A few days ago I let slip (like how that sounds like it was an accident?) that I am going to try my hand at podcasting episodes of The Silence of Ancient Light. Now, I have never done this before, and it’s not quite as simple as it might seem. One doesn’t just put on the earbuds that came with your mobile phone and hit Record and start speaking. The learning curve on this is a tad steeper than that.
If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be professionals out there making a decent living doing this (and a bunch more trying to break into the field).
I’m not trying to become a professional audiobook narrator, I’m just trying to produce a reasonably decent narration of my own book for you to enjoy. After all, since making that announcement, a handful of you have let me know that you are quite enthusiastic about this idea. Seems audiobooks are a thing? Plus, it seems like it might be fun.
So, I took the opportunity to invest in a decent “broadcast-quality” headset, with a proper dynamic microphone. My thinking here is really three-fold. Perhaps like many of you, I now spend large parts of my working days on videoconferences with my colleagues, and the old earbuds, despite being high-quality for listening, are turning out to be less than optimal for delivering quality when I’m the speaker. They’re ok for a phone call, and yeah, they’re ok for an online meeting, but it’s pretty clear they won’t cut the mustard for recording an audiobook. So, improving my teleconference experience is part one.
Perhaps also like many of you, I’m watching quite a bit more streaming films and shows in the evenings these days (I know, I know, I’m supposed to be writing, but forgive me, ok?). Some of those are with my wife, but when it comes to science fiction shows (The Expanse, anyone?), she really isn’t interested. So, when I watch those, it’s on my own, and in order not to disturb her, I need headphones. To date, I’ve been using those same earbuds I mentioned in the previous paragraph, as well as a too-short extension cable, which has meant sitting on the floor closer to the TV. Not very comfortable. A decent pair of headphones, that do a better job of muffling outside sound, and a longer cable, are really what I need here. So, improving my streaming experience is part two.
And then, of course, there’s this whole recording thing. Now, most audiobook narrators and producers will tell you to go with a standalone high-quality studio microphone, something like the venerable Shure SM58 (with which I’ve had much experience decades ago when I ran sound for a local pop band, but that’s a whole other story), and to avoid headsets. I won’t say they’re wrong, and ultimately, if I keep doing this, I may still end up going that route. But, I really wanted to be freed from having to be careful about maintaining a set distance from a mounted microphone, so I thought… headset! But not a gaming headset with its cheap mic, but a broadcast-oriented professional headset. And, of course, I didn’t want to buy new headphones (with mic!) just for streaming and videoconferencing, and also another expensive mic for recording. So, minimizing how many different pieces of expensive equipment I’m purchasing is part three.
So, I picked a headset based mainly on the quality of the attached microphone, the Audio Technica BPHS1. Overall, I’m pretty happy with it, but being pro gear, it has a few complications when it comes to attaching it to a computer (remember, videoconferences). For one, it has two cable connectors, neither of which is the standard 1/8″ connector common on laptops, computers, many phones, etc. The input connector, for the headphones themselves, is a more prosumer-like 1/4″ connector, which you would commonly see on higher-end stereo gear, guitar amplifiers, analog mixing boards, that sort of thing. No problem, 1/4″ to 1/8″ adapters exist.
The other connector, for the microphone, is an XLR connector, which is a larger 3-pin connector commonly used only for pro-level recording. This is the same connection that the afore-mentioned Shure SM58 uses, for instance. This connection is common for low-output analog devices like microphones that will need pre-amplification. To get a signal from the XLR-connected microphone into the computer while maintaining high quality, I needed a very special adapter, an XLR-to-USB adapter, which is more than just a plug adapter, it’s also an analog-to-digital converter. There are many ways to achieve this goal, but I went with the relatively straightforward and very easy-to-use Shure X2u. It’s a bit like a cylinder, with the XLR jack at one end and the USB port at the other, and very simple controls and indicators on the side. With this device, I can record straight to my laptop, which is also not something the professionals recommend, but, hey, I’m already going a bit overboard here! I have a very quiet (albeit old) MacBook Air, with no spinning drives or loud fans, so as long as I’m not typing on it, it doesn’t make much background noise. And, this way the MacBook doubles as my reading platform, since after all, I have to read from something while I’m narrating, right?
So that’s the technical equipment, but there’s also a non-technical component very much required. A quiet room. And, not just quiet, but acoustically deadened. Professionals use a proper recording studio, with specially insulated walls and door, and fancy foam shapes all over the walls and ceiling to trap any stray echoes. That’s a bit much for a podcaster on a budget to reproduce, unfortunately, but there are ways to achieve some of this at home. Even if, like me, you live in a small condo in a noisy building on a noisy street in the heart of a noisy city, with trucks, trains, and planes constantly rumbling around. When my upstairs neighbors run the faucet, I hear water swooshing through the pipes. For that matter, when they walk, I feel it in my own floor, as the structural timbers carry an echo of their steps down one level. I’m pretty sure my downstairs neighbor has the same experience with regard to me. Even if someone walks by outside, on the sidewalk, holding a normal conversation, I can hear it inside my unit with the windows closed, along with birds chirping in the trees that are one of the things which make this neighborhood attractive.
It is noisy here, and that fancy new sensitive microphone can hear it all.
I can’t stop all of that, but what I can do is set myself up in the closet, with the doors shut, and hang wool blankets over the doors, another laid across the wooden floor, and otherwise depend upon the hanging clothes to act as natural dampeners. Does it work? We’ll soon see, but I just spent two hours in there trying my best to get about twenty or thirty minutes of recorded narration. My first attempt, which I’m about to start editing down.
When you listen to yourself through headphones in a quiet room while speaking into a quality mic placed right up to your mouth, you hear every timbre of your own voice, not the way it sounds in your own head, but the way others hear you. It is weird. But I already knew that, and so did you. The other thing you notice is every time you take a breath. Breathing is loud. And when your mouth gets dry and as a result you lisp a little on a phoneme. Or you stumble on a word. Or burp. Yeah, that happened, too.
Folks, this is hard. Eventually I learned to stop killing the recording every time I stumbled, just pause, say “scratch that last bit” into the mic, pause again, and start again, backing up a few sentences or to the beginning of the paragraph. The constant restarting of the recording was far too distracting, so I just let it run, made “audio notes” when I had stumbled, and kept going. My next job is to go through and edit out all those bits to turn it into one continuous narration.
And I won’t be done there, either. Just because I’ve got my voice recorded doesn’t mean this is a finished and produced piece of work, ready to publish. I need to filter out the noise floor, compress things so that the volume is consistent throughout, see if I have too many “esses” from my S’s or pops from my Ps (not sure what I can do about those, except do it again?), and so forth. And, when I’m happy with the vocal narration — if I ever am — I have to decide if I’m going to find some music to go with it (or not; that’s a decision point to make), and perhaps other adjustments to turn the audio file into an actual podcast.
So, the first episode is recorded, comprising the first three scenes that you’ve already read, but it’s still going to take a while to get all the above done.
Stay tuned, friends.
All other images in this post are my own