Recording An Audio Book
For a month, I recorded an audio book for my second novel, F250 in my apartment on 173rd street in NYC at night when I came home from my job at the oil refinery. Here’s how it went down …
First of all, I’m never sure what emails I get are scams. I just assume all the emails I get are scams.
My factory settings are: I’m about to get ripped off.
Maybe this is because I had identity theft three years ago. The crooks were able to file a fraudulent tax return in my name and have the refund routed to a vacant apartment. By the time I figured out what had happened, an investigation was opened up and the IRS took 180 days to get my tax refund back to me. I have a pin number now that I have to use to file my yearly taxes. Works like a charm.
When my tax return money finally came, I was able to take my wife on a vacation to California. F250 had just come out, and part of the trip involved a reading in Los Angeles. Then because of happenstance, I wound up on the Other People podcast.
A company that makes audio books was listening to the podcast and reached out to me in hopes of working together on making F250 into an audio book.
The email they sent about working together surprised me, but it didn’t make me humbled or excited, because I just assumed they wanted me to send them a money order and that would be the end of our relationship. They’d take my cash and purchase strawberry daiquiris with cool ass tropical umbrellas, maybe rent some jet skis, blast away across the horizon, and disappear from the temporary permanence of the world wide web, with my moola.
But when I wrote back that I was interested in seeing the novel produced as an audio book, but that I didn’t have any cash to send, the thing that did surprise me was that the person on the other side of the computer terminal wrote back something like:
“No problem. Were you thinking you’d want to record the book yourself then? That’d be cheaper than hiring a professional voice actor.”
I stared back at the message.
Would I want to record my own audio book?
That was a thing that had never occurred to me.
I’ve played in bands off and on, and going into a recording studio has been simultaneously one of the most fun thing I’ve ever done and the most terrifying and miserable experience. I took a day extra to think about whether I would want to subject myself to somehow recording nearly 80,000 words I wrote.
Then like pulling a band-aid off, I wrote back something like, “Okay, yeah, I’ll record it myself.”
The next email was a contract stating how the audio book would be distributed to 16 different channels, Itunes, Audible, among others; and also how the profits for the sale of the audio book would be split up between me and the producers of the book. And that was that.
The following day, I got an email asking for my home address. They were snail mailing me a box with some equipment. A microphone, an isolation booth, a pop filter.
This was happening.
When I was a kid, I didn’t like to talk in front of people. It made me nervous to look stupid. I kept my mouth shut. Years later when I started to get my writing published, I was envious of people who did readings of their writing, but I didn’t know how to do it. Public speaking freaked me out. When I finally did a live reading of a few poems I’d written, it didn’t go over too good. But I kept doing readings whenever I was asked to do one because I figured the only way to get better at things in life is to fail miserably at them until I figured out my own unique way to suck at it. So maybe somebody might say, “That sucked like nothing I’ve ever seen before!”
Part of the reason why I like working at my construction job, is that there is a rotating door of people always coming and going, and I’ve gotten more comfortable talking to strangers because of that. I used to be quiet and kept to myself. Now I won’t shut the fuck up.
It’s okay to be an amateur. It’s okay to remain an amateur. I try not to get too hung up on these things.
I say yes to things I suspect will be disasters because I don’t learn anything unless I am actively doing it myself. I have never been the type of person who could look at an instruction manual and gain much of anything from it.
So here was a big cardboard box that showed up with a microphone that plugged into my USB port, and here was a trip fold foam isolation booth that stood about 18 inches tall, and here was a pop filter that went between my mouth and the microphone so my p’s didn’t sound like little explosions.
And here I was with no idea how I was going to record this whole goddamned novel without blowing my brains out.
The phone rang and it was the audio engineer. We had a talk for about ten minutes and he told me the bare bones of what he wanted me to do as I went about the home recording process. Here’s a list:
- Record each chapter as an individual track.
- Use the free recording project Audacity. (I used Garageband because I have a Mac and it’s already on the computer.)
- Bounce each track (each chapter) into mp3 format and save it in a Dropbox folder. Be sure to label each file clearly as Your Name_Name of the Book_Chapter Number.mp3
- That’s it. Go to town.
I clicked record on the Garageband file, opened up my paperback copy of F250, leaned forward to the microphone and with all the confidence in the world, said about three words before I fucked up, had to hit stop in Garageband and start all over again from the beginning.
It was brutal to have to simultaneously look at the paperback, read into the microphone and not make any noises by shuffling my feet, or moving the pages too loudly. I struggled through the reading the first chapter (600 words or so), finally getting it close to okay on the forth attempt through the recording, but right at the end, there was an ambulance or a police car or something outside on the street going crazy with its siren and the whole track was ruined. I was annoyed, pissed off, exhausted and ready to burn my apartment building down.
The next day, I tried again from the top.
This time, I didn’t concentrate on getting everything right, instead, if I screwed up while I was reading, or heard something outside the window that I knew was leeching onto the audio of the track (airplane, barking dog, screaming child, horns, sirens, car stereo, …. birds, etc.) I just stopped reading, but didn’t stop the track from recording and when the noise was gone, I continued where I’d left off, with intent to edit the track later. That was the only way I was going to get through this.
Here are some things I learned along the way:
- Putting the text (no matter how long it is) on cellphone (or other hand held device) made the recording process so much easier. No shuffling pages. No trying to hold a book open with two hands and also pay attention to talking into the mic.
- Record during the quietest times. I live on 173rd street in NYC so there is never a totally quiet time. But early in the morning or late at night were best.
- The birds are crazy in the morning and I didn’t notice how loud they are until I listened back to the recordings and it was just me trying to read, and a zillion finches, wrens, sparrows, starlings, blue jays and mourning doves making a racket in the single solitary tree outside my apartment.
- Nighttime was quietest to record, but I was usually too tired to do a good job past 9pm. So, the project took longer than it should have, but like anything else, the project is done when it’s done. There’s no rush.
- I have squat racks and a bench in my apartment so I can lift weights in here rather than pay to go to a gym. Well, guess what, squat racks have yet another purpose besides just hanging up wet laundry, and never using them for actual exercise … I draped blankets over them and made a wall of blankets behind the mic and the isolation booth, to further deaden the sound of New York City.
- It only takes a minute to not procrastinate. It takes forever to procrastinate.
Generally, as I went through the project, I would record a chapter, leaving all the mistakes in there, and go on to another chapter. I recorded for a session, and then I edited the tracks for a session, usually on different days. Splitting everything up like that in manageable chunks made recording the audio book less daunting.
Of course, as I did more recordings, it got easier. By the time I got to the last hundred pages of the book, I was able to do that over the course of a weekend (after the birds quieted down, but before happy hour started on 181st street).
Something else good came out of all this besides creating an audio book. I’ve never been a very good copy editor, I lack the attention to detail for that kind of work, especially with my own writing—novels particularly.
But during the recording of F250, I found that reading the text out loud, especially to record it (and then beyond that have to listen back to stand edit it for audio glitches) helped me spot any parts of the text that needed to be fixed, whether it was typographical, layout, or just something that could be said better.
It made me realize that I should be recording all of my longer works whether they will ever be audio books or not, for the simple, personal reason, of making the novels the best they can be.