Recording My Stories

It’s super cheap and easy.

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Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Hear Me

I’m trying something new. Since I started posting my fiction stories on Medium last year, I’ve wanted to record myself reading them, post the readings to Soundcloud, and use the embedded player to add the recordings to my Medium stories. But it seemed too complicated.

I was, in a past avocation, a musician, and I’ve recorded in both amateur and professional studios. So when I thought about how to do this, my first instinct was that I’d need gear: at least a nice mic and stand, maybe a shock mount, probably a pop filter, and maybe some pro software. I own a semi-decent instrument mic that will do okay for voices, but none of that other stuff. At one point I dicked around with setting up what I had and recording while holding the mic in my hand and monitoring on headphones, but it was a lot of hassle, the headphone monitoring didn’t really work right, and I was never able to get things to sound professional.

Perfect is the Enemy of Done

Then I decided, f*ck it, it’s just spoken word, not Sgt. Peppers, and I’m shooting for the quality of a public reading, not an audio book. There must be an easier way. Once I gave up my pretense of professional recording, it took me about two hours to get my first story on-line, including downloading the software, creating the SoundCloud account, recording, editing, and uploading.

And here it is, my short story “Unboxing Rose”, originally published on Lit Up last summer:

I’ve also embedded the recording in the Medium story:

Simplicity Beats Complexity

My recording setup is absurdly simple. No fancy mics, shock mounts, mic stands, or pop filters. I record on my iPhone in a quiet room using the phone’s built-in mic, then edit and compress the recording using free audio editing software, and upload the edited file to Soundcloud. I’ll go into a few more details below, but that’s really all there is.

My Steps

  1. Record: I record the story on the Voice Memos app on my iPhone. I just close my office door, set the iPhone on the desk, press record, and read the story aloud. I take my time, and don’t sweat the mistakes. If I flub a line, I just stop, wait 5 to 10 seconds, and start the line over. I’ll fix it when I edit. I’m not a trained actor, and my voice doesn’t sound polished, but I reckon I can’t do worse than the worst of the authors who read on the Writers Voice podcast from the The New Yorker. If you don’t read your stories aloud often, or if you’re doing a story you haven’t looked at in a while, you’ll probably want to do a couple practice runs. But otherwise, that’s seriously all there is to it. The Voice Memo app has decent sound quality, if you use the mic on the phone. For whatever reason, recordings using my AirPods didn’t sound as good. In any case, it’s not studio quality, but it’s good enough for just listening to someone speak. [Edit 4/4/2019: After some trial and error, I’ve moved to holding the phone as if I’m speaking into the speakerphone or using FaceTime, rather than setting it on the table. Holding it closer to my mouth gives a better recording, but too close gives too much breath sound and sibilance.]
  2. Transfer. Then I just wait for the recorded audio to sync automatically to the Voice Memo app on my Mac thru iCloud. The iPhone app and the Mac app are nearly identical, and iCloud keeps the memos in sync. Once the new memo appears, I drag it out of the app and drop it on my desktop, where it is saved as a file. If you have Dropbox set up on your phone you can also save the memo from the iPhone app into Dropbox directly, and let it do the syncing, or you can probably transfer it using AirDrop.
  3. Edit. Once I have the file on my Mac, I import the recording into Audacity, the free audio editing software, on my Mac. To work with voice memo files, I needed to install the FFMPEG library in Audacity, but the instructions are online. Editing is simple, each time there’s a flub, there is a 5–10 second gap to show me where the restart occurs. I just delete the appropriate section to maintain continuity, then move on. Finally, trim off any extra time at the beginning and end of the recording to keep it tight.
  4. Compress. It is helpful to process the entire track with compression to make it more audible. I choose the Effects>Compression menu item and use the default settings. [Note that we’re talking about dynamic range compression here, not data compression.] Spoken word recordings don’t have a lot of dynamic range, and can benefit a lot from compression.
  5. Export. I export the file as WAV, to maintain as much fidelity as possible, though it might be irrelevant, since the original recording was a mpg4 file with lossy compression. When asked I fill in the metadata it asks for. For “genre” I put “Spoken Word”, but it probably doesn’t matter.
  6. Upload to Soundcloud. It is quick and easy to create a free SoundCloud account. When uploading, it will ask to fill in the metadata, description, etc. Since the stories I’m recording are all posted on Medium, I just use the same images I used on Medium as the cover art.

So What’s Next?

My goal is to record all of my fiction. But, even though the process is simple, it still takes time, and I’d like to spend most of my time, you know, writing. So it will probably take a while to get everything recorded. But with practice I think I can get to the point where I can do a ten minute story in an hour, maybe 90 minutes if I feel like I need to practice. Longer stories will obviously take more time. I expect that doing all 35 minutes of The Plunge Pool would take most of an afternoon.

But at least now I know I can do it.

fiction author • computer scientist • sometime ai researcher • rock guitarist • jp.fosterson@gmail.com

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