Is Using Sound In Audiobooks A Good Idea?

I love sounds. Sometimes I close my eyes and listen to the sounds and see how many I can pick out. I do this in the woods, or in a restaurant or listening to music. Being able to focus on one sound out of all the others seems to help me drown out a bit of the din of noise all around us. 

What about sounds in audiobooks?

There are a number of narrators, writers, and publishers who wonder about – and even insist on – putting music or sound effects in a project. It makes it more immersive, they say, or dramatic or a movie in your mind. And perhaps it does to some extent.

And there are a number of listeners who like audiobooks done this way, though I’d suppose in the 80/20 Rule an equal number who don’t – both of these being a minority, while most don’t notice or don’t care either way. When you factor in the time invested in finding and buying sounds, inserting, adjusting volume, and mixing these extra sounds for so little payoff (the 20%) then the return on using them seems very low.

Most of the time. There are exceptions, and it depends on how non-voice sounds are used.

My Rule of Thumb: Sounds should only be used to replace narration, not duplicate it.

If your manuscript (words) describes action or a scene, then it is not necessary to portray the same things with music or effects (sounds). It’s redundant, because if what you are trying to do is place a reader/listener at the scene or see the action, the words allow them to do this in their head – adding sounds causes them to hear a scene differently in their ears.

You don’t need both.

Think back to radio dramas long before television. These were stage plays on radio, and instead of having a scene set on stage for an audience to see, they would use sound effects and music to set the stage for the ears. Sounds would replace a narration describing the action or scene.

Instead of a narrator saying “Janet slammed down the phone and just then came loud knocking at the door, insentient knocking, more like pounding really. Janet’s heart was racing as she cautiously crept to the door, and asked ‘Who’s there?’” they would use sounds of a phone slamming, door knocking and pounding, and footsteps, etc. The only voice audio would be Janet asking Who’s there?

Contrast that to a novel. Authors show action or scene in the narrative of the manuscript and it gets read in the narration. Adding sounds to that doesn’t add anything, in fact I would argue it takes away, because now a listener has two things going on: the words and the sound of those words and the picture in their mind of that, and second, the sound of the effects in their ears – which is likely different than what they ‘heard’ in their head.

The sounds then can become a distraction to the words and the story, rather than an enhancement.

So, if you favor the use of music and effect sounds in audiobook production, then use it in place of narrative – let these set the scene and use voices for primarily dialogue, like a radio production, and I think you will be very successful in producing an audiobook appreciated by listeners.

There is a twist to this arrangement being done, rather successfully I hear, by the narrator voicing the narrative – scenes and action, while dialogue is done by other voice actors, along with music and sound effects. Think of a bar fight – the punches, breaking glass, grunts and oofs, boots on the floor, character dialogue, etc are playing behind the narration almost the entire time. It’s well done in terms of production value and apparently has a growing following. That’s hard to do as a stand alone writer/narrator, but if your book is written for the right audience, this might work for you.

Just how to go about putting all these sounds in audiobooks is another post worth, but suffice to say partly dependent on which recording software you use, and are you doing this yourself, or having a editor/sound engineer do this part? Either way, I’d at least suggest you get all the narration completed (voiced, edited, corrections) and then work on sound placement. Doing both at the same time – read a bit, stop and put in effects, then continue reading – is hard on a narrator to keep their head in the scene with all that start-stop-start again.

As far as using music to open and close each chapter, that’s fine, but not necessary. It would be helpful only if there is not actual chapter headings, although that’s unusual but has been done. I wouldn’t use that if chapters are less than 20 minutes each. Hearing the same music bed over and over gets old quickly, and no need to put it at the beginning and the end each time or it will play back to back.

Know why you want to use sounds other than voice, and that will help determine if you should or not, and then when and how. Otherwise, just stick with the KISS principle.