Home Studio Recording Advice During Covid 19 Restrictions

From a wealth of experience, award-winning Audiobook Narrator, Helen Lloyd, has written some thoughts and guidance on moving into audiobooks and working from a home studio in the current circumstances. She has kindly allowed us to share this here.

We’re all ‘socially distancing’ or ‘in lockdown’ and as recording studios are closed – audiobook publishers urgently need narrators who can record audiobooks remotely from their personal studio. If everyone doing remote recording work is careful and diligent, what happens now is likely to change the face of audiobook recording for the future and open up more opportunities for narrators, particularly those of us who live outside London and in more rural areas, or those who have responsibilities at home, which it difficult to take time away to record in a mainstream studio.

So here are some tips to help ensure that this opportunity isn’t thrown away!

Recording audiobooks is very different from doing any other kind of voiceover or voice acting work. Audiobook narration is a challenge from a creative point of view, bringing an author’s vision to life, creating not only a compelling narrative voice, but also an array of unique and believable characters – it also requires stamina, and the ability to make choices and to self-direct. If you’re recording remotely, you also need to have some basic technical knowledge of how sound works in your recording space and a thorough understanding of your own recording set-up and software.

Normally in the UK, only a comparatively small number of audiobooks are recorded remotely, but at the current time, as social isolation is the norm and recording studios are forced to close due to Corona Virus, the demand for narrators who can deliver high quality remote audiobook recordings is unprecedented.

Remote recording technical requirements.
Production houses and publishers rightly demand high technical as well as performance standards – and that means that you – and your personal studio must be able to meet their demands consistently, day in and day out. Each publisher and producer will have their own tech specs which they will share with the narrators they hire, and will normally request a raw studio sample for evaluation by their audio engineers. They will only consider adding you to their list of narrators if you can demonstrate that you’re able to match their technical requirements as well as being able to deliver first class storytelling and character creation. They will usually also ask for details of the equipment and software you use.

What constitutes a ‘home studio’?
Not all ‘home studios’ are equal – and publishers and producers have exacting standards to maintain. Most narrators who record remotely for
mainstream publishers and production houses have made a significant financial investment in order to meet these standards.

No matter for whom you’re recording, the minimum requirement is that you have an acoustically treated recording space where you can work comfortably for many hours at a time. Obviously your recording space needs to be quiet, with minimal bleed-through of sound from the surroundings, both internal and external. Many full time narrators have created or purchased an ‘isolation booth’ or have found a way to isolate their recording space from the rest of their home. Isolation booths are expensive … and heavy: some require a surveyor’s report if you’re installing them above ground floor level or on anything other than a solid floor; and all isolation booths require the installation of acoustic treatment within – how much will vary depending on the make and model.

Most of us have to consider cost – and until you know you can land the work, then I don’t advise you to rush out and spend thousands of pounds on an isolation booth. Many successful narrators work in home built studios installed in cupboards under the stairs, in attic rooms or box rooms, or even in the corner of a spare bedroom. I know many narrators successfully narrating in such spaces with good acoustic treatment.

The very minimum quality requirement, measured when recording at a level where, at conversational volume, the raw vocal recording, without any normalizing, levelling or compression, falls between -20dB and -6dB across a whole chapter – and that this is achieved without the noise floor being higher than -60dB. This is generally accepted as the minimum requirement, but some production houses will not accept a noise floor above -65dB.

A common mistake is that folk lower their input levels in order to achieve a sufficiently low noise floor, but of course, this also lowers the level of the voice. When the overall audio level is raised to meet audiobook requirements in post-production, then the noise floor is also raised.

The sky is the limit when it comes to buying for a home studio. You can spend literally thousands of pounds – but remember, buying a Steinway Grand doesn’t turn you into a concert pianist!

If your recording environment is noisy or has a lot of echo, no matter what microphone and interface you invest in, you will run into problems.

Get the space right first
Acoustic foam, moving blankets, duvets and even soft furnishings (curtains rather than blinds, carpet rather than bare floors) can help to reduce low frequency rumble and echo.

Your equipment and software need to be capable of producing professional sound; and I also advise people not to attempt to record audiobooks using Audacity which I find clunky and unresponsive – there are much better options, including the free software Ocenaudio or the free version of Studio One, both of which have native punch and roll recording. There are other good software options: Studio One Artist, Sound Forge Pro (PC only), Adobe Audition, Pro Tools, Reaper … and no doubt many more that I have never tried. (I use Studio One Artist which was a steep learning curve, but well worth the effort).

Once you have your recording space and software set up, then you need to look at equipment.
These are the basics that you’ll need.

 A large diaphragm condenser (LDC) microphone is the recommended type of mic for audiobooks –plus a compatible shock mount, mic stand and pop screen. Check out Rode NT1 or NT2 (not the A versions). A USB podcaster microphone (some of which have a lot of self-noise) will make achieving high quality sound much more difficult. All LDC microphones require phantom power so you’ll also need a suitable audio interface.

 An audio interface/preamp that supplies phantom power (48V power) plus appropriate power and USB cables. Check out Scarlett and Audient, both of which produce a basic interface with input for two microphones and output for headphones or speakers. The basic models normally have no direct power supply, but rely on getting power via a USB port on your computer.

 You don’t need a mixer/mixing desk for audiobooks. Most publishers and production houses request raw, digitally unprocessed audio – and if you do have a mixer or plugins with any presets (such as gating or compression) that you use for VO work, I advise you to disable them for audiobook recording unless instructed otherwise by the publisher or producer, or with the express details provided by an audio engineer working for that publisher or producer.

 XLR to XLR balanced microphone cables. An XLR fitting is a type of electrical connector used in professional audio. The connections are circular in design and most XLR cables have three pins on each end, one male and one female. These are usually supplied with the microphone.

 Over the ear professional quality headphones. Make sure you don’t buy headphones that are designed for music listening, as these are ‘tuned’ to improve the music listening experience, but can give you a false picture of what you are hearing when using them for voice work.

 A computer with recording/editing software, also known as a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) preferably that offers Punch and Roll (also known as Rock and Roll) recording capability – These include Sound Forge Pro (versions 11, 12, or 13) for PC only, Reaper, Studio One or Pro Tools – and then there’s the free software OCENAUDIO. All except Sound Forge are compatible with either Mac or PC.

 If you have anything other than a solid state drive computer
(SSD) computer noise is likely to be a problem, so you may need to set things up with your computer or laptop situated OUTSIDE the recording space, so you’ll need a secondary monitor, keyboard and mouse to reduce the amount of noise coming from inside your recording space.

 Extension USB cables and HDMI cables for secondary monitor, mouse and keyboard – HDMI stands for High-Definition Multimedia Interface and is a compact audio/video interface for transferring uncompressed video data and compressed or uncompressed digital audio data from a HDMI compliant source device, so – in this case a laptop or computer to a compatible computer monitor. USB and HDMI cables have a maximum recommended length. Using a USB cable that is longer than the recommended length can result in degradation of the signal. In the case of an audio interface, this could have a detrimental effect on your audio signal.

 A music or copy stand for your printed text, or a tablet, Kindle or iPad for reading PDF text versions of the MS.

 A desk and chair – the desk needs to be covered, the chair needs to be silent and you need to ensure that its position and relationship to the microphone remains the same throughout the recording, day after day.

 Optional extras – studio monitors (speakers).

File Organisation.
You have to be really well organised with the naming and saving of your audio files. In case anything needs to be unravelled or undone, you should save each file clearly identified at every stage, so will always have multiple copies of each file and need to be able to identify each one quickly and accurately. In addition, you should also back up all your files by saving to either cloud storage or a secondary hard drive (or both) at the end of every session.

Flying Solo.
Once you get the go ahead and start recording, you’re on your own! This is not nearly as frightening as it sounds. When you’re working remotely, you don’t have to complete four finished hours in a studio day as you do in a mainstream studio; you can generally set your own schedule and work flexibly, providing you can still meet any deadlines. Apart from the fact that you’re pressing the ‘record’ button yourself, the actual process of creating the characters, choosing voices, telling the story, is not any different from how it works in a mainstream studio – other than the fact that you’re working solo – so will have to do corrections and pick-ups after the audio has been proofed; but particularly if you have the right software and can master punch and roll (rock and roll as it is also known in the UK) any errors or flubs that you spot will be over recorded just as they are in a mainstream studio – though there are likely to be some things that slip through and will have to be corrected later.

Sorting out Mistakes.
Everything so far has been about recording. We now get to the point where we begin to think about how to deal with flubs and errors, which will always happen no matter how good a narrator you are.

When recording in a mainstream studio, whoever is on the other side of the glass, will stop you whenever you make an error and will stop the recording. You’ll then hear the previous five seconds or so through your headphones and will pick up the read at the point before you made the error and recording will continue. With the right software, you can do exactly the same thing in your own studio, using punch recording – known widely as punch and roll, but also as rock and roll in the UK.

Of course when you’re working solo, unless you spot a mistake as you’re recording, it won’t be noticed until the audio is proofed after the entire book is recorded. If this is the case, the narrator is sent a list of corrections which they record into a separate audio file, using identical settings and matching against their original recording, which they then return to their editor to be editing into the original recording so that all errors are replaced. You will not normally be asked to edit in your corrections yourself – you should just supply a single file with all the pickups and corrections recorded to seamlessly match the original – though of course, without the error.

The capability for Punch and Roll recording is not an option in all recording software and though there are narrators who manage well enough without it, the ability to punch and roll will ultimately save you an enormous amount of and once you get to grips with it.

Golden rules
 Always work in MONO, and always record and edit in either .wav or aiff format. Always deliver mono files to your audiobook clients in the format they request. This is normally wave, FLAC or sometimes MP3.

 Only convert files to MP3 format after you’ve done everything else – never open an MP3 file to edit and resave. The audio will be degraded.

 Be realistic about the time involved. When recording in a mainstream studio with a director, the normal ratio is to allow two hours of studio time to produce each finished hour of narration. Working independently in a remote studio is almost certainly going to take you a lot longer, especially if you’re not used to working in this way. And then there is the time it takes to do pick- ups and corrections on top of that.

 Keep track of all your character’s voices. Copy and paste each voice to an MP3 files and save in the character’s name. There may be over a hundred voices in a single audiobook, some separated by many chapters. You’ll never remember them all. And what happens if the author writes a sequel?

 Don’t undervalue your contribution to the product – and quote accordingly. Most studios pay higher rates for remote recording than they do for mainstream studio recording.

A final thought.
Until we were hit with Covid 19 and the necessity for everyone to work ‘from home’ the vast majority of UK productions were recorded in professional recording studios. Will we return to that situation post- pandemic? Who knows!

To my mind – the current situation presents us all with a wonderful opportunity.

If every narrator working from their personal recording studio maintains the highest possible production standards in their recordings, both technically and artistically, then the current horrible situation we’re all in, could potentially open up many more opportunities to narrators, even when mainstream studios are back up and running. Just think of all those back catalogues! This situation, if we handle it right, will allow publishers and producers, authors, and indie publishers to create more audiobooks – with high quality narration from live voices rather than synthesised voices, which is something I think we all fear.

But we have to keep the standards high. If audiobook listeners are inundated with poorly recorded audiobooks, we have lost a real opportunity – and poor quality audio will increase the speed with which AI audiobooks are developed.

Collectively we have the opportunity to make a fantastic first impression on the audiobook publishing world. Let’s make sure we make it count.

Helen Lloyd April 2020.