The Productivity Revolution

The audiobook of Marc Reklau‘s title, The Productivity Revolution will be available soon, and I wanted to thank Marc for trusting me with his audiobook production.

It’s not often that I get to work on a project that makes a direct comment on the work I am doing, but that is exactly what happened while producing The Productivity Revolution.

Every day I was in the studio, Marc’s words were right before me, inviting me to question whether my work habits were as effective and efficient as they could be. This helped me notice some bad habits, and hopefully his book will do the same for you.

Where it counts most

After listening to hours of audio books and building my studio, I find it is possible to worry too much about audio quality. The noise floor in your studio only has to be good enough. Because the broadcast medium or network connection that sends your work to consumers will almost certainly be noisier than your studio. Additionally, your microphone, interface, and recording software need to be good enough, but you don’t need a $10,000 recording studio to make good voice over recordings: this is the 21st Century, where people record wildly popular video and audio using only their smartphone. This doesn’t mean you can be a successful voice actor using just your smart phone. You need to be sure your technical details are good enough: your hardware, your recording space, your production processes, etc. But they don’t need to be better than that.

What matters most is your skill as a voice actor. In other words, can you deliver a performance? This is the skill that will set you apart from other voice actors and voice over artists: because everyone who is staying afloat in this business has acceptable recording quality and hardware. But really successful voice actors can sound good if they’re recorded through a 1960’s tape recorder or a state of the art digital recording studio.

Think of it this way. Let’s say Jimi Hendrix was still alive. You give him a $100 guitar and asked him to play, he would make beautiful music with that cheap instrument, just like he would if he had a $5000 custom Fender Stratocaster, because the artist’s skill typically matters more than the instrument. Can you make your voice sound good whether you use a $100 mic, or a $5000 one?

Recording Booth: Done!

The recording booth is done, and it sounds great! I’ll do a longer post about the details of building this booth, but I think building a booth is a great option for handy voiceover artists. My booth cuts out the ambient sounds and room acoustics that previously dogged my recordings, and it allows me to focus on creating characters, rather than worrying about the technical recording details. The materials cost less than $700 (USD) to build, which saves me thousands in overhead costs. It took about 30-35 hours of work to complete.

Here is an audio sample recorded in the booth, with no processing. Only normalization is applied:

I think there are cases in which you might not want to build a booth. For example, those who are making enough income that their time is better spent recording rather than building, or those who have no interest in taking on a relatively complex building project. I’ll write a more details build vs. buy post soon, but I wanted to provide a little information since I’m excited to have this new asset in production!

To share, or not to share?

In audio book narration, there are two popular ways that a publisher pays a narrator for creating an audio book, royalty share and a flat rate. The royalty share is pretty self-explanatory: the publisher shares the royalties from any sales with the narrator according to a predetermined schedule defined in the production contract. The flat rate payment is also intuitive: the publisher pays the narrator for the work they do, and the publisher keeps all the royalties generated from the audio book’s sales.

Many new publishers and authors choose a royalty share contract because they can get their audio book produced at no cost and pay the audio book producer from their royalty stream. This can be very lucrative for the producer if the author’s name happens to be something like “King”, “Patterson”, or “Rowling”, but for most books, royalty share deals are often a big gamble with a small pay-off for an audio book producer. Additionally, the author seems uncertain of their book’s quality when they sell their audio book for a share of their royalty payments: if an author believes in their book, it should be in their interest to retain as much of their royalty stream as possible because they’ve written such an excellent book.

Royalty share contracts pose a problem for narrators who earn their living from voice over work because it’s a difficult way to make money on voice over work, but it is a popular choice for small authors and publishers. I believe there probably are profitable royalty share deals out there, but I don’t think that most royalty share deals are profitable.

Edit: I’ve recently heard of one audio book narrator who quit his job on royalty share books, so it appears there are profitable royalty share deals out there. Time to go hunting and find them!

How to…

One of the most-frequently asked questions I get about starting a voice over business is, “How did you learn that?” There is no secret sauce. I learned how to do voice over the same way that you and I learned how to talk: trial and error. Go find a large collection of vocal recordings, like librivox.org, and start listening! You’ll hone your ear for what kinds of vocal techniques sound good in different situations, and you’ll also learn about how to make a good recording. An obvious but real example is: you don’t want to sound like a sports announcer when you’re reading a novel. You want your voice to match your context.

How do you learn context? Trial and error, and it helps to find somebody who is willing to be your sound board. That way, you can tune your voice to different contexts with less fumbling and better focus. Volunteer for a local radio station, if you have one in your town, or join an improv acting group. Groups like that will help you learn vocal delivery much faster than just talking to yourself, although that can work too.