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Technical Excellence in Audio Book Recording

What makes an audiobook technically excellent? Lisa Barrenger, Technical Judge of the TDK Audio Book Award, explains

The chair creaked, the page turned and the reading continued ... and the listener lost concentration, was less than interested in the next five minutes of the book being narrated, and had to go back later and re-listen to that part in order to get the gist of the story.
A moment like this can turn an excellent piece of work into a mediocre one because someone did not work towards technical excellence while recording or editing the audio book.

But what is technical excellence? Is it just the straight recording of the work having particular weight in the area of microphone placement, level of signal onto tape and editing (in the audio sense) of the product or does it go further and have regard for the quality of the dubbed cassettes? Given that what we as listeners (and judges of the TDK Audio Book Awards) have to base our opinion on is the final product, it is my belief that it should include all areas. If I had the opportunity to listen to a master tape with none of the problems inherent in high speed copying onto cassettes, I would probably score some of the books that I have listened to very differently in this area.

While listening to the entries in the TDK Australian Audio Book Awards for the past two years, it has been my area of expertise to ascertain the degree of competence in the recording processes followed by the producers of the various entries. The winner in 1995 was one of the best recordings I have had the privilege of listening to. Produced by Louis Braille Books, there were some 14 hours of reading required to put down Dark Places on tape. It would be interesting to know how long it actually took to record. Despite listening to the whole book and re-listening to various parts, I could only find one audible edit in the whole recording. The narrator's inflection at the beginning of chapters and between tapes, over which he probably had no control, matched very well (which is not always the case). There were no obvious level discrepancies and in the post-production stage there was little or no print-through on the cassettes. This was exceptional given the richness and depth of the narrator's voice, which gave great signal-to-noise ratio when put down on tape.

You may well ask: what are audible edits, inflection, level discrepancies and signal-to-noise ratio? Basically, these are the major faults made when recording audio books. An audible edit is when there has obviously been a mistake corrected or a new start made because of the way in which words are clipped, the narrator has taken audible breaths in preparing to start a new paragraph or sentence, or even because two words seem to be closer together than they would be during normal speech. You can also pick an edit by the way inflections seem to change in places where you would not expect them to. Level discrepancies are obvious where there is a distinct change in the level of the recording from loud to soft or vice versa. The signal-to-noise ratio on a tape is the amount of program recorded in relation to the tape noise (the hiss or 'shhhh' noise you often hear when listening to cassettes). The optimum to aim for is a signal which is very clear and of good level, without distortion.

In the pre-production stages a producer will choose what is hopefully a suitable voice to narrate the book, but if the recording engineer does not use suitable microphone placement, fails to get a reasonable level recorded or does not match the inflection of the voice when recording edits, the whole piece can end up losing the flow and pace that makes a listener want to continue to listen rather than having to work at listening. It is imperative in the setting up of a recording that engineers take note of these problems and their solutions. It can be very difficult and time consuming, even with all the elaborate equipment on the market at the moment, to fix some of these problems at the end of a week of recording.

With the advent of the 'dramatisation', we have noticed an increase in the inclusion of musical interludes between chapters, sound effects (usually relating to the book although not always!) and multiple narrators. While all these things can add colour to a production and add to the technical difficulty, they are often overdone. Musical interludes seem to suffer the most when the additions are totally at odds with the piece they are supposed to enhance. It is very important to match the tone of music with the tone of the publications being recorded or the listener can become irritated or distracted by the extraneous 'noise'. Extra voices can be helpful when a piece involves a lot of characters but if there are a conglomeration of voices that confuse the listener then they defeat the purpose. Most of the top winners over the past two years have been produced with a single narrator to great effect. The fact that one person can portray a number of characters and not lose the listener does them great credit.

One of the biggest technical faults occurring now is print-through on the copied cassettes, which is when the piece being listened to seems to be repeated at a lower level in a sort of echo effect. It is a problem of the medium, caused by putting down reasonable levels for the master and then recording through a high speed dubbing process onto cassettes, which are a much thinner medium. Storage, heat, humidity and other mechanical factors can add to the problem. If one is driving in a car or listening through speakers in a room with a reasonably high noise-floor then the problem can almost totally disappear, but if the same product is listened to using a good quality walkman, print-through becomes extremely distracting. This is one area where CD recordings would improve things immensely. Unfortunately, until the problems associated in the production and labelling of CDs are addressed satisfactorily, they are unlikely to become commonplace.

It should be remembered that the audio productions that we, as judges of the TDK Australian Audio Book Awards, listen to are produced mainly for people with print or visual disabilities, although there are more commercial productions appearing each year. These producers tend to use packaging that will handle the rigours of constant handling and have more detailed information included in the area of announcements at the beginning and ending of tapes. Although these areas are not strictly in the technical realm they do add to the finished product. I find the short announcement telling me that I have reached the end of the side or cassette far better than listening to nothing for a few minutes before deciding that I must be at the end of the tape. Also, being told that it is cassette two of the book helps to keep up continuity-although if the tape is mislabelled we know about it straight away! There have been a few instances of either the sides being reversed or the whole cassette being recorded in the wrong order which can leave the listener up in the air until they work it out.

In short, technical excellence in audio book recording is something that crosses all facets of production and needs to be constantly monitored as it progresses, not just as the work is actually being recorded. Even in the two years that I have been involved, the entrants to the TDK Australian Audio Book Awards are showing that while there is generally a high standard met by most, they are looking for the edge that will provide their listeners with one of those 'unputdownable' productions that all publishers wish for.

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Lisa Barrenger, Sound and Vision Office, Sound Operations, Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600. Tel (06) 277 2914 Fax (06) 277 5738

Go to National Library of Australia home page

Telephone + 61 2 6262 1111; Facsimile +61 2 6257 1703; TTY: 1800 026 372