How Audiobooks are Made – Part Three: Edit and Master

My name is Sam Devereaux and I’m the co-founder of Flying Pickle. I’m also a Voice Actor and I have been recording audiobooks for over 7 years. During this time, I have completed more than 80 titles of differing lengths and genres. This blog is the last of 3 parts in which I explain the process of making an audiobook. Much of what I do is universal to all narrators. I also may do things that are unique to me. I suggest no value judgement on my or anyone else’s way of working. The idea is to provide a little insight into what seems to be an unusual occupation!

In Part two we explored how a voice actor prepares for the intense challenge of narrating hours of text. In part three we will examine the post-production process. In particular, we will pay attention to a complex process that allows the experienced narrator to edit their work as they go along. This clever editing trick can save many hours of post-production and ensure a more consistent quality throughout the narrator’s performance.

1 – Punch and Roll

“I have a set routine that I follow with variations at least four times a week”

I am often asked, “how do you manage to record all that text without making a mistake?” The answer is simple: I don’t! I make plenty of mistakes when I’m narrating an audiobook. It’s seriously difficult to maintain 100% accuracy across for example an 80,000-word text (roughly 8 hours of recorded narration).

Making as few mistakes as possible is always the aim of course. But narrating a fiction audiobook is still acting. To find that knife edge of creative immediacy that brings a text to life you run the risk of slipping on the occasional word. In my view this is vastly preferable to making no mistakes and sounding utterly boring in the process.

An alert narrator usually realises they’ve made a mistake. If left unfixed, these conscious errors can become quite a pile of work for the editor and proofer. Happily, there is a clever technique for ensuring the proofer has a lot less work to do.

Punch and Roll is a method of on-the-fly editing that is essential for any narrator who wants to make a living from audiobooks. It allows you to correct a conscious mistake on the go. Once the narrator is proficient with it a listener won’t be able to tell where any errors were made! It’s also very helpful if the narrator simply wants to attempt a passage again for artistic reasons.

Using software such as Adobe Audition CC makes punch and roll very straightforward. When the mistake is made and noticed the narrator stops recording. They then delete the mistake before placing an “in point” on the timeline where they want to resume recording. This is the tricky part, as you must make sure you’ve not chosen the “in point” in the middle of a breath or other speech noise.

Once you’ve set this up correctly you click to resume recording. The software will then play about 5 seconds of what recorded before your “in point”. It will then start recording again when this point is reached allowing the narrator to seamlessly pick up the story.

The process takes practice, but the results are excellent once you know what you’re doing. With Punch and Roll a narrator can even submit a recording that apparently has no mistakes at all. Great for the ego that!

2 – Proofing and Editing

“Recording the corrections is a very technical process”

In my opinion, working with a good proofer is an indispensable part of the audiobook narrator’s process. I say this because a narrator can always benefit from a bit of objective support. This is partly so they can help to identify pronunciation errors or extraneous noise. A good proofer can also be very helpful in ensuring your character voices remain consistent.

Audiobooks are so long that it can be terribly easy to drift with your characters. In common with many narrators, I always keep short mp3 files of each new voice I create. That way I can easily hear what I started with. Very useful if your proofer points out that you’ve lost your way with someone.

Once the narrator has finished the main recording, it is sent to the proofer. They will then compile a spreadsheet of corrections. These will guide the narrator as to what the issue is, where is can be found on the recording and what needs to be done to correct it. Having this spreadsheet is vital if the narrator and proofer so they and the editor know where the issues are to be found.

Recording the corrections is a very technical process. Each correction is usually short and must match perfectly with the rest of the recording. This takes practice to get right. Once mastered though, it supports the illusion of a continuous performance. Concentration is key here as sloppily working your way through 100-200 corrections can really hurt the quality of the finished product.

Sometimes I also fulfil the job of editor. When that happens, I don’t bother to record the corrections separately. I record the corrections and work them into the edit simultaneously. Make sure to work backwards from the end of each chapter though. Otherwise, your proofers timecodes won’t match the file and you’ll spend hours trying find the mistake!

3 – Mastering

“When I master an audiobook recording, I always strive to keep my work subtle”

Mastering is the process of polishing the sound of the finished recording. The editor wants to ensure as little noise as possible. They also look to enhance the sound quality for a smooth and energised listening experience. This is where we narrators must invest in a good recording environment. No editor likes trying to polish a turd. Mastering can only ever enhance what you give your editor in the first place. So, we must make sure it sounds good to begin with.

When I master an audiobook recording, I always strive to keep my work subtle. This means treating noise reduction software with kid gloves. Too much artificial noise reduction and you suck the life out of the narrator’s performance.

The same is true of compression. Gently compressing the recording evens out the dynamics. By dynamics I mean the difference between the loud and quiet parts of the recording. Just enough compression makes everything sound very polished and easy on the ears. Too much and you turn your narrator into a robot.

As for that other digital tool, breath remover…I personally avoid it like the plague. In my view an actor should have enough control of their breathing that any audible breaths should be unobtrusive, appropriate, and natural. If a narrator is having to use breath removal software, then they’d be better off finding a good coach and refining their technique!

Once this largely invisible process of post-production is complete the audiobook is ready for release. From start to finish the production of an 80,000 word, 8-hour audiobook rarely takes less than a month. If the narrator’s lucky they get a few days to rest their larynx before embarking on the next production. The proofers and editors are usually straight on with the next job.

Ensuring that 40,000+ titles get released each year is hard work. but for the small band of us who bust a gut so you can relax and listen to a story, we wouldn’t have it any other way.