How I made and released an audiobook of the Child of Chaos!

To celebrate the six month anniversary of the release of the Child of Chaos novel, I’m proud to announce the ship of the Child of Chaos audiobook! To skip all of the painful story of how it was made, you can find the actual audiobook here:

Click here to go to the audiobook on Audible

While this started as a quick announcement, I find that this post has turned into a Story Behind article (see the games section for other Story Behind posts). If you want, you can sit back and go on this little journey with me.

Even though I’ve still been plugging away at the Game of War (the Child of Chaos prequel), the last few months have been dominated by this audiobook release.

A critical mass of people had requested one, and I dearly wanted to deliver, but I had no idea how to approach it. At all. I was at square one in all departments: equipment, software, and knowledge of how to produce and release it. It was all rather daunting.

I started at the ACX website. For my first release, it seemed like the obvious way to go. Audible has a large chunk of the market tied up and the royalty structure makes the exclusive relationship with them attractive.

That stake nailed down, I looked at auditioning narrators. I cut out a section of the book and made it available to anyone on ACX who wished to apply. Within hours, I received some really credible try-outs, with pricetags running from tens to hundreds of dollars per finished hour (I found out that, if you don’t do a royalty-sharing agreement, you have to pay per finished hour, which can get expensive–but actually it ends up not looking so bad when you factor in the hours and hours of editing).

But as I listened to every audition, I thought, “I could do that.” In fact, I understood the material better than any of them (of course I did; I’m the author). But not only that, I knew I could pull on my drama history from college, as well as my experience both directing voice recording for my games and even acting in some of those titles (notably, I played Sang-Drax in Death Gate). But could I actually do it?

Just to see what was what, I recorded my own audition on my iPhone–one take, no editing. Then I sent that audition along with my three other top contenders to people I knew and trusted, audiobook connoisseurs who had never heard my voice before. I asked them what they thought of the selections. To my surprise, in every case, my audition came out either on top or tied for favorite.

You see, I never trusted that my voice was professional enough to pull something like this off. Even when I played Sang-Drax, I used some vocal modifications to deepen my voice. But with those results, I had confirmation that I could, indeed, act as a credible narrator for this book.

But then came the nuts and bolts. Again, I had no idea how to approach this daunting task. Luckily, Andy Frazier, a talented audio engineer/musician lived nearby in Sacramento (it actually didn’t matter how close he was–we never actually met–but I think the proximity encouraged me to reach out nonetheless). Even though he had never produced an audiobook, he learned with me and knew ALL the basic audio stuff I didn’t.

As you may know if you’ve explored this site, I compose music. I had some ancient sound equipment that I wasn’t sure would be any help, but some of it seemed to fit the bill. The collection wasn’t everything I needed, but it did cover a lot of it.

To start, I had a MacBook from my time at KLab. Unfortunately, Amanda my daughter had made off with it to use for her remote learning classes. In order to get it back, we had to buy her a new MacBook Air (this was her Xmas present, and something she’d need for college next year anyway–sheesh, is she really going to go to college so soon? I can’t believe it).

Next, I found an Audio Technica microphone in storage from my days playing keyboard in a group. It actually hadn’t been opened yet, and was great out of the box.

I also found my old studio headphones, purchased when my neighbors next to my first apartment made it known that they didn’t like my keyboard playing at all hours at night. When I rediscovered these headphones, I loved them. The headphones themselves were still awesome (the industry standard), but after wearing them a bit, my family started complaining that I had bit of black gunk on my ears.

I discovered that, while the headphones were great, the cheap vinyl ear pads disintegrated over time. They were in no shape to keep using. I thought about replacing the whole thing. I even bought some bluetooth headphones to try, but I hated them. Then I found out that these Sony headphones were still in production, and that others had experienced the same problem I did, and I could upgrade JUST the earpads to lambskin!

Finally, there was no way to get around purchasing two items: an interface (the red metal box that connects the mic to the computer) and a microphone stand, which came with a windscreen and foam mic cover. None of this was as expensive as I expected. When they arrived, I was pretty much ready to go.

Once I prepared GarageBand on the Mac (the industry standard at-home recording software, and free!), I needed to figure out where I would record. I didn’t have a recording studio in the house, after all–and during COVID, we had a house full of family, like most people.

Then someone recommended a closet. Hey, *I* had a walk-in closet! Turns out, closets like this are usually isolated and the clothes make for great sound baffles. I put my script on my ipad, squeezed it into an old car holder from when the kids would watch movies on long trips, threw up some blankets on any flat surface, and set up my studio!

I was ready to record. And ready to make every error you can make. Here are just some disasters that I had to figure out on the fly:

  • Overacted. When I used to read to my kids, I played up the character voices A LOT in order to make sure they were distinguishable from the narration. Well, that works for five-year-olds, but not for an adult audience. My first few character voices chewed the scenery.
  • Stitched in characters after the fact. Once I realized the above, I thought maybe the right approach would be to record the narration in one take, and each character in their own takes. Then I would stitch together the results. It was a mess, impossible to keep track of, and took way too much time. There really wasn’t any reasonable alterative to recording a whole chapter decently in one session and work with a sequential block of raw material. (Note that there are exceptions. A couple of characters bothered me so much after I recorded them that I re-recorded them and stitched them in. You really wouldn’t like the original versions of Vulpine and Simon).
  • Ignored breath sounds and mouth noises. At first, I didn’t care about breathing. I figured everyone reading has to breathe, so you’re going to hear it, right? Well, after listening to my first couple of chapters, I realized I needed to be MUCH more strict about excising those noises. If it was possible to kill them, I should. And in later recording sessions, I made sure that I had enough breath even for a long sentence. By the way, you should hear the outtakes when I ran out of breath right before the end (there might have been a little bit of swearing involved)! Sometimes, I had to do three or four retakes of especially long sentences!
  • Tried to read the material perfectly in a take. I already knew this having done voice direction for so long, but I figured it wouldn’t be that hard to read the material perfectly. It was my book, after all. Who would know it better than me? In truth, it was not only way too much pressure to put on myself, but it wasn’t even productive. It’s kind of like writing: you have to give yourself permission for the first draft to suck, so you can get to the second draft. Often, I would record two takes of lines–especially dialog–so I’d have more to choose from in editing. It made editing take a lot longer, but the end result was definitely better.
  • Assumed that empty sound was fine. As you might had picked up on, a lot of cutting and stitching creates empty pauses between sentences where the sound completely drops out. What I didn’t know is that these pauses need “room tone”, a quiet but non-zero noise picked up by the mic when nothing is happening. This is important to keep the flow going so it doesn’t audibly drop. My friend and fellow author Jordan Barnes picked up on this when he heard a version, and let me know the drops were driving him insane. So I recorded some room tone and inserted it into all pauses. The end result was SO much better.
  • Didn’t know how to balance volume. Volume issues come in a lot of varieties: mostly, inter-chapter and intra-chapter. When recording different chapters, you have to use a consistent gain (I wasn’t. Not only that, I actually added a different physical cord later that affected volume, because I used a different input). I spent tons of frustrating time trying to get chapters to be around the same volume–and I did this by ear. Within a chapter, you have to be aware of the volume of your own voice. If you scream, it’s going to go big, and the difference between that big scream and the narration will have to be addressed. So I, of course, went really big and really small. Without knowing about automation (adding points within a track to add or reduce gain during soft and loud parts), I spliced loud parts out into their own tracks with their own gains. It worked to a point, but I had to end up using automation later anyway, which all meant hours of hand-tuning volume. It was in this step that I feel I really overproduced it. I’ll do better next time.
  • Didn’t know about the final processing steps, which would have made my life a lot easier before. Turns out that Garage Band raw output needs some help before it can be uploaded to ACX. Luckily, Audacity (another free app) came to the rescue. I took the raw chapters, normalized the loudness, applied noise reduction, and used a limiter to end up with files that were consistent in noise, tone, and volume. Beta-listeners who heard my first tries of these chapters were amazed at the difference. I’m convinced that the files I was going to upload would have been rejected outright, but the finals were accepted without any issue.

Now, here are some of the things I did right:

  • Recorded it myself. As I mentioned, I’m the author and I know the intention behind my words. While I’m sure that I would have ended up with a great product working with another narrator, I know it might have been difficult to get where I wanted to go and I may have had to make sacrifices. This way, there’s no one to blame but myself (and believe me, there are things I’d love to change, even now, but you have to know when to ship). That said, this approach also allows me to be proud of the work I did on all fronts. And, simply told, I would have regretted not doing it myself. I love acting and it made too much sense for me not to try. It was a lot of work, but it was fun! And beyond that, some people actually prefer hearing books read by the author, so I’m happy to oblige!
  • Edited it myself. I’m sure most people who do this kind of work are detail-oriented and perfectionists, but damn if editing doesn’t suck the very life from you. Given the rough raw tracks I created when recording, I wouldn’t ever have subjected others to the hours of mind-numbing grunt work it took to get to where I was happy. Doing it myself meant I could decide how much was too much, and suck it up and just keep doing it if it was important to me. The first few times I heard the end results (which sounds like I didn’t screw up at all), I was kind of amazed.
  • Used voice effects (sparingly). I’d love to have more experience making voice effects–and even potentially adding sound effects–but I’m proud of the simple work I did here. When gods speak, or people have voices talking to them in their heads, those voices are obvious. I enjoy listening to them every time I review, because the effects make them different, but not gratuitously. I don’t know if I would have received them from another editor, or if they would have worked out as well.
  • Kept the budget low. From using my existing equipment to doing everything myself, I didn’t have to spend a lot of actual money to produce the audiobook. Once other authors start selling their book, they’re already potentially thousands of dollars in the hole. This way, I could produce it without a lot of risk, which is the way I prefer it.

Seeing the book pop up on Audible was a wonderful experience. I’m so glad to be able to make this available to people who are interested in experiencing my story in another way with some additional emotional layers. If it sells reasonably well, I’ll definitely continue creating these in the future. I’m sure that subsequent efforts will benefit from the lessons listed above, but I’m happy to wait until the pain in my back from being hunched over that laptop subsides before I try it again.

As a bonus for making it to the end of this long post, you can take an exclusive test drive of the entire prologue! Just click below.

Prologue to the Child of Chaos audiobook

If you’re interested in the final product, please check out the entire audiobook of the Child of Chaos here!

And if you enjoy it, please leave a review. Your opinion means a lot and can help spread the word to others who might like it, too!

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