Thursday, January 16, 2014

Book Review: Echoes from the Lost Ones by Nicola J. McDonagh

Echoes from the Lost Ones by Nicola J. McDonagh – Published by Fable Press

What sets this excellent book apart from the crowded field of dystopian novels is the strong voice of the lead character, a plucky young woman named Adara. However, while Adara is unique in the novel’s bleak futuristic landscape, she is by no means unique in the world of books – a young hero with a special gift, out in the world, on a quest to rescue her brother. It is the strength of the author’s writing, specifically the fascinating speech patterns Adara uses, that keeps this novel from being a mundane adventure in which our hero moves episodically from one peril to the next. As readers, we are transported to this harsh future not so much through descriptions of landscapes, references to technologies, or apocalyptic exposition, but through the intimate nuances of language.

Adara’s voice keeps the story small and personal, despite frequent mentioning of larger events – events one suspects will take on a bigger role as the Song of Forgetfulness moves along. Often times the unique vocabulary, the inverted phrasing, and the swapping of adjectives for adverbish thingies, helps our hero describe her own body and its processes. This isn’t Tolkien, inventing words to teach us about the history of the world; this is instead a skilled author inventing words to describe defecation and menstruation, among other things. And that brings a good deal of light and humor to what is too often a humorless genre. It also makes Adara feel very real. 

Along the way, not surprisingly, Adara meets a cast of characters. Some are friends, some are enemies, and more than a few are shrouded in mystery. As these things go, we know some untrustworthy characters will behave honorably, while some close friends will commit acts of betrayal. While reading this novel I sometimes proceeded along with a sense of dread, that it might succumb to the banalities of its formulaic nature. But always my fears were unfounded as new characters and imaginative details kept the story fresh and fascinating. I was particularly interested in the character of Wirt, a sidekick with a unique manner, and a compelling and horrifying backstory. In fact, it is the nature of Wirt’s troubled past that makes Adara and him such interesting companions, as the potential for a romantic connection is complicated in ways you won't find in Shakespeare.

Another unique aspect of the book, that sets it apart, and above, other books of this genre, is its upbeat and positive tone. While the future setting is certainly grim, and tragedy is close and personal, our hero seems unflappable. Again, much of this comes through in the nature of her voice, and her humor (intentional on the part of the author, but maybe not always intentional on the part of Adara). She’s an easy girl to root for, and she earns the readers sympathy without playing the standard chords of loss and abuse and loneliness. She gets our support from this great narrative voice, that is so human and honest. The idea that she is special and gifted with unique abilities is entirely believable, not because the author simply tells us she’s destined for greatness, but because she’s genuinely drawn by the author as someone of singular quality.  

If I had to offer any criticism of Echoes from the Lost Ones I would say it is an uneven book. The characters and language are at times richly presented, thoroughly developed, and as well done as anything in the genre. However, there are times when these strengths create a harsh contrast with flatter, less successful elements of the story. Many characters are simply drawn cutouts from too many other stories, and they miss the quirky and imaginative details the author gives her main characters. Certain plot elements suffer from this same contrast. A climactic scene near the end is presented through quick exposition, without giving the reader a chance to see how events fully affect the characters. I realize this is an attempt to move the story along quickly as important event unfold in a chaotic situation. And I did tear through the last bit of the book, riveted by the sequence of events. 

Generally speaking, I was extremely impressed by this novel, which I chose completely at random to be the first (of many) books I review on this blog. Ultimately the greatest indicator of how much I enjoyed this (or any other) book is whether or not I pick up the next book in the series. I suspect the next book, which I hope to read soon, will explore the larger story, and bring more depth of characterization to some of this book’s minor players.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Recording My Own Audiobook: A Beginner's Journal Part 3

Day 4: Relocated my “recording studio” for the third time in three days. Now I’m in the closet of my daughter’s room. It’s the only closet that’s empty enough to squeeze my body into. I did this because yesterday’s decision to basically ignore outside noise was a ridiculous decision. This new space is as quiet a place as I have access to. Other than my car in my garage. It seems kind of inevitable that that’s where I’ll end up, but for now we’ll try the closet and see how things go. I mount (okay, tape) the voice screen (now I’m just making terms up) to a box of Pampers and set the mic behind it. But before I start the day’s recording I find I’m still not ready to give up on the iPad. I don’t feel good about using the Mac laptop since it’s a work computer. There’s sex and cursing and gratuitous descriptions of defecation in my book. I don’t want to get caught up in some weird public school scandal. I also have heard that anything created on these work computers becomes the property of my employer. I’d hate to lose out on the big bucks this project is sure to generate. I do some test reads on the iPad and then some on the Mac and I confirm yesterday’s decision. The iPad records a very loud background hum that’s not there when I plug in to the Mac. This is surprising since so many people online recommended using the iPad for voice recording. Again I have this feeling of dread and frustration that my lack of knowledge is the source of the problem, not the hardware. But googling “why does the voice recorder on the iPad version of Garageband have a background hum while the voice recorder on the Mac version of Garageband doesn’t?” yields exactly zero relevant hits.

And I discover yet another problem with recording on the iPad. The voice recorder doesn’t seem to be reading gain properly. The mic has a gain dial, but when I fiddle with it I don’t see the “needle” on the voice recorder display moving any differently. Why? Why why why! On the Mac version the gain dial visibly adjusts the gain. One more reason to commit to using the Mac.

My plan for the day, now that I’ve relocated and settled the hardware and software issues is to lay down at least an hour of content without stopping to edit. I want to get a good chunk of material that’s not a test, but the real thing. I suspect it’s important to read a lot per sitting so there’s some continuity in the nuances of sound quality. I’m not going to be able to reproduce the exact same levels every time I sit down, so I need to make the most of each session. I don’t want this thing to sound all cobbled together. I plow through the first four chapters of the book, pausing and lip smacking when I make mistakes. I don’t go back and listen to everything I record. I know I have to move forward and not stress every detail if I’m going to get this done. I also don’t stress the different voices I have to read. I just do my best to give each character a unique sound. This is the most interesting part of the process so far, realizing how physically altering your mouth and face when you talk gives your vocal delivery a slight variation. So what I end up doing is screwing up my face in a variety of ways when I talk. I become the characters. It feels like real acting, now that there’s this physical component in addition to the vocals. I imagine there would be a lot of gesticulating as well, if I had an inch to move in this cramped closet, or didn’t worry about knocking down the winter coats hanging above me (winter coats, incidentally, that will stay in the closet as long as Los Angeles continues to be in the 80s this winter).

My plan for tomorrow is to edit the hour of content as well as I can, trying out different effects until I find a sound that I’m happy with. And assuming I can get something I consider to be useable, what then? Thinking about the next step gives me the Howling Fantods. I don’t know what to do when it comes to turning my 40 or 50 one-hour segments into a finished product. I still don’t know if I want to put this up as a free podcast, or if I want to try and sell it as an audiobook on my website. I don’t know. And whichever option I choose, I don’t know how to do it. I’m confident I can learn, but there is a lingering fear that I’m going to record this whole book only to find that it’s not the right file type, or it’s too loud or too quiet, or that I’ll run into some insurmountable compatibility issues. The last thing I want to do is visit to download some kind of conversion software that doesn’t work, or I can’t figure out how to make work. I’d like to think I can save worrying about all these issues until I’m done recording, but that’s not a smart approach. What I should do is try to take my one-hour of good solid content (assuming that’s what I get tomorrow) the whole way through the process. All the way to an uploaded podcast? How do I do that? Can I do that? On iTunes? On my website? Or do I mean take it all the way to an uploadable audiobook file, which it goes without saying I’m a far cry from knowing how that all works.

Wait, why am I doing this again?

Because you got a microphone for Christmas. And you always ask for shit you never use. Like the Xbox 360 you got two years ago. And Skyrim. You had to spend two fucking years playing that infernal game just to justify your request. Asshole! Or maybe it’s some high-level hardcore procrastination. If you weren’t recording an audiobook you’d have to sit down on this vacation and actually, gulp, try to write another novel.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Recording My Own Audiobook: A Beginner's Journal Part 2

Day 3: Yesterday was my first real attempt to record a decent quality audiobook. As expected, numerous problems revealed themselves. My goal for today is to tackle these problems one by one in a logical and systematic way. There’s no hurry here. If it takes a while to sort things out, that’s fine. Humanity has done just fine for the past 100,000 years without a Smoke Monkey International audiobook. A few more weeks isn’t going to spoil the party.

Issue #1: The couch cushion tent fort recording studio.

I need to ask myself if this is a realistic thing to set up and dismantle on a daily basis. Is this really the ideal recording space, or do I just like building cushion forts? I need to try and be mature here, and professional. I need to face the fact that I’m being ridiculous. But beyond that, I need to really think about what I know about sound recording and sound proofing. Which raises this fundamental question: Is the purpose of a good recording space mainly to keep sound in, or to keep sound out? I don’t actually know the answer to this question. The reason I went with the cushion fort studio idea was because I figured all the padding would protect and massage the sound waves, give them a nice place to land. This in turn would lend a warmth and fullness to the sound of my voice. But now I’m suspecting that the real purpose of a recording studio is to block extraneous noises from fouling up the recording. I’m sure on some level a good recording space is supposed to do both of these things. But my cushion fort sure as hell isn’t keeping any sounds out. Cars and busses and even airplanes make a lot of noise in my apartment. I accept the fact that if I am going to record in my apartment, I might as well do it in a more comfortable and spacious location, because there’s no blocking the sounds of the city. Earlier in the day I listened to three episodes of the podcast called  “Podcasting for Dummies.” The narrator made a good suggestion. He said you can record in a loud apartment and just pause whenever you hear a bus go by. Then make lip smacking noises so the sound waves on the recording program show you where you need to splice when you edit. Then resume. Podcasting for Dummies indeed. I set up my recording gear at the desk in my office (which is also my bedroom). 

Issue #2: The mic.
I need to do something about the popping sounds I make when I read words that start with certain letters. I’ve read I can make a screen out of pantyhose. I call my wife to get pantyhose location info, as well as permission to destroy a pair. My wife is great, but between cushion forts and pantyhose vocal screens, I know I’m pushing some kind of unspoken limit. Years ago we bought sauté pan splatter screens in a set of three. I find that slipping the pantyhose over the smallest of these creates a nice air blocking screen with a convenient handle. I’m proud of my resourcefulness. I do some sound tests and, wow, the thing works like a charm. Except for the fact that the pantyhose are black (sexy!) and I can’t see through them to verify that the mic is positioned properly, which you might not think is a big deal, but it turns out I blow a few long recordings because the mic has swiveled without my noticing. Podcasting for Imbeciles!

Issue #3: Hardware and software.
I learn today that the version of Garageband for iPads is very different from the version on an actual computer. The computer version allows you to fool around with the recording and fix some big problems, like background humming. It’s possible to do raw recording on the iPad and then transfer the file to the computer to deal with cleaning it up, but that process doesn't work for me for a couple of ridiculous reasons. First of all, I literally can’t figure out how to do this basic operation. I’m not an ignoramus when it comes to using technology, but I do have a young child. My brain sometimes just stops working. I look online, I watch tutorials, and I just can’t do it. It’s incredibly frustrating and time consuming. Additionally (and these two issues might be related) my Mac computer is a work issued computer and I am not an administrator. The iTunes version on the computer is too old to work with Garageband, so when I try to move files from the iPad I’m told I need to update the version, which I don’t have the authority to do. Alternatively, I do have a Windows PC and a Windows laptop, but they can’t run Garageband. But why am I married to this idea of using Garageband anyway? Jesus. Through some trial and error I accept the fact that my best option is to record directly onto the Mac computer using the full version of Garageband. This is the right move I’m certain, but I’m disappointed to learn that I can’t make my iPad do this one cool thing I want it to do. At least I can still use it to read from while I record.

So I’ve sorted a lot of things out at this point, and the day is nearly shot. I’ve moved the recording studio to my desk and accepted the fact that I will have to accommodate ambient noises. I’ve settled on a hardware and software situation. And I’ve got a pantyhose screen guard. So I’ve fixed some of the fixable issues. But there are still more problems.

Issue #4: My voice.
I finally start recording and find that while I can control the gain level coming off the mic, I cannot control the saliva level in my mouth. And so, what the fuck, Mouth? You can talk all day without Noah’s flood pooling against your tonsils, but when I need a nice clear delivery for my audiobook it’s like you've set up shop on the Olympic Peninsula. The same thing happens to me at the dentist. So I’m recording and pausing to swallow and smacking my lips three times like the guy told me to whenever there’s a problem or an outside distraction, and I finally get through a chapter.

Issue #5: Editing.

Editing on the Mac computer goes great, except for the fact that when I take out a problem section and splice the file back together, the voice sounds slightly different from one side to the next. The final product sounds like it’s been cut and pasted together, which it has. I’m hoping there’s a way to smooth all of this over. But I don’t know what that way is. And I’m still not happy with the tone of my voice. If I leave off effects it sounds too realistic, like a guy reading. If I put some effects on my voice I can get a nice filtered sound the resembles the audiobook quality I’m familiar with. But there’s a slight electronic edge to the vocals and you can tell they've been digitally manipulated. Maybe that’s what you get when you do it yourself, or maybe I just don’t know what I’m doing yet. We’ll see.

Recording My Own Audiobook: A Beginner's Journal Part 1

The intention of this blog series is to document my experiences recording and distributing the audiobook version of my novel Smoke Monkey International, which I released as both an ebook and a paperback last year. I also want to stress right here at the beginning that I have no idea what I'm doing. That's kind of the point. I don't know how to engineer, mix, edit, or upload an audio file. I don't know if I'm recording an audiobook, a podcast, or a podiobook. I don't have a recording studio or any real recording equipment. But what I do have is a new baby, no free time, and a can-do attitude Christmas gut.

Deep Background Information - Readers of this blog (chuckle, chuckle) know that I love audiobooks. I listen to them compulsively on my bike commute to and from work. I do this mainly because it's the only form of reading I can do anymore. Actual books put me to sleep, literally. So my familiarity with the audiobook format is one thing I do have going for me. The other thing I have going for me is my novel, which I think is good. People seem to enjoy it. 

The very first step I took was to contact a music producer friend of mine (okay, we were friends in high school and haven't really talked since) and ask for advice. I was hoping he'd be so impressed that I'd written and published a novel that he would offer to produce the audiobook for me, add his name to the credits, write some killer bumper music, and use his contacts to help market it far and wide. He did indeed offer to let me use his studio and his sound engineer, but only during off-hours since he needed the studio during the day. Work and family life prevented me from taking advantage of this opportunity, which would have required me to drive to the other side of Los Angeles at night and on weekends many, many times. To which I say, I'd rather just stay home and get drooled on. What this offer did do was force me to put a number on just how many hours I expected this whole process to take. Once I thought seriously about it, I realized it was going to take over 50 hours, just to record. Probably longer. I can't set aside a chunk of time like that. The only way this is going to happen is if I do it myself, with my own stuff, in bits and pieces, whenever I can get a minute free. 

Day One - The project starts in earnest on Christmas morning when I get an Apogee MiC. My recording buddy had told me I could do this whole thing myself, with a computer, as long as I had a good microphone. So now I have my passably good microphone. I decided on the Apogee MiC after doing a lot of research in the internet. I had it in my head that I wanted to record the whole audiobook on my iPad, using Garageband, because of the portability and simplicity. The MiC was almost universally recommended for iPad users. The price seemed right too. $199 was reasonable - not too expensive and not too cheap. 

Because I'm on vacation at this point, and have no time to myself, I can't really start recording the book. But I do have a chance to fool around with the mic and Garageband, just to understand the basics of the program. Garageband is a very simple and intuitive program, as I heard it was. I watch a few tutorials about voice recording on YouTube. Educating yourself on technical matters by reading and watching stuff on the internet is a tricky matter. I've found a lot of conflicting information, or information that applies to certain versions of software or hardware that are slightly different that what I have. I learn from one article that in order to record a long track you need to set Garageband's tempo down to 40. Another post said all I had to do to record a long track is to set the "song section" length to "automatic". That seemed to make the most sense and it also seems to work so far. If you don't change this setting your recording will loop back to the start once the end of the track is reached, and you will then start recording over your own track. 

Day Two - I'm back in town and still have another week of vacation, so it's the ideal time to start the recording process. Other than the massive time commitment required for this project, the other major problem I have is the lack of a quiet space to record. Everything I've read about recording stresses the importance of finding the right space. I live on a noisy street and a noisy alley. People have suggested closets and cars in garages as the best options for home recording. But I have a better, stranger, and far more satisfying option in mind. I build an old-school couch cushion fort and layer the whole thing in blankets. 

It's hot, stuffy, cramped...and very quiet inside. It'll work for now. The next step is to set up the hardware and software. I put the mic in its stand and place it on a coffee table that's at head level when I sit on the floor. I plug the mic into the iPad and start up Garageband. I select the Audio Recorder option. I set the song length to automatic. There are two different screens you can set up to monitor your recording. The default screen, which shows a nice graphic of the mic level. The other screen shows you a vertical display of the tracks. For some reason, in order to see the recording effect options, or the vertical track display, you first have to record something. Then these options appear. I mess around a bit with the effects and quickly realize "dry" is the way to go. So I'm ready to start reading...

One great thing about Garageband is that you can set it to run in the background while you use other apps. I'm able to bring up the ebook version of my novel on the Kindle app and read directly from my iPad. This is ideal since reading from the iPad doesn't make any noise and you can set the font size nice and big, so you're less apt to make mistakes while reading. 

Actually reading the book, of course, is the most important aspect of this project. I've been a teacher for years and because kids these days are mostly incapable of reading assigned texts, I spend a lot of time reading out loud to my students.  I'm not going to get into whether or not this is "good teaching." Okay, yes I am. Conventional thinking says it's bad for a teacher to read Catcher in the Rye to his students during class. I do it because otherwise half the class would not experience the text and would not be able to complete related assignments. Besides, I'm not going to pass up the opportunity to yell at my students, "Sleep tight ya morons!" or, simply, "Fuck you!" My point is that experience has made me a good reader. But I do not have a good reading voice. My voice sounds gravely when recorded, almost like there are lingering puberty issues. I know that I will not be able to alter my voice throughout the reading process in a convincing and consistent way. And I don't want to sound like a phony either. So my voice is what it is and it'll have to do. But there are further complications. My book has an internal dialogue that I need to read in different ways so the listener knows there are two voices in the conversation, not just one. Additionally, there are many scenes with multiple characters. So I will need to read these character voices. I don't know how to do this, or at least not in a professional sense. I'm not an actor. There are three options for dealing with this. First, I can ignore the issue, save time and energy, and just read everything in my own voice and let the listener sort it out. Second, I can do my best to read different voices and try not to be a perfectionist about the outcome. Third, I can get help from friends and have them read other parts. While the third option would certainly complicate the process logistically, it sounds like a good solution. However, in listening to audiobooks I find I dislike it whenever there's a change in the narrator. For example, I'd rather have a male narrator fake a female voice than have an actual female take those parts. So, I'm going to attempt the second option and read voices. This will be a lot more fun (which is the main point of doing all this anyway, right? It's not like my audiobook is going to make me any real money). I locate a chapter in the book with multiple characters and press record. 

After many attempts, I mange to work out the seven different voices I will need. There's the narrator, the main character, the main character's subconscious voice (part of the inner-dialogue), an angry Vietnamese guy, a serious college kid, a stoner college kid, and an angry and frustrated college kid. I'm sure I sound like a huge racist when I read the Vietnamese guy's voice, but it's certainly clear who he's supposed to be. The other voices require more subtlety. I spend several hours stopping and starting and rehearsing and cursing. My cushion fort seems to be working out well. When I'm done with the chapter I take down my fort and move to a desk to listen to the results and see what I can do about improving the sound quality.

I pop my earbuds in and have a listen. Yikes. Major problems. First of all there's a lot of popping certain letters. I knew this was going to happen. In my mind I assumed it would be easy to edit this stuff out. Given Garageband's limited and simplistic editing capabilities I realize I can't just edit them out. I need to get a screen of some sort. I look online and learn  I can make my own screen with pantyhose. Beyond that problem, and the problem that I still don't like the way my voice sounds, is the problem of overall sound quality. My voice sounds too realistic, too clear, too much like it was recording by a guy sitting on his floor inside a cushion fort. I need some kind of mask or filter to make my voice sound "right." It's the same kind of difference between camcorder footage and film. The iPad version of Garageband gives you very few options when it comes to adjusting the sound quality. Certainly nothing I do solves this problem. I read some more stuff online and realize that fixing this problem is no simple task. It's the reason people pay a lot of money for professional equipment, or why people hire professional audio engineers to record audiobooks. There is no cheap easy fix for this. 

But I'm done for the day.