Audible Approved Producers are the best of the best on ACX. Qualifying Producers have a proven track record of dynamic performances and superior-quality audio. They’ve been around the block a few times and learned a thing or two about compelling narration, pristine sound, and how to make the whole production process run a like a well-oiled machine. We checked in with a few of our newest AAPs to get their advice on producing like a professional.
Q: What’s your biggest production timesaver?
Paul Stefano: OUTSOURCING. I hire out nearly all of my editing and proofing. This allows me to work on several projects at once as I focus on what I do best: the narrating. Plus, it’s always good to have a second set of eyes (or ears, as it were) on your work. If you made a mistake once, you are likely to do it again, so doing your own quality control as a narrator is generally a bad idea. Once I made this switch in my career, it was like the heavens opened up to a whole new world.
Heather Masters: I keep a file in the folder of each book I produce, which is titled ‘Voice Profile.’ Each time I record a new character, I highlight a few lines and copy [the audio] into my voice profile. This way, even if I don’t see the character again for days, I can jump right to their voice and refresh my memory, ensuring my characters are consistent. It’s an invaluable tool with a series!
Travis Baldree: Know your software, make shortcuts for anything that can be short-cutted, and constantly be on the lookout for ways to optimize your time or reduce repetitive actions that slow you down or introduce problems.
Aven Shore: I maintain my progress notes on an online document, so I can reference them anywhere. Even better, it’s shareable, so I use it to communicate with my sound engineer and proofer so we don’t have to email each other constantly. We can all log in to the document and see deadlines, pickups, file names, where I’m at in the recording, upcoming books scheduled, special treatment notes, and more (we use Zoho Docs, but there are similar alternatives, like Google Docs).
Rich Miller: I think it’s probably Punch & Roll recording [a method of recording that involves rolling back a short way into a recording, playing, and then punching into the record at a set point to record over errors]. It doesn’t feel like it in the moment, but when I’m done recording I’m pretty much done. Once you get the rhythm of stopping, setting the cursor, and recording again, it doesn’t take much time at all.
Marnye Young: Pre-reading is extraordinarily helpful for me. While I understand wanting to be surprised when my listeners are surprised (to keep it authentic), the problem with that is that you are taking a road trip without a map and you may end up taking a wrong turn. Pre-reading will help you be sure to pack everything for the journey and to pull out whatever you need at the proper time.
Q: What is your pre-recording ritual like?
Paul Stefano: First of all I READ THE BOOK. This is essential to understanding the characters and how the story should flow. You don’t want to start off a book with a happy go lucky voice for a character, only to find out that the entire book was a flashback, the character is in a clinically depressed fog, and sorrowfully remembering his past! As my friend Johnny Heller says, “as a narrator, the last person who should be surprised by the ending of a book IS YOU.”
While I’m initially going through the book, I make notes, particularly of proper names, places, and other things I don’t know how to pronounce. Then, I Iook them up. In the case of names, I may even reach out to the Rights Holder for confirmation on pronunciations. Finally, I give each character a distinct voice. It may be a tone, a pace, or a certain tick that is repeated each time they speak.
Aven Shore: I make tea, brush my teeth, get dressed (in loose, cozy clothes with no swish/friction factor), fill a hot water bottle for my feet if it’s winter, scan my prep notes and what I’m about to read, then I get in my booth. I do a quick vocal warmup and some alternate nostril breathing just before beginning. I like it dark. Since shutting my eyes to get truly lost in the story is out of the question, darkness helps me forget about everything beyond the page and stay immersed in the world the author’s created.
Rich Miller: I do a little vocal warm-up, nothing too involved, drink some water, and inhale some steam. When I’m first starting out for the day, I’ll usually read a few pages out loud before actually recording; the vocal warm-up helps physically, but I feel that reading the actual text for a few minutes helps me dial in the right pacing and rhythm. I find that when I don’t do this, I sometimes end up having to re-record those first pages anyway.
Marnye Young: I drink coffee to loosen everything up and then honey ginger tea to repair the damage the coffee has done. I take in a lot of water, do tongue exercises, then listen to the last few minutes of the chapter I last recorded. The looser I am, the fewer mistakes I have, the better my flow is. That means a loose tongue, body, etc. I want to be relaxed but alert—if there is any tension, that tension will be in my throat and chest which is counterproductive for recording.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your studio set-up and equipment essentials?
Travis Baldree: I have a StudioBricks One booth (which is great, because there are no spare closets to be found in my home, my kids like to run across the house, and there’s a crow who enjoys parking right outside to caw at all hours). I use a Windows 10 PC with an SSD stationed outside my booth, a monitor in-booth with a bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and my trusty Razer Orbweaver mini-keyboard for Punch & Roll and editing shortcuts. The keyboard is essential—I have so much muscle memory for it, it’s super comfortable, and saves me a lot of hand strain to boot. My microphone is a Mojave MA-200 tube mic running through an Audient ID14 interface.
Paul Stefano: I have a WhisperRoom recording booth, a Steinberg UR12 audio interface, and a Sennheiser MKH-416 microphone—I spent years and thousands of dollars to get the right mic and I should have started with this industry standard from the get-go. I have a monitor on a shelf outside the booth and a wireless keyboard inside so that I can start and stop the recording.
Aven Shore: I have a big property but a small house, so my studio is a standalone building I built myself. At a glance it could be mistaken for an outhouse, but it was affordable and it’s effective. The floating interior framing is completely unattached to the exterior structure, with an abundance of Roxul insulation between the two and some acoustic foam on the inside. I use my thrift store rescue ergonomic kneeling chair for recording because it keeps my torso tall and open. I also had to Faraday cage my booth with aluminum foil because my mic was picking up these digital sounds that were not at all audible to the ear, but obliterating in my recording. I believe it was interference from a cell tower. My booth has a room tone of -75db or better, and the last thing I see before I shut myself in to work is forest.
Rich Miller: I’ve got a Mac Mini, an Onyx Blackjack interface, and a Rode NT1-A microphone. I’ve got a mirrored monitor setup, with one on my desk outside the booth and one inside the booth; when I’m ready to record, I just put my wireless keyboard and Bluetooth trackpad inside the booth and I’m ready to go. I built my 4’ x 6’ x 7’ booth myself last year, and it keeps external noise out much better than my previous space. Seriously, my setup is pretty minimal, so every piece is pretty critical; none of it is super-high-end, but it all works great.
Marnye Young: My studio is in the back of the house. Inside my studio is my monitor, my mic, headphones, and chair. The mic I use now, the AKG c214, is my third one and by far the best—it captures my low end and high end and still gets the nuances. The one I had before, a Blue Yeti USB mic, I picked because, in all honesty, it was affordable and had good reviews for what it was. It gave me a nice fullness, but it washed out most of the nuances and any brightness to my voice. I have a low voice anyway so I wanted to keep as much brightness as possible. The headphones were a recommendation to me and I really like them. The Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO 80 Ohm Over-Ear Studio Headphones are super comfy and catch everything, which I like. I like to know what other noises are happening so I am aware and can catch them in post or redo if necessary, like a door shutting, that kind of thing.
We hope these pointers have you ready to jump into your sound booth and get to work on the next ACX hit production! Stay tuned for part two, where these production pros will cover why you should listen to audiobooks—not just make them—and what they wish they’d known when they started.