Recording Tips for Authors narrating audiobooks

Over the years, I’ve worked on a lot of audiobooks as an audio engineer. And many of those books were read by the authors. It’s such neat experience listening to an author read their own work, especially when it’s something personal like a memoir or a collection of poetry. But I’ve found that there are a few common mistakes that authors often make when they record their books. So, here is a brief list of do’s and don’ts to help prepare you for your recording sessions.

Tip #1 – Wear quiet, comfortable clothing

Chances are you are going to be recording for a long time. You will be in front of the mic for at least one hour if you’re recording something like a short story, essay, or a children’s book. But for longer books, you’re looking at anywhere between 2 to 8 hours per session over multiple days. I worked with one author who really wanted to finish reading her book, so she went for 13 hours! (Well, maybe it was only 9 hours, but it sure felt like 13.) My point is that comfort is key. Experienced voice talent generally wear comfy, cozy cotton and athleisure clothing that allows them the movement to curl up in a chair and read a story for hours on end. So no need to wear your Sunday best or business attire to the studio. Jeans, leggings, and sweatpants are highly recommended.

But note that the clothes you wear need to be quiet! No crinkly, crackly, stiff clothing, please. And no jangly jewelry, either! As you will quickly come to find out, the microphone picks up everything. And so every movement of your hands and arms as you speak, every readjustment in your chair, and every itch and scratch is going to get picked up. That means you’ll either be asked to re-record a section due to noise – adding to extra time in the studio – or an increased amount of time will be spent editing the noise out, if it’s even possible. Either way means a higher bill for you or your publisher. (Unless it’s a flat per-finished-hour rate, in which case you’ll just have a grumpy director and audio editor.)

Which brings us to…

Tip #2 – No fidgeting

Alright, this is a tough one. I understand the need to fidget. You’re in a new environment, you’re being forced to read your own words practically verbatim and you’re being asked to sit still! But as I mentioned in Tip #1, the microphone picks up everything. Every time you rub your hands together, rub your hands on your legs, stuff your hands in your pockets, the mic pics it up and you end up either having to a.) re-record, b.) spend more time editing, or c.) live with it in the recording. If you need to fidget, scratch an itch, or adjust your seating position do it between sentences or paragraphs! There is no sly, sneaky, unnoticeable way to do it – especially not at the very end of a sentence! The mic is picking it up, even if your director or recording engineer isn’t calling you out on it. Of course, like Tip #1 says, you should feel comfortable! But if you can help it, your audiobook will turn out so much better.

Professional narrators use their hands to speak, never to rub together. They know to adjust themselves for comfort between sentences and paragraphs. And they take breaks as needed. Which brings us to…

Tip #3 – Take Breaks

There’s no prize for the longest amount of time you can sit reading. Well, maybe there’s a Guinness World Record we could go for… Anyway, take a break whenever you need to! Yes, of course everyone involved in the recording process wants to use the time in studio as efficiently as possible. But if your performance is suffering because you’re exhausted, or hungry, or need a bathroom break, then it’s time to stop for a few minutes.

That being said, it’s ideal to take breaks at the end of chapters or sections rather than mid-paragraph. This is because of the inevitable tonal change that occurs when your position in front of the mic changes, or you’ve had a bite to eat, or you’re refreshed and invigorated at the start of a new day. But you’re the only one who knows how you’re feeling, so if you need a break, take it.

A quick note about the mealtime break

Expect the first hour after eating to be a little rougher than the hour before the break. I’m sure a biologist, or nutritionist, or fitness specialist could tell us the science behind this, but most everyone goes a little braindead after eating. During this time you will likely make more mistakes and be tripping over words more so than you had been. Don’t worry, this happens to almost everyone. Just relax and let it ride, you’ll find your groove again.

Tip #4 – Eat!

You’re hungry. Yes you are. I can tell. Your mouth says no, but your stomach says, “Feed me!” Did I mention the mic picks up everything? It is my dream to speak with a gastroenterologist and learn the secrets behind stomach noises and why some folks have more than others. (Hit me up, gut doc!) But here’s what I know anecdotally: 1. Now is not the time to start a new diet (unless that diet magically cures stomach noise). 2. Now is not the time for intermittent fasting, unless you schedule your eating times around recording! 3. A protein shake or smoothie will not do.

Your stomach needs something solid to hold on to – to stop the growling without triggering intense digestion noise. Something that takes the stomach longer to break down and keeps you fuller longer. We’re talking protein and fiber, people. And the whole longer-to-digest part is why I don’t recommend a smoothie. It’s already pre-broken down and doesn’t leave your body with much to work with. Maybe I’m wrong about all this – please tell me if you know! – but I have listened to enough authors stomachs and asked about their diet that day to have a pretty good idea about what works and what doesn’t.

Tip #5 – Drink Water!

Hydration is key to minimizing mouth noise. I mean steady hydration. Downing a gallon of water before recording won’t do, it’ll just wash right through your system and leave your mouth oversaturated and noisy. Maintaining a regular habit of drinking water helps reduce mouth noise. Dehydrating activities like smoking or drinking coffee, sodas, or alcohol increase mouth clickyness.

There are other diet tips people share to reduce mouth noise, like avoiding dairy or sugar. I don’t really know. But I do know that a properly hydrated body will lead to a less clicky, smacky mouth.

On the topic of mouth noise…

I think there’s a genetic and a physical component to it as well. I have heard some voice talent and authors who have no perceivable mouth noise at all and others whose mouth noise is through the roof. But a part of that could just be who they are. (Personally, my jaw clicks. It’s not that loud, and my jaw never locks up or anything, but I can hear it in my own head and in my recordings.) Audio editors are used to dealing with this natural phenomenon, but the less mouth noise that needs to be edited out, the faster and cheaper your audiobook will be done.

Tip #6 – breathe

Seems like a no brainer, huh? But when some people hear themselves back through headphones while reading, the sound of their breathing is jarring. For one thing, the mic is accentuating every noise, including your breath. But you also tend to breathe deeper and louder when you’re reading. For some authors, hearing themselves breathe leads them to essentially hold their breath until the end of a paragraph. You need to breathe. It’s OK. Part of the editing process is lowering the level of your breaths (or out right deleting them).

Experienced audiobook narrators and voice talent know to take breaths at natural breaks, like at commas or periods. Even if they’re dealing with a run-on sentence, they are experienced enough with sentence structure to know when a natural pause and breath point can be made.

What I tell authors is to just breathe naturally. Breathe when it feels right, breathe when you need to. Because, again, those breaths can be edited out or reduced in volume. What can’t be edited is the awkward sound of someone trying to speak longer than their breath will allow.

Tip #7 – When you make a mistake, go back to the beginning of the sentence

The biggest mistake authors make when they are inexperienced with recording is that when they mess up, they just repeat the word that was mis-said. That works in day-t0-day conversation, but it does not sound good when edited. It sounds really, really bad. When you make a mistake, go back to the beginning of the sentence, or if it’s a long sentence then go back to a natural break in the sentence. (And please, if you’re going back to a comma and there’s an “and” after the comma, don’t skip the “and!”) That will edit together much cleaner and the audio editor will spend less time working (potentially saving you money).

When you do go back to the beginning of the sentence, you might be tempted to read faster, or louder, and your voice may be tinged with the irritation you feel for screwing up in the first place. That won’t edit together well, either. It’s so important for you to remain consistent and continue with the same level and pace as you have been reading. You will make mistakes. It’s OK. It’s factored into the recording budget. Be patient with yourself and just go back to the beginning of the sentence.

And be honest! We’re all tempted when we’ve been recording for hours to let a little flub fly if no one else noticed it. Well, someone will notice it eventually, and that will either lead to you re-recording it during pickups, the audio editor finding the word that was flubbed elsewhere in the recording and pasting it in (which may or may not work and will add to the editing time), or that flub will remain in the audiobook for the rest of time. Look, sometimes the author and I agree to let flubs fly because the author is tired, the flubs are minimal, and we need to wrap up our recording time. In this case we’ve likely decided that a pickup session will be scheduled and I will see what I can do for the flub in the editing process. But overall, either be honest that you flubbed and re-record the sentence or know whether or not it’s a flub you can live with.

But don’t be too critical! Some authors will go overboard with the self-criticism of their performance and will re-record perfectly good sentences. While plenty of time has been booked for your recording, we don’t have all day. And that second (or third, or fourth) unnecessary take aren’t always better than the first take. It’s a fine line between being honest with yourself and overly critical. But that’s really where working with a director can come in handy. They will speak up and tell you when they think your performance could be better, which is such a relief.

Tip #8 – Don’t Ad Lib

I’m referring to a few different things here. First, I’m talking about adding extra content to your book. As the author you have the latitude to change just about whatever you’d like. But often an author will begin to add a point off the cuff only to find that they address that point in the next paragraph or section. I also notice authors undo all the work their editor did and essentially change their book back to the way it was originally written. Again, that’s OK, but not at the expense of sentence structure and intelligibility. Also, often when we speak off the cuff, it doesn’t sound as smooth and fluid as when we are reading. Ultimately it leads to more audio editing time and a worse sounding product.

Second, authors sometimes like to quote song lyrics in their books, and when it comes time to record they’ll ask if they can sing the lyrics. No. For one thing, unless you’re a professional singer, chances are highly likely that you singing a cappella is going to sound lame. The effort it would take for it to sound a little less lame (maybe some auto tuning, adding some reverb, maybe a bit of delay) just adds to the editing costs. The other, bigger reason not to sing song lyrics is that it could violate the copyright of that song. In order to sing song lyrics, rather than just quote them, you need to obtain Performance Rights. If you don’t, the rights holder could sue you. And if your book is a massive success, that could mean all of your royalties going to the rights holder and not to you. So please, unless it’s your song and you’re an awesome singer, don’t sing song lyrics.

Another form of ad libbing is when an author keeps seeking validation for what they just read. Everyone wants to give a good performance. But if you’re asking about how it sounds after every few sentences or paragraphs, that leads to more time the audio editor is spending cleaning up your recording. If you’re working with a director, they will let you know when your performance isn’t quite right. If you’re only working with a recording engineer and they are experienced with voice over production (hello!), they will let you know when there is a flub or mistake that has to be redone. Trust your team!

Finally, adding a little something to the top of a re-read will increase editing time. Saying a little something like “OK” or “here we go” or “I’ll start…” at the beginning of a re-read will, again, increase the audio editors time working. Some authors who get their start in radio or news might be in the habit of saying “3-2-1” before re-reads. These are all little habits or ticks that should be avoided if possible. But Tip #1 overrides everything – it’s most important that you feel comfortable. So if a little “OK” or “3-2-1” is what you need to stay in the flow, then by all means.

One thing that can help with avoiding ad libbing is…

Tip #9 – Read your book beforehand

You may be thinking, “Well, duh.” The more familiar you are with your material, the better. You’ll be more comfortable with what you’re reading, trip up less, and give a better performance. But I’ve worked with authors who have not read their books yet, either because it was ghost written, or had just gotten back from the editors, or both. One author spent half the time in the studio arguing with the book, saying, “I wouldn’t write that! Why would they write that?” That author cut out whole sections for the audiobook, which was really tough for the director. You see, the director was being paid per-finished-hour, and because the author was spending so much time arguing with his book, extra sessions had to be scheduled because it was taking the author twice as long to go through a book that would become twice as short. So as much as is possible, familiarize yourself with your book before you get to the recording studio.

Another consideration is to record yourself reading out loud for a little bit before your recording date. I had one client who re-recorded her entire audio program because she wasn’t happy with her initial performance. She felt it was too slow, too much of a snoozer, and that her voice was too nasally and strident. (And hey, my job is to capture the sound of you, whoever you are and however you sound. But this is when a director can really come in handy!) So she re-did the whole thing. You might be thinking,”Well, isn’t that great? You got paid twice!” While that may be true, I do not enjoy re-doing previously done work. It’s disheartening, it’s boring, and I have other projects in queue. Plus, she was grumpy. My point is, if she had recorded herself first to evaluate her performance, she could have saved herself some time. Of course, this trick requires you to get past the whole “I hate how I sound” thing, but it could help you fine tune your performance before you hit the studio.

Tip #10 – Don’t record when you’re sick

It seems inevitable. Your book launch is approaching fast, your audiobook recording has been scheduled for months, and the day before you’re set to go into the studio…you come down with a cold. Or strep throat. Or maybe it’s just allergies or your nerves, but you don’t feel well. Now, you know you best. If you’re dealing with something that doesn’t affect the sound of your voice and isn’t contagious, then by all means keep your recording date. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that it’s best to stay home and not infect other people when you feel ill.

If this is a concern for you, check with the studio on their cancelation / rescheduling policy in regards to illness. Studios and engineers can be very understanding about rescheduling when it comes to sickness. There may be a fee involved or there might be some issues with finding new dates, depending on how booked up the studio and engineer are, but better to know this ahead of time than keeping an appointment when you’re not well (or being surprised by a bill for time you didn’t use).

I once worked with an author who recorded his whole audiobook while he was sick. When the publisher scheduled time for him to record pickups, it seemed like his voice was a full octave lower than it was before. Trying to get him to match the tone of his original recording was excruciating – I even asked him to try a Mickey Mouse impression! Who knows, maybe the audio editor made it work, but I have my doubts…

And, finally…

Tip #11 – You don’t have to do it alone

Rent a studio. Hire an audio engineer experienced with audio books and voice over. Hire a director to work with you. Or hire a voice talent to record your audiobook for you. No matter what you choose to do, recording your audiobook by yourself at home is probably the worst choice you can make. Unless you or a friend already have a home setup for recording podcasts or lectures or other voice over projects, you will sink more time and money into your audiobook and end up with a lousier product. A $100 USB mic set up in your kitchen or a closet isn’t going to sound as good as a $3,000 mic in a specially built studio. And the amount of money and time it would take to build your own recording space would total more than just booking a week at a studio.

Plus, there’s dealing with your neighbors. And your own home! You’re contending with the sounds of birds, children playing, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, cars, motorcycles, sirens, helicopters, refrigerators, and air conditioners. Add in neighbors living above and below you? A nightmare. Some professional voice talent who work from home wait until late at night or early in the morning to record, just to get some peace and quiet.

Also, reading out loud is hard. Staying disciplined and reading for the amount of time you need to stay on schedule is really hard. And editing is really, really hard. A director and a good audio engineer are there to hold you accountable when you make a mistake, to stop you when there’s a noise, and to encourage you when you start to get lost in the words. They know what can and cannot be edited out. They can help you look up pronunciations. They are there to help you present your book to the world in audio form. So take advantage of their expertise! You spent so much time preparing your book to share with the world, you deserve an audiobook that does it justice.

I hope you found this article helpful! Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions or if you’d like to work together. Good luck!

Photo credit Shannon Partrick ©2021

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