help out so you can correct mistakes and adjust volumes and things like that. It’s not like it’s actually live or anything. But there’s a definite difference – no longer am I an author, I’m now a narrator. As the Author, my words go into your head. As the Narrator, I’m putting my voice in your head. It’s one step closer to me actually sitting next to you, talking with you.

I’ve already been told that when people read my books, they hear me in their head. Well, in the words of Gomer, “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!”

You’re going to be hearing a lot more of me.