Audiobook Production Basics Explained

Today, George Whittam of the New York-based Edge Studio joins us to offer his perspective on creating professional sounding audiobooks for ACX. In this informative video, he demystifies the technical process of recording audiobooks and sheds light on everything from what makes an acceptable noise floor, to DAW recommendations, to specific mastering techniques that meet our audio submission requirements. Take good notes here, because there’s a lot of helpful info ahead!

What was George’s most helpful piece of advice? Tell us in the comments!

88 responses to “Audiobook Production Basics Explained

  1. Wow!! Thank you so much Edge Studio and George Whittam! this was tremendously helpful!

  2. Great session, George. The clicker idea is the best idea ever, especially when you told us just to fix the MISTAKES where you see the very distinct marks in your audio file, then listen to the whole thing when you proof. Incredible time saver. I tried to follow you when you talked about dynamics processing and high pass filters and peak limiters, but on my PC with Adobe Audition, is a peak limiter the same as a hard limiter? I get compression and normalizing, which I always use, but this makes me afraid to make any changes to my software. How about a session on DAWS for Dummies–one for Macs, one for PCs?

  3. Very helpful on mastering techniques. Thanks.

  4. Thanks George for all you do and how you explain.
    I am affirmed in my own technique seeing that the clicker is what you use.
    I have used my own voice and fake a loud buzz sound for about one second that fills in a solid spot which is also recognizable visually when looking over the wave form in my editor. I also have done a loud clapping with my hands in front of the mic and does much the same as the clicker.
    However, I do believe I to will get a clicker! I’ve been marking my audio on retakes with some sound marker for many years, but the clicker will do just fine. Thanks!

  5. A wonderful summary — THANKS! (Although I must confess that I am addicted to punch-n-roll. Or is it roll-n-punch? Whatever!)

  6. Love the stack you designed for me George! Changed my life πŸ™‚

  7. Great discussion. Mastering and the clicker tip all good. Would you discuss a good, better, best digital audio interface on an upcoming edition? Thanks!

  8. George,
    Thanks so so much for all of your help. I am new at this — what if you don’t have a MAC? Also, what is the problem with a USB mic? I am currently using Audacity since I am still learning and have an AT 20/20 mic. The guy at zZ sounds recommended that but now I fear he did not understand that I was only recording audio. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
    Sincerely,
    Lori Moran

    • You don’t need a Mac. Even if you don’t own the cookware you see the chef use on TV you can still make the dish, it will just take you longer or it may not come out quite as well.
      USB mics like the Shure PG42USB sound amazingly good, and the AT2020USB is certainly acceptable for audiobook creation in the right hands.

    • Hi Lori,

      I’m not expert but I believe that people don’t like USB mics because they lack the fidelity of an analog mic, and that the tech in microphones hasn’t changed in decades so they know how to build them well and a mic that uses an XLR cable might last longer than a USB mic. All that said I use the exact same microphone – the AT2020 USB microphone and I couldn’t be happier with it. It records at the fidelity I need to submit audiobooks to ACX and I think it sounds amazing. I’ve watched dozens of reviews on it and everyone else seems to think it captures amazing sound quality as well. So until I find some incredible reason to go to an analog mic that’s just going to have its signal converted to digital to go into my computer anyway – I like my AT2020 usb mic just fine, and so the the authors I’ve narrated books for πŸ™‚ I’ve heard comparisons with other popular USB microphones like the Blue Snowball mics and I don’t think those sound nearly as good as the AT2020 which is made for doing voice over recording. Anyways, hope that helps and anyone else please chime in with a differing opinion. I’d love to hear it as I’ve thought of upgrading my microphone someday even though I love the way it sounds just so I could record without a computer.

  9. George,
    You the man! Absolutely hands down the best piece of advise I was able to take away from this would be the clicker info. Never knew of it..I’m hoping to get on it at my earliest.
    -Angelina Will

  10. Thank you, George ~ a very informative chat/demonstration….. The “clicker” idea is one I’ll adopt. Is “Twistedwave” only for Mac’s? I use an HP Windows 7, 64-bit PC ~ I’ll go to the “Twistedwave” website to determine if they have a PC version….

    Excellent presentation!!!

    Jim Rogers

  11. My husband does the editing etc. I record on weekends ,since he works fulltime . So, thanks for the video! He will watch it.
    We don’t have a Mac. But he created a great space and bought a super mic.
    ( When I did books directly from Audible, I found the Punch in the greatest way to fix stuff ) But can’t seem to do it on our software..
    Best Regards
    Susana Fox

  12. hanging on your every word for months. also bought your 4 video series on Twisted Wave and refer back to it often. i can see or rather hear my progress every day. you came highly recommended and the reasons why are obvious and many. big THANKS MR. WHITTAM!

  13. Every time I watch these I learn a ton… George, thanks for the time and Edge Studios, it was a genus move to get George onboard.

  14. wow… a clicker. That’s great. The settings you use on the EQ are great to know also. Thanks.

  15. George is right on! May I add a few pointers of my own after 30 years of engineering? You can have the most quiet booth in the world, but be careful about what kind of chair you buy or use. Chair squeaks and bumps occur often with most of the “office” type swivel seat and swivel back feature(s). Be aware of comfort AND noise.

    Notice that George is wearing a nice soft shirt. Starched long-sleeve shirts and some types of trousers or pants will tend to produce noise as you turn or move. So, record in pajamas if you must! Also, anticipate your page turns. Page turn noise is also an enemy. You can’t edit the page rustle out if it’s combined with your voice. If the script page ends in the middle of a sentence, put two pages up or stop to prepare for the pick up.

    Finally, record and save a 5 minute segment of room tone from your recording space or environment. Then listen to it in a totally different space, room or environment. If you use headphones to record, then use the same headphones to listen back. The reason I mention this is because the recording space that your record in has a certain atmosphere that is constant. It may tend to mask noise that may not be evident once you move to a different location. Your ears tend to “get use to” or accept noise, hum and hiss after long periods. Think of it as “snow blindness” for your ears. Moving to a different room to listen to your audio may prove that your audio is very clean or it may be in need of improvement.

    • Thanks for the additional input Jerry. I especially like the info about “snow blindness” for yours ears. Makes perfect sense to me.

    • That “snow blindness” idea is precisely why I do all critical listening on sealed circumaural headphones that block out almost 30dB of outside noise. In my case I use Beyerdynamic DT770pro and Sennheiser HD380pro headphones the most.

  16. George, obviously you are a big fan of twisted wave. How do you feel about Audacity?

    • Audacity, it’s better than nothing! It just depends on how productive you want to be and the quality of the final results… They are all just tools, a means to an end.

    • Audacity has numerous little quirks that just make it not as productive for me as Twistedwave, such as making a new track everytime you stop and record again, the inability to share my “stacks” with other users, inability to save presets for most of the processing settings (except EQ), lack of a proper downward expander, no batch processing, no support from the developer directly, etc.

  17. Thanks, George. Excellent presentation and lots of good information. For those folks using Windows based computers, REAPER is an excellent DAW and is available as a download on a FREE 60-day evaluation from http://www.reaper.fm/index.php If you decide to keep the software the cost is only $60. Most professional DAWs in our studios cost many times more i.e. ProTools, Cakewalk, Cubase, etc and come with an equally steep learning curve. REAPER is easy to use, loaded with audio editing tools and free to check out. Yes there ARE some totally free DAWs out there such as Audacity, but as with most things, you get what you pay for. If you’ve made a decision to produce quality ACX projects spend a little money and get a good sound.

    Perhaps the most important piece of audio equipment is your microphone. Cheap mics sound cheap. Be prepared to spend at least $200-$300, or more if you can afford it, for a decent mic. Check out the condenser mics from Rode, available from most retailers such as MusiciansFriend.com or the dynamic broadcast mics like the Heil’s PR40 from BSWUSA.com (also a great source of equipment info).

    And finally, they don’t call it “recording arts and science” for nothing. You’ll have to do a lot of experimenting with software and hardware, and lots of listening to learn to recognize a good recording. If all you want to do is get your book recorded, and you don’t want to become a tech head, it may be better to hire an ACX producer to create your project and concentrate your energy on writing more great books. Either way…make sure you’re having fun.

    • I tought how to roll n punch with Reaper in a past webinar with voiceover xtra… Google around and I’m sure you’ll be able to find it! My favorite for pnr recording by a LONG shot…

  18. This was all good, but I find I like multi-track so I can try different readings and drop them in, and I like to be able to have a separate track for room tone that I can adjust as necessary. Especially like the clicker!

    • I just noticed that I echoed several of the points in my post below that you already made in yours. Great minds… πŸ™‚

  19. Christine Stevens

    That was an excellent video George. Wow doing an audio book would definitely be a challenge for me. I use Audacity on a PC laptop, but will look into Twisted Wave….or perhaps that is only for Macs. Love the Clicker idea, that is great for an voice over work! Thank you.
    Christine

  20. Great video, George. You have an easy-going confident teaching style. Always interested in what you have to share.

  21. I have been using Audacity. Does Audacity have the ability you referred to as a “STACK”? The HPF 80hz and the Clicker were my two favorite tips!

  22. The ‘Clicker’ is a great idea…thank you George and ACX. Learned much about mastering as well.

  23. Liked the clicker idea, will speed up edits. However, I am a PC user and use Cakewalk/Sonar producer. The concepts are great, I’ll just have to customize the application. Also, was curious if you recommend a particular model of mic or have some general recommendations. Thanks for the info.

    • Recommending a “mic” is like asking someone to recommend a car without sharing with them a lot more information about your requirements such as budget, mileage, performance, comfort, payload, reliability, etc…

      But since you asked, and in this context of a home studio for audiobooks, I can name a few (all <$500):
      Shure PG42USB or non USB model
      CAD e100s
      Shure SM7b with a Cloud Lifter CL1
      AT875r
      ATR2100 (for the very budget conscious)
      AT2035

  24. Regarding “expansion:” how quiet is too quiet for remaining room tone? You say -40 dB is a good noise floor level pre-, what about post-? Is there an example of “unnaturally” quiet background we can listen to?

    I quickly learned that noise removal tools are not a substitute for controlling noisy environment — you get tinkly artififacts. But after controlling environment so that I don’t hear such effects, is noise removal still better avoided if it makes the background too quiet?

    • Paul, ACX’s specs state that the noise floor in your audiobook production should not be above -60dB RMS. (Previously, their specs asked for a noise floor between -50 and -60 dB.) So I wouldn’t go any further than -70dB, for sure.

      Noise reduction plugins can be problematic. They can negatively affect your audio with artifacts unless used with very subtle settings. If you have a very noisy environment that you wish to clean up in post, I’d advise using a gate (with a bit of a hold so that words aren’t “chopped off” quickly), and then if you have the gate set so that it removes *all* of your background environment, you can fill that in with a sample of room tone that you’ve recorded in that same room when the environment isn’t noisy. Not an ideal solution, but it’ll work, and if you do it well, it will be hard for anyone to tell.

      • Yeah, what you said, DJ! A -60dB RMS room tone isn’t that hard to achieve while a -60dB PEAK room tone is a lot more stringent. Sitting at my desk right now I am getting around -60dB RMS with a trash truck 100 feet away emptying a dumpster.

    • I use Audacity, which is to an extent programmable, on Windows, for which there is another programmable program called AutoHotKeys that lets you assign actions to certain input events, no matter which program has the input focus.

      I have developed a few tools of my own to make Audacity more useful for narration. I have developed an alternative to punch and roll that edits many wrong takes out as I record. I can just use the mouse wheel to scroll down whenever I reach a pause between sentences with acceptable reading, and I make a “commit” point in my recordings. But if I misread and catch it immediately, I roll it up, and the AHK script causes Audacity to stop, undo, and continue recording. This is not exactly P&R but it is a similar time saver. All the while the mouse focus can stay in Adobe Reader or a similar program displaying my script, while AHK sends commands to affect Audacity.

      I am also rather proud of the sound processing tool I developed for Audacity, that I think does a great job of automatic removal of mouth smacks while not degrading the quality of the voice. I also have another useful plug in effect (someone else wrote this for me) that patches any selection with an EQUAL LENGTH from a special room tone clipboard (thus unlike cut and paste, not pasting the whole clipboard), with some crossfading at the boundaries to avoid introducing clicks. This is dandy for quick removal of breaths.

      Is anyone interested in sharing? email me.

      • Paul,
        WOW. How do you know all this? I mean how long does it take to be able to figure out how to develop something like this? I am new to audio book narration and I know I could do a great job. My voice sounds good except I can hear noises like mouth clicks,,subtle but there and I just don’t know how to fix it. It is very frustrating. I also use Audacity. Please if you wouldn’t mind could you send me a step by step? I could even send you maybe 30 seconds of audio that I recorded and maybe you could have some setting suggestions? I don’t want to put you out, but any advice you could give me would be SO appreciated.

      • moranlo2, it did take some figuring out, more than a little programming and mathematics and experiment. You can find the results here. Download the file, copy to the Plug-Ins file among the Audacity program files, restart Audacity, and try it out. Don’t be scared of all the settings, the defaults work pretty well. http://forum.audacityteam.org/viewtopic.php?f=39&t=75942&sid=73f5c634df2b3ba5c139f944efabd3b9

      • I realize this thread is quite old, but let me stand up and say I am a devoted user of Paul Licameli’s De-Clicker Plugin. πŸ™‚

  25. George,
    Been using Garageband for recording, editing narration for over two years now. Pretty fast at it, but like what you said about Twistedwave. Wondering if its worth the time investment to switch over. Thoughts?

    • Yes, it absolutely is worth it. What is your ratio of production time to finished hour?

    • I looked into using GarageBand but couldn’t see how it would be time effective for editing – when you delete a mistake don’t you then have to select all the audio after it and slide it over to the left? In audacity everything slides left automatically taking up the space you deleted. I’ve used software where you can toggle this function on and off but I didn’t see a way to turn it on in Garage Band – am I missing something. Also, do you use GarageBand to master your audio? They have a lot of cool presets. Thanks!

  26. Garage band user for couple of years. I’m pretty fast but like what you said about TW. Worth the time investment to switch?

  27. Thanks George. I’ve had another coach recommend just using “Levelator” software for final ACX mastering. What do you think that about that product?

    Also, with Audacity I really like the “Truncate Silence” feature and haven’t been able to find that in other products. Does Twisted Wave have a feature like that?

    • There are several people in the business who advise using the Levelator for audiobooks. I strongly disagree. My personal opinion on the Levelator is that it may be a handy tool for podcasts and the like, but when applied to the greater dynamic range that you encounter with an audiobook read (and I’m talking mainly about works of fiction, as opposed to the more straightforward reads of a non-fiction book), I felt that it created an unacceptable end product. The levels were very even, yes, but it sounded extremely unnatural to my ears. However, I’d be curious to hear George and others weigh in with their opinions.

      • Again, I agree with you completely DJ. Levelator is much to “ham handed” for the delicate needs of an audiobook production. I’ve heard the results of using such a tool and was not impressed.
        TwistedWave has a “Detect Silences” feature which is pretty powerful, maybe that’s what you are looking for (I don’t like using it, though).

  28. As usual, great information and points, George πŸ™‚ I was taught to snap my fingers to create the ‘click’ between takes, but a clicker sounds like a great tool.

  29. Thanks, George β€” a lot of good basic stuff here.

    I used to use the clicker technique (or my version of it, which is just snapping my fingers twice near the mic), but I found that it made for too much time spent in post-production/editing. So I switched to punch recording, and it’s saved me so much time. Occasionally, I’ll get a small noise at the beginning where I hit the punch button, but I’ll always catch that in one of my QC passes, and I find it a lot easier to do that than to be constantly moving pieces of audio around. I understand it may be different for others, of course.

    One other thing I often do is record two full (good) takes of each chapter. (I feel that this gives me a much better chance at getting just the right reading for a narration passage or line of dialogue.) For this reason, I prefer working in a multi-track environment when putting together the final mix. Then I can put each take on a separate track, and though I’ll usually go with the 2nd take most of the time, if there’s a line that doesn’t sound quite right, it’s easy to find that corresponding line on the track that has the 1st take, because it’ll be right there at pretty much the same time code. I also keep a 3rd track for a room tone recording I’ve made, and will use that when I need to get more aggressive with silencing some noise in-between words.

    Another benefit of using multi-track for the final edit is that any changes I make from that point are totally non-destructive to the original audio files, so I will always have them in their pristine condition, if needed. And if I decide later that I need to tweak my processing effects (in the “stack”) for a particular chapter, I can very easily make changes to that, as my original files are saved without any processing. Then I just do a mixdown of the multi-track session, check that for levels, and convert to mp3 for uploading.

    But Bob Buford is right β€” you can spend a LOT of time getting your post-production settings just right, and until you’ve found a consistency in your recording techniques, you may need to keep tweaking it a bit every time you edit. After a while, though, you should get to a point where it’s a simple matter of a few quick edits and fixes, applying the settings in your effects rack, and you’re done. Personally, I spend about 1/5 the time in post-production that I used to spend, which of course translates to the ability to do a lot more audiobooks in a given year. πŸ˜‰

  30. Excellent video, George. Too many productions suffer from an under-appreciation of what post production techniques can do for your work. Your video breaks down the essentials for excellent recordings…and your communication style seals the deal. Well done!

  31. Simple is always best. Thanks, George!

  32. Since we own practically every DAW at our recording studio, I feel comfortable in recommending what I think is an excellent DAW for Windows and Mac at a reasonable price, that has all the bells and whistles you’ll need to produce a top quality audio file. That DAW is “Reaper” and you can get a free copy online to play with at

    http://www.reaper.fm/index.php

    If you decide to keep the software the cost is only $60.

    One more little tip on getting the right sound…or at least the sound YOU like. This process is called “A-B-ing”, that is, a side-by-side comparison of two different audio tracks. Go to Audible.com and LISTEN to some samples from a few major publishers. Cue up your own audio file and play a portion of one of the samples and then play your own. I like to listen through a good set of headphones to eliminate the effects of speakers and the listening room. What are you hoping to hear? Noise floor, overall volume, equalization (is it bright, bassy, mid-rangy ), dynamics ( listen to see if the sound was compressed. There will a noticeable reduction in vocal dynamics, perceived as loud or low volume passages ). Keep making these kinds of comparisons until you can make your own audio sound like the sample you like the best. Sound engineering is VERY subjective. But you should not get so far out with your audio editing/processing that it sounds noticeably different from Audible approved products. Once again…you have to do a LOT of listening to train your ears to know what they’re hearing and how to make effective changes.

  33. George you never fail to give sage advice. Solid!

  34. I was a little surprised that George didn’t mention the simple, and useful method of reducing room noise by recording 8 or 10 seconds of the room before recording, and using that sample to apply a noise reduction filter during post.

    • Geoff, I avoid Noise Reduction tools such as included with Audacity because it often introduces “artifacts” in the recording, never a good thing. I prefer proper use of a “downward expander” to reduce room tone.

      • The original noise reduction tool in Audacity was indeed awful. Since 2.0 it is completely different and we have never been bothered with artifacts or unnatural sound.

  35. Interesting and very informative! Thanks!

  36. George, I’m having trouble finding a pop filter like yours. I use a Shure PG 42 USB mic. Can you point me in the right direction? And thanks for your invaluable advice on mastering.

  37. Sounds like this guy could use some lessons on how to correctly use a noise gate. Ha ha!!!

  38. This question came in:
    Hi George, I’m an amateur narrator and producer and just watched this again https://blog.acx.com/2014/02/05/audiobook-production-basics-explained/ and hoped you might quickly answer a tech question:

    In the equalization curve seen in that video, you boost 20kHz by 6 dB. What’s the purpose of that? I thought (1) frequencies that high are inaudible to most people and (2) even the lossy compression for “CD” quality .mp3 files available through Audible.com will throw away anything above 10kHz.

    Thanks!
    Paul Licameli

    Very observant of you, Paul! I like to add what audio engineers call “air” to the treble frequency range. Yes, 20Khz is above the range of adult hearing, but the frequencies in the slope leading up to 20Khz also get progressively boosted. It certainly is audible to me, but may not be to others, or after the Audible compression codec is added.

  39. Observing the snarky comment above about someone not knowing how to use a noise gate, how about some help with that?

  40. For those who don’t want to wait for a clicker, or can’t afford one, I simply snap my fingers. That’s a trick I learned from a podcaster back in 2007 when he was talking about some of the issues they had in the editing process (such as bleeping out a curse word). They used to have someone write down the time code! Very useful information nonetheless. Also, Gary, the snarky types have very short memories of the time when they were know-nothings themselves. Unless the first words out of his mouth as a child were ‘Mommy, here’s how you use a noise gate’. Ignore the trolls, I guess… unlike me.

  41. My biggest concern isn’t my mic or my headphones, or even my room (although it IS a concern). My big concern is my SOUND CARD. I am using an old Sould Blaster X-Fi Fatal1ty card. I have found that it doesn’t seem to have the greatest signal-to-noise ratio. While I can get rid of the line noise with a good noise gate (especially Audacity’s now functional noise removal tool) I would prefer to hear some recommendations as to some cards that would work well. I can always buy used, so if there are older models that work well those would make good recommendations. I’ve seen a few with nice 1/8th jacks for mic and headphones, but I dotn’t know if there are any to avoid or any specific ones to gravitate toward.

  42. Thank you, George, for the pop filter info. And thanks, Shawn For your recent comment regarding noise gates, etc.

  43. Billie Jo Wallaker

    I’m all up for trying twistedwave but before I spend more money I’m wondering if I will still have the same problem I’m having now. For quite some time I’ve been reading blogs and tutorials and trying to figure out why I’ve had constant horrible cracking and distortion when I record vocals in garageband using my blue yeti mic and it’s only when I talk. It’s totally distorted and cracking. I’m in a small home office, out in the country, no outside noise……I’m new to all of this, my goal is to actually be able to do voice over work starting with ACX and I’ve been desperately trying to figure out for a while now what I’m doing wrong. I have gone through all the normal suggestions of checking the audio input/outputs, reverb,etc. I was using macbook and read that the usb plugs could be dirty so tried the usb extension type plugs. I have read where others have had this same problem but they’ve also bought other microphones and still had the same problem. I bought an imac last week with hopes that maybe the cracking and distortion was because of the fan in the laptop but it was not the case as I am sadly having the same exact problems. Any suggestions, recommendations would be a huge huge help!!! I would love to switch to twistedwave if I know I won’t have the same problems I’m having now and I can actually get some work done!!!!
    Thanks a bunch!
    Billie Jo

  44. Billie Jo Wallaker

    Well I think I’m talking to myself since this is an old blog but I tried the twistedwave trial and of course still have the same cracking/distortion/static…..whatever it is when I listen back to the recording of my voice. I really really really wish I could just get someone on the phone that could tell me what I’m doing wrong. TWO computers, TWO different software programs and still the same problem…….BUELLER…..BUELLER….ANYONE???? HELLO? PLEASE PLEASE CAN SOMEONE OFFER ANY SUGGESTIONS?

    • Billie Jo- Have you solved this problem? If not, short of getting a professional out to your house to help you, I would check my electrical wiring. Interference in your signal can cause all sorts of those problems. I’m no engineer, but that would be where I would start. But it sounds like you need some professional help.

    • Billie Jo, have you thought to contact Blue customer support? That seems to be the most logical path to take when dealing with a technical problem like this before you hire someone like myself to ferret out the issue.

      • That was 2 of the 101 things I tried. They finally got back to me after weeks of waiting and I’m sending the mic back. So often I hear of people complaining of computer problems and 99% of the time it’s not the computer is the user. I kept thinking I was doing something wrong but clearly the mic is defective because there was literally nothing else I could have tried except buy a new mic which I did.

  45. I found this article to be very helpful.As a new narrator to ACX, I was struggling with the technical aspects of producing and overall time management during edits and proofing. This video has proven useful in so many ways.

  46. Pingback: Audiobook Webinar Roundup : The Booklist Reader

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