The Importance of Negative Space in Audio Content

The other day, we talked about negative space in print and digital text and our need for visual breaks in order to process what we’re looking at. It’s no different with sound. You’ve probably noticed this if you’ve ever been at a concert or a sporting event. The sheer din can make you feel like you’re going insane after a while.

Sound designers and producers of audio content are aware of this, too, so they incorporate periods of silence to help offset some of that. That silence, strangely enough, is the negative space in an audio track. And while the performer or sound designer might be using that space for dramatic effect, they’re also using it to give the brain a break from processing sound for a moment so it will be ready to receive the next group of sounds.

This has two effects on the listener. First, it allows a moment of rest from the otherwise continual input of sound, because otherwise we have no real means of doing that ourselves beyond leaving the noisy space or covering our ears. Second, it allows our brain a moment to make sense of the noise. In noisier spaces like concerts and sporting events, the brain really has to work to sort out sounds from each other and figure out what to focus on and why. In quieter spaces or situations designed to help the listener, the brain has less to process and can more quickly latch onto what it’s hearing so the rest of the body can respond appropriately.

In teaching and narration, this pause also allows time for what’s been heard to be processed and added to what had been heard previously, since there’s rarely an easy way to go back quickly and re-listen to what was just heard, as opposed to reading where eyes normally jump back routinely to re-read a passage. It also helps to show how information has been organized in the listening material. A longer pause is a shift in topic; a shorter pause is a continuation of the current topic.

For some, the silence can feel annoying, but in the end it’s really there as an aid to the listener. When employed well, it can tell the listener a lot about what they’re listening to and help them sort out auditory information.

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Moving From Corps to Solo Performer

One of the more fun parts of coming home, especially when your current work space looks out over your old play space, is that it forces you to look at your life choices. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I grew up studying ballet and performing in choirs and bands, often practicing and creating my own little “performances” in my backyard. Like so many kids, I wanted to be in the spotlight.

No, that’s not true. I wanted to be a soloist, because that was where the more complicated, interesting choreography and musical passages were (and I spent a lot of my free time learning not only my part, but the part I really wanted to be playing. Again, not terribly uncommon.). And if you were the soloist, you got to spend more time dancing, singing, or playing. The spotlight was an unfortunate side effect of being a soloist.

Thanks to this internal struggle, I spent most of my time as Corps or ensemble, gaining the occasional demi-soloist, character, or featured piece when a teacher just couldn’t spend another minute watching me fail to get out of my own way. As a result, I’m really good performing as part of a group…and not entirely comfortable being on stage by myself.

And so it was with this background (coupled with a nearly crippling stage fright that two decades of teaching failed to beat out of me) that I walked into my first voiceover audition. I decided a booth had to be less scary than a stage, but the minute the audition was over and I realized that I had possibly just signed up to have my voice either permanently on file in audiobooks or (even more terrifying) broadcast live once a week, I started rethinking my bravery in seeking out the audition to begin with.

I got the audiobook job, and a game job right behind it, and dozens of jobs since. And I still freak out when I sit down to start working on an audiobook. There’s no Corps to hide behind, no ensemble to blend in with. It’s just me, the book, and the microphone recording my every sound. It’s the soloist role I always wanted, without putting me into a spotlight during the performance.

Experimenting With Story Forms

I’ve recently noticed an old post about taking an adaptation approach versus taking a transmedia (or crossmedia, as they say these days) approach gaining a lot of traffic (thank you). When I wrote that post, I was trying to learn everything I could about both adaptation and transmedia (crossmedia), but it was all reading and not a lot of practical application.

Nearly two years before I wrote that post, I was starting to work on an aspect of my story world, which led to my writing a lot of little scenes exploring netrunning and the more cybernetic aspects of the world. One of those stories, the vignette “Wired Out“, has found new life over the last month or so as I’ve recycled it a couple of times over.

It kind of started by accident. Last month, wattpad announced they had partnered with SoundCloud to allow writers to add sounds to their stories through the Android app. So, I decided to try it out and see what was involved. It was not easy. It was not intuitive. But if you check out “Wired Out” through the wattpad Android app, you can now hear me read it to you. (I’m still not even sure I set it up correctly. How’s that for sad?)

But just narrating a story as it’s written with no changes or embellishments really isn’t an adaptation. You’ve simply changed its form from text to audio.

Last week, hitRECord’s Comic Collective asked participants to to create a comic with a personified character. At first, I thought about a story I’m working on where elementals run a bit rampant. I thought about how elements are portrayed, their symbolism and associations, and it gave me a headache. (I’m more easily overwhelmed these days than I thought.) But as I lay there, hiding my head under my pillow, I suddenly had the thought: The data ghosts in New Glory’s net are energy personified. I had quite a few notes on how they worked…and I had a vignette where one of these creatures was wandering around.

So, I sat down and spent more time than I probably should have converting a scene of roughly 100 words into a six-panel comic script. It was an experience. I really had to think about how to convey what I see in my head so that someone else could do something with it (assuming they didn’t go their own direction with it). Effectively, the story has been split into its dialogue and its visual elements. To me, that feels more like an adaptation.

I’m going to keep looking for ways to change the form of some of my older stories. Who knows? I may even find another way to use “Wired Out”. It’s interesting to see what a story can become when you present it through a different medium.

Public Domain Music in Audiobooks

One of the unexpected side effects of narrating audiobooks is working with authors and public domain books that have songs in them. My personal reading material tends toward science fiction and fantasy, so it’s no surprise I gravitate toward science fiction and fantasy in my narrating work. But those crazy science fiction and fantasy authors…they sometimes like to bring flavor to their world by writing songs that characters sometimes break into. It’s not a Disney musical or anything, but it can make for an interesting day of narrating.

When the author has also thought through the tune and has it handy, it makes things fairly simple. When the author hasn’t… Well, let’s just say I’m figuring out filking at an accelerated rate.

Some of the books I work on, though, are public domain, which is both a blessing and a curse when a song comes up. In an audiobook where referenced music is under copyright, you just can’t sing the song if one is present. (I have actually been bad and broken this once. It was one line in a book narrated for a not-for-profit organization.) In an audiobook where the referenced music is in the public domain, you can sing away. Theoretically.

At the moment, I’m working on a pair of public domain audiobooks where there are many songs that can be (and often are) read as poems even though they were written as songs. So when I was preparing the books for narration, I tried to find the original tunes. (There are a number of copyrighted versions of these songs, but I had no desire to approach those avenues.) I was able to find a few of the tunes, but one is a parody of a song that was popular at the time the books were written.

A song whose tune that has apparently been lost to time. (I combed music archives looking for it.)

So, what happens to a song in an audiobook when the public domain tune is no longer available? In this case, I felt like I couldn’t just randomly switch back and forth between singing the tunes I could find and reciting the poems the rest of the time, so I made the decision to just recite everything to keep things uniform. It hasn’t been the easiest decision. Heh.

As someone very interested in adaptation and rip-mix-burn, it’s been really interesting to actually be working with these copyright issues and trying to make the right decisions for the material and for my performance. Enlightening, really. I’m glad I’m getting this opportunity to explore the copyright lines in a practical setting.

Public Domain and Copyright

One of the earliest groups I narrated for was a group focused on recording public domain stories, and now I narrate for a publisher who specializes in public domain short stories and novellas. It’s interesting to see all of these older stories, to see what various genres used to look like. But it’s also interesting to listen to other narrators in this group run into issues with whether or not a story is public domain. (I’ve been lucky so far. I haven’t recorded a contested story.)

By now, you may be asking yourself what public domain is, and why it matters. Let’s start by looking at that delightfully misunderstood creature, copyright. Copyright is the protection conferred on a creative work, regardless of medium, that makes it illegal to duplicate, sample, or modify the work except under a very select set of cases covered by the Fair Use Doctrine. Thanks to estates and corporations, copyright has offered a changing protection. As I write this, a creative work comes under copyright protection the moment it is captured in a tangible form, regardless of whether or not the symbol is present, and this protection remains until the creator releases the work to the public domain (or Creative Commons) or until ninety years after the creator’s death. That’s just for works created after 1978. For works created before that, it’s…a lot more complicated.

When a work’s copyright expires, it moves into the Public Domain. It is no longer protected by copyright laws and can be used for performance, remix, sampling, etc., without having to worry about violating someone else’s copyright or dealing with licensing fees. Because copyright rules change, works come into the Public Domain at different times, depending on when they were created, when the creator passed away, and whether or not the creator’s estate has extended the copyright. When the creator was prolific across most of their life, this can cause their works to be protected under different copyright rules, which affects when they become Public Domain.

And that’s where the challenge comes for the narrators and producers focused on the Public Domain, and what actually sparked the recent conversation that inspired this post. Most of the people I know engaged in recording Public Domain stories are diligent and try to make sure the stories they’re working are in fact in the Public Domain. But as you can see, sometimes it’s not completely clear whether or not a story has made it into the Public Domain, and so a story still under copyright protections accidentally gets recorded as a Public Domain story. The rights holder invariably finds out and makes the narrator/producer aware of the still-existing copyright, and in every case I’ve heard about the matter has been resolved with a quick apology and unpublishing of the audiobook.

As creators, remixers, and consumers, we spend a lot of time dealing with copyright and Fair Use. But it’s just as treacherous ground negotiating copyright and Public Domain. It’s very interesting to watch.

Writing Lessons Learned From Narrating

This week marks the second anniversary of my becoming an audiobook narrator. It’s been an interesting and fun experience. The pros say that writers can learn a lot from reading other writers, but I’ve realized a writer can learn a lot from narrating others’ books.

As writers, we all have our own love-hate relationship with revising and editing, even as we know how beneficial it is to polish our stories to a fine shine. But it can be hard to catch everything when you’re staring at a manuscript for the third, eighth, or twenty-third time. This is why writers are encouraged to put away a story for a bit between writing and editing rounds, to gain a fresher pair of eyes. This is also why it’s useful to employ such editing tricks as reading a manuscript backwards and reading it out loud. There’s so much that can be missed as eyes skim over the page in a traditional pattern.

But if the writer has edited to “good enough” and then handed the manuscript off to a narrator to record the audio version, the narrator can only read what’s on the page. The mistake can render the sentence into complete gibberish, and the narrator still has to read it as is and make it sound deliberate. I speak from experience when I tell you that if the narrator is, or has ever been, an editor, a well-crafted typo can spark a war between narrator and inner editor that drives the narrator to walk off, take a deep breath, and come back. (I also speak from experience when I say having to go back and correct a recorded sentence to include a mistake because the narrator didn’t realize she subconsciously edited the sentence isn’t fun, either.)

For writers who prefer to dwell in science fiction and fantasy worlds, especially if they write series, a writer’s bible is essential. And if there is an intent to eventually turn the book series into an audiobook series, then there needs to be a running pronunciation sheet for the narrator. As someone who has narrated almost nothing but science fiction and fantasy novels, I can tell you how much of a life saver a pronunciation guide can be. (Some of my authors will tell you I’m not afraid to ask how to pronounce names.) The writer has created this immersive world. The narrator is trying to recreate the world in sound. Nothing is more distracting than listening to a narrator (be it the narrator herself while prooflistening or editing, or the narrator of a long-running urban fantasy series) who doesn’t pronounce a name the same way twice. The argument that different people might pronounce a certain name differently doesn’t hold water when it’s the narrator point-of-view changing the pronunciation. (Also a pain to edit, but I tend to write down intended pronunciations in a notebook that sits open in my line of sight while I’m narrating. It can help.)

These really are cosmetic lessons for the writer-turned-narrator, though. Once a writer has started narrating, a number of things about her own writing really start to jump out at her. I think Mary Robinette Kowal, herself a writer and narrator, really hit the nail on the head when she noted how aware the writer becomes of things like characters within a single story or scene, dialogue, and the point of view of the character or voice telling the story.

Because the narrator is interacting more deeply with the story, searching for subtext and characterization to pull out into the narration, the writer who also narrates gets to analyze the author’s writing style and techniques that much more closely, making it a powerful learning experience. So, I’m grateful I’ve had this opportunity over the last couple of years to get to explore. Time to go see what I’ll learn next!

Making Reading Accessible

Right before I moved away from Boulder several years ago, I happened to meet one of the directors for Boulder’s Books for the Blind program. The books were read almost entirely by volunteers, and the guy thought I would be a great addition to his collection of readers. Unfortunately, I was a couple of weeks away from moving to a different state, so I had to turn him down.

I always regretted that.

When I got to grad school, I tried to see if Lubbock had a similar program, but finding any sort of useful service in Lubbock was something akin to looking for actual cheese on the moon.

Last year, I started sniffing around the Seattle area to see if I could find any similar program, and found a service that made the books available, but had no information on how those books came into being. (Were I smart, I’d go ask my favorite reference librarian in training about it!) I need to go looking again, because I need some way out of my current life. I need a chance to do something fun and relaxing!

It turns out that I may actually have an option if I’m willing to keep living this insane shut-in life. If I can locate a microphone that works better than the one I’m currently trying to work with, I may decide to volunteer with Librivox! It couldn’t hurt, right?