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by Jim McCullough
When I was a student in high school, I came across a recording of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The highly dramatic reading by Basil Rathbone enthralled me. He is probably not much remembered now, but then he was the celebrated star in a series of Sherlock Holmes movies. Thus the seed was planted, or maybe that occurred when I passed a Recording for the Blind studio in my neighborhood. (Recording for the Blind was the original name of Learning Ally.) Fifty-five years later, I volunteered to become a reader. Better late than never— I love recording for Learning Ally.
I started as an apprentice in LA’s downtown studio on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, a few blocks south of the Wrigley Building. One day I listened to a flawless, sonorous reading and remarked to myself, “Gee, this guy is good.” Actually, it was a voice I had already heard often on the radio. It belonged to Barry Kaufmann, who aired a weekly program about health issues. He had graduate degrees in both communication arts and dentistry. Later we became good friends.
Another fond memory is a trip to Princeton, N.J. to help judge an essay contest sponsored by Learning Ally. The essays were written by high school seniors seeking college scholarships. One student wrote that with the help of Learning Ally, she progressed from struggling for six hours with her homework every night because of her dyslexia, to gaining college credits in Advanced Placement courses. Many inspirational stories like that convinced me, if I ever had a doubt, that Learning Ally changes lives.
After moving to a suburb south of Chicago, I worked out of a Learning Ally studio in Orland Park, Illinois. Its excellent manager, Sandy Elhenicky, once complimented me on my intonation, that is, stressing key words in passages as I read. I blush to admit it, but her casual remark boosted my self-confidence no end. I felt like Sally Fields at the Oscar ceremony, “They like me, they really like me.” Soon a number of individual-reader assignments came my way, many of them books for young adults. I especially enjoyed reading Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and The Closer by Mariano Rivera, the great relief pitcher for the New York Yankees.
Best of all, I got to record Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth. With plays the challenge is to vary your voice to differentiate a large cast of characters and then keep notes to remember whose voice you are using. Luckily, I taught Macbeth in high school for many years, and I had often played a Caedmon Label recording of the play to help it come alive for my students. I remembered certain voices like those of the three witches very well and modeled my interpretation on them. For A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the trick is to listen to any recording of Dame Judy Dench reciting iambic pentameter lines.
In 2017 the switch to recording from home was a challenge, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Instead of recording once or twice a week, I could do it more often, and when the pandemic arrived, I already had a set routine. I like to kick-start my day by arising very early and recording in the quiet hours of the morning. With something to accomplish every day, I can still feel relevant in my advanced years.
Currently I am registered in Learning Ally’s Textbook Community. The rule is to select just one chapter at a time within a project, often a large anthology. That way readers from all over the country can finish a nine-hundred-page book within a sixty-day deadline. Some of the new literature anthologies are the best I have ever seen, and they make me wish I could return to teaching. A few weeks ago, I recorded a chapter titled “Identity and Society.” Selections included George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Shakespeare’s “The Seven Ages of Man,” a portion of Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and James Joyce’s “Eveline.” Oh, what a delight that assignment was!
One tip I might offer is to employ YouTube as a resource. If I am unsure how to pronounce an author’s name, I can usually hear it done correctly in a video of the author being introduced at a lecture or performance. Also, listening to an author read her own work is helpful. Recently I recorded “Kindness,” a wonderful poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, who grew up in Jerusalem and now lives in San Antonio, Texas. You can find her on YouTube reading her poem. You can also find it at two other sites, read by Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons.
I hope to continue with Learning Ally as long as I can, as a reader or checker. My hero is Dr. Bernie Strauss, a retired professor from the University of Chicago. He recently appeared on television, still recording for Learning Ally at the age of 92!
- Jim McCullough
Probably the most abstract concept in an audiobook, marks are what tie the audio of a book to the text. They are the time information that guides our Learning Ally solution software to the pages, headings, and sections that make up a book. When a borrower wants to skip to page 43, it's the "Page 43" mark that tells the program where to go.
How many marks are in a book? That varies from book to book but you'll always find them on headings like chapter breaks and the start of each page. In books with on-screen text, the marks may go to the paragraph level for older projects, or just pages, headings,and before and after images in more recent projects.
Narrators recording in EasyBooks are responsible for recording the mark information, usually as they record the audio although some prefer to record everything and insert marks later. Our EasyBooks software doesn't only record audio, it can record marks as well, creating a list of timings that will be used when the audio is synced to the sentence level for our VOICEtext audiobooks. Recording those marks is as easy as pressing an on-screen button (or better yet, the quieter "M" key) while recording the audio.
Notice how the mark is represented by a line that appears on the display? You can also see the mark as a length of time number in the mark list on the left. Also, note how that mark sits in a small silence. The narrator makes the mark in the pauses that naturally reflect the punctuation at the end of sentences. That means each segment of the book will have a clean start.
If the audio has been recorded with some other software, it will not have mark timings and they are added as part of the review process. The files are converted into an EasyBooks project. Then the reviewer listens to the recording, using the Mark controls to add them. If the narrator hasn't left those comfortable pauses on the ends of sentences, they need to edit in small spans of room tone from silence recorded by the narrator. This adds a lot of tedious work to reviewing, so narrators need to take care with phrasing and pace when recording.
Once the marks are in the file we can manipulate them. We can adjust the timing to perfect it, so that when the borrower skips to the second paragraph on page 43 the narrator says "I shook my head," and not "-ook my head." Making these changes is as easy as clicking and dragging the lines on the display.
One of the more complicated errors that we encounter happens when a narrator or reviewer makes a careless delete that goes over the boundaries of two marks. With no distance between them, the marks collapse to the exact same time.
The mark line in the waveform display turns into this double-arrow line, indicating two marks with no time between them. In addition, the mark index shows a zero time length:
Fortunately there is an easy fix. By clicking and dragging on the mark line, you can separate the marks. Now you just need to figure out where the marks belong and drag them into place.
Fixing a double-mark error can be especially tricky if the section has been completely recorded. After all, a stacked mark isn't gone, just hidden. It might look like the work is incomplete, but the Mark button is grayed out, meaning there are no marks left to place. In that case, the reviewer needs to look for blanks in the mark index to see where the marks have been collapsed, separate them by dragging one of the marks, and you may need to copy and paste some silence or room tone to give you the spacing you need.
For more guidance on marks and marking, including ways to move groups of marks for faster edits, refer to Storyteller Lessons 3-3, Textbook Lessons 3-1 and 3-2, and Course Resources for Checking.
Learning Ally staff are online to answer your questions live on alternating Wednesdays at 2 PM EST. You'll find links, and more information on the training site.
The Textbook Community’s Reading Conventions are an essential starting point for the ways we lay out and navigate through all of the elements on a page in a book. It’s not possible to remember all these guidelines, so it's important that we have these "living" documents to reference while we record. We utilize volunteer feedback, observations of common errors, and member feedback to craft all of our guidelines documents.
All Textbook Community Staff from every recording community gather together at least quarterly and if not more to review new suggestions for guidelines improvements and to discuss the common errors or areas in recordings that need better instruction. The main two documents every Textbook Community volunteer should consider are our Conventions WIKI, and the Figure Description Crib Sheets (FDCS). These main documents will not be updated more than once per year, and when they are, we like to follow a release either during the months of June, or January.This time, we released the updated Conventions WIKI and FDCS on July 31st.
There are several specific SUBJECT area guidelines to review as well. Some areas just demand a deeper dive. For example, we recently released the Writing/Style Guide Conventions, which were crafted by our wonderful staffer, Stacie Court, and volunteer, Elizabeth Hoffman. These guidelines will be essential to tackle the upcoming English Language texts that will be flooding our communities in the upcoming school year. Staff will likely enlist the help of other volunteers when needed to help with guidelines, so if you are interested, let us know and we'll be sure to reach out when we need the help.
We also currently have Computer and Code Guidelines (updates sent 6/13/19), Math Reading Guidelines (expected review and update on or before 10/1/19), Science Terms and Conventions, Foreign Language WIKI (released 7/31/19), and Common Abbreviations (updates sent 6/13/19) documents. The revised Common Abbreviations document is arranged in alphabetical order and there are two columns, with one column showing the symbol’s name and the other column highlights how these symbols should be pronounced. All are or will become available on our Volunteer Portal under the Resources Tab.
We welcome feedback and suggestions for our conventions in the Suggestions Form and as noted above, we'll add them to our annual review. It takes many minds and resources to pull together the guidelines and we hope they are helpful to all as they navigate the books that serve so many of our student learners! It’s only because of our great volunteers and staff that we are able to help students in their education.
Our audiobooks at Learning Ally aren’t exactly live performances—such as panel discussions or story telling events—and they aren’t footage captured from out in the field. However, some of the issues that podcasters and public media folks encounter in these instances also apply to the recording process for you, our volunteers in your virtual studio spaces. The issue we’re going to look at today is plosives. Jeff Towne has a terrific article that covers what plosives are, how to avoid creating them in your recordings, some gear recommendations, and techniques for breathing.
See the full article on Transom [ imbed: https://transom.org/2016/p-pops-plosives/]
What exactly are plosives?
Getting close, about 3-6 inches from the microphone, is usually suggested for voice recording. This helps to capture an intimate and warm sound from the “performer,” or narrator in this instance. There are some negative effects that arise in trying to capture that warm sound, however, specifically plosives. Towne describes them as,
“…a bassy, often distorted sound, that results when an air blast from the mouth goes into the microphone. The most common source is the letter P, which is why plosives are sometimes generically referred to as P-Pops.”
It’s best practice to position the microphone off to the side, instead of directly in front of your mouth, to avoid some of the air that occurs when pronouncing those words that start with P, S, B, or F sounds. Towne also mentions the option of positioning the mic slightly above your mouth with the grille pointed towards you. This allows the air from your voice to go underneath instead of directly into the mic.
Right now you can practice breath control that will help eliminate plosives in your recordings. Put your palm up in front of your mouth and pronounce words like popcorn, sister, or friend. Being aware of the air that you expel when pronouncing some of these plosive offenders will help your recording narration. The goal is to get to a point when you pronounce these plosive heavy words with less air. Towne also mentions how some of our exhaling through our nose sends air out in varying directions, and why positioning the mic slightly off center can help avoid capturing plosives in our recordings.
Technical ways to get around plosives.
Wind screens can make a tremendous difference in eliminating plosives. Towne provides several options, and the article includes some test recordings. I encourage you to visit the link to hear the with and without sound bites to learn some of the differences.
Although suggestions for how to edit and EQ audio waves is also included, we strongly suggest that you coordinate with some of our engineers at Learning Ally prior to performing any severe treatment on your audio. Our post-production process is fine-tuned, and we have discovered that getting a wonderful performance from the narrator first and foremost, rather than drastic editing during the recording process, yields the best audiobook product.
What is working in your virtual studio space?
We would love to hear some of the ways you are mitigating plosives in your recordings. Share in the comments some of your own techniques so we can all benefit from shared knowledge.