Steve Morris is the Senior Audio Engineer at Hay House. He helps create top-quality audiobooks for some of the best self-help authors in the industry.
I learned so much in the process that I connected KN Literary editor Chandika Devi with Steve, so she could round up his best recommendations for the authors who work with us. If you’re thinking about recording an audiobook, this is a must-read!
Introducing Steve Morris
Chandika Devi: Let’s start from the top. Were you always an audio engineer?
Steve Morris: I was a professional musician earlier in my career, and I learned to record doing that and I really liked it. Then I started at Hay House Radio in 2007, running the board for the live shows, and then worked my way up to Senior Audio Engineer.
CD: Were you familiar with the type of books that Hay House publishes?
SM: I wasn’t, but working at the radio board with all these teachers spouting all this wisdom at me, I started thinking, wow, these are some really good ideas! I had heard of self-help before that but wasn’t very familiar with it. And I came to love a lot of people’s work, so many I can’t list them…but Wayne Dyer was amazing, I really enjoy Michael Neill, Colette Baron-Reid, Denise Linn, Caroline Myss…there are too many to list!
How to Prepare to Record Your Audiobook
CD: Ok, so what’s the first thing an author should do to prepare for recording an audiobook?
SM: First you want to go through your manuscript and edit it into a script to read aloud. You want to change things like “in this book” to “in this audiobook” or “in this recording.” Or if you reference a page, like, “go back to page 29 to see this worksheet,” well, there is no page 29! You’ll have to rephrase it. A lot of people don’t think about that. Edit it into a script first and you’ll save yourself a lot of time and money.
CD: So what should authors do if they have a lot of charts, graphs or other images to reference?
SM: A lot of self-help books have those visual elements. I’m thinking of one of the books I did for Anthony William, where recipes and charts were half the book. We created a supplemental PDF that accompanies the audiobook. If you want to include such a PDF along with your audiobook, you’ll want to reference it frequently as you record. So, let’s say you have an exercise for your reader to do. Generally, we have authors read through it in the audiobook—or at least provide a shortened version so readers get a sense of what you’re referencing, but then also tell them where it is in the PDF.
CD: How could self-published audiobook authors share the PDF?
SM: If you’re doing it 100% yourself, make a public dropbox link or a public google docs link; just make sure you’re not connecting it to anything personal. You may want to create a new google account just for that, if you’re using google docs.
CD: That makes sense. And what’s the best format for the book when the author goes into the studio?
SM: That’s changed a lot. We used to print entire manuscripts! But now, I suggest saving the whole audiobook script as a PDF and then transferring it to a tablet or e-reader. Paper is noisy! If you have to read from paper, finish talking and pause before you turn the page, then pause before beginning to speak again—that way, the sound of the page turning can be edited out more easily.
CD: Why not use a laptop?
SM: Laptops have fans! You may not notice the sound, but in an audiobook, it’s something to edit out. Tablets and e-readers have itty bitty fans that don’t make so much noise.
CD: What else should an author bring to the studio?
SM: Throat spray is helpful; there’s one called Singer’s Saving Grace that’s great. A green apple is an old voiceover trick; the wax on the apple helps reduce the mouth smacking sounds. You’ll be amazed how many smacking sounds a microphone picks up! They all have to be edited out. Bring something to snack on, because even though you’re just sitting in a chair talking for four hours, it takes a toll. Authors tell me all the time how tiring it is! Bring plenty of room-temperature water; I suggest room-temperature because cold water can freeze up your throat and tighten your vocal cords.
CD: What else should authors do?
SM: Send a copy of your audiobook script PDF to the studio before you arrive so they can follow along as you’re recording. And take breaks! Lots of them, maybe one every twenty minutes. When you’re taking a break, don’t talk. Just close your mouth, even if it’s for five minutes, and let your voice rest. It’s not a time to socialize, even if you want to do so. You’ll know you’ve gone past the point for a break when you start to trip up on words or when your voice starts to get quieter at the end of sentences.
CD: So what’s the recording process like?
SM: Well, you have the option of hiring an engineer at a sound studio or recording on your own.
CD: How long does it take to record?
SM: It usually takes longer at home than in a studio, but in a studio, on average, a 75-120,000 word book usually takes about 24 hours of studio time, which I recommend breaking up in to three eight-hour days. You can break it up into smaller chunks if you’re recording on your own. You’re only recording for four or five hours of that time, but you need a lot of break time. Don’t skimp on it because audio quality is just so much better if you take adequate break time.
CD: And then how long is the finished audiobook?
SM: Six to eight hours for the average book in this genre. It really depends on how fast the narrator talks and what the content looks like.
Recording in a Studio with a Professional Engineer—Recommended!
CD: So, it sounds like everything is really dependent on whether you record in a studio or at home, and I want to go over both options for our authors. Let’s talk about the studio option first. What can you tell me about recording in a studio?
SM: There are private recording studios all over the place; most cities have them, and you can rent them out by the hour or by the day. You also want a recording engineer if you’re at a studio. They’ll work the equipment and coach you through the process.
CD: How much does it cost to record in a studio?
SM: The price varies greatly based on where you are; if you’re in a big city, it’s going to cost a lot more than a smaller city. Make sure the engineer is included in the price, because some places are sneaky and they tack that on separately without telling you. Studio fees can run from maybe $100-$275 per hour if they specialize in voiceover. There are also many studios that specialize in music, not voiceover, and they may be able to do what you need, but they may not have that much experience with voiceover or audiobooks.
DIY Recording At Home
CD: And home recording? What should our authors know about that?
SM: This is where it gets tricky, because if you don’t know how to record, you can spend a lot of time on a recording that is so full of issues that you spend a lot of time or money—like a lot—editing it out. It depends a lot on where you record and which equipment you use.
CD: Where you record? What do you mean?
SM: I’m assuming you’re recording in your house, but there are many parts of your house to record in. Don’t do it in your kitchen or your dining room. You want as few hard surfaces as possible, because sound bounces off of them. Your bedroom may be great; a walk-in closet is better, because there’s all this soft stuff to absorb the sound. Bring in a bunch of pillows, hang heavy blankets on the walls or over the clothes in your closet, and try to deaden the sound as much as possible.
Start by making practice recordings—a lot of them. Spend a couple of weeks on this. Move your computer to different locations, try recording in a different part of your house, at different times of the day, etc. If you know someone who knows anything about audio, send them samples and ask what they think. Get everything right before you record the whole audiobook.
Finally, don’t record if there’s something going on in the background, because editing it out will be really tough. Construction noise, kids, pets, even a mechanical noise like a fan can mess up an entire recording.
CD: What kind of equipment does someone need to record at home?
SM: First, a microphone. The budget option is to use a USB microphone. There are lots of good options, but expect to pay $100 or more; any less and it’s unlikely to be high enough quality for a decent recording. I recommend the Yeti by Blue or anything by Audio Technica.
Otherwise, you can get a regular microphone and an audio interface, which is the piece it plugs into. The Shure SM 58 is a standard vocal microphone for home recording. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars; $100-500 is a good budget.
An audio interface is a little box with a mic input and a headphone output. These can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, but the one I have at home and recommend for you is the Focusrite Scarlett. It costs around $100. It sounds great and you’ll get a great recording out of it.
CD: And what about software for people who are recording at home?
SM: You’ll need a recording and editing program. There are lots of great ones out there!
If you have an Apple computer, Garage Band is great and it comes standard on all their computers. There are great videos online on how to use Garage Band for audiobooks.
If you don’t have a Mac or another recording program, check out Audacity, which is another good free program. There’s also Audition, which is an Adobe program that’s quite affordable. Twisted Wave is great and most people in the voiceover world use that one. Don’t use Quicktime or something like that; the recording quality is too low.
CD: What’s a good recording quality?
SM: You want to be sure you’re recording at 44.1khz/16bit, at minimum, to be high enough to convert to an Mp3.
CD: Once it’s recorded, what does the editing process look like?
SM: You can edit it yourself, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Audio editing is a long and tedious process, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can really mess things up. But there are online tutorials for people who like that sort of thing and want to teach themselves. If you’re doing it this way, look for loud clicks and pops, other mouth noises, and decide if you’re going to take out breaths.
CD: Breaths? What do you mean?
SM: When people talk, you can hear them breathe in and out. Usually we take out some of these sounds, but I don’t recommend taking out all of them; often, first-time authors will want us to, but when we do, they don’t like it because they sound like a robot!
You’ll also want to be careful with EQ and compression; make sure both are normalized so you’re getting the right settings. Look up good voice settings for recording or how to master an audiobook, and your recording program will have recommendations as well. There are a ton of how-to videos on YouTube.
I recommend breaking up the tracks by chapter. Usually we do the title page and foreword as one track, and after that, it’s one track per chapter so it’s easy for people to keep track of where they are in the book.
Finally, back up every version you work on, because otherwise there’s a good chance you’ll have to go back to the beginning and start over. Little things like that will make a huge difference!
Getting Your Audiobook Edited
CD: Regardless whether our authors record in the studio or at home, they can always hire a professional audio engineer for editing, yes?
SM: Yes, that’s my recommendation. Absolutely. An audio engineer will do it much faster, and likely better, than a novice. Prices for this range, depending on where you are; around here, near San Diego, it’s around $40-50/hr.
CD: How long does editing take, usually?
SM: I recommend two editing passes before mastering, which is how you finalize the recording. The general rule is three hours of editing for each one hour of audio on the first pass and about an hour and a half to two hours of editing for each one hour of audio on the second pass. Then mastering times vary, depending on the program you’re using.
CD: If you are doing it yourself, how do you know when you’re done with the editing process?
SM: When there are no mistakes and you’re happy! Be prepared to listen to your own book many times to get there.
CD: Where can someone find a good audio engineer to edit their work?
SM: ACX.com is a great resource. Craigslist still works, and upwork.com is a great place to look. Talk to the people you want to hire ahead of time to see if they have audiobook or voiceover experience, and ask to listen to a sample of their work so you can hear what they’re doing. Believe me, you’ll be able to spot bad editing right away because you’re so used to good editing that the difference will be obvious!
CD: What about voice actors? Do you recommend working with one?
SM: You certainly can, and it often makes for a better audiobook. But it’s a top-tier expense; I’d say that the most important budgetary concern is to get an audio engineer to edit your recording, the second most important is to record in a studio with an engineer, and hiring a voice actor to narrate your audiobook is the lowest priority for most people.
What It Costs to Produce an Audiobook
CD: Overall, what’s a typical budget range for a DIY audiobook?
SM: If you’re doing everything yourself, your budget is just your equipment, so about $500…plus a lot of time for editing. So much time, so much frustration! If you do it all yourself, be prepared to want to throw your computer through a wall.
CD: So maybe throw the cost of a new computer into your DIY budget?
SM: Maybe. That’s a good idea, because you’ll smash yours. [Laughs]
CD: What surprises people most about recording an audiobook?
SM: A lot of things, most of which we discussed already, but I would add in that most people hate the way they sound. Even I hate the way I sound! It’s a huge surprise to hear what your voice sounds like through a mic, and most people don’t like it.
CD: And what about music?
SM: I definitely recommend adding music to the beginning and the end. Don’t put a lot—like 20 seconds, for instance, is way too much. But four to seven seconds is good. Even two seconds with a fade out is nice.
CD: What kind of music should people use, and where should they get it?
SM: This is an important question. Don’t use a Led Zeppelin song or a Taylor Swift song, because if you don’t have the rights, you can get sued—even just for a few seconds. Be prepared to pay for music, even music no one has ever heard of!
Go to royalty-free music sites, like Royalty-Free Music, Pond 5 or Premium Beat. You’ll want to check the license on each piece you buy, but most of these have a standard license which allows you to sell quite a few audiobooks (not millions, but most people don’t sell millions) for a flat purchase price, usually $15-$50. You can also spend a couple hundred more on the premium license, which allows you to sell more copies, but it’s very rare that you would need it.
CD: What are the funniest mistakes you’ve seen people make, or heard in their audio?
SM: A friend sent me an audiobook to edit and he didn’t record the title page! Be sure to record the title page, the author name, all of that. If you have a dedication, include it. And be sure to record things like “Chapter One” and the subheads. If you have a quote at the beginning of each chapter, be sure to tell the reader that it’s a quote, and attribute it to the person who originally said or wrote it. Listen to other audiobooks, if you haven’t, so you know what’s standard.
The most Important Part of Recording Your Audiobook: Having Fun!
CD: Is there anything else authors should know?
SM: I’ve spent a lot of time in this interview talking about what to avoid, how hard the process can be, and other things like that, but I also want to emphasize that recording an audiobook can be really fun!
I had an author come in awhile ago who had never done this before. She is a doctor, she was busy and she just wanted us to hire someone to read it. But finally, we convinced her to give it a try. At the end, she told me she was so glad she did it; she thought it was actually really fun and rewarding! So it’s not easy, but it can be fun. And if you’ve already written a book, you know what I’m talking about! Writing a book is certainly harder than recording an audiobook, and they are both very rewarding.
CD: Steve, you’ve been really helpful. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today!
SM: It was a pleasure, and I hope it’s useful for your authors!