Producing an audiobook for Amazon ACX can be expensive, and if you’re a DIY type, it can be a daunting task. In episode 02 of the Indie Author’s Journey Podcast, U.K. audio editor Jason Nightall gives technical tips and tactics to help you record your own audiobook.
“The whole world of authors and narrators, and the whole business of producing audiobooks at home and distributing them and selling them yourself rather than going through a large company, that’s really taken off recently.”
“All the work I do is confidential. I’ve had some podcasts that have been on subjects that are quite controversial.”
- Record spoken word at 16 bits and a sample rate of 44.1 kilohertz for essentially CD quality
- Use a recording level around -3 to -6db
- Audio Technica ART2100 (about $64)
- Blue Yeti (about $100) or Snowball (about $49)
- Shure SM7B ($400)
- For recording: Audacity or Adobe Audition
Links in this Episode:
Terry: I’m here with Jason Nightall from Boomstick Audio. Jason Nightfall has been an audio engineer for 20 years primarily working in the world of music recording studios and sound engineering, and he’s from the United Kingdom. And I asked how to pronounce it. Did you say LESTER?
Jason: That’s correct. Perfect.
Terry: You did it phonetically for me, so that worked. Well, Jason how did you get started doing sound editing for audio books?
Jason: So I, as you mentioned at the start there, been working as a sound engineer for about 20 years. It all kinda started when I was about 16 years old, and I was with a friend who decided to hire a very small, modest local recording studio. When I was about sixteen, and we recorded some music and then my whole love affair with recording and sound and microphones and wires and things with flashing lights sort of started then, and it all kinda took off from there, and I’ve been doing various kind of work in recording studios with friends and their ventures over the last 20 years, got a lot of experience doing that. And then recently about a year ago I decided to join five and started offering services editing podcasts, which compared to the world of music production, which is extremely technical and scientific, and compared to that world it was quite simple really, from my perspective. So I started offering those services and realized that it was actually quite a high demand. There was a lot of people out there that edited podcasts, such as this one, and they either didn’t know how to actually turn them into a finished podcast file that sounded professional, like the type of thing you hear on the radio you know, that type of thing, or they just didn’t want to commit the time to it and was happy to offload someone else, so I had quite a lot of success doing that. Quite quickly, I found that I was doing that full time. So that carried on for a little while, and then I realized people were contacting me asking me to edit other things such as YouTube videos, and one of the things they asked me to edit was audiobooks, and quickly realized there was a market for that too, so I have set up a separate gig on Fiverr just for audiobooks, which is fairly new. I’ve been doing audiobooks for a while, but I’ve set up a separate gig for it specifically now on Fiverr because people are searching for that separately, and that started to take off now.
Terry: Yeah, so there’s been demand for it. So are these people that have been contacting you about doing audio books, are they the authors usually, or is it somebody else that’s like a voice talent who’s recording it? Or how has that been, usually?
Jason: That’s a good question. I’d say probably both equally. I’ve had people who are doing jobs for authors, who have been employed by book authors to turn their books into an audiobook product, and they’ve recorded the chapters, they recorded the narration, and are having trouble editing it and making it sound like a professional finished product. And so they contact me to step in and take things from there. I also have some authors contact me, and they’ve narrated the book themselves and they again asked me to take the recordings that I made and turn it into a finished product that’s basically ready to upload to Amazon and sell from there. I think that obviously Audible’s been around for quite a while. It was bought out by Amazon’s since, and they’ve taken things forward, but the whole world of authors and narrators and the whole business of producing audiobooks at home and distributing them and selling them yourself rather than going through a large company, that’s really taken off recently, as you’re probably aware. And that’s sort of led to an explosion of people attempting to make home recordings of their audiobook products. And that can go quite smoothly, or you can have difficulties if it isn’t your forte, and then someone like myself can help out there.
Terry: Have you been helping them submit them to ACX mostly, or has it been people selling them on their own websites, or how has that worked?
Jason: Almost always at least the people who have contacted myself have almost always gone the ACX route, and I do offer the service of uploading the finished product to ACX. It’s not always as straightforward as that though because the person has an account with ACX, and that account contains a lot of personal details and sales details and things like that. So it’s not always appropriate that I log in as them to upload into their account. I think ACX has a service where they send you a link, and you click the link, and you upload from there, so sometimes I’ve done it that way, where they haven’t given me access to their accounts, and I’ve just uploaded to ACX using the upload link. But you know it’s down to the preference of the person producing the audiobook. Sometimes they want to do it themselves, and sometimes the prefer me to send it straight to ACX.
Terry: Sure. If somebody is uploading it themselves to ACX, is it usually one big file or each of the chapters in separate files, or how does that go together?
Jason: ACX requires the chapters are separate files, including the opening and closing credits and some of the files you can include as well. So that’s how they’ll accept them, and they’re quite specific about the exact file formats, and the exact bitrate, and all the other technical details they require. They have quite a long page on the Internet where they list these things out. I think this is usually where some people have some difficulties, is they get to the part where they actually have to turn their recordings in to the specific technical files that ACX require. For some people that’s quite complicated, and that’s normally where I step into to finish things off.
Terry: When you receive recordings how do you prefer to get them? Do you want them all in separate files as well or a certain file extension?
Jason: It all depends on the author, or the person who has made the recording should I say, it depends how they’ve recorded them. Sometimes they have made multiple recordings for each chapter, and they want me to edit the files and take out retakes or coughs and anything like that. In which case I’ll spend quite a lot of time going through and editing the files and basically creating each chapter as one audio file. Sometimes they will record a whole chapter, edit out the mistakes and just send that to me as one file. And either way I can work with that. If you want me to jump into technical details about file formats that I prefer, or give the best end result, I can do that now. Okay so, before I jump into that, let me just discuss, there’s two, generally two types of audio files you can save. There’s lossless and lossy. What that means is lossless are audio files that retain full quality, but they create very large files, and then you get lossy file formats such as MP3s. They sacrifice quality to make small audio files. So these types of audio files are great for MP3 players, and phones, and things like that, but they’re not so great when you’re recording the master takes for your audiobook. You want the full quality there. So what I recommend you do is use a lossless file format such as WAV file if you’re on the PC, or if you’re on a Mac you’ll use an AIFF file, and they are essentially the same thing they’re just slight, they’re just called two different things, one for PC, one for Mac, basically. And they will retain full quality with no audio compression or anything like that. And if you send me files in that format, then I can take things from there, and I’ll edit the whole audiobook, touch it up, make it sound great, and then right at the end I will convert it into the lossy file format that ACX require, and that’s only done once at the very end to retain the maximum quality. And if anybody’s wondering about specific details about the file, you know, bit rate and whatever, if you record with a bit rate of 16 bits and a sample rate at 44.1 kilohertz, then you will get the best quality. That’s essentially CD quality. You can use settings higher than those if you require, but for spoken word recordings I find that it doesn’t really make much difference. You’re making larger audio files without much quality gain.
Terry: And then if someone does want music in the introduction, that would be a separate track anyway, right?
Jason: It could all be accommodated. The file formats that ACX require can easily accommodate music without too much problems. If the files are created in the right way, it won’t be a problem.
Terry: Adding music in the intro, is that sort of old fashioned now? Are most people leaving that out, or what do you think about that?
Jason: I’ll be honest. Through the work I’ve had, I haven’t had any that contain music, and I don’t know if that’s through preference of the authors or narrators or because they believed it wasn’t possible. I’ve not seen anything in the ACX requirements that say that they won’t accept music. I think if you try to put music in the chapters, that might be an issue. I think on the intro and outro, and dedication, or anything like that, they they probably wouldn’t have an issue with it.
Terry: And of course, we want music that has the correct licensing.
Jason: Well, this is a problem. You can either go the royalty free music route, or you can buy music and you’re able to then use that music in a commercial product such as an audiobook. So yeah, if you go to a web site which is called AudioJungle.net, you can choose from lots of music and you can pay around about something like 10, 20, 30 dollars, depending on the piece of music, and you’ll get the rights to use that in a commercial product such as an audiobook. And there’s all kinds of different styles on there to choose from, upbeat, downbeat, anything you want.
Terry: What sort of equipment should we use when we make our recording before we send it to you? What will give us the best quality?
Jason: It depends how much knowledge you have and what your budget is, ultimately. You see it basically comes down to the type of microphone you want to get and how you connect that to a computer. So that’s the main thing. I’ll make some recommendations on that, but I just want to go through a couple of details about microphones that are actually quite important, that sometimes get missed by people making voice recordings at home. So if you can imagine, a microphone has an end that you speak into, whether it’s the type of microphone that you would hold, like a stage mic, or one that fits in a microphone stand or whatever. There’s normally parts of it you talk into, but it’s a little bit more complicated than that because a microphone itself can be designed to pick up sound from either all directions or from one specific direction. There’s names for this. You get an omni-directional microphone, which is designed to pick up all the sound that it receives from any direction. You’d stand in the street with this microphone, and it would pick up all the sound around you, which is great for that type of thing. But if you’re in a recording studio, and you just want to pick up your voice, and there’s maybe some background noise that you don’t want it to pick up, you know, that mic is going to pick up everything whether you want it or not. Another type of microphone pickup pattern is called the cardioid. The cardioid microphone is designed to pick up just from the end you speak into. So then if you’re speaking into it, it will just pick up your voice, and it will try and discard any other sound it picks up from any other direction. Simply by choosing a cardioid microphone, of which there’s many good models, you can easily eliminate one of the big problems of home recording, which is background noise and how to deal with background noise. So the next thing to consider with the microphone is how you actually connect it to your computer. And this can be quite confusing for people that are new to this. The more expensive microphones have an XLR connection, which is the type of thing that’s been used in recording studios for years. And it’s basically a round plug with three pins, and you need an audio interface to connect to in order to be able to record the sound coming from it. But what we get recently is USB microphones, which are, essentially the microphone part is exactly the same, but they have a USB plug, and you can just connect it straight to your computer, and whatever software you’re using will be able to take the sound from the microphone through the USB cable. Very easy to set up, and for most people that are new to this, I’d recommend a cardioid microphone with USB connector. Some recommendations on that: if you are looking for a budget microphone, I recommend the Audio Technica ART2100, which has been very popular with podcasters for quite a while now. Because it’s got a USB connector, very high quality. It also has an XLR connector, so if you want to go to the more traditional routes of connecting it to an audio interface, then you could do that as well. You’ve got the choice. That costs about $60 off Amazon, and I consider that a very good mic to start off with. If you want to step it up a gear, you can go for the Blue Yeti, which is about hundred dollars. You can get the Snowball version, which is a little bit cheaper, and the sound quality is roughly the same. The benefit of the Blue Yeti, you remember earlier I spoke about the omni-direction and the cardioid, that only will pick up the sound in front of a microphone. The Blue Yeti actually lets you choose between those two pick-up patterns. It’s caught a few people out, actually. Some people have wondered why their Blue Yeti’s picking up sounds, the neighbor mowing the lawn down the street when they want is to have it pick up their voice, and they actually have the settings wrong on it. But you can set it to do either-or, depending on your needs. If you really want to go professional, then you can go for the Shure SM7B, which is the type of thing they’ll use in radio stations. Extremely high quality microphone. That’s $400 though, which is the downside. You know if you want to start small and work your way up, then you know that’s something to aim for. If you want a great record recording straight off the bat, and you’ve got the budget, Shure SM7B will do that for you. Other things I’ll recommend as well as the microphone is good microphone stand and a very good pop shield. Those two things alone will eliminate some of the biggest problems of recording at home. If you imagine yourself sitting at a table reading your book aloud, the microphone stand will keep the mic detached from the table. One of the things I find with a lot of audiobooks I edit is the microphone is sitting on the table, and as the narrator is turning the page and putting the hand back down on the table, there is a big thud every time. And this is picked up very clearly by the microphone, and it can be quite a problem to eliminate, and sometimes it can’t be completely eliminated. So if you have a microphone stand, which is either behind the table or next to the table, and it’s holding the microphone above the table and close to your mouth, but detached from the table, and hands free, then it will eliminate all of that background noise. And the other thing I’ll mention there is a good pop shield, which is absolutely essential regardless of whatever microphone you use. Every time you say words like that begin with a P or B or a T, there is a little gush of air from your mouth, and if you’re speaking into a microphone the sound is picked up, and it hits the mic and causes a big pop sound, and it causes the recording level to spike and causes all kinds of problems in the recording. These are called plosives. If you bought a pop shield, which you can get off Amazon for about $5, it’s just a round thing that goes in front of the microphone, and it stops those gushes of air without reducing the sound quality, and it will increase the quality of your recording immensely.
Terry: You wouldn’t recommend one of the tripod stands the microphone can sit on the desk with because that might still pick up the sound from the desk.
Jason: It definitely will pick up the sound from the desk. It’s good to start off with that if you don’t have the budget, but you know you can pick up a mic stand from Amazon for $10, $15, and a pop shield for $5. And those two things alone will increase the quality of your recordings by a long way, so I highly recommend that.
Terry: As far as programs we use to record, are there any that you would recommend we start out with?
Jason: There’s a program called Audacity. It’s a free program and it’s available on the PC on the Mac. It’s not very feature rich, but it’s very good at recording, allowing you to make basic edits. It can do quite a few advanced things, but in my personal opinion is quite hard to use for the advanced stuff, but for basic recording and editing, it’s free, it does the job, and you can make high quality recordings in that, and then send them off to someone like myself to do the editing. If you want to do the editing yourself at home, I recommend a program called Adobe Audition, which is very similar to Audacity, except much more feature rich and easier to use. It is paid software though, so you’ll have to look into buying it, obviously. But it is very good software, contains everything you need to edit your own audiobook, make you sound professional. There is quite a steep learning curve if you haven’t used it before though, so just watch out for that, but there is a lot of tutorials and information on YouTube if you want to go that route.
Terry: Although you’ll probably spend a lot of time learning how to use it that you could do something else with.
Jason: Well, this is the tradeoff. If, going back to what I said earlier, you know, some people are willing to put that time in and learn how to edit their own audiobooks, and podcasts, and things, and that’s fine. Some people don’t have the time or would rather spend the time writing more books, or narrating, or audiobooks, and then offloading the post-production work to somebody else. And there’s no right or wrong way, just whichever way is right for you.
Terry: When you receive the file, what do you usually do to it? What sorts of processes do you run it through?
Jason: Oh, well it’s all top secret. When I receive audio files, one of the first things I’ll do is listen through them to make sure there’s no basic errors or problems, or distortion, or anything that’s going to stop me taking things further. The next thing I’ll do is I will try and standardize the sounds of all the files. So, if you imagine, audiobooks can be quite long, and they’re often recorded over multiple takes. It’s quite common for those takes to sound different from one to the other. Someone put the microphone in a different location, and that makes it sound different, or they’ve changed the recording settings or whatever it might be. At that point, I would want to go through all the files and use specialized software to standardize them to all sound the same. Not finished at that point, but just so that they’re all at the same setting, so there’s a good starting point to move onto the next step. If the client requires me to edit the audio, I’ll then go through edits, chop around any bits of audio or remove any mistakes or outtakes, compiling files into chapters, whatever’s necessary to do that. At that stage I’ll trim the start and end because Amazon ACX is quite specific about how much gap, the term they use is room time. That is, how much silence is at the start and the end of the file, and I’ll go through and make sure that that’s the same on all the files. They’ll reject if it’s not correct. So I’ll make sure I know, go through, make sure that’s correct to that stage. The next step I’ll do, if again, if it’s been requested by the client, I’ll go through and remove background noise. That’s the type of thing like removing fan noise, hiss, any sort of constant background noise that isn’t required for the final recording. I can remove it as an extra service, so I’ll do that at that stage, and then we’re pretty much on for the main processing, which is going through using standard tools like EQs, compressors, DSs, limiters, and whatever else is necessary to manipulate the sound, make it sound like a professional recording. A basic give it that edge, take it from a recording done in somebodies spare room, and making it sound like a finished, professional audio book product. There’s no formula to doing that. It’s sort of experience and having a rough idea of what to do based on whatever the condition of the audio is on when I receive it, and it’s different every time. This is probably the hard part to learn. There’s a lot of experience goes into deciding on what to do to make it sound, you know, to achieve that professional sound and how to use the tools to do that. And then at the end, we’ll fix the correct loudness levels, which is something Amazon is quite specific about as well. And this is making sure that, without trying to get too technical, that the peak level of the audio files is where Amazon wants it, but also the loudness level. And what that is, is basically a process that analyzes the audio against how a human would hear because a human would hear some sounds, high pitched sounds, at a different volume to lower pitch sounds, for example, and there’s a way we can test this now. And so we will check the peak level, and we would also check the loudness level to make sure that it sounds about right as well, and all set to Amazon’s specifications, and then I would turn it into the MP3s Amazon requires and upload it.
Terry: Are there any sorts of subjects or types of audio books that you’d rather not work on?
Jason: I have absolutely no morals whatsoever, so I’m quite happy to work on it.
Terry: A gun for hire.
Jason: Pretty much. I’ve not really had any audiobooks that have been an issue. I can imagine there’s some subjects out there that are controversial, and I personally wouldn’t have much of an issue with. The work I do is confidential. I’ve had some podcasts that have been on subjects that are quite controversial. All the work’s been done in a confidential way and treated as confidential, very professional service. So, no. I’ve got no problem editing any sort of subject, really. What do you have in mind?
Terry: You never know. I don’t usually hear the sound editor’s name on a podcast, but on an audio book I would imagine you get credit somewhere.
Jason: Usually the recordings for the audiobook have been made before I get brought on board. So my name isn’t usually in there anywhere because at the time the recording is made I’m not involved in the project. So normally, I wouldn’t be in any audiobooks. I might have been given credits in any sort of text material that’s been included with some audio books. I think I remember one of my clients talking about that. But I don’t think so, off the top of my head. I don’t think I’ll be getting famous anytime.
Terry: Well you never know, right?
Jason: You never know.
Terry: If you could give advice to somebody before they even get started, so that the product they sent you had the best chance of sounding great, what would you tell them?
Jason: OK. Again, very interesting subject. One of the most interesting parts of the whole recording audio at home type of thing, and the reason for that is, when you record spoken words, audiobooks, podcasts, YouTube videos, whatever it is, at home you run into to a lot of problems that home musicians have been dealing with for a very long time, 20, 30 years or more. And it’s things that you probably wouldn’t have even considered when you thought about doing it. Things like microphone placements, where the microphone is in relation to your mouth, room acoustics, background noise, you know things like that, echo in the room. All these problems will rear their heads when you start making some recordings at home. I can go through a list of some of these things, and basically, if you want.
Terry: Maybe just kind of a brief overview. I suppose someone could contact you before they started and kind of set things up, or maybe you just need to write a book, but . . .
Jason: I could write a book. I mean to be honest there is lots of . . . if you get a good book from Amazon on home recording, which would be aimed at musicians, but it will cover a lot of the basics that will prevent you running into problems when you try recording, making book recordings at home. You basically want to make sure you’re in a room where there is little echo as possible. So don’t record your audio book in the kitchen, for example. You probably want to do it in your bedroom or somewhere where there’s lots of soft furnishings. You’d be surprised how many recordings have been made in somebody’s wardrobe because there’s lots of clothes and soft things in there that will prevent echo, basically. Good tip, there. I’ve already covered use a pop shield. Disconnect your microphone from the table so you don’t get the sounds. Don’t sit too close to corners because that can make the recording sound quite boxy, makes you sound like you’re in a box. Basically, because you’re surrounded by walls. One thing I find on a lot recordings I get is the recording level setting correctly, either it’s too low or it’s too loud. And for anyone that’s tried before, if the recording level’s too loud, you hit this kind of a limit, which is called the zero DB limit, and you can’t go any higher than that. When you hit that limit, the sound just distorts because it hits a brick wall. So you want to make sure that your recoding level doesn’t go to zero DB. But you also want to make sure it’s not too low because in all recordings there is always a little bit of background noise that’s picked up when it comes from the cables in the computer and wherever else, and that’s kind of unavoidable. If you’re recording level’s too low, then you get lots of noise against a very quiet voice recording. But if your recording level’s set correctly, you get a nice strong voice recording and a very low background noise, which can easily be dealt with. A tip there is when you are recording or you’re using something like Audacity, which has got a very nice level meter as you are recording, you want to have a flicking around about the -3 to -6 DB mark. If that doesn’t make any sense to you at the minute, don’t worry about it. As soon as you see a recording level meter, it will make perfect sense, and you’ll see what I mean. You kind of want to keep it around about -3 to -6 DB, and you’ll be fine so long as it doesn’t hit zero and it doesn’t go to low you’ll be fine. One of the biggest problems I found with audiobooks is external noise intrusion, and this is very hard to deal with. What I mean by that is so you’re at home recording, you get cars going by, planes going overhead. That’s picked up by the microphone. Even in small amounts. I’m sure a lot of authors would agree that when people are listening to their audiobooks they want people to be engrossed in the story and in the atmosphere of the book. Nothing will pull a listener out of that like a car going by.
Terry: Especially if there aren’t supposed to be cars where the story takes place.
Jason: If it’s a story about some sort of fantasy world where there’s no cars at all, and then you hear a car go by, or kids shouting in the background, or something like that. That can kind of ruin the moment. That is a hard problem to deal with. If you have a basement, I know a lot of people in North America have basements. We’re not so lucky in the UK. We don’t get that. If you have a basement as quiet as possible, then maybe try that, or a shed out back, or something like that. Consider that.
Terry: When we’re recording, what do we need to have that goes along with the audio book? I mean do we need the chapter headings, should they be in separate files, do we need the intro and the outro to be in separate files? How should that be submitted to you so you can work with it?
Jason: Yes, so what Amazon require, when it’s actually submitted to Amazon, is every chapter has to be a separate audio file. Opening and closing credits need to be a separate audio file. There can be a dedication file. And they also require a retail sample, and what they mean by that is it’s basically an audio file between 1 to 5 minutes long that is taken from one of the chapters, and it’s usually best if the author chooses that because they can pick a part of their book from one of their chapters that they feel represented their book in the best light.
Terry: Not necessarily just the beginning, right?
Jason: No, not necessarily. It can be taken from any chapter anywhere, so long as it’s at least 1 minutes long, no longer than five minutes. Amazon ACX will have that on their web sites on the sales page for your book, and people can click that and listen in, and you know get an idea of what the book’s about before they buy. So that’s a requirement for that. One important point to note is that each chapter needs to have the chapter number read aloud. So for example, for Chapter 2, you need to say “Chapter 2” at the start of the audio file, audio recording. If that’s not included, Amazon will reject the audio book.
Terry: Well, you’ve given us a lot of technical information and a lot of practical information. I think I’m going to have to listen to this again myself and jot everything down. But really a lot of useful and valuable information. So thank you for talking with us today, Jason.
Jason: Thanks, Terry. No problem. I hope some of your listeners find it useful. I sometimes feel like I get too much into the technical details, but you know it’s all so necessary. We have to deal with these things if we want to sell on Amazon, unfortunately. Hopefully, that helps a few people with that.
Terry: We can hire you to take care of that technical stuff. And it’s kind of like when you’re cooking spaghetti and you throw it against the wall and see what sticks. You know, some of what you said will stick and we’ll use that and remember it, and some will fall to the floor and we won’t use that.
Jason: Yeah. I mean the good thing about a podcast is you can wind it back and have a listen If anybody needs any information, feel free to hit me up on Fiverr and ask me about any of the stuff I’ve spoken about. Be more than happy to discuss it with you.
Terry: And just as a reminder, your Fiverr ID is boomstickaudio, all one word. Is that right?
Jason: Yeah. Basically if you go to fiverr.com/boomstickaudio, all one word. Some of you might know the film I got up from?
Terry: Bedknobs and broomsticks?
Jason: A famous film with Bruce Campbell in it. Evil Dead Three, one of my favorite films.
Terry: Okay, well thanks again, Jason, and it’s been great talking with you.
Jason: Yeah, great. Thanks a lot, Terry. No problem. Thanks.