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BOSS Audio: Mastering Audiobooks

with Tim Tippets

Do you need help fine-tuning your audiobook production? Anne and VO Tech Guru Tim Tippets, discuss the tools you need to create amazing audio for audiobooks that stand out from the crowd. This episode will help you understand how to correctly normalize your audio rather than using a plug-in and getting your audio to the required specs. Listen in to learn why being a better editor is a valuable skill for every #VOBOSS.


Quick Concepts from Today’s Episode:

  1. RMS (root mean square) normalization averages the overall sound of the audio, making the peaks quieter, and the lower parts louder. 

  2. The standard RMS levels for ACX (and most audiobook production companies) requirements are between -18 and -23

  3. You don’t want the listener to constantly reach for their volume button, so you want to average out the overall level of the audio

  4. There are plug-ins available to adjust your RMS, but using some of these can make your audio sound unnatural and overly pushed

  5. After normalizing to -3db, you can use responsible compression (with a threshold set to just below your peak levels and attack set to zero) to achieve your target RMS

  6. If you have the better sound coming out of your studio, the more chance that you’re going to get the gig

  7. You can’t just record an audiobook from your living room. You need a pro studio to compete

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Referenced in this Episode

Direct links to things we brought up ++

  1. Learn about audio submission requirements for ACX

  2. Learn more about audio by taking Tim’s Courses!

  3. Hear more about tech with Anne and Tim here

  4. Recorded on ipDTL

Full Episode Transcript

>> It’s time to take your business to the next level, the BOSS level! These are the premiere Business Owner Strategies and Successes being utilized by the industry’s top talent today. Rock your business like a boss, a VO BOSS! Now let’s welcome your host, Anne Ganguzza.

Anne: Hey everyone! Welcome to the VO BOSS podcast. I’m your host, Anne Ganguzza, along with my very favorite audio engineer, Mr. Tim Tippets! Hey Tim, how are ya?

Tim: Hey Anne. I’m good, how are you doing?

Anne: I’m doin’ good. You know, Tim, last, last podcast, we talked about normalization, and there were two different normalizations we talked about, peak and RMS normalization. And I remember we were talking about RMS was used in audiobooks. So what do you think about talking about audiobook production and how that, how people can fine-tune their audio to make their audiobooks sound amazing?

Tim: Well, I’ll try. I mean, I don’t know if people out there know, but when Anne and I meet, it’s completely unscripted.

Anne: Yes.

Tim: So we just kind of wing it. So RMS normalization sounds like a good place to start. So I think I made it pretty clear when we were talking about normalization that peak normalization takes the loudest part of your signal, amps it up or brings it down, and either amps up the audio or brings down the audio by that same amount, right?

Anne: Right.

Tim: So it uses the largest or the loudest peak as the baseline. Now in RMS normalization, which again stands for “root mean squared” — which is a fancy way of saying averaging, right? So when you’re averaging the loudness of the audio, that’s what RMS normalization does, is it takes the quieter parts and makes them louder, and it makes the louder parts and makes them quieter, but then you normalize to -3 after that. After that you do actually do peak normalization, right, to make sure it’s brought up to -3 dB.

Anne: I’m glad you brought that up, I’m glad you brought that up. Now why again do we do RMS for audiobooks?

Tim: Well, the reason we do RMS for audiobooks — and by the way, we don’t always need to do RMS for audiobooks. There is a way to go about getting the levels that you need to get by using a light compression and doing it a few times until you get where you need to be. I just want to make that clear. Other people are using limiting in order to get there. I don’t like limiting, because without getting too scientific about it, it sucks out the dynamic range and it cuts off the top of the waveforms. Anyone out there who has recorded a waveform and then limited, you’ll know exactly —

Anne: Oh yeah!

Tim: — what I’m talking about, ok?

Anne: Yup! [laughs] I do.

Tim: And that is fine for even some commercial or promo stuff. Like if you’re doing longer narration, and after you’re done normalizing, you have a few, you know, peaks that are just kind of sitting out there on their own.

Anne: Right.

Tim: But they’re just a few, right?

Anne: Right.

Tim: So when you nip off the tops —

Anne: Exactly.

Tim: — when they do come along when you’re saying one word, no one’s gonna notice. But they certainly will notice if you limit too much, and the entire thing is just [in loud monotone] one continuous volume across the entire file, and it just sounds like this. [normal] Nobody wants that because the dynamics are gone, right? But, but here’s the thing about getting an RMS number between -18 and -23, which is ACX requirement, plus then normalized to -3 dB, is because a lot of people are listening to podcasts in their car, on their phone, and so on. And no one wants someone constantly reaching for their volume knob because they can’t hear something.

Anne: Right.

Tim: Right? So averaging out the audio is actually a smart thing to do. It’s the right thing to do when it comes to something like an audiobook.

Anne: Well, I’m gonna say, in a contrast, in terms of when I’m recording narration, if I have a high peak, I tend to want to like just take that peak and de-amplify it a little bit so that when I do my normalization, it’s not completely, you know, whacked out for that one high peak that I have. But for audiobooks, I hear what you’re saying, to have more of it normalized, or excuse me, more of it normalized so that you can hear in case there’s other extraneous noises. I think that’s great. But there’s so many different ways to do this. What do you suggest? I mean, is it just an RMS? I’ve known people that have used different tools that have helped to kind of normalize your audio that way. And I don’t know like what the effectiveness of that is. I mean, sometimes I listen. I mean, I’ve used the tools myself back in the day, and I’d listen to it afterwards, and it just didn’t sound right.

Tim: Yeah, so without calling out any names, there is a tool out there that kind of gets your loudness where it needs to be automatically. But you don’t see it happen. Right? You just throw it through this plugin —

Anne: Right, right, exactly.

Tim: Yeah, and it spits it out the other side. And we —

Anne: Right. And there’s no control, there’s no control.

Tim: Yeah, and there’s no control, exactly. When you’re taking care of your RMS levels inside of whatever you’re using, whether it’s Audacity or you know, whatever DAW you might be using — the simple fact is that when you’re using responsible compression in order to take care of those peaks that you talked about, right, and you’re bringing this down — and this has to do with some terminology that I realize is gonna confuse some people, but what we’re really looking for here is to normalize the audio to -3 dB first, and then use this compression with a threshold that’s set a little bit below that peak —

Anne: Ah, right.

Tim: — so that when it compresses, right, it’s only hitting those peaks.

Anne: Right.

Tim: And we set, and we set what’s called the attack time, which is how quickly that compressor begins to act, we set it to zero so it sort of acts like a limiter but at the same time not, because it doesn’t just cut off the top of the dynamic range. So when you do it correctly, and you’re still meeting those -18 to -23 numbers, and then you use this plugin that we were talking about earlier — I don’t know if you’d call it a plugin much less a tool — but regardless, when you run it through this leveling plugin, and then you listen to doing it the way that we talked about earlier, which is just a series of compression until you reach your numbers versus listening to it thrown through that tool, it’s not even close.

Anne: Mm yeah.

Tim: After having thrown it through the tool, it does not sound natural. It sounds as if it’s being over-pushed, the signal is being over-pushed, for lack of a better way to put it, and it’s just not preferred. So even if it’s not audiobooks that we’re having a discussion about, and let’s say it’s longer narration, which you and I have both done —

Anne: Right, right.

Tim: — elearning, etc., and you see those few straight peaks, then yeah, you know, you could limit that. But still, Anne, I’ll get with you, and we’ll put in like a little compression plugin to get you in a better spot so that you can just hit that one button —

Anne: Oh yes, nice.

Tim: — and then run with it.

Anne: Ok.

Tim: And not have to worry about it sound as though it’s being, you know, just overly pushed through —

Anne: Right, right.

Tim: — the signal.

Anne: So it sounds to me then, like what you’re saying, is let’s become better engineers rather than depending on a tool to just process your audio. Especially like for me it was always uncomfortable because I couldn’t see or control anything I was doing. So like I said, I think even as a professional, there are these times when I’ll be recording, and I’ll have a peak that’s way up there, and I [laughs] you know, that’s probably not optimal. So I think we can maybe become better engineers then before we just trust in running it through a tool that may or may not do what we want.

Tim: That’s correct. These days you just have to educate yourself.

Anne: Yeah.

Tim: You just simply have to. We’re getting stuff that is being kicked back because they’re not meeting the numbers, because it’s too sibilant, because you can hear the room too much. You know? It used to be that audiobooks were basically the golden standard because that’s essentially where voiceover from home started, you know, in quotes “voiceover from home.” People reading books in open rooms, and hey, back then, you know, not a big deal. You’re listening to a story just like you would when someone would be reading that story to you in a room. Ok? Then audiobooks and the expectation for audiobooks increased dramatically, right, and what we started seeing is talent actually going to studios and voicing inside an amazing studio, and the audio sounding incredible. And so that turned into ok well, let’s have some people who can voice these audiobooks, because there are too many of them, and we don’t have enough studios, and let’s say that was the math. Ok? Now we start having these so-called home studios where people are in closets, or they’re in booths, whatever the case may be —

Anne: Sure.

Tim: — it doesn’t really matter. The point is is they’re being told to do certain things that they shouldn’t necessarily be doing. Right? A good example would be, if I were to get the mic away from me like this, because this is often how people are told to read —

Anne: Where’d you go, Tim? Tim, where did you go?

Tim: Exactly.

Anne: [laughs]

Tim: You can —

Anne: Where’d that bass, where’d that beautiful bass sound Tim Tippets go?

[both laugh]

Tim: Well, I’m actually voicing around hang-loose away. And it’s pointed down towards —

Anne: Oh really? Wow.

Tim: Yeah, and it’s pointed down kind of towards my forehead. And then of course, when I put my head down like this, or even if I’m looking straight forward, and I’m reading my copy, we’re now hearing the entire room.

Anne: Yeah.

Tim: And that’s not — you know, a lot of people will say it’s fine with audiobooks if you hear the room, but in reality, you have a lot of audiobook narrators now who are in these amazing booths.

Anne: Sure.

Tim: And their sound is great. And they’re getting more jobs than people who aren’t implementing the same thing.

Anne: Oh yeah.

Tim: These people do understand how to correctly handle their audio after the fact, and also when they’re sending in their audition, the difference between someone who sounds acoustically good, who sounds sonically good, and obviously who can read, right? That’s a big part of it. But all things being equal, if you have someone coming in like this, nice and clean, it sounds really good —

Anne: Oh, it makes a huge difference.

Tim: Right, versus this, and the author or whoever —

Anne: Sure.

Tim: — is listening, then —

Anne: It raises the standard. It raises the bar.

Tim: Yeah, it raises the standard, yeah.

Anne: It really raises the bar.

Tim: Yeah, and so a noise floor of -60, I’m not sure if that’s still the requirement. I’m pretty sure it is for ACX. But over the years, commercial and promo have blown those noise floors away. Ok? Because promo and commercial people, they’re serious, man.

Anne: Oh right, yeah.

Tim: They go for it, right? And so these people are spending unbelievable amounts of money in order to get —

Anne: Of course!

Tim: Yeah, in order to get themselves situated in great booths and all that —

Anne: Absolutely.

Tim: — and their noise floors are just absolutely in the tank. I mean —

Anne: Yeah!

Tim: — I’ve seen sittings, sitting noise floors at -72, and then by the time we’re done processing it, and you know, using noise removal, responsibly again, I’ve seen noise floors, you know, going down to like -85, -90, just ridiculously low.

Anne: Well I think — yeah. And I think the bar really has been raised. And in one way, if you know, I mean if you want to think, is there anything that can come out that’s really good out of this craziness of the pandemic, is that we’ve had to up our studios. And that in effect, if you have the better sound, the better audio coming out of your studio, the more chance you’re going to get the gig, and the less that, you know, all of these thousands of people that think voiceover is easy and they can simply record an audiobook, you know, from their living room, you know, it really, I think it lessens that, that crowd from actually being any type of competition.

Tim: Yeah, it really does.

Anne: So it’s good for us as a community, as an industry that we are having to up our game, because that just separates us from you know.

Tim: It does, it does, and why wouldn’t you use the tools that are available to us now that just a few short years ago weren’t even a thing?

Anne: Yeah, absolutely.

Tim: Right, like the Apollo that you’re speaking through now.

Anne: Right.

Tim: Right, compared to what we used to have you on.

Anne: Oh my gosh, absolutely, absolutely. I’m all about it, like why didn’t I do this years ago? [laughs]

Tim: Right. Right, well it may have been that it wasn’t available years ago, but one thing that was available years ago was the type of booth that you have now.

Anne: Yes, absolutely.

Tim: Right? So I think that you can speak directly, considering all of the medical narration, the IVR that you’ve done. I suppose we should explain what IVR is, interactive voice —

Anne: Recognition.

Tim: Recognition or recording, whatever it is.

Anne: Yep, recording, yep.

Tim: And the elearning, etc. You have now had a chance to go back and listen to how things were.

Anne: Oh yeah.

Tim: Especially when you were in a temporary situation compared to where you’re at now, and maybe you should talk a little bit about the distance between those two and your impression.

Anne: Well, I think first of all, I mean, yeah, absolutely. I mean it’s, when I was working temporarily compared to now in my permanent studio, which you know is the fortress of [laughs] all things good audio, the beast —

Tim: The beast.

Anne: It makes a difference, I’ll tell you, it, you know, in my auditions and first impressions, in submitting files to my clients, where they literally don’t have to do any work. They don’t even have to think about it. And sometimes it’s almost like a, almost a, it’s almost like a, you can’t put your finger on it, but you know what? Her audio just sounds amazing, so yeah, she’s a pro. It says so much in the very first impression people have of you, or even you know, as you keep upping your game, yeah. This girl’s a professional. She’s serious about her business, her sound just keeps getting better and better, and it just eludes like professional.

Tim: Right, first impressions are everything, right?

Anne: Exactly. First impressions are everything.

Tim: Alright, so, so what about the performance factor? How much more comfortable have you been? I mean, look, I know you’ve been a pro at the top of your game for a long time. But I would like to talk a little bit about the psychology of —

Anne: Oh my gosh! Feeling good —

Tim: Of how it is that you perform —

Anne: Feeling confident. And just I actually before we even started recording this podcast, Tim, I said, “hey, have I told you lately how much I love this studio?”

Tim: You did say that.

Anne: Like literally I can come in here feeling confident. You know, I’ve got distractions and noises happening outside my booth, and literally I can just come in here, and it’s like [breathes deeply] ahh, it’s like a little bit of zen. And I can just, you know, the outside world dissolves, and I can just come in here and be who I need to be and perform the way I need to perform with the ultimate confidence that my audio’s gonna sound great, and I’m not gonna have to spend hours, you know, cleaning up my, my sound in post. It just, it makes a huge difference. It’s, literally, it’s like I walk in here and [breathes deeply] I know my audio’s gonna be good.

Tim: Yeah, and —

Anne: And I know that my client is gonna think that my audio’s good.

Tim: And we hear about this in the forums all the time, about how much people are offering per finished hour. Right? And a lot of people are saying, “well, that’s a ridiculous price” or “that’s a good price.” Well, the price is going to vary, or your perception of the price is going to vary depending on how long it takes you to edit your audiobook. Right? And let’s say you’re even sending your audiobooks out to have someone else narrate them, which a lot of audiobook narrators actually do.

Anne: Do.

Tim: Ok? How much is that person going to charge you relative to how much work they have to do to clean up your audiobook?

Anne: Right, right.

Tim: Right? So when it comes to audiobooks, it’s very much the same as when it would be for medical narration, for elearning, etc. And I could give you a really good example of what I mean. Do you feel — and I don’t know how much you audition. Ok? I know how much a lot of other people audition.

Anne: Oh yeah.

Tim: And when we improve their situation, they’re able to audition many, many times more —

Anne: Oh yeah.

Tim: — than they otherwise were able to because now their audio is at a standard where cleanup is just an absolute breeze.

Anne: Oh yeah! The only thing, the only thing stopping you from doing more auditions is your own perception of your performance. Right? And that, that’s a whole other podcast. That’s where you get a great coach and be confident.

Tim: Right.

Anne: But I think that the whole audio, if you take that out of the picture, having to worry about that audio sounding good, first of all, it ups your confidence level before you even begin that audition, which is huge! I mean, it affects your performance in many positive ways.

Tim: Yeah, it really does. Because it’s interesting, they have this terminology that they use in golf, you know, “if I could just take my range game to the course,” right, where I’m practicing, etc. Something happens to us mentally when we hit that record button.

Anne: Yup.

Tim: Everything’s fine, and then you hit the record button, and just blehablehe. It all falls apart, right?

Anne: And then you perform. And then it’s like you perform behind the mic, and sometimes that’s not what you want. You just want it to be natural and effortless.

Tim: Yeah, you just want to turn it on and go, right, and that’s the idea here.

Anne: Yup.

Tim: So anyway, my point is if you are either consciously or subconsciously wondering whether or not you sound good, you are hosing yourself, right? You can’t be in a situation where the audio tech is not tight, and you cannot be in a situation where the acoustics are bad, or you know, there’s some sort of hum on the line, which is another episode that we talked about.

Anne: Yup.

Tim: These all come together. But the reason I wanted to talk about audiobooks is because there’s been so much confusion about it and so many questions being asked about it, because we have tons of people who are coming into the audiobook world every single day.

Anne: Yup, absolutely.

Tim: Like it’s a flood, it’s an absolute flood.

Anne: So then you’re recommending, number one, we talked about RMS, and we talked about tips on getting your audio to the specs that is required by either ACX or you know, whoever you’re — well, I guess if you have a different publishing company, they have their own set of specs. Right? Or are they all pretty much the same?

Tim: No, I mean, they’re pretty much all the same from what I can tell, yeah.

Anne: Yeah.

Tim: Yeah. But bottom line is, the reason that it’s important to really understand when it comes to audiobooks is because these newer people that we have coming in, I’m hearing that they’re recording at -22, which is something that we talked about before.

Anne: Yep, yep.

Tim: Right? They’re recording at -22 because that lowers their noise floor.

Anne: Yeah. [laughs]

Tim: Well ok. You now have a low noise floor, a pretend low noise floor, and now you go to normalize, all — everything is being averaged with RMS —

Anne: Right.

Tim: — so now that noise floor is now going to be super loud. And then you have to take that and normalize that to -3. Right? Now the reason that that’s really, really tough, and I’ve seen this happen many times, is because it’s not like the stuff that you and I do. A lot of the stuff that you and I do is in and out. Right? I’m an in and out kind of guy. I don’t do audiobooks. I did a 40K project once just to get through the marathon so that I could speak to it, and, and boy. And even though — it was for this thing in Louisiana, because to be a bouncer, you have to be licensed. And I had to read this big, long technical thing, and so I would definitely ace the test. There’s no question about that. But I do understand what it’s like to put in that much work, and if I had to go back after the fact because everything was ruined by my misunderstanding of how to handle my audio, and I’ve seen this happen, I cannot imagine the mental anguish that that would put on me. That would be insane.

Anne: Well yeah, and I think that that’s another point to talk about that’s important with audiobooks and audio and processing audio, is that a lot of times, narrators are in that studio for a long time recording. And so if you don’t have your proper setup, if you don’t have confidence in the fact that your audio is coming out pristine, and you’ve already put in a good hour [laughs] of recording, oh my gosh, that would just not be good. Now I —

Tim: An hour, an hour? That would be like the shortest book ever.

Anne: Yeah, well. But I mean, at a time. I’m talking before you have to get out, take a break —

Tim: An hour at a time? I know some people who will stay in the booth for three or four hours at a time.

Anne: Absolutely, and that session, yeah, and that session — it’s funny because I always tell my students, when they’re recording, I — homework for me, because it’s not an audiobook, I’m like look, I want you to record a little bit each day, because you never know. Like your performance changes from day to day, right? Are you tired, are you stressed? Is it the morning, is it the afternoon, is it the evening? You’re going to have different performance issues, let’s put it that way, if you have issues or performance considerations, at each time of the day. And it’s better if you can to record a little bit each day rather than doing it the night before your homework, which I think when you’re doing audiobooks, a lot of times you do spend a lot of time in the booth, right? All day in the booth. And so if there’s something misaligned, right, or if you’re speaking from back here for, you know a good hour or two, or maybe for the whole day, you know, I think that would be something you wouldn’t want to have to go back and redo.

Tim: I’m glad that we’re able to make that comparison with both of our booths. Because even though I’m in my control room, I mean it’s not as tight as my booth is, but even in your booth, which is a super, super tight booth acoustically —

Anne: Yeah.

Tim: — we can still hear when you’re too far away from the mic.

Anne: Absolutely, absolutely.

Tim: I’m glad that you did that, and we’ll make sure that that gets normalized during the episode so people can hear you.

Anne: That’s right, so people can hear you back off of it. [laughs]

Tim: Yeah, and I’m going to be putting together — I’m not sure if I’m going to release it on my VO Tech Guru channel or what it is that I’m going to do. I’ll release it somewhere, so but what I am going to do is I’m going to run audio — it will probably be in video format, but people will definitely be able to hear it. I’m going to be running audio through this external plugin that we talked about. Ok again, I’m not going to name it. And then I’m going to probably have an example of just doing heavy RMS inside the DAW. I’ll just use like Audacity or something like that, and then I’ll give an example of doing it responsibly —

Anne: Perfect.

Tim: And then I’ll have that normalized to -3, and then people can make up their own mind as far as what sounds best.

Anne: Perfect. Good stuff, good information, Tim! Alright, guys. I’m gonna give a great big shout-out to our sponsor, ipDTL. You too can connect and communicate and talk like a BOSS, and find out more at You guys have a great week, and we’ll see you next week. Bye!

Tim: See you, guys.

>> Join us next week for another edition of VO BOSS with your host Anne Ganguzza. And take your business to the next level. Sign up for our mailing list at and receive exclusive content, industry revolutionizing tips and strategies, and new ways to rock your business like a BOSS. Redistribution with permission. Coast to Coast connectivity via ipDTL.