Recently, I was thrown into the deep end of audiobook recording.
I have over 12 years of recording experience, but all of my recording experience is within the music industry.
I am used to recording vocalists, drums, musical instruments, and dialogue, to be mixed as part of a song, but the world of music recording is a different world to that of audiobooks, or is it?
Here is my journey and experience of recording a professional audiobook at home and the things I learned during the process.
I hope this information will act as a good and honest guidebook to audiobook recording and help you get a great recording, without spending a fortune.
Where should I record an audiobook?
For DIY audiobook narration, most creators will want to record their audiobook at home.
It is totally possible to build a good-sounding home recording studio for audiobook narration, but before I jump into the acoustic setup details, there is one very important question that I learned should be answered first and that is – “where” should you record your audiobook?
If you are home recording an audiobook like I was asked to do, I learned that the room in the house you pick for your audiobook is critical, not just for the acoustics, but for the following reasons:
#1 – Will your audiobook narrator be standing or sitting?
Unlike vocal recording for a song, where a singer will pop in and out of a vocal booth multiple times for multiple takes, and will always be standing to allow their air passages to be fully open for singing, an audiobook narrator will most likely be sitting.
Also, your audiobook narrator could be sitting at the microphone for hours!
Therefore, it is essential that your audiobook narrator is as comfortable as possible with easy access to drinks and good lighting for reading.
Your audiobook narrator, be it yourself or someone else, is the talent that will retain the audience as much as the content that they are reading.
They will need to maintain a consistent tone for hours and across the whole book, therefore they need to be happy and comfortable.
So when picking the place in your home where your audiobook narrator will be recording, ensure it is comfortable, with well-maintained temperature, good lighting, and space for drinks so your audiobook narrator can do a great job.
#2 – Find a dedicated recording spot in your home
Audiobook recording is a long process, with some epic books being as long as 18 hours for example.
Therefore, you cannot typically record an audiobook in a day and will need to keep returning to continue recording.
Being able to reproduce the same recording levels and tone to maintain consistency throughout the full audiobook recording is essential.
You want the audiobook to sound like it was done in one take! Therefore, you need to be able to identically recreate the same studio recording setup each day.
You cannot record one chapter in your kitchen and one chapter in your dining room – they will sound different.
Therefore it is best to find a dedicated recording spot where you can set up your microphone and gear and not move it until the book is fully recorded.
#3 – Is your recording space quiet?
It may sound obvious that you want to choose a quiet space to record in, however, if you are recording at home, unlike a professional sound-controlled studio, sound levels in the house will change throughout the day.
The room you are in right now may be quiet, but if the central heating comes on, will you hear that?
Perhaps you are close to the main road and some larger passing trucks just make the windows vibrate at the wrong frequency intermittently?
Does your neighbor’s dog bark at certain times?
Your recording room may be quiet now, but there is a high possibility it will be subjected to noise at some point in the day.
Being aware of this and what sounds come and go throughout the day will help you prepare for those sounds.
What I like to do is just record silence to capture the ambiance of the room.
I will place the microphone in the recording position and just hit record – recording silence for five minutes
I will then listen back to see if there are any noises, hums, or buzzes that may be present.
Getting as clean a recording as possible is essential to a good audiobook recording so paying attention to any ambient noise is really important.
Acoustic Setup for Audiobook Recordings
So now you have picked your place for your recordings, ensuring your audio narrator is comfortable.
The next step is to make this recording space sound great and professional.
You can greatly improve the acoustics of a room using some basic gear and acoustic products.
During the lockdown 2020 pandemic, when we were all required to stay at home, I was forced to change the cupboard under the stairs to a vocal recording booth.
This worked great for audiobook recording, as this space has an unusual shape, with the underside of the staircase creating a slanting wall. This is actually a big advantage for acoustic design!
When working with room acoustics, we typically try to avoid parallel walls. This is because soundwaves will bounce off one wall and then back again to create a loop.
This can result in standing waves or unwanted room resonances.
Here is what I did to acoustically treat this small space.
#1 – Reduce Sound Reflections
To get a close and warm sounding recording I placed a dense and thick acoustic foam on the walls.
I did not cover every wall, as I wanted some natural reflections. This is just my personal taste.
By placing dense acoustic foam on the walls, I reduced internal room reflections.
When we talk about room reflections in acoustics, we are talking about sound reflecting off internal surfaces of your room
The acoustic foam acts as an absorber, absorbing the sound and removing echo and reverb.
Where you place the foam is important too.
For my studio space, I placed the acoustic foam behind and in front of the audio narrator.
In addition, I placed one panel of acoustic foam off to one side.
This created a nice acoustic space that sounded close and warm as most of the sound was absorbed.
#2 – Reduce Vibrations & Studio Noise
From my experience of audiobook recording, I found that vibrations and noise can be a problem.
My audiobook narrator was sitting in the studio for two hours at a time. She is going to move, drink and need to have things around her to make her comfortable such as lights, stands and cup holders
It is important that all these extra bits, that are not typically found in the studio when you are recording music, are secure and do not vibrate.
It took me a long time to set up my microphone position where my narrator could sit comfortably, see her script and move easily to access water.
I had to make sure all the microphone stands were tightly secured without vibrations.
In addition, my audiobook narrator used an iPad to read from. I quickly learned that propping this up against something will not work!!!
If you are going to do audiobook narration recording, invest in a good stand that your narrator can comfortably place their device.
Here is an iPad stand I invested in which did a good job.
Finally, don’t read from paper if you can avoid it.
It is hell to control the noise from paper turning! Use a quiet device such as an iPad or kindle.
#3 – Reduce Resonances & Surface Reflections
With my audio narrator comfortably sitting and ready to go, I realized that there are a lot of “props” around my narrator, for example, a mic stand, iPad for reading from, table for drinks, and iPad stand.
Again, unlike recording music artists, these are all new surfaces that sound can reflect from. This was another new challenge for me.
Sometimes, these bits and bobs can resonant and cause noise, or can influence the sound as sound will reflect off these surfaces.
To help, I ensured that drinks were off to one side, and surfaces were as “damped” as possible.
You can help dampen surfaces by placing heavy rubber sheeting down on desks and hard surfaces
I would recommend that when you are doing some test recording runs that you listen out for any unusual noise or any acoustic effects as your environment could be introducing these.
What recording gear do I need for audiobook narration?
For my audiobook recording, I used a very simple yet effective studio setup.
In a nutshell, for audiobook recording you will need:
1 – A Microphone (preferably XLR connect)
2 – An audio interface (to connect your XLR microphone to your PC/Mac)
3 – A Sound Recording Software (I use Logic Pro, but there are free options out there such as Audacity)
4 – Headphones
In addition, I used the following accessories, which I recommend as they just make life easier and will help the recording quality:
1 – A Pop Shield (this is a mesh filter that stops plosives, which are vocal noises)
2 – A Vocal Shield or Reflection Filter (this helps create a warmed and closer recording sound)
What is the best microphone for audiobook narration?
For audiobook narration, if your budget is big, then the Neumann U87 is one of the best microphones on the planet but costs around $2000. If you are looking for something less than $100, I would recommend the MXL 990. In between this range, RODE is a great brand with some outstanding and affordable mics, namely the Rode NT1000.
As an audio geek, I am obsessed with the clarity of the Neumann U87, but it is not a realistic choice for most DIY audiobook creators.
For my “under the stairs” at-home audiobook recording, I used the MXL 990. This microphone has amazing clarity for the price. I am always shocked.
Plus, it is not sensitive enough to pick up every single sound in the environment. If you are working in a DIY home recording studio, this can actually be a good thing!
Will a USB microphone work for audiobook narration?
USB microphones are a big favorite with many DIY audiobook recorders as they can connect directly to your PC without the need for an audio interface.
Therefore, as well as generally being cheaper, the removed cost of having to buy an audio interface is also very appealing to people.
Personally, I am not a big fan of USB microphones. I have yet to find a good USB microphone that truly impresses me and gets me excited.
Perhaps I am just old school XLR (standard microphone connection) and biased, so I don’t want to put you off, but just be aware that good USB microphones are still very new to the field and I have yet to meet a professional recording engineer who would use USB over XLR.
If you do have a USB microphone you really love, let me know and I will try it too. My mind is open but I am still not convinced.
Unlike podcasts which can often be topical and only stick around for a while, a fictional audiobook could stick around for decades, therefore investing in your sound is a long-term investment.
Where should I place the microphone when recording an audiobook?
Typically, when positioning a microphone for audiobook recording, a distance of between 6 to 12 inches for large-diaphragm microphones is a good starting point, with the microphone positioned just off-center to the right or left.
You want to be as close to the microphone as possible to get a “close mic” sound.
When positioning the microphone for an audiobook recording, I found the setup can get a little more complex as the microphone needs to fit around the reading workspace of the narrator which may also include items such as iPad stands.
I found that tilting the microphone worked well as it reduced the risk of plosive sounds, the mic could get close to the narrator and yet was not in the narrator’s way so she could easily see her audiobook.