Making an Audiobook: Demystifying the Magic

An audiobook is seen as a new way of taking in a great story. Whether you love horror, westerns, science fiction, drama, romance, fantasy, business strategy, personal finance, legal thrillers, new age wisdom, or just about anything else, there’s an audiobook for it. If it can be read, it can be heard.

Listen to the audio version here:making-an-audiobook-anchor-podcast

In a way, the audiobook is really an even older form of knowledge transfer than the written word. Since the first human families told each other not to hang around where tigers hunted, people were relaying tales as compelling as any modern procedural.

“Yeah, that cave by the river. The last time the moon was full, Ooog walked into that and we haven’t seen him since. There were a bunch of bones in a pile nearby, that Wagawaga says wasn’t there before. The village shaman is the only one here who can put two and two together, and he says not to expect Ooog around to help with the harvest, okay?”

I’m on the edge of my seat. You too, right? At some point that shaman figured out how to write this stuff down, and the great argument about personality-based behaviorally targeted training kicked off from there.

We all know that one: It’s harder for some people to pay attention to written words, but not so much for listening. I’m a great reader and discoverer on my own time, but I find when listening to a podcast that I have to rewind it a lot (for the millennials – rewind means to take the play head back a bit to re-hear something. As an X-er, I can’t really help you with whatever a play head is. Ask those folks who know what dropping the needle is all about).

Anyway, some people are great at listening to a podcast or an audiobook. Now, I should take a moment here to note that audiobooks and podcasts are not the same thing, and really shouldn’t be recorded the same way. Podcasts often have music bumpers and backgrounds and involve more than one person ranting about something. They’re also not read, the way this is. Can you tell? I consider it a personal goal to make sure people can’t tell. But this isn’t always easy.

It is usually very clear and obvious when someone is reading something. In podcasts, which are usually interviews or people bantering, it’s mostly off the cuff. An audiobook or blog post like this one is written first, then read. But it’s still best if it sounds like something coming at you from the top of my head.

Some authors have even taken a different approach to writing because of the rise of audiobooks. One quick trick is to hear it in your head as you write. Right now, this is written as if it’s a guy with an overdone Chicago accent. Dah Bears. Yeah, dat one. But it could just as easily take a different direction for some Oxford don with his simultaneous lesson schedules instead of some yankee wanker.

Ironically, being from Boston, I have a terrible Boston drawl. It sometimes takes a few minutes to get into a character, so I’ll watch a video. Maybe that Casey Affleck Dunkin Donuts ad or the famous Baby Whale video.

Beyond accents, voices can take a multitude of different characters. People can be:

  • Nasal (Did I do that?)
  • Grainy (Get off my lawn)
  • Gravelly (Found someone you have)
  • Deep (No, I am your father)
  • High (Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking, just a moment)
  • Thick (64 slices of American cheese)
  • Hollow (We will add your technological distinctiveness to our own)
  • Expressive (Why the North Pole of course)
  • Noir (Where I go, the wind follows)

It’s possible to add or subtract age to a voice, too. When narrating, I bump into a lot of women’s and kids’ voices as well. That…can be a challenge. It’s not about high pitch, but more about resonance. What I do is think about something called a head voice. Like singing falsetto. If you can do a Michael Jackson voice, you’re there.

Now, all the same rules apply, Dahlink!

Many audiobook listeners don’t love the voices, by the way, and sometimes it’s better to keep it subtle. The only drawback is in long exchanges of dialogue without attribution. These happen more often, too, because hearing “Blah blah blah” he said, “Yadda yadda yadda” she replied, “Doo bee doo bee doo” he said…gets a little clunky. This is where character differences become important.

The best authors write their characters with varied attitudes. You can sense this from their dialogue. Some characters are just wry or sarcastic all the time. Some are deadpan. Some have a comedic cadence and a natural sense of timing. Others are just always…awkward. People can creep you out saying the same thing that someone else says in a very charming way. These are just some of the unspoken signals people send to each other, and it crosses the line from vocal audio production to psychology. Which itself is another fascinating subject, those little vocal cues. Most people know about the smile. Sound like you’re smiling. You can also evoke super-depressing ideation using your voice. This is the sort of thing I think about a lot when producing an audiobook.

The narrator is unique in an audiobook, because it’s really the main character. Rather, it’s the character that does most of the talking. Why should the real main character, who probably has five percent of the words in the book compared to the narrator, have all the fun? Unless the author asks for a flat narration, I like to let the narrator emote a little. When there’s sadness, express sadness. When all is well, be happy. The narrator can add tension, fear, suspense, and express action. The narrator can slow it down or pep it up.

As far as the technology, it’s really fairly simple. I have a laptop, and yes, it has a fan, which makes noise. The mic in the same room picks this up all the time, and my studio is fairly quiet, so it’s pretty rumbly. This is why in any professional studio that gear stays out of the room, often called a booth. Mine is separated by a thick insulated wall and ceilings, with wall baffles and carpeting on the floor. The computer is outside the booth and connected to a wall screen so I can read and control the rig with the mouse. A remote keyboard helps, too, so I can type character names and find words in the text.

The other two primary components are the microphone and the interface. That’s a box that turns old-school analog audio from the mic into a digital signal the computer can store and process. It also includes the audio output for headphones and speakers. Back in the day, the mic interface used a multipin connector and needed a special adapter for the computer. Today’s interfaces use USB. Now, sometimes these are combined in what’s called a USB mic, which saves a lot of space and hassle.

BUT… the mic is a really important tool, and so is the preamplifier and A/D converter inside the interface. Professional studios think of these as the holy grail for optimizing the sound quality. With a bad mic and a bad interface, it doesn’t matter how golden your voice is. Does that mean a combined mic & interface is a useless brick? Absolutely not. The makers of these are among the top makers of audio gear in the world.

I’ll add that a good pair of cans and studio reference speakers are also critical. How are you going to process your audio with junk from the dollar store? And the dollar store does sell these things. So, just… don’t. They’re not too expensive. All told, you can get all this gear for a few hundred bucks. Not the PC of course, but that’s something you have anyway, right?

Now to the software. You’re going to need some kind of editing program. A lot of podcasters use free stuff that can be downloaded and used to clip up their WAV files and output MP3. You might record a chapter that takes an hour to read. If you’re efficient like I am, you can clip out a few long breaks or rereads (I’ll trip over a phrase once in awhile), and still have 45 or 50 minutes. A lot of listeners like the breaths in between, so I don’t gate all of those out, and you can even use breaths for effect. Trust me, it makes no sense for someone to run screaming from a zombie if they didn’t take a breath first.

Now what was that I said about a gate? Like in music recording, there are a few important processing tools available within any good audio recording and editing application. These include:

  • The equalizer, which lets you tailor the highs and lows at different frequencies to accommodate your voice, and sometimes adjust for shortcomings in your mic, preamp, and speakers or headphones. This is another reason not to skimp on any of that.
  • You also want a compressor, to crush your audio signal to a smaller dynamic range, so it’s never too quiet and never too loud. People are listening in their cars or in other loud environments, so they need a fairly consistent level.
  • Another tool is the noise gate, which cuts out background noise. Technically, this shouldn’t be critical if you record in a quiet studio, but you don’t always have an optimal environment.

This is the part where I tell you what I use: Pro Tools, with the built-in seven-band EQ, the gate and the Maxim limiter. I punch up the track volume by 6dB as well, but this varies depending on the technical requirements of the publishing and streaming website.

Of course, the best equipment in the world doesn’t matter if you’re that guy who can clear the Thanksgiving table with your boring diatribes. But even here you’d be surprised what listeners will put up with.

My kids watch YouTube videos about gaming where the narrators drone on, monotone, eating the mic, yelling, flat, whatever. It doesn’t seem to matter. Some folks make a brand out of it. It’s amazing. All the rules go out the window, because maybe they’re not really rules. Like I said at the beginning, people have been telling stories forever, and let’s face it, if grandma couldn’t warn the kiddies about the tiger in the grass because she was boring, none of us would be here.

Now, the folks in radio have been doing this forever, but they’re in an industry that most of us will never get anywhere near. That’s one reason podcasts and audiobooks are so interesting. Any dope can get the equipment, learn a couple of skills and get into it. It’s truly the democratization of storytelling.

On Haters

polar-bear-haterA few years ago there was a book, an author’s first published novel. Originally, it was something she wrote just for fun.

Then, out of nowhere, it became a national phenomenon. It spread around the globe, as people picked it up out of sheer curiosity, or just wanted to be part of this massive viral sensation.

As with every hit book, Hollywood quickly got on board. They turned the author’s fantasy lark into a much anticipated, big-name-affiliated movie, and some people hated it.

They hated the marketing. They hated the story. They hated the characters. They hated the actors. They hated the author. They hated the director. They hated the ads.

I remember arguing with friends who groused that the movie was pop culture tripe that sent all the wrong messages, and was a cataclysmically false appropriation of the culture portrayed in the film.

That movie was Fifty Shades of Grey… I believe there’s a third one out, that has already eclipsed its budget seven times.

Haters gonna hate, right? But another thing haters do, is validate.

Andy Wier’s “The Martian” had a similar introduction to the world. Released chapter-by-chapter online, it gathered enough of a following that it became a published novel. It’s hard sci-fi, and the book can almost serve as an advanced mathematics text. He found a way to make science accessible in a story that was just good clean fun (well, cleaner than 50 Shades anyway).

And when it became a movie, it had haters. People bashed it for being scientifically unsound. Far-fetched. Derivative. And of course we know where that went. His next book, “Artemis”, is a best-seller. Everything the guy does from now on is guaranteed to be a movie.

Soon enough, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash will be a streaming series. People will hate it. Seveneves will be impossible to adapt to film, but Ron Howard is trying, and people will hate it. Dan Brown is a novel-to-hit-movie perpetual motion device, but they hate him too. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series will be adapted for film or television, and it will have haters.

Black panther has haters. Stephen King has haters. The breakout book of 2018 (which I am digging into right now) is an incomparably brilliant new fantasy tale, and Hollywood has already jumped on board. It will, crushingly, have haters.

Harry Potter has haters.

I’m just sayin’. Everything has haters.

So I’m not surprised that some people hate Ready Player One. I don’t know if it it is coming from the real geeks, or if the real geeks are people like me, who legitimately got beat up by blond kids in the ’80s.

Or maybe I’m one of those dudes who latched onto something after it became cool, I don’t know, like the jocks who discovered Metallica in 1988. But it doesn’t matter. Ready Player One speaks to me. It doesn’t speak to everyone. That’s cool.

Too-cool-for-school is a traditional trope that has been with us since James Dean.

I admit, though, it would be nice if people could focus their hate on something that deserves it.

Disney’s “Zombies”, for example.

Make The Connection: Enable Sales With Online Presentations

Show Your Face: Enable Sales With Online Presentations | KnowledgeVision Fresh Ideas BlogSales is about making connections. When you reach out to people with a solution, whether it’s analytics software, a carpet-cleaning service, or a new brand of vegetable juice, it’s the connection that matters first.

And that connection is made with a smile, a “hello”, and a handshake. Something you can’t do when making connections online.

Until now. Online presentations are a tool that puts your face right in front of people. Stephanie Grant uses online presentations to help Abel-Womack’s sales executives make connections with people, ultimately to increase sales.

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Learning in a Global Business: How Waters Corporation Uses Online Presentations

Learning in a Global Business: How Waters Corporation Uses Online PresentationsRemember science class? That’s where, as kids, we got to mix chemicals, dissect frogs, and burn stuff. What fun!

Yes, we also had to memorize the periodic table and calculate equations, and yes, we’d sometimes wonder when we were ever going to use these scientific concepts.

Waters Corporation has been putting science to good use for more than fifty years. They’re a leading maker of analytical instruments for measuring fluids and substances used in healthcare delivery, environmental management, food safety, and water quality.

So it’s a good thing the people at Waters paid attention in science class. If you eat food, fuel your car, or use medicine, equipment from Waters probably had a role in ensuring the safety and effectiveness of the products you use.

Would you guess that their internal learning programs are a little, shall we say, involved?

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What’s Next For Content Creation? Four Technologies To Watch

What's Next For Content Creation? Four Technologies To Watch | KnowledgeVision Fresh Ideas BlogCall me crazy. I’m always thinking of a solution to problems.

I’m not sure this even qualifies as a problem. Maybe it’s a “First-world problem”, but here it is: How can we create great content without sitting at a computer?

What kind of innovations exist out there to help us multi-task? Can we use voice-to-text, mobile tablets, or specialized headgear to develop content that people will love?

Turning Thoughts Into Words

Here are some of the technologies that, believe it or not, we’ll all be using in the near future to create content:

stock-blog-text-driverVoice to Text Apps: You’ve heard of voice notes, where you make a recording of your random thoughts when you’re not in a position to type, like when you’re out on a morning jog. The idea is that those thoughts are going to be worthwhile enough to transcribe later (provided these aren’t thoughts recorded at two in the morning while watching the Cartoon Network).

And of course, why transcribe? Isn’t word-recognition technology able to record directly to text? For phones and tablets, there are numerous voice-to-text applications. Maybe that guy in the car next to you isn’t ranting at the radio or muttering conspiracy theories, but writing a post for his sports blog. You can even have Apple’s Siri Eyes Free installed in your car.

One major glitch: Voice to Text apps don’t make driving any safer, according to a recent study by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. It turns out that looking away from the road isn’t the only distraction; it’s thinking.

stock-blog-virtual-realityVR-Style Headgear: Remember when Virtual Reality was the coolest thing ever? The problem was that these funky headworn devices only played back content. They could not create it. Something like Google Glass will let you record your voice and snapshot everything you see with no effort. Even Robert Scoble is now a believer in Google Glass.

But Glass and devices like it (like Vuzix) still have some obstacles to overcome, such as pricing and concerns over privacy. Store and restaurant owners are already deciding whether to allow the headworn futuristic things into their establishments, and there’s no doubt some litigation and legislation to follow. I believe that, like tablets and smartphones, they’ll attract a limited stratum of superuser. Then once someone discovers the killer application, we’ll all wonder how we survived without them.

stock-blog-tablet-heldMobile Tablets: Naturally, the iPad, Android, Kindle (oh, and Microsoft Surface) tablets have changed the way people view content. First, they’re now more likely to browse while watching television, as well as carry the things into restaurants to amuse their fidgety children (guilty!). But there’s no reason they can’t be considered tremendous content-creation tools as well.

Tablets are fine for writing, but because of the tablet’s touchscreen, they lend themselves readily to graphics production and editing. Specialized tablet apps like Adobe’s Photoshop Touch, and something like Sketchbook Express let you edit photos and create graphics. And of course there’s a phalanx of apps that let you share them on the web pretty easily, even from a phone.

stock-blog-power-gloveDon’t Leave Without Your Gloves: By now you’ve seen Minority Report, and while, like me, you probably can’t remember the story, I’ll bet you remember Tom Cruise’s computerized gloves. They were simply the interface for a gee-whiz transparent display, but they captured the imagination of tech geeks everywhere.

Shouldn’t it be possible, someday, to use gloves like this to interface with a computer or other type of screen, to create all kinds of content? You could type away at thin air and see the results directly on your Google Glass display while sitting on a beach.

People who create content are always looking for that spark, an inspiration, and that often happens to us while sitting at the ballgame, hiking a mountain peak, or using a playground slide. These technological marvels will let us continue to search for inspiration, and take advantage of it immediately.

It’s The Thought That Counts

So these devices may make it easier to multitask and create on the fly. But if thinking is the problem, as the Texas A&M study reveals, can you create great content while using a treadmill? Anyone can ingest news and other content on the overhead televisions at the gym, and many people read books on Kindles and (gasp) paper while working out, riding the train, walking the dog, and doing all sorts of other activities.

Can it work the other way around? Can you create compelling content while crushing calories? Or is mental focus as critical to creativity as it is to driving? Arguably, most people will probably create higher-quality content when they are sitting quietly and undisturbed.

But what about those brain flashes that hit you while you’re inspecting avocados in the produce aisle? For instance, I’ve written entire blog posts while strolling through a mall. That doesn’t change the essential rules about identifying an audience, using research, and calling for action. For that, whatever futuristic device I’m using better be connected to the internet.

But no matter how easy it is to create content on these awesome tools, let’s just keep them out of the car.

Originally published on The KnowledgeVision Fresh Ideas Blog.

Innovative Disruption: The New Normal for Online Media

Innovative Disruption: The New Normal for Online Media | KnowledgeVision Fresh Ideas BlogLast week I took my daughter to her first Red Sox game. We got there early, explored the ballpark, and enjoyed some Fenway Franks, peanuts and ice cream while we watched the first four innings. We left before the first rain delay of the 2013 season. This game was also a long-term milestone for the team, as it was their first non-sold-out game in ten years.

That’s disruption.

On the train ride to Boston’s North Station, I used a new payment system provided by the MBTA; mTicket, a mobile app that lets you buy your ticket and activate it when you board. I worried that it wouldn’t work, or that the T conductor had never heard of it, and we’d get tossed from the last car at a low speed. Instead, the app worked perfectly.

More disruption.

On the subway ride to the ballpark, we saw several people reading books on Kindles and other handheld devices. During the game, a lot of people took pictures with their phones, of the game, the players, and each other. I joined in the fun, and we’ve all seen Facebook friends posting pics of themselves at the game. People take mobile pics at rock concerts, too. It harkens back to the (circa 2004) obnoxious use of cell phones while sitting behind home plate.

All of that is disruption.

Innovative Disruption: The New Normal

Innovation has made it possible to disrupt one industry after another, from home delivery of groceries to genetic RNA interference. In the realm of education and training, Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, allow countless users to take part in university courses, which may be regular in-person courses or specialized for online learning.

In business, online video and online presentations have become a disruptive tool for sales and marketing, as more video communications tools emerge and more conferences occur online. I remember when we thought videoconferencing was a killer for the airline industry, but in reality online video and presentations have enhanced live events, while the real killer apps aren’t just about communication, but collaboration.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen has led the discussion on disruptive innovation for years. His books have focused on new technologies and mechanisms that have changed companies, industries, and the world. We think of mobile devices and social websites as disruptive innovations, and they are; but it doesn’t have to be technology. Business methods and ideas can also turn the tables on how things are.

What makes a concept disruptive?

It’s important to note that disruptive technologies and ideas are nearly impossible to identify, except to visionaries. This is because they should be characterized not by what they are, but for what they aren’t:

  • They are not a reason for change: Brian Solis says that disruption is a catalyst for change, but not the reason. Look at the current content marketing trend, which is considered disruptive, but it emerged partly because of social media, which required a constant flow of new, original, branded and unbranded content. Similarly, tablets like the Apple Newton existed for decades, without a clear purpose, before Apple launched the iPad and changed everything.
  • They lack refinement: Often, new technologies have no single organization driving best practices. MySpace and Friendster began as an expanded version of online chat, and only now, with the emergence of the Facebook Timeline and Google Plus, are we beginning to see design dominance in online social platforms. Or are we? Pinterest is driving a completely different look for social sharing, and Facebook’s frequent updates still drive people nuts.
  • They lack performance analytics: Views, shares, likes, retweets, leads, opportunities, influence, and engagement…the list goes on. These terms are still fairly new, and it’s unclear which of these communications metrics actually mean much to a company’s bottom line. More importantly, how marketers can best manipulate these numbers remains a mystery, as does how they can readily use these metrics to drive true business impact.
  • They lack an audience: A disruptive innovation is usually a simple fix to a product that is meaningful only to a small group of people, the way content management systems began as a better way to store documents and share them with people across internal networks. It mattered only to IT managers. Today, a CMS like WordPress allows any web publisher to share just about anything with the whole world, using customized designs and access levels.
  • They lack an application: It’s usually easy to see something emerge, but be unable to imagine a use for it. Look at the iPad, which sold well at the outset but originally stymied people as to its best use. The complaints included “no keyboard”, “too big to be a phone”, and “too underpowered to run desktop applications”. That didn’t matter. Mobile apps and cloud technology combined drove the success of these platforms, and now people can browse, read, search, communicate, and view videos while watching TV, working in retail or healthcare, sitting at the beach, or riding the train.

In online media, whether it is for communications or social sharing, disruption is driving incredible changes in the way we do things. It’s already hard to imagine how we got by without Facebook, and five years from now we’ll wonder how we survived without something some software developer is creating right now.

But disruption still has its holdouts. On the subway ride home, I saw a student reading Clayton Christensen’s book “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns”.

In hardcover.

Originally published on The KnowledgeVision Fresh Ideas Blog.