You can listen to a sample of my audio short story collection, 36 – Part 1 by going here. Or you can subscribe to Oral Stories – Nomadic Press on iTunes and listen to new tracks from the album as they are released each week.
Creating and Publishing an Audio Short Story Collection
Eight months ago I decided I wanted to create audio versions of some of my short stories with music accompaniment. Writing is often a solitary effort and I wanted to collaborate on a project with some other people. At the time I didn’t know how long the project would take, what sort of equipment I would need, or how the album would eventually be published. This is a technical guide for writers who have limited or no knowledge of audio engineering who would like to record a short story or full length audio book.
Editing Writing For Recording
Before we get into the equipment and recording techniques we should talk a little about preparing your writing for recording.
He Said/ She Said: What works on the page for a reader doesn’t always work on a recording. First of all you have structural indications in writing which are different in sound. For example we know on the written page that an indention with dialogue means that the author has switched speakers. In audio you either have to change the tone and inflection of your voice to express a different speaker, or you need to say something like, James asked, “How do I get to the gun store?” You should go through your prose and add in He Said/ She Said to any dialogue that may be confusing without it.
Edit Unnecessary Prose: This should go without saying because whether your story is spoken or written down it should be as tight as possible. However, when I started reading my stories out loud I started realizing there were lots of places where I could get rid of whole paragraphs of unnecessary prose. It really surprised me because some of the stories had already been published in magazines. You should go through and take out any prose that are not absolutely necessary to the story.
Stumble Words: When you or an actor start recording your work you’ll find that certain words or even whole passages are difficult to say because of odd words or odd sentence structures. You should read your story out loud before you record and make changes to sentence structure and any words that you find yourself repeatedly stumbling over.
Dramatic Cues: When you’re recording your story is no longer a story, but rather a script. You should add in speaking directions. Indicated where there should be a dramatic pauses. Underline words that needed special emphasis. If there is a word in a different language, you may want to write out how it should be phonetically said to help the narrator say it correctly.
Equipment You’ll Need
Microphone: If you only plan on recording voice you can get away with using a USB microphone. I started with a Samson Go USB Microphone for $35 USD. You can plug it directly into your computer and pretty much start recording immediately. For such a cheap mic it sounds surprisingly good.
However, if you want to record an instrument the Samson Go Mic won’t work. We tried and the mic distorted the sound so much it was unusable. For acoustic music and voice I would recommend a mid-priced non-USB condenser mic. A condenser mic is known for the clean sound it has when recording voice. The one we chose, an Alctron condenser mic, cost $90 USD and worked nicely with my speaking voice as well as the acoustic instruments.
We went with a none-USB mic because we wanted something sturdier than the Samson and we wanted more control while recording. However, since it didn’t plug directly into my computer it meant I needed two things: a mixing board with digital USB output and phantom power (dynamic mics use batteries for power, but condenser mics get their power from the mixing board).
Mixing Board: There are all sorts of mixing boards for various prices. For our project we needed one that supplied phantom power, (not all boards do) had a headphone jack for monitoring, had control over the gain, and could be connected to my computer by USB cable. We purchased a Back-Stage 4 Channel Mix Tool for $130 USD. It’s essentially a pre-amp with digital output.
I would recommend the same type of set-up for anyone recording an audio short story. The USB output is essential for digital recording. However, we found that having control over the gain (volume) between the mic and the computer was also necessary. Basically without the preamp we would have been relying completely on our recording software and that would have caused us a lot of problems.
Miscellaneous Equipment: When I went to the music store I’d planned on spending about $200. But the store clerk pointed out that I needed a mic stand, a mic cable, and a special USB cord. Then he asked me what kind of headphones I had at home. No, those little iPod ear plugs were not going to work. I needed headphones I could hear the whole range of sound with. I spent about another $100 on miscellaneous equipment. And yes good headphones are essential.
There are lots of free pieces of software you can use for just capturing voice. However, if you are creating a multi-track recording (music, sound effect, voice) you’ll want to get your hands on a DAW or or Digital Audio Workstation. DAWs rang from amateur software like Adobe Auditions (which I wouldn’t recommend) to professional software like Avid Pro Tools. We purchased a DAW called Reaper because we enjoyed using the trial version and because the company offered two types of licenses for the same software and support. You could either purchase an amateur license for $60 or a professional one for significantly more. Plus, not only was it easy to use out of the box, but you could tell there were a range of advanced features you could apply once you understood recording a bit better.
Now that you have your story edited for recording and you have all your equipment and software set up it’s time to arm a track and press that red button.
Levels: Getting your recording levels right is not easy. If your level goes into the red the recording will most likely be unusable. But if you record too soft you’ll be missing the fullness of the narrative voice. So basically, you want to be somewhere in between (back in the day you would want to be as close to the threshold as possible, but with digital recording that’s not essential any more). Adjusted the gain on your preamp until you have good sound, but make sure you’re not crossing into the red. If your voice recording is good, but doesn’t seem to be loud enough, try to ‘normalize’ the track.
Noise: We had a lot of problems with noise. If you have a significant amount of noise you should first check the grounding of your electrical components. Did you tear off the third prong to your surge protector plug to fit it in a two prong wall socket like I did? It may be time for a new surge protector. If you still have noise after fixing the grounding try using a different audio codec. We found that using the ASIO audio codec for signal processing greatly reduced the noise. Still, got noise? In our case yes we still had a high pitched sound we couldn’t get rid of. To elevate the problem we used a plugin called ReaFir to remove the high pitched frequency. (To use a plugin like ReaFir you will need to record about ten seconds of room tone at the beginning of the track.)
Compression: When you record your narrative you should be performing, not just reading. Give a great performance by punctuating the climax and fluctuating in tone on your character dialogue. Now that you’ve recorded a great performance it’s time to add compression. Why? Well, you want the full sound and power of your voice, but you don’t want the dramatic dips in volume. You want your recording to sound even while still being powerful. A compression plugin basically adjusts the volume on your voice so that it’s much more even. We set our attack to 3.0 ms, our release to 100 ms and our ratio to 3:1. You can play around with the threshold, but for voice I thought -12 db was a good place to be. If you find that you’re setting your threshold to over -20 db you may want to adjust your levels and rerecord.
Equalizer: Once you’ve laid down your narrative track you’ll want to add a little EQ to add definition to your voice. For our track we simply used the EQ plugin that came packaged with Reaper. I tried a lot of different settings, but I found that boosting the lower frequencies added fullness to the voice.
Editing and Rendering
When you’re editing you can basically move any piece of sound any where you want. If you didn’t pause long enough between paragraphs you can simply move that part of the audio slightly to the right to have more of a dramatic pause. Below are a couple of things to think about when editing.
Breathing and Clicks: You don’t have to get rid of every click or breathing sound on your narrative track, but you can if you want. I wanted my recording to sound as professional as possible. Since you can edit out the tiniest millisecond of a sound I went through my voice track and got rid of about 75% of the breaths I took between sentences and got rid of any pops or clicks I made with my tongue. (If you have a lot of hiss on s, t, z words you can try a de-esser plugin).
Panning: Panning can create a virtual space where the listener sees a stage created entirely by audio positioning. You want your narrative to be in the front of the stage. So, I usually keep the panning on the voice centered. For the other instruments you can pan them to either side so that they are positioned on the right and left of the stage. I put the violin at a 70 degrees pan to the left and the clarinet on a 70 degrees pan to the right. If you’re using something like drums, things can get a little tricky. A bass drum can completely over ride your narrative, but panning it can actually call attention to it and make your listener wonder why the beat is only in the left ear. In order to keep the drums centered while not overpowering the voice you can use a plugin called A1StereoControl. It’s difficult to explain what it does, but it sort of expands the audio track so that it sounds like it’s coming from all across the stage rather than only straight down the center.
Rendering: When you render audio you are taking all your tracks and mixing them down to a single track. Most DAWs will come with a variety of formats you can render to (WAV, FLAC, OGG). We wanted to render to FLAC and MP3 but Reaper didn’t come with a MP3 encoder. So, we downloaded and installed LAME so we could render MP3s in Reaper.
Licenses and Public Domain
In our case we made our own original music so we didn’t really have to worry too much about licenses. However, if you are using sound effects, ambience recordings, or someone else’s music you’ll need to make sure that the creator is given credit and that you have a license to use the material.
Public Domain: If the content is in the public domain you don’t need a license and you don’t need to give credit. Well, that’s what I’ve read. To make sure I didn’t get any angry phone calls I gave credit to the content creator when it was known.
Creative Commons License: Under this type of license you can usually use the content as long as you give the creator credit for making it. Some times this license is limited as in you can’t alter the content or use the content to make money. It’s a good idea to get in contact with the content creator and make sure you are using their material in a way that they feel is fair use.
Commercial License: Under this type of license you can usually use the content however you want because you paid the creator for it. We only had to do this once. Basically we wrote the creator of a loop we were interested in and he said send me ten bucks and you can do what you want with it.
So, you finished recording your track or album and you’ve rendered it out as an MP3, WAV, or some other format. Now what do you do with it? Well, that was the question I was asking myself about a month ago.
Third Party Music Aggregators: There are lots of third-party distributors like CDBaby and Catapult who will publish your audio collection and distribute it through places like the iTunes Store. However, these places charge a fee for their services. So, while I’m sure they can make a great package for you, you are essentially self-publishing if you use them.
Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX): This website is part of the Amazon family and is essentially a regulated audiobook networking site. You can meet producers, professional actors, and other people who can help you create your audio book here. You can also use their site to self-publish your audiobook. However, there are certain regulations. First they set the price of your product and it’s dependent on length. In order to get your product up to the $10 range it needs to be around three hours long. That’s fine for a recording of a full length novel, but not great for a one hour audio short story collection. They also take a cut of your profits for distributing your product on ACX, Amazon (audible.com), and iTunes. While it’s nice to be distributed in those stores, the deal here isn’t so different than the above Third Party Music Aggregators. Instead of an upfront fee you self-publish and then pay for services with your royalties.
After I looked at the above options I decided I needed to get part or all of my audio short story collection published some other way. I started looking for online small presses and literary magazines that did audio short stories. A search on Poets & Writers brought up about five possible places. I emailed all of them and asked if they accepted audio submissions and if so so how could I submit? None of them had MP3 submissions set up and instead they asked that I email the MP3 as an attachment.
Small Press: The way I eventually got 36 – Part 1 published was through Nomadic Press, a small, non-profit press out of the bay area. They hadn’t published audio before, only print. But they said they liked the project and they would figure out how to publish and distribute it through their network. I’m very happy with how they have published and distributed my collection.
Short Story Revival
I think we are seeing a revival of the short story. Part of this is because of changes in technology and the way we consume media. People want content they can read, watch, or listen to on their devices in ten minutes or less. Do you have a tablet with you while you’re commuting on the train to work? Why not watch someone perform a short story in a Moth competition? Do you have a cell phone with you while you’re eating lunch? Why not download a short story from Ether Books (they only publish to cell phone).
With all these innovative ways we can now consume a short story I think we are going to see more and more writers trying out different mediums for their writing. Short stories are no longer only for the printed page. You’ll see them live on stage or on youtube. You’ll hear them on NPR shows or on podcasts. You’ll see them for sale as part of an audio short story collection published by a small press.