Audiobooks & Choosing The Right Microphone, and Setup

Choosing a Microphone for Your Audiobook Production

While much of an Audiobook’s charm comes from its authenticity and often raw vibe, make no mistake: Amateur hour is over.
 
Many of the most successful Audiobook creators are upgrading to professional recording gear and there is a growing emphasis on quality. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend your life savings though.
 
Some podcast shows and audiobook productions have become almost indistinguishable from traditional, professional studio productions.

The Sound of Success

If you’ve found your way to this blog post, you’re probably one of those authors considering a more professional approach to your production. Especially if you want your books to be suitable for ACX, the Audible production division of Amazon’s Audio Book service. Fortunately, the cost of pro-technology has decreased to match the budgets of everyday creative people, meaning you don’t have to move into your parents’ basement in order to afford a professional rig. (Though I suppose destitute basement-dwelling might make for compelling online discussion.)

An Audiobook is primarily about the audio experience. and quality sound is crucial to your success. And having a good microphone could make the difference between stardom,  and being forever confined to selling your audio work from your own website – the minor leagues.

But before you go overspending on shiny, new equipment, there are important considerations to make. What kind of show are you doing? Are you going to be in your hall closet? Are you going to be in your sister’s bedroom or even your own? Are you going to be in a basement, or is your “studio” positioned right beside Highway 61.  All of these questions are going to inform your microphone purchase.

Finding the Right Mic

If your setup is mobile – that is, not anchored to a specific room, and you have to fold and go at the end of each session, a good portable option is the MV88, a stereo condenser microphone that plugs right into your iPhone, iPad or iPod. This mic works seamlessly with iOS recording apps, so you’ll have professional-quality audio no matter where you happen to be. The Lighting®connector means no clumsy cables and perfect compatibility with Apple devices, but the MV88 doesn’t have a USB connector, so keep that in mind. Some people prefer the portable option for recording. But remember, a condenser mic is VERY sensitive. This means it will pick up the slightest sound within its range, and you will be surprised just what that range is. It picks up absolutely everything. Birds in the trees, the trees themselves, you sucking your teeth… the lot!

If you’re sitting down in front of your Mac/Pc, you might want to consider the MV5. This digital condenser microphone offers the flexibility of both iOS and USB connectivity. Totally plug-and-play, it comes with three onboard presets for digital signal processing to help you quickly find the right sound for your recording efforts. The MV5 also has an iconic style, so you won’t be embarrassed to show it on promotional shots. Again, it’s a condenser mic. Very sensitive.

Being sensitive to all surrounding sounds means that you will most certainly then have to deal with soundproofing your environment. This is in itself a whole new blog post, but in short, you need thick sound-absorbing material behind you. Most room echo enters your mic from behind you. Try to avoid a room with parallel walls and a ceiling. (difficult, but with reposition-able office screens, it is achievable)

ACX audiobook production requires a noise floor no higher than -60db.

Ideally, in production you need that to be about -72db. Now let me tell you, that’s pretty darn difficult to do with a condenser mic.

Shure has paired all of these mic options with some incredibly powerful and easy-to-use recording and editing software for iOS. The ShurePlus™ MOTIV™ app works with any MOTIV™ device and provides five DSP preset modes to quickly adjust gain, stereo width, equalization, and compression. Of course, you can make your own tweaks and edit your audio recordings right on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod.

With the right equipment, there’s nothing keeping you from getting the audio recording you want.

Having said all that – what is my own solution? Well, my rig is simple – but comes only after a lot, a real lot, of experimentation. I’m on an Apple Mac Mini. This has its own quirks.

I wanted to start with the lowest noise floor I could achieve in a NORMAL room at the front of the house, during a normal quiet day. From that point, I only wanted to apply a touch of Normalisation to adjust the volume slightly, and Limiting to clip off any peeks that sneak past the Pop Filter in front of the Mic. The more time you have to spend modifying your recording, the worse it will sound. Unless you are actually a Sound Engineer with lots of skill and training, you will never get it right.

I use Audacity for the DAW.

I’m running a Mac, so I had a few other issues as well. you can’t just plug a cheap PC Microphone into them. It won’t work. Forget them. Terrible sound anyway. For lots of reasons that I can’t go into here, it’s impossible to get them working on a Mac, and on a PC, the sound is rubbish anyway. .  So after installing Audacity as my sound recording software, I moved onto the hardware.

My Mic is a Shure 55SH Series II Sometimes called an Elvis Mic. Not terribly expensive, but will still set you back somewhere over £100, even on eBay. Speaking of which, make sure it’s a genuine Shure, not a Chinese knockoff. You will also need a high-quality cable to go from the mic to your Audio Interface unit. That is important. This mic is a Dynamic Mic. It’s very directional, robust, and requires – normally – an amplifier to get any decent volume out of it. But here’s the key. We don’t need volume in our case, We need clarity, and this Mic is excellent.  The spec sheet can be found here.

My main Audio Interface is a
Focusrite Scarlett Solo USB Audio Interface (2nd Gen) available here

This is a USB interface unit that also has Phantom Power if you want to use a condenser mic that requires that +48 Phantom power. But remember, Condenser mics will be too sensitive for your purposes.  It also has the option to plug in an instrument, so it’s quite versatile. These run out at around £90 or so. Brilliant bit of kit. NOTE. With your Shure Dynamic plugged into it, you need the left-hand control, the Gain – turned all the way up. DO NOT TURN ON  the phantom power switch. You will fry your mic. This is a Dynamic mic and doesn’t use the phantom power.

I have it mounted on a mic stand, with a small boom to bring the (heavy) mic over my desk to near a comfortable mouth position. your mouth will need to be at most, 6″ from the mic – with a Pop filter between you and the mic. Important. 

You will have to fiddle about with connectors to get a good fit between your mic and the boom arm of the stand. I had to end up buying a few adapters until I got it right. Not a big deal.

The Focusrite unit allows for audio monitoring through headphones and a speaker that you can plug in via a couple of RCA jacks at the rear. you need good headphones. Comfortable ones, you will have them on for a few hours at a time.

Mine are NUMARK.  and run about £54. You need good headphones for editing because you need to be able to hear all the little clicks and pops that you make when you are speaking normally. It’s really surprising how much noise your mouth makes when you speak.

Can I add a note of caution here? Don’t edit out all noise from your audiobook. Your readers want to hear your voice, and it’s those little breathy sounds that make your voice yours. I don’t mean sucking and slurping, swallowing, coughing, clicking your teeth, and the very worst of all – whistling at the end or the start of your words. If your speech isn’t naturally clear – get someone else to do it. You’ve all heard grandpa do it. … just DON’T.

So now you are set. If you are on a MAC, put your book into iBooks, set the line spacing to double line spacing, and start recording…. ha! If only it was that easy. But really – it almost is.

Learn how to use Audacity. You don’t need many of its legendary range of controls. Install the ACXCheck plugin first, so you can check your recordings. Practice with it. Talk. Change settings. Find what works for you.

Make a recording. Highlight it. Check it with ACXCheck. Which checks the things that ACX – who else – require you to have. Noise floor, peaks, and RMS. These can be easily set with the two effects I mentioned before. Normalize, then Limiting.

Now since I first wrote this in 2017 I’ve updated my kit a bit. Not much though. I still use the Focusrite Scarlett Solo USB Audio Interface (2nd Gen). But I now have a Neewer® BM800 professional studio broadcasting and recording microphone plugged into it and this gets used on most of my YouTube work. It’s a great mic that does what I want it to do well. It balances nicely on the boom, not too heavy, and is supported in a cage.

For AudioBook work, I’ve switched to something else. I have an iRig Pre plugged into the Earphone socket of my Mac Mini. I know, not the Line In. Forget that. I never could get any sense out of why it’s even there, and iRig have rejigged their Preamp to use the earphone socket. It’s actually designed to be used on iPhones, iPads, and Macs. I have the Shure 55S plugged into that and it works brilliantly for the Audiobook recording. No ambient sound at all. It’s a brilliant clean sound.

The iRig Pre has a phantom power option too. Don’t turn it on if you have a dynamic mic plugged into it.

 

Remember to change sound input in settings depending on which mic you want to use. Easy. Don’t forget to set which mic you are using in Audacity.

Here, the iRig/Shure55S set up is being used. I don’t use the other mic on the Audiobook production because it’s too ‘noisy’.

Remember I mentioned I’m in an ordinary ‘front room’ – a commandeered bedroom. No soundproofing at all.


The Innamincka Affair so far.

So this setup works nicely.

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