First Things First
One of the biggest pitfalls that many new narrators and actors fall into when working on becoming an audiobook narrator is putting the tools before the skills.
If you haven't read through these articles yet, I recommend you check them out before continuing with this article. It's important to get the basics down, otherwise you'll struggle to make a product people are excited to listen to. That being said, we need to be able to record our voice in order to practice, and giving you a guide to the tech you need can help you do that.
The items that I link to on this page are the ones I use in my booth. They're also affiliate links. They add no cost to the item and help support the work that I do here. Use them at your discretion.
What you need
I'm going to break the tools I consider necessary into a few different categories that I find useful for reference: microphone, audio recorder, digital audio interface, playback device, and DAW.
DAW (Like "dawn" without the n)
DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation. Your DAW is the program you go to prepare your audio (and, depending on your setup, record the audio as well). You're going to need to find a DAW that you're comfortable using, as this will be the place you spend the majority of your time. This doesn't mean that you should be comfortable with every part of the program immediately. While some DAWs are more intuitive than others, all of them require some amount of learning to get comfortable with.
The DAW I use is called Reaper. It's what we call a non-destructive recording environment, meaning that the sound effects (Something we will talk about how to add in the future) that you apply to the track don't permanently affect the recorded audio.
This is incredibly useful for a ton of reasons, the biggest one being that A/B testing different sounds is incredibly easy. The second biggest one being that you won't have to hit ctrl+z (command+z if you're on a mac) nearly as often. On top of all that, it's one of the cheapest industry-grade DAWs on the market. Not free like Audacity, of course, but compared to things like Pro-Tools, it's incredibly affordable.
Find a DAW (We'll talk about more options in the future), get comfortable with the controls, and record something great. Which is why we're going to talk about recording devices next.
So, cop-out answer, I now use my computer for this. However, doing this adds a bit of complexity. Most computers have fans that are designed to move a lot of air, very quickly. This makes them loud. Trapped in the booth with you, all the time, it's almost guaranteed to ruin your recording.
In order to have a clean audio recording (a must if you want to start submitting to ACX), you need to remove all extraneous noise that you can. We talked about this in a previous food for thought. If you have a dedicated room you can set your computer outside of, use your computer as the recording device. If you don't, here's the options I used to use:
The first is a portable recording device, like the Tascam DR60D. Portable recording devices, also known as field recorders, don't have any moving parts that add noise. This means you can have them in the booth with you, use them to record your audio onto an SD card, and then transfer them into your DAW to edit them.
This option solves the fan problem, but introduces some inconveniences. First, you have to control the device on small screens so that you can record the audio, which gets fiddly. Then you have to transfer files between the recorder and your editing software. Definitely not the end of the world, but reducing the number of friction points when working on a project makes it more likely that you're going to follow through and actually hit record. Which brings us to an upgrade option I transitioned to once I got a few more jobs that could pay for it:
Fanless mini-PCs are an excellent alternative to a portable recording devices. While not as powerful as a standard computer (if they were, they'd quickly have an internal meltdown), they can sit inside your booth without creating noise. This means you don't have to have a separate recording and editing space.
While far more convenient than the Tascam, my old mini-PC also came with downsides. The lower computing power meant that I wasn't able to work on real-time music projects, especially ones using external midi-controllers. It also meant that render times (the amount of time it takes the program to convert your recording into an audio file) were very slow. These weren't terrible, which is why I stuck with this setup for around 2.5 years.
Eventually I upgraded to a full tower PC, which I keep sitting outside of my recording booth. The fan noise doesn't interfere with the recording, because it has about 4 inches of drywall and insulation to get through before it ever reaches the mic.
If you decide to go with a computer as your recording device, regardless of which type of computer, you'll need an audio interface. I'll give you more details on this when we go into specific audio interface options, but for now, just know that an audio interface takes the sound that your microphone is recording and sends it to your computer in a language your computer understands.
I use the Scarlett 2i2 by Focusrite, but there are lots of other potential options on the market. I plan on going over these in more detail in the future, as giving you a better understanding of the options at different price-points seems like the best way to meet y'all's needs.
The only real downside to audio interfaces is cost. Even if you have a computer you can use already, audio interfaces tend to be on the pricey side. The cheaper you go, the more likely the processor and the internal pre-amps (the electronic system that increases the volume of the mic audio to a level your computer can recognize) are to introduce unpleasant noise that gets in the way of your beautiful voice.
The microphone is the piece of tech y'all are probably the most familiar with. I'll cover it in more detail in a future Food for Thought, but if you've never handled one in person, I would imagine you've at least seen your favourite stand up comedian or singer use one. Handheld vocal microphones like the one in the picture on the left are not typically what we would use.
The mics we use in the voiceover world are more similar to the ones used by podcasters (condenser or dynamic mics) or on film sets (shotgun mics), as these give better sound quality in our recording environments.
We'll talk about mics more in the future, but just know that pairing a quality mic with a good audio interface means that your mic can put its best foot forward recording-wise. Audio interfaces process the audio as well as supply phantom power (power that some mics need to come across full volume) to mics that require it. I've found that pairing my Scarlett 2i2 with the Rode NT1 microphone gives me a sound that I can really stand behind.
A good quality mic should come with a shock mount (holds the microphone in a way that reduces vibration noise) and a pop filter (stops puffs of air created when you pronounce a p, t, or d word), so make sure that if your package doesn't include these, you remember to pick them up.
It is just as important that you have quality listening instruments as recording ones. Without a good pair of headphones, you're not going to be able to hear what you've recorded the way an engineer would. And that means when you're trying to meet ACX's audio requirements, you're not going to know why you're failing when you get one of those dreaded error messages.
There's two instruments you can use for playback: headphones and audio monitors.
For headphones, I use V-Moda Crossfades, which are 100% overkill for this purpose. I love listening to music, so that's more why I got this particular pair. The Crossfades are designed for audiophiles, so they have very precise drivers and a really clean soundscape, which matter a lot less when there's only one or two voices. They're also Bluetooth headphones, which I have found incredibly convenient.
For the times when I want to take the cans off my head, I turn to my Adam Audio T5V Audio Monitors. What makes an audio monitor different from a typical set of speakers is their response is typically "flat". They don't add or remove any intensity to any of the frequencies across their range. Essentially, the speakers you use to play music change the shape of the sound so that it sounds more beautiful to the human ear. This masks any places that your sound might not be as nice as you want it to be, which is exactly what you, as an audiobook producer, don't want.
That's a Wrap
So those are the tools I use in my booth. A mic running into an audio interface, recording in my favourite DAW, played back on headphones and monitors. As long as you have those pieces in some orientation (switch out the mic + interface with a USB mic for example), you should be able to put together a setup you can use to record your beautiful voice. And if you get a chance, feel free to send me a sample of your work! I'm always excited to hear new artists as they get started.
Let me know if you've gotten anything good out of this article and drop any questions you might have in the comments below. Ciao y'all!