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Gearing Up: Recording Audiobooks from home

There are a lot of gear posts out there, aimed at many different audiences. This list by no means re-invents the wheel.

I wanted to share my two-cents and keep MasteringAudiobooks.com a one stop resource for all your home narration needs. This post will be updated over time to reflect relevant updates and changes of opinion. These are affiliate links :)

Also, a conversation about WHERE to set up your home studio space needs to precede any investment in gear. A separate posting is forthcoming that will cover the basic of that.

Without further ado:

- Pop Filter/Shield: Don’t record without one. Seriously. Among many other benefits, these prevent plosives, which can cause clipping and ruin a recording. Your $3000 Neumann U87 is basically useless without this.

- XLR cables: No need to get anything fancy. Treating your cords well is a much better practice to adopt. Don’t crush them , pinch them, or leave them straining, and try to avoid having them run alongside electric power cords. Don’t use adaptors, buy the cords you need. Make sure you get the right length. You will likely only need 1 (to connect you microphone to your audio interface) but it doesn’t hurt to have a spare. Beware of cats. XLR Cable

- Microphone: If you have the money to buy something fancy for your studio, the mic is a good place to spend it. That being said, if you don’t have a good space to record in, a great mic isn’t going to do you any favors. Start with something simple and commonly used, engineers or other narrators might have experiences they can share, should you need to troubleshoot. If possible, try a few out. Every voice will be different and a mic that sounds amazing for one person might sound so-so on someone else. The following list is far from comprehensive (there are many amazing and affordable mics being created these days) but these are some of the models I’ve seen frequently used.

  • Neat King Bee (a new contender, built by former founders of Blue microphones, if you don't mind how it looks you won't find much better in this price range)

  • Rode NT-1

  • Audio Technica AT 4040 (or the slightly cheaper AT 2035)

  • Shure SM7B (If you have a naturally loud voice and not an amazingly quiet environment)

  • Some engineers frown on using a Dynamic mic, a large diaphragm Condenser mic is the standard recommendation. I agree with this logic, but have heard good results using the SM7B, especially on male voices. One caveat, you may need this to boost your gain when using a dynamic mic.

  • TLM-130 (high end option)

- Mic Stand: It is best to get one that stands independently (not one that attaches to your desk, etc.) If it's attached to your desk, it will pick up every bump and vibration that happens on your desk and this will get frustrating quickly. You'll want something sturdy and reliable so that the arm doesn't droop, forcing you to get up and re-adjust it every few hours. Try something like this.

- Audio Interface: If you are looking to become a home narrator and have no engineering aspirations beyond being able to record your voice and maintain your studio, this is likely the only interface you will ever need. I use the slightly larger version myself. This MOTU interface is another great, inexpensive option

NOTE: An audio interface is not the same thing as a channel strip, though some channel strips will function as an audio interface as well (Focusrite ISA430 MKII.) The interface functions as your A/D converter, converting the analog sound waves of your voice via the microphone into digital 1s and 0s for the computer and DAW to understand. How? Electronic wizardry… but this is where discussions of sample rates and bits come into play. If you’re coming to this with little to no prior audio engineering experience, I recommend keeping it simple. The Focusrite Scarlett Solo is clean and pretty much works as soon as you plug it in.

The advantages offered by other connection types (firewire, thunderbolt, USB 2.0 vs 3.0) won’t matter so much (because you are only recording one voice) but if it matters to you and you happen to be able to find one of these on sale grab it! This article from Sweetwater has some basic info as well.

- Headphones: It is important to have a pair of headphones with a balanced, unaffected frequency response. A lot of consumer headphones, even high end ones (like Beats or Bose) use algorithms to artifically affect the sound you hear so that it sounds 'bigger' or has 'more bass.' This is not what you want to use when monitoring your recordings because it may give you a false idea of how your audio is sounding. The Sony MDR-7506 are a great pair of headphones that have been used by audio engineers for years and there's a very good chance your editor or mastering engineer will be using this exact pair (I do!) Another slightly cheapr but still quality option would be the AKG K240.

- DAW (Digital Audio Workstation): This can be the most daunting part. You will need a computer in healthy condition and ready to take on lots of processing without getting laggy and buzzy. There are many DAWs one can try, and the price range is similar to microphones. Pro Tools is considered the industry standard, and if you are particularly interested in the engineering side of things it would be a worthwhile investment. You probably shouldn’t use Ableton (not designed for long form, fx-free recording) or Garageband (geared more towards music production and will sometimes add unwanted processing, meaning you might not have as much control over your sound.) Audacity is free and will get the job done. Reaper, Audition, Soundforge, Wavelab are other well known contenders. This article from ACX is a bit outdated, but covers some good pro and cons of many of these.I use Pro Tools. Whatever you choose, it would be wise to invest in some training/lessons.

- Sound treatment: This will depend entirely on where you live. Some people are fortunate enough to live in a quiet neighborhood and have an extra closet, other people live in an apartment next to a busy street. HOW you set things up will matter just as much as where.

You want a space you can comfortably spend hours of your life in, that is not echoey and has minimal exposure to any outside sounds and hums (appliances, air conditioners, traffic, neighbors, television, etc.) If you need to treat your space, read this article, particularly the part about Absorption, Diffusion and Bass Traps.

You can get fancy stuff like this. Draping blankets/comforters/quilts on the wall is also an acceptable and budget-friendly method. Try these packing blankets. You could also build your own paneling fairly easily if you like crafting. Basically, try to cover any hard, flat surfaces within a few feet of your microphone. Especially windows or anything metallic. Specific set up instructions will depend on the room you are in. Try clapping once loudly and see how much of an echo you get, if there’s a distinct ’ringing’, you probably need more sound treatment/blankets.

If you’re already making good money from narration gigs, a home booth may be a worthwhile investment. I hear great things about Studiobrick.

- Education: It is well worth spending some time practicing with your equipment and seeing how different changes to your environment affect your sound in different ways. The more familiar you are with the basic tools of recording, the more they can fade into the background and not interfere with the fun part, recording and performing! Watch some videos on YouTube, talk to other narrators and engineers, read books and blogs, and experiment.

- Plugins: These should never be your first concern. Everything else here takes priority, especially sound treatment and education. But some plugins I’ve found both useful and easy to use are below. Make sure your computer/DAW is compatible before buying any software. This can be a rabbit hole if you’re not careful. Remember, NEVER buy a tool you don’t know how to use, and never assume a new purchase will solve a problem. Becoming knowledgable and competent with your own equipment, whatever it might be, is always step one.

(If you do make a purchase through Waves, you can use this link to get 10% off.)

And there you have the basics. You’ll probably want a chair as well, and something to read your text off of but those are more a matter of personal preference. To re-emphasize the main point, even if you bought the nicest version of every item listed above, it will do you no good if you’re not comfortable using it and don’t have a fundamental understanding of how each tool works.

Even if you hate engineering and want to focus on it as little as possible, there are some basic skills you will need in order to succeed as a home narrator. More on this to come!