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🦊 Level Up Your Audio
Recording high-quality audio at home, and my first forays into voice acting
I’m hard at work recording an audiobook edition of my upcoming book of fables. My plan is to release all four editions of the book together—paperback, hardcover, digital ebook, and audiobook. I thought it’d be worth collecting all the knowledge I’ve gained on audio production as well as voice acting together into a single post.
Even if you’re not doing any audio recording, these tips can help you elevate your microphone audio in online meetings and presentations.
The way we show up online is heavily affected by our audio quality (even more than video!) I’ve gotten lots of compliments on the clarity of my audio—I’m convinced investing in my audio setup has elevated my ability to express myself clearly and get my point across. I hope it can help you do the same.
Let’s get into it!
Recording High-Quality Audio
Before I began recording, I did a consultation with an audio engineer to make sure my home office setup was good to go for recording. Luckily, I had already invested a fair bit of time getting a good setup for recording YouTube videos, running live teaching sessions, and so on. The audio engineer confirmed that my setup was far ahead of most first-time narrators, so I didn’t need to change much. Still, I learned a few more lessons on recording process through our discussions. (I share some links to equipments here, but have no affiliations—just sharing based on my personal experience.)
With all that said, here are my best tips to level up your audio recording:
Get An External Microphone: If you can afford it, a great USB microphone is the simplest way to dramatically improve your audio. Laptop microphones are simply too limiting. In our modern world of remote work, I think you need to (and deserve to) show up sounding great. I can personally recommend the Blue Yeti or Elgato Wave 3. I used the Blue Yeti for many years, then switched to the Elgato Wave because I like its smaller form factor and compatibility with the excellent Elgato mic arm. (I also use the Elgato Key Light, and generally find Elgato products to be rugged and high quality. I spoke about it more in my video on Leveling Up Your Video Setup.)
Position & Angle Your Microphone: I’d recommend getting microphone stand/arm to position the mic close to you. Keep it away from any speakers if possible, and try to keep it in the same place. Make sure to find out the ideal position and angle for your specific microphone—each one is slightly different. For example with the Blue Yeti, you should ideally be speaking directly into the part just above the “Blue” logo.
Adjust Input Levels: The biggest struggle with audio is ensuring you don’t hit “peaks,” which result in distorted sound. Whichever software you use to record, you want to avoid hitting “peaks” at any point, so dial down then input volume until it’s just right. Ensure the input levels for your microphone are not too high. You can manually adjust the gain on most microphones, but also make sure to check the Input Volume for your operating system. (In macOS for example, this can be found in Sound Settings -> Input -> Select your microphone -> Input volume.) One thing I love about the Elgato Wave 3 is that its physical volume knob maps to the OS input level, so I don’t have to worry about a separate Gain level. Most audio recording software will show you a live preview of your input, with green being A-OK and red being too loud. Test it out with a few ranges where you’re talking loudly to ensure you’re within the ideal range.
Remove Room Echo: Walk around your room and clap. If the clap is a flat sound, you’re good. If you hear an echo, something in that area needs to be covered up to prevent it. This might mean putting a blanket on a hardwood floor or the bottom of a door frame. Or it cold mean putting up cushions against a mirror.
Soothe Your Vocal Chords: What you eat and drink can affect your voice significantly. Drinking tea and water helps a lot, as does avoiding fatty foods to avoid phlegm buildups.
Don’t Record Bored: Your excitement and energy will be present in the audio, and consequently will be absent if you’re feeling down. Amp yourself up with music, movement, or stretching. If you’re feeling anxious, try deep breathing.
Warmup First: Practice the material for a few minutes while recording, and listen to it back. Do any adjustments needed before you start the final recording. It’ll give your voice a chance to warm up, and identify and lingering audio issues.
I hope these tips help you in your own audio recording journey! For my own setup, I did a bunch of these modifications back in 2020, and haven’t really had to change it since. I still get compliments on my video and audio pretty much every time I join a Zoom call 😅 A little work goes a long way.
P.S. You might also enjoy my breakdown on improving your video setup: Leveling Up Your Video Setup: Lighting & DSLR Camera Tips
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Recording the audio edition for my book is my first foray into voice acting. It’s been a fascinating and fun challenge, but I’m anxious about the results. If it was a nonfiction book, I think I’d find it pretty easy (I’ve done enough speaking and teaching to be comfortable with live reading.) But since it’s fiction, and there’s multiple characters in each story, I have to learn to perform to do unique and compelling voices.
Doing character voices is hard. I’ve done some funny voices for skit videos in the past. But you don’t wanna go to too wild with voices in an audiobook—you don’t want to get into cartoon territory.
You want the voices to be unique enough to tell apart when listening, convey some personality, but not too much personality or else it’ll sound cheesy. This is a tough balance to strike!
I’ve recorded four out of the seven fables in the book thus far, and feel like I’ve figured out the process and have some good momentum. I know by the end I’ll have learned a lot about voice acting. I have greater respect for all those voice actors out there—this ain’t easy!
One thing I realized that will help: Adding a bit of an accent to certain characters. I was trying too hard to stick to all of the same regional accent ("American" of some sort). This is actually pretty restrictive, as for example with the lake, a light British accent can really help differentiate that voice without having to get so low with the tone (could be sort of an old Gandalf style voice, or Merlin the wizard). I'm thinking now to one of my favorite movies, Disney’s animated film The Sword in the Stone, and the boy has an American-ish accent whereas Merlin the wizard is clearly British, but it works just fine.
I'm going to go back re-listen to each chapter’s recording so far, and see opportunities to elevate the individuality of each character a bit more with a little accent. Also I’m going to try my best to pay attention to the character’s mood and emotion in that moment, and channel that into the performance.
I'm also watching Nancy Cartwright's (voice actor who voices Bart Simpson and many others) Masterclass on Voice Acting to get some more tips. I felt a bit overwhelmed that I'm now having to learn to voice act on top of all the drawing and writing learning I'm doing 😂 But hopefully just a little effort here and a re-record will do the trick. I don't want to invest too many recording cycles on this audiobook, I’m trying to get this done within a few weeks, not a few months.
Hopefully with another a round of re-records, I’ll have an audiobook I’m happy with. It won’t be perfect, and certainly won’t be at the level of a professional voice actor, but it will still be something I can be proud of.
I’m confident that both children and adults will enjoy listening to it, and I think it’s a nice touch to know the author himself narrated it. I hope you feel the same way, and I’m excited for you to hear it soon!
In case you missed it: Last week, I wrote about giving ourselves permission to revisit the books and experiences we love. Through repetition, we can unlock the power of ritual.