Better Together: Aleron Kong & Nick Podehl on Collaboration: Part 2

Last time on the blog, we sat down with best-selling author Aleron Kong and award-winning narrator Nick Podehl to talk collaboration, inspiration, and mutually beneficial working relationships that create top selling audiobooks. The conversation continues in part two of this interview, so catch up on part one if you missed it, or jump back in below!

Scott Jacobi:

Nick, what was it like to work with somebody who’s fairly new to the process, had maybe been burned in his one time previously creating an audiobook, and just helping him through that?

Nick Podehl:

Narrator Nick Podehl

I mean, he definitely made it easy for me because he was not a complete noob—he had been through the process before, but like you said, Scott, he didn’t have the greatest experience the first time. So I definitely felt like it was kind of my responsibility to try to help him understand the process. And I feel like this is the case with all the new authors that I work with, that it’s like, “I’ve been in this rodeo before.” It’s kind of my job to help them figure it out. And so we worked through the process together. Just be patient and be a decent person, and it kind of pays for itself.

Scott Jacobi:

Tell me about that: how does it pay for itself?

Nick Podehl:

It’s just a better experience overall. I’ve gotten to know a lot of the authors that I’ve worked with, I’ve become friends with a lot of them. And you know, not only is that great on a human level, but it’s also great on the repeat business level because they might write a series, sometimes they’ll write more than one series, and if you make the experience awesome for them, they’re probably going to come back to you. So it’s just like any other version of customer service.

Scott Jacobi:

And that’s a great way to think about it because as a producer on ACX, you’re your own entrepreneur—your own sort of independent, full-service entrepreneur—so you are your own customer service department, you are your own accounting department, you’ve got to do all of that.

Nick Podehl:

Right. And also, I mean, authors generally tend to be friends with other authors and they talk to each other. And so Aleron, you’ve told me before that you’ve had friends, other authors say, “Hey, who should I go with?” And you’re like, well, “You should check out Nick.” And I have a feeling that wouldn’t have been the case if I would have been a complete jerk and just said, “Here’s your book, give me my money.”

Aleron Kong:

Mmhm. Nothing like, “you should go throw eggs at Nick’s house.”

Scott Jacobi:

You two touched a little bit on collaborating and the back and forth during the production earlier in the panel, but I’m curious, Aleron, how much are you bringing to the table in terms of the performance or the way the characters sound? Is it more you saying, “Okay, Nick, this character sounds like this actor,” or is it more you saying, “Nick, do something with this character, I think he’s kind of an older guy and maybe he’s annoying a lot of the time,” but where does that meet in the middle?

Author Aleron Kong

Aleron Kong:

For the first book it was very much like I had this vision, I wanted it to be like this, and there’s a reason for this, and there’s a sort of a connotation that I want brought across. But as time has gone on, I’ve been heavily influenced by hearing Nick’s voice in my mind as I write the characters, so I’m almost being guided. Because they had, I don’t know, 80% life­—now, now they’ve got 90% life because I’m hearing them differently.

Scott Jacobi:

And so, Nick, what’s your end of that? Getting what Aleron brings to the table, are you happy to work all that in? Do you have a lot of your own ideas that you’re kind of pitching back to him?

Nick Podehl:

I think that for me, it’s more that I enjoy that collaboration when he says, “Hey, these characters sound like this—here’s this video clip.”

Scott Jacobi:

And that makes it super easy, when you can reference a video or an audio clip.

Nick Podehl:

It does, it does. It gives you something to work off of, if you can emulate some of that. Now, obviously, I’m not going to be able to give a carbon copy of Nick Offerman.

Aleron Kong:

I mean, it’s a sore spot.

Nick Podehl:

It is. That was one of those things that we worked through. We were able to get it to a point where you were happy with how it sounded and it was something that I could do. To be able to get these clips and be like, “Hey, why don’t you give this clip a try—listen to that, see how he gets these words, see how he delivers that.”

Scott Jacobi:

Does the collaborative aspect also come up, in terms of character motivations and the emotional wave of a certain scene? Is that something that you just bring to the table with your acting ability? Or has there ever been a time where it’s like, “Oh, you did this scene as this sad character, but really it’s more, they’re just annoyed…?”

Aleron Kong:

The Chaos Seeds series on Audible

Inflection things rarely come up with these. I will say for my own books, I write comedies. I write comedies that have dragons and wizards in them, but I also touch lightly, but consistently, on societal issues that are going on right now.

There are scenes where I’m writing it because I want people to have a visceral reaction, whether it be positive or negative. I want them to react. I don’t believe in preaching to people, but I do believe in exposing people to things and letting them come to their own conclusions. Some of those things get really uncomfortable. My last book touched on sexual assault because it’s something that happens all the time, and we don’t like talking about it, and that’s the problem. I had a conversation with Nick where I’m like, “hey man, I love you and I love what you do, but I know that this is a really difficult scene, so if you’re not comfortable reading this, just let me know and we’ll figure something else out.”

That’s the kind of thing that will come up sometimes. I try to weave that in in a way that doesn’t take people to a horrible place, but at the same time, doesn’t hide from it. Nick has to actually read these horrific things that are occasionally happening in the books. I imagine that’s not just a nothing experience, but he’s willing to. He’s said, “I’ve talked to other authors that just put this in for some gratuitous nothing, but I see why you’re doing this and that makes it okay for me.”

Scott Jacobi:

I think that makes a lot of sense. So how do you deal with a scene like that and then leave it behind? Taking on that emotional weight, whether it’s a sad scene or a very uncomfortable scene—how do you emote that but not take it with you?

Nick Podehl:

I don’t know how to tell somebody how to do that. Although, you need to figure it out because especially if you want to get into audio books, there’s a lot of it. Like Aleron said, there’s a lot of content that can be really difficult to deal with and you do have to emote that. That’s why when I talk to friends and they want to do what I do, and they’re like, “Oh, you read books all day. That’s kind of cool! It’s easy, right?” I’m like, “I’m exhausted—you try emoting for eight hours every day. Tell me how you feel.”

Scott Jacobi:

You touched on material that’s really difficult or really challenging to deal with as a person. Have you ever had to turn down a project because the material did not line up with you personally? Not with Aleron, but how do you handle a situation like that?

Nick Podehl:

I’m finally at a point in my career where I can just be straightforward at the beginning and say, “I will not do this kind of material so if your book has this content in it, I can suggest some other narrators for you if you would like, but I will not be able to do it.” Early days, when it was just any work I could get—yeah, I had to wrestle with that. I had to struggle to make my peace with it and say, “all right, I’m going to do this for a season and then put it behind me when I can.”

Scott Jacobi:

Did you ever use a pseudonym for some of the more adult material you were asked to do?

Nick Podehl:

Yes. I would highly recommend that. Especially in my early career, I did a lot of young adult books, and I didn’t want fans of the young adult material to say like, “Hey, Nick did a new book, let’s go check it out!” and it’s… I don’t want eight year old kids listening to that. So yes, I came up with a pseudonym. I think that it’s a really smart move for any narrator. It does give you a little bit more flexibility in the content that you can put out.

Scott Jacobi:

You talked earlier about script prep and how unbelievably important it is to read the book through first. But aside from reading the manuscript, can you tell us what your script prep actually entails? Are you highlighting voices? Are you making Excel spreadsheets? How do you do that?

Nick Podehl:

Before I did it all on an iPad, I had a 36 pack of different colored permanent markers, and I’d mark up the script with different colors for each character so that as I’m narrating and I see like, “okay, pink that’s Stephanie, all right. She sounds like this, great.” I don’t have to stop and look up my notes. I go through and mark the crap out of the manuscripts, highlight any word that I am not 100% certain that I know how to pronounce.

Then once that’s all done, I have, as Aleron said, my spreadsheet of characters, as well as words, and I’ll talk to the author about it and say, “all right, let’s go through and let’s hit all these words first.” With any pronunciations that are real words that I just don’t know how to say, we’ll look them up and figure it out. Oxford English Dictionary. Then characters, we’ll go through the same thing. What does this character sound like to you? How about this one? What do these groupings of people sound like? Do they all sound like they’re from the same region? Things like that. Once that’s all done, then I can start recording.

Scott Jacobi:

Once you’re in the thick of things, Nick’s already done his prep, how do you handle suggestions and feedback during recording for fine-tuning the performance? Maybe you talked about this already, but Aleron, what makes you comfortable speaking to Nick in that moment and telling him he needs to change something? Maybe not now, seven books in, but at the beginning, is it just that you’re sure of what your vision is, or is it something Nick’s put on the table?

Aleron Kong:

For me, I’ve never really followed social norms and niceties. I’m always willing to roll the dice. Like, “this could go wrong, but this is something that I care about so I hope that you can take it well, but no, I feel like it’s this other thing.” Also, I’m an insane movie buff so the Easter eggs that I trickle in, it won’t work if you don’t say it in the right way—people aren’t going to pick up on it. I’ve been like that—”you have to put that in, otherwise that’s like a waste of a laugh.” But now, I love when listeners come to me and they’re like, “I can listen to this forever. How did I miss it?” And then everyone jokes around, and it’s a thing that’s part of my community now, and it’s because we took the extra time to make it happen.

Scott Jacobi:

It sounds to me like an example of art driving the commerce, right? It was important for you to have the joke land or the Easter egg be noticed. What that ends up doing is creating a situation in which people are really strung along in the series and they want to keep coming back, they want to keep hearing your narration, they want to keep reading your books. I think that’s fantastic.

So Aleron, in LitRPG, constructed languages are a part of your writing—alien languages words that don’t exist in English. Did you hear them in your head or did you know what the pronunciation would be before Nick sort of forced you to put that out there?

Aleron Kong:

Yeah. I didn’t go to James Cameron level, where he literally invented a new language, but for example, there’s a Sprite race in my series which is heavily influenced by Japanese culture. You’ll hear that in some of the voices, but also, if I want to say something in Sprite, I might just Google, “how do you say this in Japanese?” and chop off a little over here.

Nick Podehl:

One of the things that I feel is important for me to do is to not have a set “I’m the artist, I’m right” mentality. You’ve got to be willing to work with them. You’ve got to be willing to say, “okay, maybe I’m wrong. Let’s try it.” I think that in my experience, with working with some other narrators, they’re not always very quick to say, “okay, let’s try it your way,” and you really need to be willing to do that.

Aleron Kong:

As the author… I agree. That’s the number one thing I would say that makes it a not-painful experience. Everyone that’s an artist, gets in their feelings about what they’ve made. That’s just the way it is. But being able to not have it be painful if somebody disagrees with you, that changes everything. It changes the entirety of it. It’s just that humility, but the author should come at you with humility as well. They shouldn’t just be trying to beat down your door for something. But yeah, it’s so refreshing to work with someone that’s like, “okay, well, let’s give it another shot.” Simple as that.

Scott Jacobi:

I’m just curious, is this sort of together forever? What happens when the series that you’re working on now reaches its conclusion? Let’s say you decide to write a different series, what are your thoughts about continuing to work with Nick, and how does that strike Nick?

Aleron Kong:

I have seven books and they’re all contiguous. I always wanted him to be the voice of that series. But I’m working on other series now, and I get people that write and thank me, like, “Oh my God, I never would have found Nick if it wasn’t for you,” but I get way more people feeling like finding me through him. So for the rest of this series, definitely. For continuity, and because I just love what Nick brings to it. For a new series, I probably would reach out to other narrators, audio performers, that also have an established audience. Because when I’m working with somebody like Nick, I get access to everything that he has done before, and he gets access to the people that have followed me before. And if you can find other people that are not horrible people, that you can actually stand working with, it makes sense to also branch out. And then you’re sharing audiences, and it’s a mutually beneficial kind of thing.

Scott Jacobi:

So Nick, if Aleron wrote a new series and he’d like to expand his repertoire, is that cool with you? Are you sitting there really jealous Saturday nights, all by yourself? How do you make your peace with that?

Nick Podehl:

Very easily. Because just like you said, this is a business, and we are bringing to each other the fan base that we each have. And I think that’s good, because even if you just look at it from a perspective of, he goes to a new narrator and that narrator has a fan base, and they love what Aleron and this other guy do and think, “I want to hear more Aleron Kong. Oh, who’s this Nick guy? Okay. I’ll listen to him.” All of a sudden, if they like what I do, I got a new fan. So it’s mutually beneficial.

Aleron Kong:

I would say that I take my books and whatever very seriously, and Nick’s professionalism has always blown me away with that as well. There’ll be times where he’s like, “Hey man, I was going to work today, but I feel a little scratch, and I feel like it might come across in what I’m making. So I’m just going to take a day off.” Which is also why, again, I think it pays for itself. Because later, listeners are like, “Oh my God, I love what I’m hearing.” I think that, at least on the author’s side, there’s way too much immediate gratification, what’s right in front of my face, what can I get from you right now?

Like, we’re going to be in this industry together for a very long time and your name really, really matters, so you should treat it like gold. And I have no problem with telling everyone I meet about how with Nick, there’s no reservations at all because of his professionalism, because of his talent, because of everything else. If Nick had never read a book before, based on his demo, I would have waited for him.

Scott Jacobi:

Why based on his demo?

Aleron Kong:

Based on his demo, yeah. Not his Facebook profile. I just would have waited. He made me excited to hear the same thing that I’ve read a thousand times. Proofreading sucks. I got excited hearing it again, simple as that. I listened to 50 different people and there was some of them, like “Oh, okay.” Then I heard him and I’m like, “Oh my God, this is all.”

Scott Jacobi:

I think that’s a great note to end on. Thank you so much, Aleron and Nick.

Better Together: Aleron Kong & Nick Podehl on Collaboration: Part 1

The standard ACX equation is words + narration = audiobook. But when is an audiobook more than just the sum of its parts? Aleron Kong and Nick Podehl have teamed up over the course of the author’s eight-book series, Chaos Seeds, to create an audio odyssey that has fans hanging on every narrated word. In 2019 they joined us at the VO Atlanta conference to discuss the audio magic that’s made when authors and narrators collaborate to turn the audiobook into an art form all its own. With VO Atlanta’s Audiobook Academy, their first-ever audiobook-specific virtual conference coming up April 22 – 23, we’re bringing our conversation the blog so everyone can benefit from seeing what wonders true collaboration can yield.

Scott Jacobi: Thank you so much for joining us today at VO Atlanta. I’m joined today by narrator/producer Nick Podehl and author Aleron Kong whose first book together, The Land: Founding, was recently named Audible’s 2018 customer favorite. We’re here today to talk about how narrators and producers through ACX can directly collaborate to create fantastic sounding audiobooks that highlight both their artistic abilities, wow listeners, make money, and just be awesome. Ready to be awesome?

Nick Podehl: Yeah!

Aleron Kong: Whoo!

Scott Jacobi: So let’s start with you, Nick, being that this is a VO-focused event. You have an acting background, but before you got into audiobooks, I understand that you didn’t think you’d be able to do that and make a living with your passion.

Nick Podehl: Mmhm. I was trained in theater in college, but changed my major at the end because all the professionals coming in said that you do theater because you love theater, and it’s got to be the first love of your life—nothing else can come first. And that didn’t jive well with me because I wanted to have a family and I didn’t want to be in a box, you know? So changed my major. After I graduated, I was doing a job that I hated and my mom actually suggested, “Hey, there are these things called audiobooks—we used to listen to them on car rides and stuff. You should do that.” I was like, “Okay, Mom. You’re my biggest fan. You’ve got to say that.” But I thought, “Okay—I hate my job, let’s do it. Let’s put together a demo.” I sent it in, and amazingly enough, they called me in for an audition and I got it.

Then, it was like, “Hey, good! You got a book! You’re probably not going to get another one for awhile. That’s just how this business works. Don’t feel bad.” But I kept with it and then I discovered this platform that was new to me—ACX—after I had done a few titles with some of the major producers and I thought, “Well, okay, this is a great way to work with some more up-and-coming authors and get more consistent projects.” So I gave it a shot—I used the services of some local studios near me and I recorded books there, and after a few of these, I realized like, “okay, this is picking up, like I could actually do this,” so I looked into building a home studio and decided to finally take that plunge. And it’s kind of just been rocking and rolling ever since.

Scott Jacobi: Aleron, can you give us a quick background on you and tell us how you came be an author and got into audiobooks, and then why you were publishing through ACX?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is aleron.jpg
Author Aleron Kong

Aleron Kong: I had the opposite story from Nick. I had to hide the fact that I wrote my book from my mother. And when I published it, I told my cousin who told his mother who then told my mother. And she called me and said, “Why are you lying to people? People said that you wrote a book. And I was like, “Oh, I wrote a book.” And she was like, “No, you didn’t.” And I’m like, “No, it’s for sale. It’s a book.” And she goes, “I’m going to look this up.” And then I hear in the background, “There’s another Aleron Kong that wrote a book. I can’t believe this!” She’s like, “Why would you take credit for this person’s work?” But she finally put it together and then she was like, “Well, what did you say about me?” I’m a physician by training, and when I decided to focus solely on writing, my dad said, “Son, are you paying your bills?” and I was like, “Yeah.” And he’s like, “Well, I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” Then my mom said, “So you’re just going to spit on all your ancestors. That’s the plan right now?”

Scott Jacobi: This, I think, could be its own book.

Aleron Kong: I started writing for me. I never thought it would go anywhere. It was more of a psychological exercise than anything else. But I had found LitRPG, which is my genre—literature role playing games. It’s only been around in the States for about four years and I found it around three and a half years ago. And when I found it though, it was like, “Where have you been my entire life? Like video games and sci-fi fantasy??” At the time, were only like four books available because it started either in Russia or Korea. So I was bemoaning the fact that there was nothing more to read one day and I was like, “Well, why don’t I just give this a shot?” I wrote six books in 14 months, and then the seventh one weighs five pounds and I wrote that a year later. It’s been a year since then. And I’ve kind of just started enjoying my life again, so…

Scott Jacobi: And how did you get to the audiobook publishing side of that?

Aleron Kong: I had never really listened to an audiobook before, but I had fans that were like, “I really enjoyed reading your book, but I really love listening to audiobooks.” I was hearing that more and more, so I thought, “Okay, well, let me figure out how to do this.” I found a narrator who did a perfectly reasonable job on my first book, but the feedback I got was, “Oh, I loved your book.” And I’d ask, “Well, what did you think of the production?” And they’d say, “Oh, it was fine.” And these are my babies, so that wasn’t enough. So I started asking my fan base, “who are some narrators you guys like?” And one of the people they mentioned was Nick.

I reached out and he read a demo for me, and I loved it. For the very first time I got excited about audio. And I said, “Look, man, I just want to be very clear—it’s important to me that we have a collaborative effort, we work together, we bounce stuff off each other…” and he’s like, “Look, man, just so you know, it’s important that we have a collaborative effort, that we work together…” and so on. And then he says, “I’m booked for nine months.” And I was like, “I’ll wait for you.”

Scott Jacobi: And so it’s interesting that you both wanted collaboration to be a big part of this. Do you find that with all authors, Nick, or are there some that really are just like, “Here’s my book—go read it and I’ll pay you and then we’re done”?

Nick Podehl: For the most part, my experience with ACX authors is that they’re invested in their book and they want to be a part of it. So generally speaking, yes. They want to be a part of that collaborative effort. I’m sure that there are some who don’t really care. They’ve written the book and their job is done in their eyes. But most of them want to be a part of it to varying degrees. Sometimes it’s just like, “Yeah I’ll help you with some character choices” or “I’ll help you with pronunciations, but really, you know what you’re doing so go do it.”

Scott Jacobi: What is your preferred level of author involvement? At what point does it get to be too much?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Nick-300x207.png
Narrator Nick Podehl

Nick Podehl: If they’re texting me at three in the morning, it’s too much. I would say that as long as we have ample time before the recording starts we’re good—once the recording process has started and I get some feedback from them on what they’re hearing, we’ll pretty much call it good after that. We do some edits and revisions, and I’m perfectly willing to change things. If they hear something and say, “I really didn’t like what you did with this character,” alright, we’ll do something different.

But this is why, for me, a big part of the process is having them involved as it’s going. I know that a lot of narrators will just do the “I’m going to give you the first 15 minutes and then that’s it until I give you the finished book,” but I don’t think that’s a good idea. Some people are just, “Let’s crank these out guys, come on,” but that’s not how I work. I want to have the author be a part of the process. So I’ll send updates, I’ll send them chapters and say, “Here—if you care to, listen to this. Give me some feedback before we go any further.” Because what I don’t want, because then it really gets into wasting time and money, is to have them come back and say, “I don’t like what you did with the main character. Can you re-record the whole book?”

Scott Jacobi: Aleron, I guess all that struck you pretty well, the collaboration that Nick wanted?

Aleron Kong: Oh yeah. He’s awesome when we work together. And we joke around—in the seventh book, I actually wrote characters intentionally meant to be difficult for him. So that was a lot of fun because he’d be like, “well, how do you expect me to do this?” I’m like, “Sounds like your problem.” I thought it was hilarious. And he wouldn’t talk to me for a week and…

Nick Podehl: Then you go and send me an Edible Arrangement…

Scott Jacobi: Have there been any points during your time working together where you did bump heads?

Aleron Kong: I don’t think bumping heads—and it’s definitely streamlined as time’s gone on—but sometimes it’s as simple as, he’ll be like, “Hey, I have this idea. Let me send you this YouTube clip—is this what you were thinking in your head? And I’m like, “Oh, well, it’s actually more like this,” and that’s about the extent of it.

Nick Podehl: Yeah. I mean, we’ve had those character choices where you’ve heard something very specific in your head and then I have to come back with, “That’s great. I can’t do that.”

Aleron Kong: And I’m like, “You will do it.”

Nick Podehl: And then we’ll go back forth and we’ll compromise on something that I can do that he’s happy with.

Scott Jacobi: So it sounds like it’s important for a narrator to first understand what they can and can’t do, and then have the confidence to communicate that to authors. I can imagine for somebody who’s just picking this up—and maybe you experienced this when you were first getting into the business—I could see there being a desire to just do whatever the author wants, or whatever the publisher wants—and it sounds like that’s not really the best mindset?

Nick Podehl: No, because then you run into some pretty sticky situations. If you’re just blasting out auditions for anything you can get, and for some reason an author picks you to read a book where the main character is a Korean lady and you’re a middle-aged white male, that’s maybe not the best choice. So you do have to be cognizant of what your abilities are. I recognize that I have a much higher register in my voice, so I can’t do those really deep, gravelly, low voices. And we talk about that—we talk about it beforehand.

Another thing that I think is a really big sticking point is making sure that you understand the project that you’re getting into—meaning, read it beforehand. Apparently, there are people out there who don’t read a manuscript before they record it, and that makes no sense to me. I don’t know how you can do a cold read and expect it to be really, really good. A lot of the work that we do comes in beforehand. It’s prepped. If you’re doing a 15-second radio voiceover, yeah, go into it cold. That’s fine. You’ll work the kinks out. It’s 15 seconds. But we’re talking…book seven was 47 hours.

Scott Jacobi: How long did that take you to produce altogether?

Aleron Kong: That was a solid month and a

Nick Podehl: …Half.

Aleron Kong: He had no idea it was going to be that long, and I’m like, “So, I have to send you the book in two parts, because they won’t save that big.” He was like, “Ah, Aleron…”

Scott Jacobi: That naturally leads me into my next point—with a book that big, it’s a good thing to get booked on a month and a half’s worth of work all at the same time, but how did you two work out the payment structure?

Aleron Kong: We were just talking about that. Nick gets contacted by a lot of new authors, and they ask them like, “oh, can we do the royalty share?” Because they don’t really want to invest. I’m like, if you want a top quality thing, you have to invest and you pay the man what he needs to get paid for. Nick told me what his hourly was, and I’m like, “You’re worth it.”

Scott Jacobi: So for you, it’s understanding the value of a good narrator.

Aleron Kong: Yes.

Scott Jacobi: And I guess having the faith in your own work, and that you will earn that back.

Aleron Kong: Yeah. And having worked with somebody else the first time, everything was fine, but I definitely differentiate when I’m talking about Nick. There are narrators and then there are audio performers.

Scott Jacobi: And what is the difference to you?

Aleron Kong: Every character didn’t sound the same, that’s one bomb. That’s fun. I think the professionalism as well. Very simply, Nick will read the book. He has an Excel sheet of like, “these are words that you’ve clearly made up, what do you want me to call them?” And then we’ll go through that, and then he’ll talk to me like, “All right, which of these characters are important, and which ones are a little bit less?” Because if you have a nuance, just in the same way like if you’re watching a really good TV show, and you hear a slight inflection in the actors voice, it makes you excited. “Like, “Oh my God, is he going to be a horrible person later??” The same thing comes through in a book, and maybe it’s a red herring, maybe it’s not, but it makes it more enjoyable, and understanding that I think makes for a better experience for everybody.

For more on how these two use teamwork to make the self-publishing dream work, stay tuned to the blog for Part 2 of this interview!

ACX Alumni at The Audies

There’s no set formula for finding success as an indie creator, but sometimes to see ahead towards where you’re going, it helps to take a look at those who have been where you are now. This year’s Audies saw wins from more than a few friends of ACX – authors and narrators who got their start on the platform or pros who have been featured in ACX educational programs throughout the years – and to inspire your journey forward as an independent creator, we’re looking to a few of our old friends to ask about their recent Audie wins. First up, authors Vi Keeland and Penelope Ward, and their narrator Andi Arndt for Best Romance Audiobook, Dirty Letters.

What do you think you did that contributed the most to your win this year?

Vi Keeland & Penelope Ward: Two things make an audiobook stand out: exceptional narration and a unique story that allows the cast to shine in their performances. For Dirty Letters, we believe the heartfelt correspondence between our two characters at the beginning of the book allowed listeners to immediately connect with the unique personalities of the hero and heroine. Jacob Morgan’s portrayal of the charismatic British rock star, Griffin, and Andi Arndt’s portrayal of the quirky and awkward agoraphobic Luca were the perfect complement to each other. Not to mention, their amazing work voicing all of the different side characters truly gave the impression there was an ensemble cast rather than only two narrators doing all the work. 

Authors Vi Keeland & Penelope Ward

Andi Arndt: Oh my goodness, I have no idea! I’ve been lucky to enjoy a long and fruitful relationship with everyone involved in the project, from Brilliance Publishing, to authors Vi Keeland and Penelope Ward, to co-narrator Jacob Morgan. Vi and Penelope had a very strong positive reaction to the way this particular book and audiobook turned out, and asked that it be put forward for consideration. But I prepped and recorded it the same way I approach all of my projects. Learn more about Andi’s production process here.

How can winning an Audie be used to help further your career?

Vi & Penelope: We feel like the benefits of wining an Audie are akin to other titles of distinction such as hitting a bestseller list.  These prestigious accolades tell a prospective purchaser that a book has been vetted. The Audie win provides a sort of validation that may encourage buyers to take a chance on a new-to-them author. In turn, if those buyers enjoy the work, they may also go on and buy backlist titles and become loyal readers of future books.  We’ve already experienced Dirty Letters climbing back up the charts the day after the Audie winners were announced! 

Narrator Andi Arndt

Andi: Beyond the marketing aspect of it, I take it as a challenge to renew my commitment to this work, to deepening my technique, stretching my abilities, and also giving myself permission to rest and refresh. With summer not far off, I’m thinking about things I want to do that are not work, to enjoy the life that audiobook narration has made possible. 

What advice would you give a new creator who wants to see their name among the finalists someday?

Vi & Penelope: This may sound obvious, but hire the right narrators for the right roles. Our hero is British, so we knew early on that we wanted Jacob Morgan who does a fabulous accent. Listen to multiple stories by each narrator to learn how versatile they are. Not every narrator with a beautiful voice and popularity is right for every role. 

Also, and this may be tough for creators who are just starting out and anxious to get their stories published, but make sure the audiobook is published simultaneously with eBooks and print. When you maximize your promotional efforts and treat audio as important as the other formats, audio will eventually become more important to your finances.

Andi: You never know which book is going to be the book. Details matter, so attend to them. 

Are you working on any upcoming projects that you’re excited about?

Vi & Penelope: We’re always working on multiple projects at once!  Next up, we have Not Pretending Anymore, voiced by Erin Mallon and Sebastian York. Erin is perfect for the project because she voices a young, conflicted heroine like no other. And Sebastian nails the sarcasm and wit of our hero. Not Pretending Anymore will release simultaneously with print and eBooks on April 12th.

Andi: Always! This week I’m working on the first book in Stella Gray’s new Charade series and Louise Bay’s new romance, a co-narration with Shane East. Both of these authors I either work with or connected with through ACX.

Congratulations to all this year’s fabulous Audies winners and nominees, and a big thanks to Vi, Penelope, and Andi for sharing a few words of wisdom about their wins. Stay tuned for more award-winning advice from industry pros and keep your eyes on the prize! We can’t wait to see more indie wins in the future.

An Update to Your Sales Dashboard

The newly enhanced Sales Dashboard on ACX is now live, offering more insight into the performance of your titles. Alongside overall audiobook sales, you can see additional transactions, including returns and Bounty performance.

New to your Sales Dashboard is a column for Qualified Returns – that is, any return made within seven days of purchase – with data available retroactive to January 1, 2021. You can also download reports of this data from your dashboard as a CSV or PDF. Also as of January 1, 2021, you will earn a royalty for returns made more than seven days after purchase, with the sale captured under the appropriate purchase type. The data reflected in the dashboard will similarly be available in your Earnings Reports for March 2021, which will be sent in April, and for future Earnings Reports going forward.

Click here while logged in to ACX to view your Sales Dashboard.

We hope this additional data helps provide the insights you need to make production and marketing decisions. For more ideas, we’ve put together this YouTube playlist featuring our favorite low-cost and no-cost audiobook marketing ideas.

Gearing Up for Audiobook Production: Part 2

Your voice and your microphone are only half the story. To successfully bring an audiobook project to life, you’ll also need an audio interface, high-fidelity headphones, and a digital audio workstation (DAW) for your home recording studio. Building off of Gearing Up For Audiobook Production Part 1, our second post in this two-part series will help you choose these often overlooked, yet equally essential, pieces in your recording kit.

Your Mic Needs a Powerhouse

If there’s one thing we’ve all taken away from high school science class, it’s that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. Well, think of the audio interface as the powerhouse of your microphone. It serves as a power supply for condenser microphones and makes it possible to connect them to your computer for audiobook recording. Additionally, an audio interface will offer microphone preamplifiers, direct instrument inputs, digital converters, metering, headphone distribution, and digital signal processing (DSP).

When you’re choosing the right audio interface for your home studio, go for efficiency and simplicity. The most important feature to consider is connectivity: is your audio interface compatible with your computer ports? Macs and PCs will have different ports, from Thunderbolt to USB C and USB 3, to older versions like FireWire and USB 2.0. For the best sound and least latency, we recommend finding an interface that will connect to your computer port without an adapter. (If you can’t find an interface to match, this might just be another good reason to upgrade your computer.)

In addition to computer compatibility, an audio interface should also have at least a single microphone input jack, a gain knob, and headphone level control. Most interfaces will have additional features and dials, and some even come packaged with a DAW and additional editing tools; however, more isn’t always better, as more add-ons will increase the learning curve and could lead to reliability issues.

These are the audio interfaces we recommend for new and veteran audiobook producers:

Find these product recommendations and more on our Audio Interfaces Amazon Idea List.

Hear Yourself Loud and Clear

When it comes to audiobook recording and production, we recommend you use wired, over-the-ear headphones. We hear you, new Producers: why buy a new pair of headphones when your computer speakers or the earbuds that came with your new smartphone will do just fine? While these audio options are good for casual listening, they won’t capture all of the nuances in your voice and your recording. For instance, a small Bluetooth speaker in a large room might make it hard for you to hear a small variation in room tone. Or crackly earbuds could mask sibilance in your voice that may turn listeners off.

The right studio headphones will paint a clear and honest picture of your sound. They’ll also help you hear errors in your production and check that your audio meets our Submission Requirements. That’s why wired, over-ear headphones are best. Wireless/Bluetooth headphones should not be used as they can introduce interference and audio latency. Forego the extra $$$ and don’t shell out for noise cancelling or bass boosting features either, which could distort the true frequencies in your voice. Instead, ensure that your new ‘phones render highs, mids, and bass equally. You’ll also want to check that the ear pads, the part of the headphones that go over your ears, are comfortable enough to wear for marathon recording and mastering sessions.

Closed-Back Headphones

These headphones are best suited for narrating and recording your audiobook. The closed-back design means that the sound drivers and ear cups are covered on the outside, minimizing sound leakage as you record and offering natural sound isolation.

If you can only buy one pair of headphones, we recommend one of the following:

Find these product recommendations and more on our Closed-Back Headphones Amazon Idea List.

Open- and Semi-Open- Back Headphones

For more experienced audiobook producers and studio professionals, we suggest investing in a second pair of headphones to use exclusively for editing and mastering. Open-back and semi-open headphones are ideal for this, as their design faithfully renders a range of frequencies. Unlike closed-back headphones, these models leave the back sides of the ear cups uncovered, which boosts audio quality, but also has more sound leakage which makes them less-than-ideal for recording.

Find these product recommendations and more on our Semi-Open-Back Headphones Amazon Idea List.

DAW Things Considered

So you’ve got a great voice, a microphone, a pair of headphones, an audio interface, a computer, and a soundproof booth to record in. Yet none of the pieces of this puzzle will fit together until you have a digital audio workstation, or DAW for short. This type of software makes it possible to record, edit, and master your audiobook files.

Choosing a DAW

Most of us have used image editing software like Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Paint, or even Instagram Filters. DAWs are like the audio equivalent—they can augment the original content that you captured and fine tune the details. Like image editing software, there is a wide array of options, from free and simple programs to expensive workhorses built for the pros.

Since most DAWs are geared toward music production, more features and tools don’t necessarily mean one DAW is better than another for audiobook production. The best DAW will complement your work style and help you get professional quality sound without over-processing. (You don’t want your audiobook to sound like the audio equivalent of a bad Photoshop edit). The worst DAW will take too long to figure out and eat away at your productivity.

Audacity
This free program allows you to record and edit audio with basic functions. Our QA team likes Audacity’s noise reduction feature (used sparingly): Audacity will let you record up to five minutes of your ambient room sound and can tune it out of your recording. This DAW can also remove tonality in your voice, depending on your frequency and use.

Reaper
For producers just wetting their toes in audiobook production and even seasoned studio pros, we recommend REAPER. Of all the popular DAWs, it strikes the right balance between essential features, customization options, and budget. It costs $60 to use the discounted license, and you can try and evaluate the DAW for free for a 60-day period. To learn more about using REAPER to edit and master your production, check out our Don’t Fear the REAPER blog post.

Sound Forge
Sound Forge is used by Audible’s in-house audio engineers. It is a comprehensive digital audio suite, capable of producing high-quality end-to-end audio book productions. It comes included with iZotope Ozone 9 Elements (a mastering plugin) and RX 7 Elements (an audio restoration and repair plugin), both of which are powerful tools for audiobook production.

Adobe Audition
We would be remiss not to include this feature-loaded DAW on our list. Despite its name, Adobe Audition is your perfect partner at all stages of your production, from auditions to mastering. We especially love its noise reduction feature, but with great power comes great responsibility (and a high learning curve since each feature needs to be manually configured). For these reasons, we recommend this DAW to highly experienced studio pros. At $20.99 a month, it won’t break the bank, but the month-to-month will add up when you’re charting a years-long career in audiobook production.

ACX Audio Lab
Our free audio analysis tool is a DAW’s best friend. Use Audio Lab to get instant feedback on your sound at any and every stage of the production process, from calibrating new equipment to submitting auditions and checkpoints. To get started, upload your finished audio files and see how they measure up against ACX’s Audio Submission Requirements with metrics like RMS, peak levels, bit rate, and more. Then, use a DAW like the ones listed below to fix any errors in your production.

Garage Band
We’re mentioning this free Mac OS program here only to say this: don’t record, don’t edit, and don’t master your audiobook production with this software (please and thank you). Garage Band is made specifically for music production and lacks the appropriate tools used for editing and mastering in voice over. Voice over production can be done, but this platform is not conducive to punch-and-roll recording nor the surgical editing required for audiobook production.


That’s enough gear talk for now! We hope Part I and this Part II of our “Gearing Up For Audiobook Production” series have answered your questions about buying the right studio equipment for your narration career, whether you’re new to ACX or an AAP (Audible Approved Producer).

There’s just one small caveat: getting the right gear is only half the challenge. Now it’s up to you to take the reins and learn to use it wisely. Don’t worry—we won’t send you off alone. Check out 30 Minutes to a Better Sound by ACX University and George The Tech for even more gear chat and production pointers. You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel for tips and inspiration on narration, performance, editing, and mastering.

Going Beyond the Book with Eric Jason Martin

Eric Jason Martin

Audio: the final frontier. These are the voyages of independent creators. Their mission: to dream up and build strange new worlds. To bring new life to characters and stories from the page—and beyond. To boldly take us where no ear has gone before! Our captain: Eric Jason Martin. Veteran ACX-ers might recognize this Audible Approved Producer from our 2018 post, Doubling Down on Audiobook Success, but not one to be pinned down by labels, this producer/director/narrator has just added another title to his name—author. Martin’s first novel, New Arcadia: Stage One came to audio yesterday, and this multi-cast adventure is full of A-list vocal talent, an original score, and a tasteful soundscape that gives you the feeling if you closed your eyes for a moment, you might just open them in 199X, in the arcade-inspired dystopian world of the story. We were lucky enough to snag a moment of this creative multi-hyphenate’s time to talk sound design, writing and casting his first novel, and the endless possibilities of audio.

What sparked the idea for this project?

Well, I really wanted to write a book! It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time—I’ve written some original audio productions in the last few years, but it was a little scary to consider sitting down and writing an entire novel, something that could sit on a shelf and have a bar code and a Dewey Decimal classification and all that cool stuff. I knew I had to write a GameLit or LitRPG novel to get started. I’ve been a fan of video games since I was little, and I’ve since come to understand their potential both in terms of play, and as a powerful learning tool. Playing Roller Coaster Tycoon back in the day was literally how I got into the business of themed entertainment, so it legitimately helped kick-start my career. These days, I narrate a lot in the GameLit/LitRPG genre, so it’s a world I know very well, and I’ve been thinking about using a “beat ‘em up” game as the subject for a story for a few years—the stories these games told were often about fighting criminals in a big bad city. I was really drawn to the idea of doing something with this world in literature.

What was the process for writing this story like, and how did being a narrator/ producer first influence your writing on this project? Did you already have a vision for the audio when you started?

When it came time to actually write the book, it happened very fast. I had already done a decent amount of work imagining the mechanics of a virtual game world like this, because I had developed another version of this project for audio a couple of years prior. Even though the finished story turned into something very different, it helped to have that base to work from. Once everything shut down last year, it got me thinking of this project in a new way. I started imagining this retro game city as a way to bring people together again in a virtual space—people who have been apart for a long time. So I starting writing over the summer, and it was very helpful to think of it as an audiobook. That “one weird little trick” helped me get over a lot of the fear of writing, because I already knew how to do audiobooks, so suddenly I was working from a place of confidence. Thinking of the project in audio also helped me picture certain performers for each role, performers that I actually wanted to cast in the audiobook version we would be recording. Once you can get that specific about a character or role, it takes something that can be really hard—creating compelling story and dialogue—and it makes it a little easier to do. Having narrated nearly 300 audiobooks, I also a had a clear sense of what would work in audio and what would not. I knew I’d be narrating the book as the main character, and that was another opportunity to revise the text, right there in the studio. If something didn’t sound right to my ear, I would change it as I was recording the narration. It’s usually a big no-no to stray from the recordable script… but if you’re the author, nobody can stop you!

Once it was written, what was the process of casting and recording/producing like?

The audiobook production moved very fast. I’d say from my first email to a performer, to the final mastering, it was about three months. That includes recording 19 performers, two incredible musicians writing a full original soundtrack, and a lean post- production team cutting it all together and adding effects. Again, it was easier having written the roles for specific people. I was nervous and didn’t have any expectations, but I was blown away that everybody agreed to be a part of this. It helped that they were all voice actors, so I figured they had home recording setups that would work, although I had options available in case I needed to get them equipment. Technology is so good these days that having a decent mic and recording in a quiet well-padded closet can get you pretty far. And if you have a quality post-production team, as we did here, you can make it all sound fairly uniform.

There are some pretty well-known names in the voice credits for this production – do you have any advice for authors nervous to ask big-name vocal talent to work on their projects?

Yes, be nice! And do everything you can to make it easy for people to say yes. They may not make a fortune doing your project. But if it’s quick, easy, and a lot of fun, and they’ll be with other great people whom they like and respect, that’s a lot harder to say no to. Be clear about the time commitment, make it as small as possible, and be flexible in scheduling, as much as you can.

Now Available on Audible.

This production has some great extra audio elements like an original score and sounds – how do you incorporate elements like that without overwhelming the listener or overshadowing the narration?

We were very careful in how we approached the sound design for this project. We worked with the team at Mumble Media to focus on the multi-cast recordings, as well as the original soundtrack, as the primary tools to communicate the story and scene. The old arcade sounds are a lot of fun, but a little of that goes a very long way in an audiobook format. The action could be exhausting if you heard an unending stream of punching and kicking and yelling. So we let the actors and narrator communicate a lot of the action in the performances, we were very sparing with sound effects, and we supplemented the action in places with the soundtrack to give it additional emotional impact. The great Lloyd Cole created our main theme, and it was such a thrill to be able to work with him, I’m a huge fan of his work. For New Arcadia, he has created a beautiful piece, ambient and propulsive and mysterious. He describes it as “Escape from New York meets Stranger Things, with a hint of Dune.” When we incorporated it into the audiobook, it became the de facto theme of the real world. The few times we leave the game world and go back to reality, you’ll hear different pieces of this theme as you re-emerge, which signals to the listener that we are transitioning to a very different place. Casey Trela is a fantastic composer, very versatile, and expert in the chiptune style of these retro games. He’s created some truly catchy tunes that serve the game story beautifully. He had the added challenge of creating special songs that evoke the world of “199X,” songs that sound like they’d actually be coming from your radio back then. These extra audio elements can really help build a strong sense of environment in an audio-only production where visual cues and backdrops are absent.

What makes this production special and how do you see productions like this one carrying audio storytelling forward?

It’s such a blast to bring great talent together on a production like this. I enjoy the traditional one book / one narrator approach very much (indeed, you can find me in my home studio a few days a week telling stories this way). That said, I think there’s a growing space and increasing demand for multi-cast productions, and we’re all just starting to scratch the surface of what’s possible. Audio is great for many reasons, and one practical one is that the listener’s mind handles most of the big-budget effects and locations in your story. You can communicate complex stories much more quickly and cheaply with sound alone. It’s a very exciting and innovating time in this medium, and it’s a thrill to be a part of it all. When you work as relatively fast and cheaply as you can in audio, you can get a lot more done than you can in other mediums, meaning you can experiment and learn much faster in your craft. I’ve tried a lot of different things in my time creating these stories in audio, and have made some mistakes along the way. But even those mistakes were instructive, and I can see how they led directly to some of my biggest successes. So that’s why I embrace this lean and iterative style of working, and audio is an ideal vessel for that approach. You can do cool stuff in audio fairly easily and quickly, so maybe you should! Each project you take on and complete can become a stepping stone, every single one can teach you something or connect you with someone. And for this project, in many ways, it’s the apotheosis of all of the different things I’ve done up to this point. But it’s not the end, it’s a beginning. There’s lots more to do. I’m excited for you to hear what we’ve put together with New Arcadia: Stage One, AND I’m excited for what comes next.

Eric Jason Martin is a producer, director, voice performer, and author, based in Los Angeles. He is the AudioFile Earphones and Audie Award–winning narrator of over 275 audiobooks. He has developed several original audio productions, including directing the NY Times Bestsellers Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne’s original series Heads Will Roll, featuring Meryl Streep (Broadway Video/Audible), and Stinker Lets Loose!, starring Jon Hamm (Audible). His production of Mr. New Orleans, starring Westworld’s Louis Herthum, is a 2021 Audie Award nominee.

Gearing Up for Audiobook Production: Part 1

Your voice is a complex storytelling instrument. That’s why you need the right studio equipment to record each change in tone and range of vocal frequencies. In part one of this two-part guide, we’ll help you choose the best microphone and microphone essentials for recording and producing your first audiobook—or your 50th. Then, in part two, we’ll dive into the best audio interfaces, headphones, and studio accessories to pair with your microphone.

Real Talk: Microphones

Think clarity, fidelity, and sensitivity. When you’re narrating an audiobook, you’re having an intimate conversation with eager listeners. They want to hear your voice, free of distortion, artificial vocal effects, and extraneous noises. A built-in laptop microphone or gaming headset just won’t cut it. On the other hand, don’t stress about buying the most expensive high-end gear.

Listeners won’t care if you used a Sony C-800G or a Neumann U 87 microphone, but they will remember how your voice made them feel.

They’ll also remember your neighbors arguing in the background while you narrated that tender love scene, so make sure you’re setting up your microphone in a soundproof recording space.

Cardioid Polar Pattern
Image Source: Galek76. No changes were made to the original file.

Another key factor that affects how well your microphone will “hear” your voice (and anything in the background), is its polar pattern. Some polar patterns, like multi-directional, will pick up sound waves from all directions, while on the other end of the spectrum, a unidirectional pattern will only pick up sound from one specific area of the microphone head. For audiobook recording with just one sound source (your voice), we recommend using a microphone with a cardioid polar pattern (pictured at right). Microphones with this pattern will only pick up sound that’s directly in front of it and filter out noise coming in to the sides and back.

Below, we’ll walk you through the best microphones for audiobook production and their advantages and disadvantages. We suggest using this list as a guide to inform your own research and, when possible, we recommend going to your local music store (following all local Covid guidelines) or finding a supplier that allows free in-home trials to test out the microphones and see which ones best fit your voice and narration style.

Condenser Microphones

These are the most popular microphones for recording audiobooks. As some of the most sensitive microphones, they’re tuned to capture the frequencies and nuances of the human voice, and typically feature the cardioid polar pattern we recommended above.

What sets condenser microphones apart from other mics is their engineering. All microphones have a diaphragm, a flexible internal membrane that vibrates when sound waves hit it, but only condenser microphones have a charged metal plate behind the diaphragm. This feature gives condenser microphones their signature bright, and sensitive, sound. Furthermore, condenser microphones have varying diaphragm sizes. Large diaphragms can make your voice sound richer, more vibrant, and give it that “larger-than-life” voiceover quality, while small diaphragms are adept for musical instruments.

The condenser microphones we’ve selected below are balanced and ideal for a range of budgets:

  • The Rode NT1 is one of the best all-around and quietest microphones on the market.
  • Models like the MXL Mics 770 and the AKG Pro Audio C214 have on-off switches to ignore low frequency noise, which helps clarify vocals with deeper tones.
  • The Audio Technica AT2020PK Pack includes accessories like an adjustable boom arm and headphones.
  • Last but not least, Neumann microphones are heralded as the holy grail for professional recording studios.

Find these product recommendations and more on our Condenser Microphones Amazon Idea List.

Be sure to check the product descriptions before purchasing, as some of these microphones do not include an XLR cable or mount. Furthermore, all condenser microphones will need an external power source to work, which can typically be provided by an audio interface.

USB Microphones

For narrators just starting out, USB-powered microphones can be a cost-effective alternative to condenser microphones which need additional gear like an audio interface, cables, and mic stand to work. The USB microphones we’ve included below feature a cardioid pattern and a condenser capsule, so you’ll still have access to that signature bright sound that condenser microphones are known for. Each model in our selection also comes with a tabletop microphone stand.

Additionally, these USB mics are plug-and-play, meaning you can connect them to your computer and start recording right away. Be sure that you double check your computer ports to ensure proper connectivity; you may have to purchase a compatible cable or adapter.

  • The Blue Snowball iCE microphone is a good budget-friendly option, while the Rode NT offers more control over your audio with a built-in pop filter and switchable low-latency monitoring mode.
  • The Audio-Technica ATR2500x model has a low-mass diaphragm for excellent frequency response.
  • Lastly, the Samsung G-Tract Pro has a built-in audio interface and is very versatile, allowing you to switch between three polar patterns, and even works well with musical instruments.

Find these product recommendations on our USB Microphones Amazon Idea List.

Dynamic Microphones

Earlier, we said that condenser microphones are the most popular microphones for voice recording, but the catch is that they work best in soundproof spaces. City dwellers, we hear you—it’s challenging to create a recording studio in your apartment, much less completely soundproof it. That’s why we suggest going with a dynamic microphone in less than ideal recording environments.

Think of dynamic microphones as the distant cousin to the super-sensitive condenser mic. Dynamic microphones won’t capture all sounds, and sometimes that’s a good thing. Maybe the highs and lows of your voice just sound better with a dynamic microphone. Or maybe you’ve just gotten the band back together and need a mic that’s great for audiobook recording and live performance.

We picked these dynamic microphones for their sound quality and suitability for novices and professionals alike. All of these mics feature a cardioid polar pattern, and most include an internal pop filter for mouth noise reduction, and a built-in shock mount to reduce vibration.

  • The AT2100x is the only one on our list which doesn’t have a pop filter or shock-mount, but it balances this out with its low price point and ability to connect to your computer directly as a USB mic, and your audio interface with an XLR cable.
  • The Shure SM58S is a great starter mic with an on-off switch and frequency response tailored for vocals.
  • If you’re worried about extraneous background noise, get the MXL BCD-1 which has side rejection that increases sound isolation.
  • Models like the Rode Pod Mic, Shure SM7B, and Electro-Voice RE-20 will have a flat, wide-range frequency response for clean and natural sound production.
  • Narrators looking for a higher-end solution will love the Sennheiser MD441-U with excellent feedback rejection and sound quality.

Find these product recommendations and more on our Dynamic Microphones Amazon Idea List.

As we noted above, check the product descriptions before purchasing as some of these microphones do not include an XLR cable or mount. Furthermore, all dynamic microphones will need an external power source to work.

Microphone Essentials

Stands

You don’t want to be holding your microphone each time you record. Your sound will be inconsistent, your hand movements may get picked up by your microphone, and to be totally transparent, your arms will get sore after hours of studio time (no matter how often you go to the gym). A stable microphone stand will make all those problems disappear.

There are many different stands on the market, so make sure that you get one that’s compatible with your microphone size and weight. For instance, most condenser microphones need a shock mount in order to attach to a stand (check that the shock mount diameter is compatible with the size of your mic). You should also get a stand that best suits your recording style. Some stands will only work when placed on top of a table, and you’re sitting down; others range from three to seven feet tall and are made to use while standing up.

Find these product recommendations and more on our Microphone Stands Amazon Idea List.

Filters

If your microphone doesn’t already include one, you should definitely get a pop filter. When set up properly in front of your microphone, they will filter out sibilance and plosives, i.e. extra “hiss” and “pop” sounds that come from your mouth while recording. An added bonus is that pop filters will help you manage your distance from the microphone.

Another essential add-on is the isolation shield. These are like compact acoustic panels that get attached to the back of the microphone and block out ambient noise.

Find these product recommendations and more on our Microphone Filters Amazon Idea List. Be sure to check that the pop filter and isolation shield you choose are compatible with your specific microphone and recording setup.

Cables

Some, but not all, microphones come with an XLR cable in the box. These cables are designed to connect your microphone to an external audio interface, which is then connected to your computer via USB. You’ll want a balanced XLR cable with an insulated or braided cover to shield it from electromagnetic noise/interference and to increase sound fidelity. We’ve listed our top picks below with a range of options for beginner, intermediate, and professional narrators.

Find these product recommendations and more on our Microphone Cables Amazon Idea List.

And… mic drop!

Just kidding! You should never drop your microphone, unless it’s as rugged as the Shure SM58. (Even then, you still shouldn’t drop your microphone).

Pop Quiz: Choose the word in parentheses that best completes each phrase.
The Shure SM58 is a dynamic microphone, which means it picks up sound with (more OR less) precision than a condenser mic and is suitable for (noisy OR soundproof) studio environments.

Answers: Click and drag your cursor to highlight the hidden text in the brackets below.
[ less precision, noisy studio environments ]

Now that you know what to look for when buying a voice recording microphone, check out part 2 of our “Gearing Up” series to see which audio interface, DAW, and headphones will complete your ideal setup. Don’t forget to subscribe to our blog for updates!

A Studio of One’s Own

Every audiobook Producer needs a space that they can call their own—a space where they can harness the hypnotic power of their voice and keep the outside world, well, outside. In the first post of this three-part series, we’ll show you how to set up your recording studio and walk you through the essentials, from layout and soundproofing to selecting the right gear.

It’s all about location

You have to customize your studio to best fit your space, whether that’s a tiny house in the mountains, a crowded high rise in Manhattan, a condo by the beach, or a house with high ceilings in the suburbs. Some of the best home recording studios are built in a closet, with a designated desk for post-production in another room. Other producers soundproof their office, living room, or even bedroom.

When choosing your studio space, consider:

Are there any windows? More windows means more unexpected noise, especially if they face the street. Thick curtains can help block out many noises (but not construction sounds like jackhammers).

Do you want to record standing up or sitting down? Both ways work; it’s just a matter of how you’re most comfortable performing. Each will require a different amount of space and type of microphone stand.

How much space will there be between you, the microphone, and the walls? A microphone is best set up at a point no further than 40% away from the front wall, half-way between the side walls, and 60% away from the back wall.

What kind of floor do you have: carpeted, tile, or hardwood? Carpet is ideal for sound insulation, and you can always buy a thick rug or isolation pad (more on that later).

How high are the ceilings? You’ll have to add soundproofing to the ceiling, too, so you want to be able to reach it.

Another important factor to consider is whether or not there’s an open power outlet near your designated space. To minimize any faint electric buzzing noises, you’ll want to plug all your gear into one surge protector, in one outlet.

The sound of silence

So you’ve picked the quietest room in your house, away from street-facing windows, noisy refrigerators, and your overly enthusiastic children. Bear with us—this space is not as quiet as you think. Close your eyes and listen. Then listen closer. You might start hearing your AC unit on the other side of your house. A plane flying overhead. Your upstairs neighbors stomping around.

Without proper soundproofing, all of these sounds and more will be readily picked up by your sensitive voice-recording microphone and jolt listeners out of their immersive audiobook experience. Don’t worry, our tips below will help ensure that your audio meets our Submission Requirements before it ever reaches your audience’s eager ears.

DIY soundproofing and acoustic treatment

  • Walls and Ceiling: Block out external noise and dampen vibrations by covering your walls and ceiling with acoustic panels, egg-crate mattress covers, carpets, or even thick moving blankets, duvet covers, or curtains. If you’re using fabric insulation, leave a bit of space between each panel so the sound of your voice can be diffused a little and won’t sound flat (sometimes fabric absorbs sounds almost too well).
  • Door: Treat the studio side of your door the same way as your walls and ceiling. You want to make sure that all cracks are covered, and you also want to be able to get in and out easily. We recommend using a plastic door sweep or a long, dense pillow to cover the crack between the door and the floor when you’re recording.
  • Floor: If your studio space is not already carpeted, buy a thick rug to cover your entire floor. In addition to blocking out noise and eliminating vibrations, recording on carpet will help mask low end frequencies emitted by your equipment. If carpet isn’t doing the trick, or you have some wiggle room in your budget, you can opt for isolation pads to cover your floor.
  • Furniture: Fully stocked bookcases placed in corners of your studio can help with acoustic treatment because they diffuse sound waves. Additionally, if you want to record sitting down, you should look for a desk that’s stable and large enough to hold your microphone, computer, and accessories; your chair should be the right height for your desk, comfortable, and not squeak (even if you’re narrating a horror audiobook).

For more inspiration on your studio set-up, take a virtual visit to the DIY recording studios of three Audible Approved Producers.

Find these product recommendations on our Studio Soundproofing Amazon Idea List.

Reducing noise with the right electronics

  • Microphone isolation shield: In addition to the soundproofing steps we’ve mentioned above, you may want to mount an isolation shield to your microphone to absorb any additional vibrations from your walls and floor. Be sure to follow the instructions when attaching the filter to your microphone, as mounting it too close to the microphone won’t do much in terms of sound absorption.
  • Computer: Another source of noise is your computer, specifically its fan and hard disk. We recommend using a low-power computer with an SSD drive and no fans, like the Microsoft Surface Pro, or very quiet fans like the Macbook Air. Another bonus for upgrading your computer is faster audio processing and editing. Note: check that your computer ports are compatible with your audio interface.
  • Lighting: You can make your space as bright or as dim as you want, but stay clear from fluorescent light bulbs, which can produce radio interference. Wall dimmers can also make a low buzzing noise when turned on. Instead, we recommend a desktop or standing lamp with LED bulbs which are quiet, energy efficient, and won’t add extra heat to your space.

Find these product recommendations on our Studio Accessories Amazon Idea List.

Choosing your recording studio gear

Just like your acoustic treatment has to be customized to fit your space, your studio gear should be tailored to your unique voice and environment. We won’t go into all of those factors here (check out Gearing Up For Audiobook Production Part 1 for more information), but we’ll introduce you to everything you need to get started.

To record an audiobook, you’ll need a way to capture your voice (a microphone), a way to transfer and save your sound (typically an audio interface connected to your computer), a way to listen to your recording (headphones best replicate the audiobook listening experience), and a way to record and edit your sound files (software called a digital audio workstation or DAW).

Starter packs

We’ve selected the starter packs below for their ease of use and professional-grade quality. They include a studio condenser microphone, which is the most popular type of microphone used in audiobook recording; an audio interface; headphones; necessary cables; a DAW; and a selection of accessories like microphone stands and a pop filter to screen out popping noises during recording.

Find these product recommendations on our Audiobook Recording Starter Packs Amazon Idea List.

Make yourself at home

Soundproofing your studio and using quality equipment will get you off to a solid start in producing amazing audiobooks. The most critical element is you: your voice, how you use it, and your ability to capture and master it to produce stories that will engage your listeners. So make yourself at home, get comfortable using your new equipment, and check out our Performance: The Craft of Narration video playlist to hone your voiceover skills.

For more information, check out these Production Pointers from Audible Approved Producers and keep honing your craft.

An Update from ACX

We’re committed to making Audible and ACX the best experience it can be for our creative community, and we’ve heard your feedback. We have been hard at work building a new reporting system to reflect details on returns, including returned units by title. Starting March 2021, you’ll be able to see this data on your ACX Sales Dashboard. This data will also be included in your monthly financial statements for March 2021 and the following months. We appreciate your patience as we invest the time and resources to make these updates to the dashboard and our backend systems, so that we can expand reporting details for our thousands of creators. As of January 1, 2021, we are paying royalties on any return made more than 7 days after purchase.

We are also making other changes to our ACX policies to provide more flexibility, which we know is important to you. Effective February 1, ACX Rights Holders of DIY or Pay-for-Production titles that have been on sale for 90 or more days can convert their distribution type from exclusive to non-exclusive. In addition, all ACX Rights Holders will have the option to terminate after 90 days of distribution, but Rights Holders with Royalty Share or Royalty Share Plus deals must provide Producer consent when making their request. More details about this update will come in the payments letter that will be sent next week.

We wish you all the best in 2021.

GORUCK: A DIY Audiobook Adventure

In 2008, Jason and Emily McCarthy founded GORUCK with two goals: to create a backpack that could survive any environment, and to start a movement that shows people how to get the most out of a life where adventure calls and tomorrow is never promised. Jason joins us today to share how tackling those challenges set him up to self-produce an audiobook based on his experience.

When I began keeping a journal back in 2010, I had no idea that it would become my first book, How Not To Start A Backpack Company. I also didn’t know that I would go on to not only self-publish, but also self-record this very personal story in a small soundproofed room at our GORUCK Headquarters in Jacksonville Beach, FL. Turns out, producing an audiobook is a lot like rucking (aka walking with weight in a backpack). Both can be uncomfortable at first, but the more you do it, the better it gets over time. 

You see, in 2010 my life was a mess. I had just gotten out of the military, I was going through a divorce, and the US financial crisis was in full swing. Back then, GORUCK was little more than a hobby. I was broke and thought I had nothing to lose, so I hit the open road with my dog Java to visit all 48 contiguous states, to meet people and get into adventures. I thought we could sell a few backpacks, too.

Truth is, I lost a bunch of money, didn’t sell any backpacks, and ended up all alone. I had a great front row seat to watch my life burn down before my very eyes. The silver lining was that this trip became instrumental to me turning my life around, because I was motivated to not live in flames. The magical part of the journey came when I focused on building a community of people through rucking and the GORUCK Challenge — instead of just trying to sell gear. I believed in that people-first vision then and have followed it ever since. Ten years later, with thousands of GORUCK events and over $120MM in revenue behind us, what’s abundantly clear to me is that we would not be in business if we weren’t making a real impact on people’s lives, including our own. Serving others is the why that will always drive us forward.

In late 2019, Emily asked me if I had a specific photo – the one of Java in the GORUCK Truck in front of a herd of bison – to put on our Christmas card. I handed her my phone for her to find it as I headed to bed. After some digging, she found the photo and stumbled upon that journal that I had written during the summer of 2010 and completely forgotten about.

Emily stayed up most of the night reading, and the next morning, she came down to the kitchen and implored me to tell this story to the world. She described the journal as an unfiltered glimpse into my journey as an entrepreneur and human being. This was the GORUCK origin story that needed to be told. 

I started making the rounds to the publishers in New York. You meet in their office, they tell you what other books you need to copy to sell a few more copies of yours. You have no leverage because you’ve never sold a book. The publishers I chatted with wanted this story to be more of a business book with bullet points and to-do lists. Or they wanted it to be about how my life was like a bad country song where I had a broken heart and a dog and a bottle of whiskey. I wanted to one-up them and show both sides of building a business amidst personal chaos.

So, I decided to go directly to our audience, just like we did with our original backpack, GR1, way back when. Six months later, I self-published How Not To Start A Backpack Company with editorial help from my good friend and the original photographer from that summer 2010 trip, Alex Beck. It was really happening.

Within a few days of the launch, I got a message on Instagram from a member of our GORUCK Tough (GRT) community, Kat Lambrix of Audible Studios. She wanted to know if we planned to do an audio version of the book, because she and others would love to listen to it while rucking. She gave us some quick start tips that I’ve shared below, but her greatest advice, by far, was reminding me that this was my story, and I knew how to tell it best.

Tips for Successful Audiobook Recording

  • Speak half a beat slower than you think you need to. Remember that listeners don’t have the text in front of them, so they’ll need time to digest what it is you’re saying – especially if listening while training or rucking.
  • Read off of a tablet when recording. Avoid a laptop because your mic will pick up the fan noise.
  • Stay hydrated, and if you’re getting really clicky, try a few bites of a green apple.
  • Don’t eat anything new the night before you record. Your mic will pick up noises from your stomach!
  • When you take breaks, especially if you’re feeling like your energy is dragging, try a quick round of exercise to regain your focus.
  • Don’t worry about the first few pages. Record them without going back so you can get into the flow of recording. Then if you listen to it and feel like it doesn’t match the later parts of the book when you’re more comfortable behind the mic, go back and redo them.

Next thing I knew, Emily had bought a bag of green apples from the supermarket and said she’d hold down the fort with our three children. It was a surreal experience to lock myself in what we jokingly refer to as “The Champagne Room” at GORUCK HQ and reread the journal and emails I had written from my rock bottom. Emily narrated her part as well, and we both admitted afterward that tears were shed while revisiting the past.

Without ACX elevating the field of independent publishing, authors like me would have zero chance to tell our story in our way. For us, the goal was to create a calling card. Let’s get the story out there and see what people think. Self-publishing our book, and narrating the audiobook on ACX made that possible.

Above all I hope my story inspires others to NOT wait for the perfect time to follow their dreams, but just to get going and figure it out on the move.


Are you ready for the adventure of a lifetime? Listen to Jason and Emily’s audio opus on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.

Then, get ready to go ruck on your own journey—creating an audiobook with ACX allows you to put your story out there, engage your audience, and learn a lot along the way. Click here to get started.