Pursue a path in “the biz” that gives you anything close to a regular income and you’ll invariably pique the curiosity of fellow performers. They want to know what investment, in time and money, you’re making to be able to pursue the elusive “steady” gig actors crave. With the growing popularity of audiobooks, many fellow thesps have those questions about narration.
“How” to narrate an audiobook is the subject of an entire blog, not just one post, but the basic equipment one needs to get started is easy enough to list. Here’s a jump-start on what introductory equipment to get and how to use it. This is a very brief overview; if you have questions, feel free leave a comment to ask.
Good for you for wanting to narrate audiobooks! The market seems to be growing by leaps and bounds right now, and for the first time in a long time, bona fide actors are actually in demand!
To competently produce your first audiobooks, here’s the basic equipment you’ll need:
- Mic Start with something simple. The AT2020 USB from Audio Technica costs about $100 and is an excellent introductory mic.
- A quiet laptop to plug the mic into helps. It’s best if you have access to the computer while you’re recording, as you’ll need to be able to edit as you make flubs (if you’re like me, you’ll make a lot). While you can use a standard desktop computer to record, laptops have the advantage of being easier to position away from the mic.
- A “dead” room in which to record. To start, a clothes closet tends to work well. The clothes absorb most of the “echo” and do a decent job of blocking outside noise, too.
- Audio recording software A free program called Audacity is excellent for both recording and editing. It works on all OSs.
- A decent set of headphones These will help you edit. You need the sound close to your ear to be able to hear breaths and mouth noise (icch — occupational hazard). Speakers aren’t enough. To start, you don’t need big, hairstyle-ruining, over-the-ear headphones. A good $10 set of ear buds will do nicely (Sony makes good ones).
Now, here’s some advice on how to kick things off:
Once you’ve figured out how to record and are comfortable with the process (not hard with Audacity), you should fill out a profile on ACX.com. ACX is Audible.com’s Audiobook Creation Exchange and is a place for authors to post their books and short stories and for narrators to audition for them. The site gives a lot of info on the process. It’s not hard (I figured it out within an hour or two).
Once you have a profile and log-in credentials (Audible is owned by Amazon, so you can use your Amazon log-in), you can search for books to audition for. You can also search for other narrators’ samples to listen to, which can give you a good idea of how to format your auditions and the sorts of material to use (I recommend mine, or Alex Hyde-White’s, or David H. Lawrence’s, for a start. Sorry, I’m not familiar with female narrators. We don’t compete!).
The other thing you should do is listen to good narrators read audiobooks. Guys like Scott Brick, George Guidall, and Grover Gardner (to name a scant few) have been doing this for years and know what they’re doing. Many libraries offer audiobooks for online check-out (for listening on an iPod or similar), and any audiobook for sale on Amazon displays a short excerpt you can listen to (here’s a link to one of mine, in the interest of education and shameless pluggery).
One thing you’ll notice from most good audiobooks is that the narrators speak really, really slow. It seems almost unnatural, but most people listen to audiobooks while doing something else (driving or exercising, mostly), so they need the time to process the action. All the good narrators do that. Check it out.
There’s your start. Now go forth and record! And write me when you have more questions.
What is the best way to minimize your sound floor?
Trish, there are a great many factors that can contribute to background noise, but the simplest place to start is with your recording environment. Is the space in which you record very quiet? Is there ambient noise, such as an air conditioner fan/compressor, outside traffic, a refrigerator in the next room, etc? You can have a very “dead” recording space that is, nevertheless, too noisy to make a noise-free recording. If your surroundings are noisy — and most microphones can pick up sounds we aren’t even aware of — you first have to find a way to reduce that noise, in order to bring down your noise floor.
The other major factor I’d point you to is equipment. Quality cables and pre-amp (if you’re not using a USB mic) can make a huge difference in sound quality and keep your recordings free of line noise. Some people experience noise from their power source, so making sure you don’t have too many devices running on a single power strip, or that your living space’s wiring is sound, may be a step you need to take. If you can be more specific in the nature of the noise that’s raising your floor, I may be able to make further suggestions.
Sarah Jessica Curry says
Steve, I have dreamed of becoming an audiobook voice, and not until I read your article was I aware just how much of a passion it is for me — even just in my head! I listen to audiobooks all day and when one of my favorites is not available on audio I am always disappointed because I do data entry for a job and go stir crazy without it! Oh, the series that have two or three audiobooks then suddenly the next book is only available in print and I have to wait until I get home to read it. So, all that to say, I am hoping to help people like me who love to read but work all day and can only listen. I hope I am able to succeed in an audition! I’m looking to buy a microphone and prepare my laptop for starting this adventure. Wish me luck — and I’ll take any new advice you have as well!
Your passion is infectious, Sarah! My added advice to you is to stick with it — lots of people are narrating now, but there is always room for one more, especially someone who loves the medium as much as you. I’d keep listening to books, too, and try to figure out exactly what your favorite narrators do that keeps you listening. Knowing audiobooks as an audience can be tremendously helpful when one climbs into the booth. And don’t obsess over your recordings. Narration is a long game. You get better at doing it by doing it consistently, and that means finishing one book and taking on another. Yes, try to make each performance as error-free as possible, but know that even the best narrators make mistakes that make their ways into the final recording, so shoot for near-perfect, so you can finish the project and move on to the next. Best of luck with your narration career!
Anna J says
Would your laptop need certain operating system or specs to do the recording?
Anna, any computer you use needs to be powerful enough to run the recording software and have enough memory to hold the audio files, which can be sizeable. That said, those power requirements aren’t terribly high, so any mid-range computer running the latest OS should be fine — particularly if you’re using a program like Audacity, as I suggested, to start out. Audacity is available on both Mac and PC — and I think there’s even a Linux version — so, no, either of the popular OS’s will work. Just make sure any software/equipment you use expressly lists itself as working your intended OS.
Steve, when you’re trying to build samples for your resume what books do/can you read excerpts from? Are there any copyright laws to be aware of? How long should these pieces be, and of what type of content? ( E.g. Monologue only, dialog between characters, action.) Thanks for any information!
Rachael, virtually anything is fair game when it comes to what to choose for a sample. A renowned VO teacher here in LA, Pat Fraley, used to recommend stories and articles from magazines, because such material would almost certainly be unique to you. These days, with such an explosion of digital books on the market, such selectivity is no longer necessary.
Copyright doesn’t really come into play, as long as you’re not trying to sell the sample itself (hat off to you if you can make that work!), or as long as the sample isn’t an excerpt from something you’re trying to sell for which you don’t have permission. In other words, if the sample is only being used to demonstrate your ability to read it, you’re in the clear.
That said, I would steer away from material that’s very well known or that someone famous has done. I love Graham Greene’s THE END OF THE AFFAIR, but why pit myself against Colin Firth in the ears of a potential client? While that client may never have heard Colin’s recording, he may also think it’s the best thing he’s ever heard and not be able to objectively hear my interpretation. There’s so much out there that any given author or publisher has never heard that it’s not worth the risk to choose popular stuff.
As to length and content of a piece, a word of history is in order. Several years ago, as I understand it, publishers expected a demo to contain a single piece of several minutes in length, so they could hear the narrator’s ability to carry a story line and play different characters, etc. As audiobooks exploded in popularity and the number of narrators increased, publishers wanted shorter demos consisting of 4-5 snippets of roughly a minute each, to demonstrate a broader range of the narrator’s abilities. That demo is still useful today but, as has occurred in the film/television casting community, publishers want the option to choose a single selection from a narrator’s spectrum of talents. They want to be able to find exactly the ability they’re looking for as quickly as possible.
So, honestly, you need those two types of demos available —- a single collection of representative snippets that show off the range of your abilities and individual clips demonstrating a single type of ability.
The length of a single one of those snippets should be around a minute now. Nobody seems to listen any longer. As to what content to feature, the short answer is “what you’re good at.” I think what most of us love to narrate most is a good story, regardless of genre, but authors and publishers have to think in terms of sales, so for them, genre matters. From the narrator’s standpoint, therefore, just as in the television/film world, it pays to specialize. I would choose a couple of genres you like best and think you’re good at, and make sure you have a solid sample from each. Straight narration, without any dialogue, is important for potential clients to hear, though I tend to reserve that for my non-fiction selection, as I presume no one’s got time to listen to strictly-narration fiction pieces anymore. For fiction, you need to have at least one dialogue piece, preferably covering both genders, as clients want to hear whether a female can convincingly play men and vice-versa. Beyond those criteria, I suggest the following:
So, these days, you really need two kinds of demos: a five-minute selection of pieces showing off what you do best, and individual clips of those same component pieces along with clips of any other abilities that didn’t make it into the collected demo.
That’s already maybe a longer discussion than you were prepared for. If you still have questions, hit me back, and we can indulge in some clarification.
Good luck on your demos!
Paul Ruben says
Lots of good information. Arguably, good narrators do not necessarily speak slow, not do they speak fast. Good (not a particularly appropriate characterization) really implies, I think, something like compelling. Compelling narrators connect to the story’s subtext (where the feelings are located). Once that occurs, the subtext directs the narrator’s response, including pace. The narrator’s intuitive response to the subtext is what impacts the listener. So pace is dictated by the narrator’s emotional connection to the feelings beneath the words (subtext). This organic connection to the subtext is what propels the listener to feel as if the story is taking place ‘right now.’ It’s what connects and compels the listener to remain involved in the story.
What a treat, Paul, to have you drop by and share your informed perspective! I suppose I levy the injunction to speak slowly because so many of us, just starting out, tend to speak just as fast as our mouths can form the words. You are right, of course, that if one is truly paying attention to the meaning behind the words — and, in particular, to the character’s thoughts and feelings — the speed takes care of itself.
As you say, to the extent one is truly engaged in telling the story, ones rate of speech gauges itself to whatever is appropriate to the moment. I think one also eventually learns to speak only as fast as he can digest and understand what he’s reading. I just find that most beginning narrators are self-conscious about how slowly they really are able to speak and still keep the listener’s attention.
…But, of course, what you’re offering is the Advanced Course, which can save us all a great deal of time, to the extent we’re able to trust and believe that our own, genuine fascination with the story is enough to engage the listener. (Though a little performance acumen doesn’t hurt.)
Thank you, again, for taking the time to offer your wisdom!
Steve, this page is wonderfully helpful. I love when artists are willing to lend a helping hand to others who are interested!
Is it possible for an individual who does not have representation nor is a member of SAG to book work as a narrator? It seems as though every audio book narrator I’ve looked up has an agent and is a SAG member.
Hi, Marcy — I’m delighted to hear you’re getting something out of the post. Trying to be helpful was my aim in writing it. Thank you for reaching out.
I, personally, do not know a single narrator who gets audiobook work through an agent. From what I understand, audiobooks pay too little to justify agents’ efforts to land them. Audiobooks aren’t really part of the Entertainment industry, either: they’re products of Publishing. Most acting agents have no relationships with publishers. So, for some critical reasons, agents don’t tend to get actors audiobook work.
Most audiobook narrators go out and get their own work, mainly by reaching out to publishers individually. (It helps to have several books under ones belt before he does so.) Many of the narrators I know either are not members of SAG-AFTRA now, or they weren’t when they started narrating. There is plenty of non-union narrating work out there, and I believe all publishers who have agreements with SAG-AFTRA are still able to offer work to non-union narrators.
So, to answer your question, yes, absolutely, non-represented, non-union talent can work as narrators! And while many of the narrators you’ve looked up may be union members and have agents, those facts are purely coincidental. You get audiobook work through developing relationships with publishers, on your own, regardless of union status.
Mareshah Henderson says
I am interested in getting into narration. I am currently researching the equipment needed and looking into what may be available to me in my area. I will be putting in quite a lot of practice. I have enjoyed reading posts here and find them helpful.
Glad you’re finding the posts helpful, Mareshah. Thank you for commenting!
Leslie Fisk says
Hi, I am brand new and have two recordings to do on ACX YAY! I don’t know audacity that well so I need to figure out how to edit. Also, on a script do you print it out or look at it electronically? Any tips on starting your very first narration job? Thanks!!!! Any tips on how to learn editing super quick to produce a decent first job???
Hi, Leslie — congrats on your ACX work! I’m afraid my knowledge of Audacity is a bit rusty, as I switched to a different DAW (“Digital Audio Workstation” — another term for the software you use to record & edit audio files) a few years ago. With regard to editing, though, I’d say the best way to learn is to record a minute or two of narrating and experiment cutting an pasting on the file. Audacity if pretty intuitive, so keys like Delete and Backspace do pretty much what you expect them to. If you want specific advice, there are a couple of dedicated Audacity forums on Facebook which give a lot of good information. There’s a very good one on ACX, as well: search Facebook for either of those terms, and you’ll come across them.
If you want a detailed course on setting up and using Audacity specifically for narrating audiobooks, and you’re willing to spend a little money, check out my friend David H. Lawrence XVII’s “Recording for ACX with Audacity (https://www.vo2gogo.com/classes/vclasses/). I get no consideration for supplying that link. I just know David and trust his instruction implicitly. He’s very organized and very knowledgeable.
Now to your other questions:
Most narrators I know read scripts digitally nowadays. IPads and Kindles being ubiquitous, those seem to be the favorite media from which to narrate a manuscript. Both platforms have software available that allow marking up the script, to one extent or another. Folks tend to favor those over paper both for environmental-sensitivity and in-booth noise control (turning pages is noisy!).
My biggest tip for making your inaugural journey into the form is, SLOW DOWN. You can afford to narrate that manuscript at a much slower pace than you think you can. Most people can read faster than they can listen to a book — hard to skim when you’re listening — and most of us can read aloud faster than we can process what we’re reading. In order for what you’re saying to be understandable, you need to say it only as fast as others can digest it. For that, it’s important to know what you’re saying as you say it, and if you make sure the words going in through your eyes and coming out your mouth are making sense to you during the journey, you will naturally tend to slow down. So, strive to comprehend what you’re saying, and speak as slowly as you need to to do it.
Above all, Leslie, let your journey be something you enjoy! Thank you for commenting, and feel free to come back with further or follow-up questions.
Suggestion: if I were a part of this company I would monetize the microphone and headphone portion of this page.
Justification: maximizing monetary capacity enables companies provide a higher quality of product (articles or whatever).
Good idea. Thank you for the suggestion!
Barbara Schmitt says
I’m very grateful for your post and generosity in leading those of us who may be new or simply can use additional tools down to path to success!
I have what seems to be an unusual issue: I have gotten feedback from a very considerate author that she didn’t select my audition, as there was very strong background noise present, essentially drowning out my narrative voice/uniqueness of sound, etc. I assumed this could be an A/C, refrigerator or something else which I was de-sensitized to, as I didn’t hear anything whatsoever in the version I submitted as the final narration (as well as in all of my samples on my profile on ACX). *Can the actual internal computer fan be causing sound interference which competes with my recording? I have everything else on the advised checklist addressed, and have a Snowball Ice microphone w/USB attachment, etc- from my end, the samples sound actually quite good! It’s been a while since I developed a voice- over reel, but these would have “made the cut”, so to speak…it’s just that what I believe I am submitting doesn’t appear to be what is actually heard on behalf of potential publishers/authors, etc., so this polarity concerns me a great deal.
Thanks so much!
– Barbara Schmitt
Thank you, Barbara, for your kind comments on the post. I’m glad you’re getting something out of it.
I listened to the samples on ACX with your name and, if those are indeed yours, I may be able to identify what the author was pointing to. I don’t hear noise sufficient to drown out your voice (it’s always possible the author misidentified noise in her own computer set up as coming from your file). However, I do hear enough “bounce” in your recording to flag it as a problem. By “bounce” I mean the short-duration echo one hears in a recording when there are hard surfaces present in the recording environment off of which the voice is “bouncing” during recording and which the microphone is picking up, in addition to the voice itself. Every professional recording space needs to be free of outside noise, for sure — vehicle traffic, A/C fans, the neighbor’s lawn mower — but equally important is a “dead” environment which reflects no sound. A “dead” space gives the microphone only the narrator’s voice to pick up, and the voice alone. Your space, as I’m saying, is reflecting your voice audibly, which the microphone is picking up and which, to my ear, accounts for the background noise to which the author might be referring.
The good news is that deadening a space is considerably easier than soundproofing it to outside noise. The area of your recording space about which you need to be most concerned is that which the microphone is facing, broadly speaking. If you’re facing a wall with no sound treatment — no curtains, no foam, etc. — that might be a small issue, but more likely is that the area above, below, to the sides, and behind you, because those are the surfaces that your microphone is “facing”. Those are the areas you need to treat but, again, treating this is pretty easy. Basically, you want to “soften” any hard surfaces. Here are some suggestions:
The other source of noise I hear in your recording is a certain amount of mouth noise — lip smacking (particularly at the start of the odd sentence) and a certain amount of “clicking” within your mouth as you’re speaking. Mouth noise is a blog post on its own, but I’ll give you my three cures for it:
One more observation about the audio in your samples, Barbara — I had to turn up my computer volume to hear them well. You probably need to record at a higher volume, or “gain”, when you’re narrating. That, in itself, mandates an well-treated recording environment.
I hope that helps. If you’re able to make those changes, let me know how it goes with subsequent auditions. Happy narrating!
Eric Whitman says
Thank you for this article and the information and advice it contains. I am brand new to audiobook narration, currently laying down the groundwork to begin auditioning for work, firstly on ACX. When narrating books for ACX, do I also need to provide some type of introduction music at the beginning and music at the end of it, like in other audiobooks? If so, where can I find music samples to use?
Thank you again!
Hi, Eric — you’re welcome for the article — I’m glad so many folks are reading it — and congrats on starting your audiobook journey!
The simple answer to your question is, no, you don’t need to provide music for audiobooks you produce independently, through ACX or any other platform. While I realize a lot of audiobooks on the market do feature introductory and concluding music, most of them tend to come from major publishers, not indy authors and narrators. In my experience, it’s rare for an indy author to request such music and, if they do, you’re by no means obligated to either look for it or pay for it.
Be that as it may, If you do come upon an author who wants music in her audiobook — beginning, end, or wherever — here are a few things to know:
– It’s not up to you to go look for it. If the author wants to pay you a separate fee to do so, you’re certainly free to negotiate that.
– If the author provides you with recorded music to use in the book, again, incorporating it into the final product is an added service, for which you’re well justified in negotiating an additional fee. That applies even in the case of a Royalty Share project, where no money is exchanged up front. I’d still expect to be compensated for the extra time and effort.
– If you do strike a deal to go looking for music for an author, most of the music you’d probably want to use in a quality product would require a fee. There are a number of sites on the internet that provide “royalty-free” music which, in case you’re not aware, is music for which the purchaser doesn’t pay a per-use fee but, instead, just one sum up front (the use of the word “free” in the term leads some to believe it’s music you don’t have to pay for but which, as I’ve said, you simply don’t have to pay royalties).
– I’m not familiar with any specific sites offering such music, but I know there are scads. A search on “royalty-free music” would yield more entries than you’d have time to research.
– In the case where the author has provided music, you’re best off requiring that author to supply you with legal documentation that he has the right to use the music. You don’t want your name attached to a product that a composer takes to court for not securing permission to use his music.
– Finally, if you do agree to provide an author with music in an audiobook, you’re likewise obligated to know the terms of whatever deal you’re striking with the composer/download site and to make sure you’ve got unlimited access to use that music in however many audiobooks you may sell.
So Eric, in short, nobody’s required to find or use music in an audiobook production on ACX. If you agree to do so, you’ve a right to be paid for your time and effort to look for and incorporate it. If you do agree to use music in a book, make damn sure you’ve got the legal right to do so. And if you need to look on the web for it, just search “royalty-free music” (I suspect you could also use “music for audiobooks” with success).
I expect that more than answered your question. If you still have concerns, though, feel free to reply or post another question. Happy narrating!
Joan Kent says
Very helpful article, thank you for taking the time. I am just considering getting a start, and looking at equipment.
I notice your list of required equipment does NOT include an interface, a Scarlett Solo for example.
Many of the get started articles I have been reading say you need both a condenser mic as well as an interface, to connect the mic to your computer.
Does the AT2020 USB mic you note a condenser mic as well, but it simply plugs into your PC without the need of an interface?
Is it advantageous to have an interface, if you can afford it?
What else does it do?
Sorry for the newbie questions!! thanks so much, Joan
Joan, no problem with the “newbie” questions. We all start somewhere!
Being a “USB” mic, the AT2020 contains its own preamp so, no, you don’t need a separate interface like the Scarlett Solo to use it. Over the past few years, several more USB mics besides the AT2020 have come onto the market. They tend to be fine for people who’re starting out and want to “test the waters” of VO. However, a standard XLR (non-USB) mic plugged into an interface tends to give you greater control over your sound: you can adjust the gain and, very often, the interface produces “cleaner” audio, meaning it has less of the static that a USB mic might have, even though it may be faint. Such adjustments become critical the more types of audio you want to produce (commmercials, “explainer” audio, etc.), which is why most serious VO performers eventually “graduate” to using a higher end mic with an interface.
So, yes, having an interface is advantageous to the extent you expect to work for clients with higher and higher expectations of the quality of your sound.
I started writing what I thought was a book, but with more than 100,000 + words it reads and sounds like a script for a show! It reads like a Walking Dead TV script! Not sure what to do with it! Money is an issue!
Hi, Wanda —- full cast audiobooks are necessarily more expensive than single-narrator ones — more voices to pay, much more engineering needed. If you’re trying to figure out whether your book does, indeed, read better as a script, one relatively cheap thing you might do is invite some friends over and read the book out loud together. Offer everyone dinner. Assign everyone a part, or several parts that don’t speak in the same scene. Make an afternoon or evening of it. You may not get through the whole book in one sitting, but even in two hours, you’d have a much better idea how it sounds and whether it truly is a full-cast piece, or whether a single narrator could do it justice.
If you decide it would work with a single narrator, but money’s still an issue, you can post it to ACX.com and offer a Royalty Share or Royalty Share Plus agreement. If you’re not familiar, Royalty Share simply means that, once the audiobooks is done and goes on sale on Audible.com, whatever royalties (net sales) the book earns you split with the narrator. Most audiobooks created through ACX operate on a Royalty Share agreement.
If you decide the book has to have a full cast, you might try a Kickstarter/GoFundMe/etc campaign. Many creative projects get funded by offering donors perks like a copy of the finished audiobook, a signed copy of the book itself, etc.
I hope you find a way to bring your book to life that you love!
Hi. I’m totally blind and am considering narrating books. The problem I have is accessing some of these sites. They are not all easy to navigate. I was just wondering if you had any suggestions?
Stephie, I’m afraid I’m completely at sea when it comes to web accessibility issues. Is that what the problem is, primarily —- that the web sites you’re trying to access aren’t set up for visually impaired people? Can you mention some sites in particular that are hard for you to navigate? If I had some context, I might be able to come up with a suggestion.
This page is amazing. Thank you so much for your thoughtful answers.
This may be a super simple question, but does the client always send you books digitally? I can see the benefit of using an iPad to read from to avoid page turning noise. Do they email you the book and you just download it to whatever device you’re using?
Hi, Stephanie — thank you for the kind words about the article. Glad you’re finding it helpful!
Typically, the author uploads the script to whatever service you’re using to produce the audiobook (e.g., ACX, Findaway Voices), and you, the narrator, download it from there. If you’re working for a publisher or for the author independently then, yes, email is most likely to be used to send the manuscript. And, yes, most narrators now read books off a tablet or a computer monitor while recording. I use an iPad to mark up the text ahead of time and narrate from it, as well.
While I’ve heard of a few cases where someone had to narrate a book from a paper copy — an old, original copy of a book that hadn’t been converted to digital format —- nearly everyone now preps and narrates via a digital source.
FWIW, I used to read from a Kindle in the booth, and it worked fine, so the fanciest, most up-to-date technology is not necessary to narrate successfully. A tablet like an iPad provides a great many more options for marking up the text, which is why I switched.