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.

The Equipment

Making the booth was a tough job, mostly because I couldn’t cut and saw at night in case I bothered the neighbours, and because I was working in a tight environment. Still, it got done and I’m happy with the result. The next thing I needed to do was make it more sound-boothy, and that started with the foam.

I purchased a couple of boxes of acoustic foam from eBay, got a tin of contact adhesive and a brush, and got to work, slopping on the glue and sticking on the foam. The ceiling wasn’t so bad, considering the glue held on pretty tightly after a few seconds of holding, and cutting out the foam to fit around the various hinges and nooks of the desk was just a matter of patience.

The door was tricky, I’ll admit, and I’m not 100% chuffed with the outcome. There is a gap at the bottom and to one side, and I’m sure this is letting a lot of sound leak. I’m considering making a lip on the floor for the door to butt against and pack that with some foam, but it’s good enough for now.

The only other section that’s causing bother is the brick wall, against which the booth rests. It’s lined with a concrete mixture, aged and crumbling, and the foam doesn’t want to stick to it. For this, I’ll need to make a trestle and feed it down the back. But I’m not convinced that’s leaking a lot of sound, so that’s on the backburner.

Now one thing I didn’t think of until AFTER it was done was lighting. Close the door and the room is very dark indeed. Oh dear. I don’t want to use fluoros, considering the hum they give out, and incandescent fittings are out on account of the insulation and foam. No probs, I’ve got a bank of LEDs I can mount, and that’s just what I did.

Finally, and importantly, I purchased a new microphone. I had a few cheapies lying about which I tried, but they were hissy, poppy and crackly. Kind of like rice-bubbles. No, I needed something better. Looking on the net, there’s the professional grade stuff, with preamps and compressors and big boxes that do stuff and funky connectors and… oh boy. There are also smaller solutions, powered by USB, that apparently are adequate.

I’m unable to afford the $1k price tag for a professional rig, so I’ve gone with the USB option and, I must say, I’m impressed. Not that it takes a lot to impress me, but after dealing with poop for a while, you get to appreciate quality. It’s a Rode NT-USB, found here at http://www.rode.com/microphones/nt-usb.

I added a book stand, attached power, through in some headphones and voila! Once completed, I took it for a test… no I didn’t. Joey took it for a test run.

Thanks, Joey, I was going to get around to testing it one day.

Lastly, and surprisingly, I threw out the chair that I had originally had in the booth. That’s that pink thing in the pic. It was creaking and groaning with every movement of my leg. I thought it would be comfortable, being padded, but no, the mic picks up every sound and that was making more noise than I was. I replaced it with a boring, but solid, steel stool to which I added a folded towel.

The Booth

In the previous post, I explained that I will be undertaking voice overs and presenting some of my books as audiobooks. Great, awesome, let’s get cracking.

Not so fast.

After a practice run of about five minutes using my phone as the microphone, it was evident that there were issues with simply reading out a book.

  • There was too much background noise
  • I was inconsistent with the distance to the microphone
  • The quality was ok, but not brilliant
  • Every stuff-up kind of got lost
  • I was mumbling a lot
  • I was interrupted even more

What I needed, I decided, was a proper place where I could lock a door and do the recording in peace and concentrate solely on getting the words right. For that, I needed a room. The bedroom didn’t work out, nor the loungeroom, nor the laundry or toilet. Echoes and funky acoustics. Noisy neighbours. Running water pipes in the walls. On top of that, I wasn’t keen to slap a bunch of foam on the walls and get yelled at by Wifey.

A few solutions on the net, like making a foam-encased shroud, came up and I got some materials to make that happen – the top of an arch, some foam and baffle boards. The end result was not so great. Ambient sound still polluted the recording, and my phone was just not up to scratch.

Nope, no good. A room with a phone wasn’t going to cut it.

I needed to build a booth.

I had space in the garage. It was all over the place. A little bit here, a little bit under there, lots of it toward the roof. The hard part was consolidating it all, sticking all the space together to form a cohesive area. I rearranged shelves, threw out a bunch of junk, packed half-finished craft into boxes and got to the stage where I had enough space to knock up a wooden frame.

Now, I was going to buy some lengths of wood to make the frame, get it square and right, make it a little hut inside my garage, only at that exact time I came into a lot of scrap wood from the side of the road. Armed with a bunch of screws, a saw and a pencil, I made a fairly decent frame, using an old desk as the base of the booth.

To block out the noise, I used fibreglass insulation bats, sandwiched between masonite on one side and this funky white plastic sheeting. On top, more insulation, some plyboard and masonite. It has a door with a lock and a handle. When I close the door – it’s a lot quieter. Not dead silence, but a heck of a lot quieter.

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.

The Quality of the Merchandise

Forgot to mention yesterday about the quality of the print of the books that arrived.

I’ll start with Tedrick. I got Tedrick Gritswell of Borobo Reef and Tedrick Gritswell Makes Waves delivered so I can give a final check to the quality of the print. I have to say, I’m impressed. The stock used was a cream paper, nice and easy on the eyeballs, with a good sized font and proper looking margins.

I’m always concerned with the gutter, to make sure that when the book is opened, the words don’t get lost somewhere down in the spine. The guidelines of the KDP template help out there a lot and they point out, quite clearly, if words are going to be squished in the gutter.

The margins, too, are spacious and roomy, enough for fingers to hold without getting in the way. Where the print falls down, in my opinion, is on the cover. I’ve noticed a distinct difference with the brightness of the colours on the monitor versus those on print. The books seem to have their colours muted somewhat, like the ‘volume got turned down’.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still the same image, it’s not altered at all, but the realisation into the physical world leaves a little something back in the digital world. I’m sure there’s a term for this.

The Adaptation book is a whopper. It’s printed on white paper with 9.5 point font, 0.5 points below the recommended minimum. That was the absolute largest I could use without blowing the pages out past the maximum of 800. I also used a custom font that squished the words up a fraction more. Each chapter title also uses a custom font to match the title cover.

This was a bit annoying because it means embedding the font into the final PDF. If I didn’t do that, the font would default to something else, and I’d gain an extra few pages and push past the limit. Embedded the font ain’t so bad – it makes the PDF larger, of course, but that makes it longer upload.

The cover came out better than I expected. The charcoal of the carbon-fibre comes up good against the cyan and orange. The back holds a likeness of yours truly in a little circle. The print quality is nice and the matt cover has a definite feel to it.

The only thing that annoys me is the slim margins and small font size. I would have preferred to go to, say, a thousand pages with a thicker margin and 11 point font but, unfortunately, the Laws of Physics only extend so far.

You Asked For It

Adaptation began its life on my PDA. That’s right, I didn’t really have a means to write my story in bed like some kind of, oh, I don’t know, computer that could sit comfortably on my lap – maybe a lap-computer of sorts? – and I wasn’t keen on resting a typewriter on the blankets, and writing with a pen was out so I resorted to the only thing I could think of. A Personal Digital Assistant which had, as part of its software, a highly trimmed down version of Microsoft Word.

There was an on-screen keyboard, and a little two by three inch space for the text, which made writing possible, albeit difficult. I’d tap away on there, adding my paragraphs and hitting save, and in the morning I’d download the text onto my computer and repeat the process the next night.

Why am I telling you this? Because it leads into the reason I’m writing this post. You see, after a while, the PDA began to suffer. It couldn’t cope with the demand of me hitting the save button after a couple of paragraphs. The files were just too big for its little processing unit to cope with and, after around a hundred thousand odd words, it just got too damn slow.

So I broke up the manuscript into three pieces, Adaptation Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3, three different files, that could be edited separately and hitting the save button wasn’t so bad (still bad, but not to the point of annoying). It also meant I could cut my teeth on the whole publishing process and bumble about without having to wait until the very end.

This is why Adaptation comes in parts. The size of the project was just too big for technical reasons and, as such, it had to be broken into smaller chunks, each of about 100k words. When it came to hard copies, the breaking-up helped a lot, too, because that way I could fit the books into standard title sizes.

Great, great. What’s that got to do with the price of jerky in Iceland? (About 600 isk a bag at the time of writing, which is almost $10, so there you go)

It’s because, as of now, you can get all the Adaptation parts in one compendium. It brings all the bits together into one big book.

Adaptation Front Cover

As you can see, it has the new front cover design, but without the ‘Part X’ bit. On the inside, you’ve got all the parts, together with their own chapters and dedications, comprising nearly 600k words.

Now that’s got to be a lot easier than having to manually grab all of the individual parts, right? As a bonus, the Adaptation compendium is cheaper than the sum of its parts.

This is now live at Smashwords, Kobo, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google, iTunes and all the other guys.

Smoking Bullets

Ha, now there’s a vision.

Once I’d finished with the front cover of Adaptation, I had a look at some of my other titles. Yep, you guessed it, I wasn’t happy with them. I mean, the Paranormology series ain’t so bad (except, let’s be honest, Beaumauris Road Ghost) and Atlas, Broken is almost where I want it to be, but The Bullet stood out as the poor, underloved book that just wanted to have its day.

The Bullet was one of the stories, back in 2014, that I pushed out without too much thought. It was the first to be put into hard-copy, because it was small and easy to manipulate I guess, good for a trial run. But it’s still a book and it still wants love.

So there’s the old cover. Come to think of it, that’s the one for the print, since the text is slightly to the left and squished in a bit, but never mind that. The whole point is that while the bullet is front and centre, sure, and the story is about the bullet, the cover doesn’t really let your eye do anything more than read the text and see the bullet. The factory in the background isn’t prominent. In fact, I was showing Joey just the other day and he said, “Yeah, I like it, but what’s are all those lines at the back?”

Good lesson there, too. Ask a kid. They’ll be honest.

So I got to thinking about covers and what makes this yawn-worthy? Firstly, it doesn’t convey anything about the book apart from the obvious – The Bullet, with a bullet on it. OK, great, what else? The factory is stunted, there’s nothing steampunk about it, and it doesn’t challenge me in any way. It’s also very symmetric (aside from the squishing to fit it to a print book) so, really, there’s nowhere for the eye to go but top to bottom.

I trudged back over my source material again and looked at a bunch of other book covers and realised, yup, it needs a make-over.

So here we have a completely different design. Firstly, it’s darker. There’s no factory to fuddle things up, but the implication is there what with all the smoke billowing about. You’ll also note, there isn’t one bullet, but many, highlighting the major theme of the story, of this bullet and its peers. It’s challenging in that it asks what’s so special about this bullet that looks exactly the same as the ones next to it. The font is an older newspaper-style, formed but haggard, rough and rusted. Lastly, the symmetry is removed, with the words somewhat right aligned, but not perfectly.

The eye is free to bounce about a bit, first gathering the bullet, then the words, then picking at the bullets in the rows to see if there is any difference between them, anything further to see through the haze of steam and smoke. The rows of perfect rounds suggests a factory, a process, so there’s no need to harp on about it.

With such a large print and uncluttered image, it looks waaaaaay better on the small scale which, as I’ve come to realise, is very important, considering most book sites display their wares in small icons and thumbnails.

I asked Joey what he thought about this one. He said, “I dunno. I liked the first one.”

Kids, eh? What do they know?

This cover change was also necessary because, well, I’ll let you know in a bit.

Judging a Book by its Cover

When I first started out writing, I was busy with the whole ‘writing’ part of the deal, you know, putting words together to make sentences and all that jazz. Then, when it got time to get real, I slammed into the ‘oh-crap’ wall, filled with blocks of requirements held together with a mortar of doubt.

Books need a description. And they need an ISBN. And they need to be categorised according to their content and type. And, of course, they need a front cover.

Well, as far as I can tell, you can get away with not having an ISBN, and you have categories of ‘General’ under fiction which, I guess, sort of covers just about anything, and technically you don’t need a front cover to have a book published.

But it sure helps.

So there I go, flailing against the wall, doing whatever I could to get through to the other side. A front cover? No problem. How hard can that be? I mean, it’s just words and a picture right? Well, technically yes, that’s correct, there are words and there is usually a picture, but it’s not as simple as… No worries, gimme two minutes.

Cue me running around like a maniac, taking photographs with my old, clunky phone, trying to figure out how to operate GIMP, fending off the calls from work – heck, it’s eleven at night – and a whisky shot or two later, here you go:

Yeah, I didn’t like it either, but you have to admit, there are words and there’s a picture, so it’s a cover, right? Besides, it was bed time and I wanted this thing up and out and off my hands (There’s a lesson right there – if you’re feeling pressured, you’re making mistakes and if you’re making mistakes, back off, go to bed and tackle it tomorrow).

Alright, fine, it was poo, I agree. So after I did the same for part 2 and 3, I sat back and thought that I’d better take it more seriously. After all, by this stage I was looking at hard copies and, yeah, these guys ain’t gonna cut the mustard.

I started with the idea of emphasising the split from title and author as top and bottom and the imagery in the middle. I found a nice carbon fibre background and a chrome bar to add the separators and changed the font to something more appropriate. And for the most part, I was happy with it, until I looked at it with fresh eyes last month and thought that looked unpolished.

The uniformity of the imagery was bothering me. Sure, the method of thresholding the image and using the darkness to create a silhouette over a gradiented background made some amount of sense, it still didn’t convey exactly what I was after. So I’ve gone and made a change, I hope, for the better.

Yes, that’s still the same carbon fibre and chrome curtain rod. Yes, that’s still my eyeball (albeit updated) but now we’ve got a more modern twist on things.

Firstly, you’ll notice the change from a single point of reference, to having the city below, a bustling, light filled city, shining in amber, contrasting the relatively cyan eyeball on top. Amber and teal, apparently, is the combination of the month. The cityscape lends itself nicely, since the perspective of the main roads naturally lead one toward the top, reminiscent of the famous ‘all seeing eye’.

I was going for a pixelated eyeball to emphasise the use of technology, but then I backed off on that since it made it look a little too 8-bit. Instead, I went for a glass-tile filter to add the squareness to it, keeping detail while still breaking the imagery up.

All things considered, I’m chuffed with the result.

Shucks, thanks Amazon

Well shucks, thanks for that, Amazon. I finished making hard copies of Tedrick and putting together a compendium of Adaptation and felt pretty chuffed. Rather than going through Lulu, I decided to use KDP instead.

It’s a different experience, better in some ways, worse in others, but altogether things were looking up. Then I clicked on the option of ‘order proofs’ because, hey, I want to make sure the books print properly. It’s something that Lulu insists upon so that you, the creator, are satisfied with how your books come out in the physical world and I totally agree with it.

So I press the button and it tells me I’ve got 24 hours to check out my cart. Fine, but first let me add a couple of other proofs. Aside from a couple of weird issues, all good.
Then I go to check out. Houston, we have a problem. There’s a big, fat splash of red writing across the page (that’s never good) telling me that what I want isn’t possible. Why not?

What’s the issue?

It turns out that Amazon.com ain’t delivering to Australia no more. That’s right. I can’t purchase my own book. I mean… really?
Looking this up online answers my question: Really.
It seems that because Australia has the GST (A 10% tax on sales), purchases from overseas websites need to attract that tax. I’m not sure of all the politics behind it, but it seems to be something like a dummy-spit by Amazon.

“We don’t want to apply your taxes, so we’re not going sell anything to you unless you purchase from the Australian website.”
Great, but that doesn’t help me because the KDP proof doesn’t allow an Australian marketplace shipment, so I’m forced to use the American one. And around we go. So the tokens expired, I ordered it all again and this time sent it through a freight forwarding company, MyUS.com. The idea is that Amazon ships to them in Florida, then they ship it to me in Melbourne.

It looks legit. Only thing is that now delivery will necessarily take longer and cost more because there are now two shipments involved. Ah, well. So long as I can get the rotten things, I’ll be fine.

Still, I think the whole thing is a bit stupid from a buyer’s perspective – I am willing to pay money for available goods, but because of a spat between a corporation and a government, I have to go the hard way around, pay more and wait longer. What’s more, with Lulu, who also sell through Amazon, they seem to outsource the printing locally anyway, meaning I don’t have the book being sent from half way around the world.

Strange thing is that I just tested purchasing a gas tank from Amazon, and that seemed to be shippable from the US. So A petrol tank can be shipped, but books can’t? I don’t get it.

Even stranger, when looking at the page for Adaptation, it says it can be shipped to Australia, whereas Tedrick Gritswell cannot. Now I’m really confused.

If anyone has any insight, I’d be glad to hear it.