Words with Friends

Our authors & collaborators.

Why IZotope RX?

Serafim: As you get more comfortable producing audiobooks, your ear will become more attuned to imperfections exacerbated by ACX’s and other platforms’ Loudness requirements. You’ll become more aware of producing mouth clicks or rogue breaths—which is good news. You’re a human being. Bodies make noise. You don’t need to freak out, but you do need a workflow that will give you a no-stress way to address these issues.

Sierra: So, along those lines, what is IZotope RX and why is it essential?

Serafim: IZotype RX is one of the most prominent players in the game of audio restoration. It’s a complex suite of tools that address all sorts of audio issues, including noise, interference, wind, crackles—people use it to digitize vinyl records.

Sierra: So it’s a remastering tool?

Serafim: Yes. And for voice actors, in particular, there are two convenient IZotope modules that can act as plug-ins within your DAW: Mouth Declick and Breath Control.
     Mouth Declick (as opposed to the more generic Declick) applies a sophisticated algorithm to determine what is and is not a mouth click.

Sierra: To hear mouth clicks in the wild, just turn on C-Span and listen to a congressperson speaking into a microphone. Or pay close attention to your favorite television show. In our daily lives, we usually just tune these noises out. But in the audiobook world, we don’t like them, so what can we do?

Serafim: Ideally, this IZotope module scans your file, locates especially egregious pops and clicks, and wipes them away without taking a bite out of normal articulation.
     Whether or not you choose to seek out more in-depth instruction, it’s worth taking some time to just play with the settings. For example, there are three key adjustable settings in Mouth DeClick: sensitivity, frequency skew, and click widening. To see what they do, feed in an audio sample, crank the values all the way up, then listen. (You have the option of clicking a checkbox and hearing output clicks only, so you know exactly what’s being eliminated.)

Sierra: At the most extreme settings, the module’s probably stripping away sounds you want to keep right?

Serafim: Exactly. Like consonants.
     What’s most important is for you to develop an intuitive feel of what this or any program can do, first at its most extreme. Then you start to dial it down until you find your FX processing sweet spot.

Sierra: That’s when processing does what you want it to do but you still sound like yourself. So it’s a sweet spot that reconciles platform standards with your own.

Serafim: ACX or another platform isn’t necessarily going to flag you for having too many mouth clicks.

Sierra: Though listeners might do so in their reviews. People have become quite sensitive about mouth clicks in the audiobook world, less so when it comes to breaths, which we’ll get to in a bit.

Serafim: That’s why you want to seek feedback, ideally from listeners who care at least a little bit about audiobook sound. You’re going in with a specific question: Does this FX processing sound too heavy, not heavy enough, or just right? You might consider rendering several different versions and then setting up a blind test so as to get the most unbiased observations.

Sierra: We also like to audition our tracks with different headphones. Apple AirPods Pro have turned out to be a key part of our workflow, because they tend to favor higher frequencies, like many popular daily-use earbud headphones.

Serafim: You may hear more mouth noises in AirPods than you would hear in really nice professional headphones.

Sierra: That’s kind of a good thing, right? That enables you to be confident, once you’ve fine-tuned, that you’re giving the listener the experience that you want them to have and that you want to have when you’re listening to an audiobook. That also means you want to be confident in the tools you use, so you don’t have to crank up the volume to an extreme. Your ears are, after all, your most important technology.
     What about Breath Control?

Serafim: Your breathing is another key element in your own suite of expressive tools. You don’t necessarily want to eliminate every breath or even any breath. In some projects, on some days, you may find some breaths distracting. IZotope’s Breath Control module enables you to attenuate breaths across a project as desired. If you do crank up the Breath Control settings to their extreme, it’s probably going to sound unnatural.

Sierra: Even if it doesn’t, you may find that you’ve introduced a glitch into your audio. We discovered, when producing one particular audiobook, in listening to the entire file—which we are want to do, often more than once—that the Breath Control was out of control: it had begun to interpret certain letters as breaths, creating little dips in volume throughout the file.

Serafim: Again, it’s finding the sweet spot, so you don’t have to micromanage.

Sierra: It’s definitely a tradeoff, becoming sensitive to otherwise minute noises: once you’ve heard them, you can’t go back, then you need to do something about them.

Serafim: We started with the technology for a reason. There are things a voice actor can do to prepare.

Sierra: The first thing everyone’s going to tell you, great advice, is hydration. Just as we’ve been advising you to experiment with your plug-in settings, you’ll need to discover, with time and trial, just how much water you need to drink and when, based on what feels good. Some voice actors swear off dairy products, others don’t like the after-effects of toothpaste. Something that bothers one person may have no effect on you at all. There is no average voice actor and no one-for-all solution.

Serafim: What about breathing?

Sierra: I like that there’s competing schools of thought on breath. Some voice actors have developed a regular pattern of breath, like the tide going in and out. I happen to be someone who breaths very quietly. We did find ourselves using a bit of Breath Control during an especially hot summer when we had no AC. Good lesson: The environment of the booth will influence the environment of your mouth and the sounds you make. To the extent that you can make yourself comfortable in your booth, that’s going to have an impact. There’s also the iron law of body chemistry; you can’t control day-to-day fluctuations, but you can become more aware, say, when you need to take a drink.

Serafim: There’s only so much you can do to optimize your voice. You do your job and then let the engineer and the technology do theirs.

Why Adobe Audition?

Sierra: In our last Booth Basic, we talked about Reaper, our DAW of choice, but we have to give some more attention to Adobe Audition. As we’ve already covered, Audition is a DAW, you can record in it, and it will help you pass Audiobook Submission (aka Loudness) standards, which is why we love it. You can also combine it with a more customizable DAW like Reaper, in which case Audition plays one or both of two main roles in your workflow. . .

Serafim: We use Audition as an external editor within Reaper for more precise editing, [Simple Editing]—the external editor feature makes it easy to jump a snippet of sound in between Reaper and Audition via a customizable shortcut. If you set up Audition as an external editor within Reaper [under Preferences, scroll down to external editor and select Audition], you have the option of specifying: Open item copies in primary external editor [under the Actions menu]. That allows for non-destructive editing, which both Reaper and Adobe products make a priority.
     We also use Audition in its stand-alone mode to meet Loudness standards. With the click of a button [the aptly named ITU-R BS.1770-3 Loudness setting, listed under Match to], we can target RMS and peak levels for any file [having, at an earlier stage, reduced our noise floor as necessary with the help of EQ].

Sierra: So in goes a file with poor RMS, out comes a submission-ready track that passes ACX and other platform standards. Eureka! At which point, you might understandably ask: Are we done now?

Serafim: Not quite. When you successfully match platform standards, your volume gets boosted, along with noises made by the voice actor, whether mouth clicks, breaths, or rustles. Fortunately, Audition has an especially user-friendly form of what’s called spectral view.

Sierra: I’d previously thought of this as a specialist’s tool, the kind used by ornithologists or scientists, not by voice actors intent on basic sound engineering.

Serafim: In spectral view, different frequencies of sound appear in different colors, so ornithologists do use it to analyze bird sounds; you can see the beginning, middle, and end of a sound and the gaps between words or phrases, where there shouldn’t necessary be any color/sound. Audition also provides you with a spot healing brush tool, which enables you to touch up your audio in the same subtle way you would a photograph in Adobe Photoshop or another graphics program. Only you’re going to be listening and looking.

Sierra: Before we started using the spectral view, we did a lot of zooming and slicing in Reaper to try and clean up noise, and sometimes it worked and we felt good, but a lot of times we just had to go back and spend even more time re-recording. Not anymore. (Hat tip to George the Tech, a great resource for all things audio engineering, for pointing us in this direction.)

Serafim: There’s no equivalent in Reaper to Adobe’s spot healing brush. When you work in Audition, you are preserving the integrity of the sound, excepting the intrusion. It is targeted removal.

Sierra: If you’re going to use more than one DAW, you’re going to want to set up your FX chain in both, so when you select a segment that needs work, click ‘a’ (or your shortcut of choice), and jump that sound to Audition, your overall sound remains consistent. Then you heal, hit save and click back to Reaper.

Serafim: Spot healing, however, has its limits. You could surgically remove every single click or noise, but for a 10-hour book, that would require an enormous time commitment.

Sierra: Even for a 20-minute book.

Serafim: But we have you covered in next month’s Booth Basic, exploring the essential support of IZotope RX. Until then, if you have any questions or comments, you know how to reach us.

Why Noise Floor, Peak, RMS?

Sierra: So you want to put out an audiobook? Whatever platform you’re using for distribution (ACX, Findaway Voices, Author’s Republic), you’re going to need to pass certain submission requirements. On the way to doing so, you may have some questions. We have answers.

Serafim: There’s no better place to begin than these three key measurements: Noise floor, peak, and RMS. At this point, you may feel a little overwhelmed. That’s where Booth Basics come in—we want to help you customize your workflow, so you won’t have to abruptly change course in order to pass standards you neither understand nor appreciate.

Sierra: When you’re recording a whole book, it may be tempting to think of it as one unit, but you’ll need to apply standards at the chapter or file level (opening/closing credits, titles). Each of these smaller unit will need a noise floor no greater than -60db, a peak that doesn’t exceed -3.5db, and RMS that averages between -18 and -23db.

Serafim: You’ll also need a few seconds of room tone [standards vary] at the beginning and end of each file.

Sierra: Make it easy for yourself: Record a few minutes of silence during a quiet moment, then set up a track with intro and outro silence so you can easily cut and paste into your projects—then it becomes part of your workflow, a box you check, nothing you need to think more about.
     As you either already know or will soon figure out, it’s incredibly time consuming to make an audiobook—fellow perfectionists, every chance you get to make something simpler, quicker, easier, just do it. You want to save your attention and energy for making the creative choices. On the way there—noise floor, what do we need to know?

Serafim: Your noise floor should be no higher than -60db. That means you want to arrive at a value between -60 and -90. It also means that your recording won’t have a background hum and you won’t hear dogs barking or children laughing in the background, anything that could make it harder for listeners to hear and enjoy your work. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, if you are recording in a closet or a sound-insulated but not sound-proof booth, you will need help from software to meet this requirement.

Sierra: Why is there a lower limit? What if your noise floor falls below -90?

Serafim: You don’t want that because you’re approaching digital silence. When noise floor values plunge, it suggests either that there is an editing error or that very heavy processing has been applied.

Sierra: If you listen to some older audiobooks, you’ll hear that the sound appears to fall off a cliff at each break, which sounds unnatural.

Serafim: Here’s where EQ comes in. Equalization enables you to select a certain frequency range and attenuate it. Think of a stereo with a nob that boosts or reduces bass; EQ is a digital nob that performs the same function. Most of the noise that you want to eliminate lives in the lower frequency range, so you can use a high-pass filter (a shelf blocking everything below 65Hz) to carve away that segment without degrading your voice and with the result that your noise floor drops to an acceptable degree.

Sierra: What about peak?

Serafim: Peak refers to the max loudness reached by a signal in a recording. When recording, if you set your microphone gain too high [more on this when we talk about our interface: RME Fireface UFX II], it will send you across the 0db threshold and the sound will distort. For safe file exporting, maximum peak setting enables you to set another shelf through which sound will not go. In general, platforms will want some headroom, so you’ll set your peak to -3 or slightly lower, allowing the supervising engineers room to apply additional processing.

Sierra: So in a nutshell, noise floor helps you avoid a noisy recording and peak helps you avoid a distorted recording?

Serafim: Exactly.
     Peak and RMS are closely related (as distinct from noise floor); in order to master both, you’ll need to use compression. (LUFS is the modern equivalent of RMS, but the audiobook industry appears to be sticking with RMS.) Root mean square measures average loudness across a file; it matters because you want your listeners to be able to hear the full spectrum of emotions—from dead calm to wildly excited—without their needing to constantly fiddle with their volume, like a classical music fan does when taking in a symphony.

Sierra: You’ve got to have that remote in your hand! Not so audiobook listeners, thanks to RMS.

Serafim: ACX and other platforms are asking that your recording falls on average between -18 and -23db. If you’re anything like us, your initial average will probably be a little high. That’s natural. 
     First, compression shaves off the highest peaks then your software of choice pushes this compressed span up into a loudness sweet spot. We experimented with different software and arrived at Adobe Audition, because it allows the user to set peak and RMS values in a way that renders submission-ready files, no further manipulation necessary.

Sierra: It might be worth mentioning that, when confronted with the challenge of RMS, we did what many newbie producers probably do and raised our gain—oooh, it sounds so much louder, more present, better! But as you discover, the more you raise the gain, the more everything gets louder, so you ping pong back and forth between passing RMS but failing noise floor and vice versa. If that’s where you’ve landed, why you’re here, seeking harmony. . . 

Serafim: Then you need compression. To recap, unless you’re recording on a spaceship, your noise floor will be higher than -60db, so you will use EQ to create a high-pass filter, think of it like releasing those booster rockets. For peak and RMS, you can rely on your DAW’s compression tools; with Audition, it takes mere seconds. At some point though, you may want more surgical precision. For example you can further experiment with EQ settings to help your recording sound more like you, an idea we’ve touched on before in our mic postcard and will inevitably return to.

Sierra: It’s worth noting that passing audiobook standards alone will not make you sound the most like you. With a DAW like Audition, however, you can do more. [Audition requires a subscription, but it isn’t the only option, just the one we use.]

Serafim: We don’t anticipate that everyone reading these postcards will want to make the same exact choices, but we hope you’ll go away with a better understanding of how these different tools and values fit together. We also hope that you can now appreciate how seemingly nitpicky standards meaningfully shape the listening experience. It can get frustrating but meeting these standards is an important milestone on the road to great sound. Once you reach this milestone, well, it’s just one peak and you might already be thinking about the next mountain to climb. And that’s why there will be more postcards from the booth!

The Gift of Time

The Gift of the Magi

Serafim: I first read The Gift of the Magi in Russian when I was quite young. I remember it was one of those stories that really touched me in a profound way. And then I approached you with the idea of recording this.

Sierra: It seemed like a great idea to me because I had also read it as a child. And I loved your idea of preparing this recording as a gift for our listeners.
    In retrospect, having read O’Henry’s story the first time, I didn’t remember any of the specific details about the characters, I only took away with me this basic exchange—

Serafim: If you haven’t heard the story yet, go listen to it before you read on!

Sierra: I recall being aware that there was supposed to be something foolish and sort of farcically sad about two people bungling their Christmas presents to each other in this particular way—something that O’Henry then overturned by suggesting that there was real wisdom in the action. And I think what he means by that, why this story is an evergreen one, is this question he’s asking: What is wisdom? What does it mean to call this exchange wise? He must be talking about the wisdom of the heart, not the wisdom of the mind.

Serafim: Jim makes this ultimate loving sacrifice by giving his watch and Della her hair—which isn’t quite the same thing, it’s more of an emotional possession.

Sierra: If I hadn’t been growing my hair for the last couple of years, I’d probably have forgotten just how looooong it takes to grow really long hair.

Serafim: How long would it have taken for Della to grow her hair “below her knees”?

Sierra: Well, hair grows like a half inch a month so just doing the math…nine years! When she cuts it off, it’s almost like a trip back in time.

Serafim: Do you think there’s also some mythic symbolism in her cutting her hair?

Sierra: Oh yeah. Like it’s biblical? Like Samson.

Serafim: Or when someone is becoming a monk, for example, they are cutting their hair.

Sierra: Or an Orthodox Jewish woman who shaves her head to wear a wig. Or a Muslim woman putting on a headscarf. I can see why the story focuses on the hair and not, say, on Jim going to sell his watch—though that would have similar emotional resonance for you, right?

Serafim: As a lover of watches, for me Jim’s watch is also a symbol of time. And timelessness. I was thinking about Jim and Della trying to fill a need for the other and I ended up asking myself: What is it people need today? What do we lack?
    What we all seem to want more of is time.

Sierra: If only we could give someone an extra 15 minutes of their life! But I guess the arts do give the sensation of time. When you step into the world of different characters, you travel with them, even beyond the story, like the time Della spent looking at the combs or when the two of them first moved into this apartment, even where they might go next. So that ribbon of time stretches backward and forward to infinity. And in tapping into that, I think we all enjoy the sensation of cutting loose from the wheel of time, even if only for a moment.


The Gift of the Magi

Serafim: Did you experience this story differently reading it as a narrator than you did the first time around?

sSierra: When we’d decided we’d do it, before I actually read it again, I had this bizarre notion that it took place in Chicago. So I started to think about doing Chicago accent for the dialogue, to give the listener some flavor of the setting and the time period, more than a century ago.
     When I realized it’s actually set in Manhattan, I naturally shifted to the idea of doing New York accents. I started to get uncertain, when I read that O’Henry was born in the Texas and that he came to New York relatively late in life, so I was thinking, ‘Maybe this is more of a Southern vernacular.’  But when I started to read in dialect, I just felt—this man is a sponge! Some of these lines, now I can only hear them in a New York vernacular.

Serafim: And this idea of New York really shapes the story, like when Della imagines that the watch chain will make Jim more comfortable checking the time “in any company,” that sense of needing to navigate different levels of society. Or when Della goes to get her hair cut at a “French” salon. That’s part of the appeal of contemporary New York, this melting pot of different cultures. And that’s one of the reasons we wanted to record it, because we love that about New York.

Sierra: The story became personal for me because my mother’s family lived in Queens when she was a girl, and my mother’s mother was Italian Catholic from Southern Italy, and her father was Eastern European Jewish from Ukraine. And the New York accent itself is a mélange of Italian, Irish, and Jewish influences. We started out with the idea of making this a gift to our listeners and it became our own love letter to this city.

Taking off the ‘Mask’

The Age of Innocence

Sierra: Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence in 1919, but she’s mostly looking back with a complicated nostalgia on the 1870s. That’s when she came of age and it’s also the same general period in which her friend Henry James wrote and set Daisy Miller & Four Meetings. And now it’s our turn to look back with nostalgia on our experience recording this book, nearly a year ago during a very hot summer—because life intervened and we haven’t been able to release it until now. So what’s stuck with you?

Serafim: Remember how we understood the title differently? I envisioned these characters as innocent because of their young age, because they weren’t yet married or were about to marry and lose that innocence. Or they had married, but it hadn’t work out. So the more literal title, for me, might have been: The Age of Lost Innocence. But you thought of it as describing the ‘epoch of innocence,’ the time period itself.

Sierra: I guess they can both be true, but yours might have been the more useful interpretation, because it’s more personal. This is a coming of age story and a love story as well as a thoughtful assessment of a society and its values. At some point, I recall we talked about The Truman Show . . . 

Serafim: Yes! The way the story begins, at the opera, and how everybody in the book takes on a certain role, the roles set forth by class, gender, family. Because these people are on display all the time.

Sierra: And mostly very aware of it! And there’s also this sense of moving through a fog until something disrupts that. It’s almost a violent experience for Newland in particular. Clearly, he was quite a different person before Ellen enters the story.

Serafim: Why do you think this book has aged so well?

Sierra: Well, for one this is not a book we had to work to find dimension in. To me, it felt like wandering through a vast mansion in which there are new rooms to discover at every turn.

Serafim: I remember also feeling this sense of something grand, something epic about it, almost Tolstoyan.

Sierra: That said, like James (and Tolstoy), Edith Wharton wouldn’t necessarily fit right into today’s world. But all three were genuinely interested in people. Wharton in particular had that sort of passionate fascination with anthropology that she gives to Newland. It’s almost as if the life she was living, when she went to put it on the page—it was easier just to write it as a man. And to some extent that may still be true. So there is a gender fluidity to the book that made me feel very comfortable narrating it.
    You’re much more familiar than I am with this world of opera. Why do you think she chose to start the book at the opera?

Serafim: As Shakespeare said, our whole life is theater, so she opens with this masquerade that’s being enacted by performers at the opera and also the characters themselves. There are people throughout the book who have clearly chosen—or maybe it wasn’t a choice—to live their lives totally immersed in this masquerade. They don’t seem to think of their feelings.

Sierra: They don’t want to think of their feelings. And you’re reminding me of a primary challenge to recording—and another reason we both fell in love with the book: It requires you to show both the mask and what lies behind the mask, even at hte very same time, because that’s really where the energy of the book comes from.
     I think it’s worth emphasizing that we didn’t really talk about this much while recording. And you don’t need to, because one thing that Edith Wharton does brilliantly—she writes dialogue so well! You don’t need to think about it, this is not something—

Serafim: ‘Now she’s wearing the mask, now she’s not.’

Sierra: Yeah, it’s not mathematical. You just speak from the heart of each character. Whether you have a mask or not, you still have a heart.

Serafim: And the only way for the mask to show itself and to come off is through the intonation of the voice. How, for instance, May, Newland’s fiancée, and his mother present themselves, always in the socially approved way, strikes a contrast with Newland and Ellen, whose vulnerability increasingly shines through.

Why Booth Basics

Serafim: When we were starting out, there was a lot of things we didn’t know then that we know now…

Sierra: As we sought feedback on our early efforts, it launched us on a series of quests with goals like “Passing ACX Standards” and “Finding a Natural Sound” and “Getting Comfortable in the Booth.” Gradually, our way of working began to come together (and continues to do so).

Serafim: In the spirit of generosity and cameraderie, we’d like to share some of what we’ve learned and give you a peek inside (and around) our vocal booth.

Sierra: We’ve already begun featuring our most valuable tools, one at a time, whether hardware or software, linking between entries so you can easily jump from one to another and get an idea of how everything fits together: WhisperRoom, Neumann TLM 103, and Reaper, with many more to come!

Serafim: We’re not going to be reviewing products (though we will occasionally link to others’ commentary). In this series of postcards, we want to cut through some of the noise (pun intended!) and demonstrate how one narrator-engineer team goes about, day to day, project to project, making the tools of the voice acting/audiobook trade work for us. 

Sierra: If you have questions about anything you see here or on our social media, please reach out. We’re all in this together after all. 

Why Reaper 

Sierra: Reaper is one of our most valued tools, but to unlock its potential, you first need to understand this concept of a DAW. So to pass the mic to our resident sound engineer: What is a DAW and why do you need one if you are an audiobook narrator and/or all-around voice artist?

Serafim: Okay, so let me put my white coat and glasses on—DAW stands for a digital audio workstation. It’s a piece of software that marries all of your audio tools and enables you to edit your recorded material very conveniently on a timeline. It’s like Microsoft Word: you could just open a browser and start typing into it, but Word is going to give you all these tools to organize text very neatly into sections and paragraphs. That’s a DAW for audio.

Sierra: Nice analogy. Within our workflow, Reaper interacts with other tools, some of which are, in their own right, DAWs, specifically: Adobe Audition [subscription required] and Audacity [free].

Serafim: Now people might be wondering, ‘Wow, so I need more than one DAW?’ You don’t actually need more than one, or rather, you’re not necessarily going to use them as DAWs per se. For instance, we use Audacity pretty much exclusively for ACX Check, which we already talked about here. It just happens that Audacity is also a DAW.
     We’ll talk more about Audition in a future Booth Basic; for now, know that it’s an asset when it comes to razor-fine editing tasks i.e. noise that your filters doesn’t eliminate. Reaper excels as a DAW not because it’s “better” than Audition in absolute terms (though it might be better than Audacity) but because it’s inexpensive, infinitely customizable, and constantly evolving.

Sierra: There’s a new version practically every day, which could get a little much until we put it in the calendar for a once-per-week update. But over time those are improvements that we want.
     Let’s get a little more specific. The features we’ll be discussing are mostly not exclusive to Reaper, but we like how they work in Reaper. That’s why it’s our DAW of choice. If you’re considering Reaper or already working with it, we want to share some tips. For starters, there are two modes of recording, which we use all the time: Tape mode and Create New Take mode. [Note: terms in purple, though not links, can be located via Reaper’s Help menu.]

Serafim: Tape mode is well-named: imagine you have a tape running, you make a mistake or you want to do it differently, you rewind, you press record and it records over the previous take. And Create New Take mode, also known across DAWs as ‘comping,’ enables you to record several versions of the same take, neatly represented with different colors in the waveform; you can go back later and choose your favorite take and then ‘glue‘ them together, with a handy short-cut like ‘g’, which you can also set up in Reaper.

Sierra: We generally live in Tape mode and visit its counterpart, because, when I do make an error, we want to stop and take a second to reset [a luxury of the home studio]. This is going to be more time efficient than just leaving all these errors in, which would make it difficult for us to tap into the flow of what we’ve recorded. When editing doesn’t keep pace with recording, say, each new chapter, thanks to this technique, we end up with more continuity of sound and storytelling as we move through a longer project.

Serafim: A few more favorite Reaper features: Via Layouts [in the Options Menu], you can customize the visual interface (video). For instance, you can make the meters on the channel as big as you want. If you’re recording alone, let’s say, and you’re keeping your laptop outside your booth [as recommended], you can make your meters as big as the entire screen, so you won’t need binoculars to see your levels.


Sierra: And you won’t compromise your voice by jutting your head forward continuously as you strain to see better.
   Within Reaper, via Preferences, you can also set up Audition as an External Editor, which means that with the click of another shortcut [‘a’], you can shift a time selection over to Audition, clean it up as desired, then save and click back to Reaper. If it can’t be fixed via Audition, then we know to re-record it in the moment.

Serafim: A lot of programs allow you to make markers but Reaper takes it to another level with its differentiation of markers by type (markers vs. regions), color, number, and name. It also features a tool called Region/Marker Manager, a little window that floats on your screen and enables you to jump easily from one marker to another, by color, say, across instances of a character’s voice in different scenes or repeat appearance of a word or name, the pronunciation of which you want to check. It’s the best implementation of this particular feature that I have ever seen in a DAW.

Sierra: We sometimes like to edit away from the laptop, both because the listener isn’t going to have the engineer’s tools and it’s just nice to get away from the screen for a while. So we’ll process the time selection in question, a chapter, say, and upload it to a file sharing service (Overcast, in our case). I’ll pop in my Airpod Pros and then listen and jot notes on a post-it: Noisy breath, 3 minutes. Missing word, 5 minutes 17 seconds. Then when I go back to Reaper, I can put my cursor at the start of the track (as opposed to the overall project file), go to Project Settings and reset that start time so 0:00 appears where I need it. So no matter where I am in the overall project file, I can follow the ruler above and zip through my edits.

Serafim: Reaper doesn’t have an incredibly sophisticated metering system, but it does have this plug-in called JS: Audio Statistics (located via FX Browser), which enables you to track your RMS levels and your noise level. We find Audition to be a better tool when it comes to meeting Loudness (ACX) standards, but the Audio Statistics plug-in will help you find and correct for dead silence. A recording is often too noisy, but it can also be too quiet, sounding unnatural. ACX Check will ding your recording if you have even a second or two of dead silence, but it won’t tell you where they are. That’s where Audio Statistics comes in—let’s say you left a little gap between two splices then glued the section, you’ll be able to see that by playing the file and watching the Audio Statistics window [RMS Window Min L showing a figure less than -90, e.g. -105]. At that point, you’ll also be able to see the flatline in the waveform. 

Sierra: To wrap up, Reaper is attractive first because it’s inexpensive and easy to install. You can try it free for 60 days before paying $60 [as of May 2022] for a discounted use license, appropriate for a voice artist early in their career.

Serafim: And if you decide not to go with Reaper, you can still look for the tools that we’ve described, and their presence or absence might help you in your choice. If you are going forward with Reaper, I’ve found Kenny Goia’s YouTube channel to be one of the most comprehensive tutorial resources. There’s also the Reaper Blog. Booth Junkie also has a number of videos on using Reaper.

Sierra: Kenny Goia is an engineer and music producer and he naturally focuses many of his videos on Reaper’s role in music production. In our Booth Basics, we hope to cut through some of the noise and demonstrate how one narrator-engineer team goes about making tools like Reaper work for us. If you have any comments or questions, please ping us!

Why Neumann TLM 103

Serafim: We started our microphone search, informed both by your studying at Edge Studio and Gravy for the Brain your work in radio [as a freelance foreign correspondent in Beirut] and my years of experience being an audio engineer, recording music primarily. If you’re in New York City, B&H has a small room with multiple microphones all connected, so you can speak or sing into them. [You can also order from them and try gear out in your own actual space.]

Sierra: Because of you, I walked into this room already knowing quite a bit about the kind of mic we needed—to start, a. condenser microphone with a cardioid polar pattern, right?

Serafim: Yes, cardioid means it has a heart shape—the bottom of the heart is pointing forward toward the speaker and the top of the heart blocks the sound that comes from behind the microphone—versus an omni-directional microphone that is very good for recording when, let’s say, you want to capture the sound of a music hall. We ended up testing two microphones from AKG and two from Neumann, the 102 and 103.

Sierra: We went in knowing that the TLM 103 is the industry standard [in our price range, as opposed to the U87]. I had heard that from people in the voice over industry, and you were familiar with it because it is a multi-industry standard mic.
     But I do remember you telling me that the mic operates in concert with you the speaker. You, in essence, dance with it, so it’s really a question of who is going to be your best dance partner, not the universal industry-standard dance partner. That said, in our case, we did end up with the 103, because we liked the sound of it with my voice when we tested it against other comparable mics.

Serafim: Exactly. We liked it so much because it sounded the most like you. That said, you can spend an enormous amount of time chasing the microphone that sounds exactly like you. And once you have your mic and your booth, you’ll still need an FX chain: EQ, compression, saturation, and so on. The process of working all of that out took us a couple of years, during which we experimented with how to position both the speaker and the mic, right?

Sierra: Like many people, I think, I initially assumed that the mic should go right in front of your mouth and had to learn that you’re more likely to want about six inches distance between you and the mic. And it will probably serve you best if it’s off center, even slightly above you [if hung upside down like ours].

Serafim: We ended up mounting the mic on the wall of our WhisperRoom using the Triad Orbit system. We also tried out a few different pop filters before landing on the Avantone PS1 Pro-Shield Studio pop filter, also from B&H.

Sierra: That particular pop filter really curves around the mic so it takes up very little additional space. You can have a larger booth than ours and you’re still going to have to think about how you’re orienting yourself in that space right in front of the mic. Our set-up enables me to feel relaxed and confident, which is a huge part of anyone’s sound and perhaps an unsung part of the microphone experience. Also the FX chain, which is your domain.

Serafim: We use EQ to boost certain frequencies and reduce others, then we use a saturation plug-in, which adds a little analog filter to make the sound less brittle and digital sounding. And then we have a compressor that reduces the loudest sounds and then boosts everything; rather than getting a lot of dynamic range you’re arriving at something more consistent.

Sierra: Now you’ve got me wondering: How does a microphone fit into a digital vs. analog system?

Serafim: So the mic is an analog component but in order for it to communicate with the computer, it needs to go through a digital converter i.e. audio interface [RME Fireface UFX II, in our case]. When you are recording in a vocal booth, where you don’t have the natural reverberation of an ordinary room—what saturation does, and it’s gonna sound crazy, but it adds imperfections.

Sierra: So you have to add back in some of what you’ve taken out?

Serafim: Yes! That’s why vinyl records can sound more vibrant than digital, because vinyl has these imperfections. And we as humans tend to gravitate toward liking those imperfections. So we need saturation—and we call it saturation because it colors the sound. If you use saturation in Photoshop you are adding extra depth to the color. We also talk about color in recording because otherwise it can be hard to verbally distinguish between different kinds of sound. With the right kind and amount of saturation, the recording stops being very pure and starts to sound more alive.

Dan Millman on Writing for Children

Secret of the Peaceful Warrior and Quest for the Crystal Castle

Dan Millman on ‘Secret’

Children’s Books

Sierra: What inspired you to write children’s books?

Dan: It’s a bit mysterious why I wrote which book when. I often describe my books as planes in a foggy airport, waiting to line up on the runway and I never know which is going to come up next. But there was a bit of a lull and then Linda Kramer [of HJ Kramer], who used to be a children’s book editor in New York, said, ‘We’d like to start a children’s line called Starseed Press. Dan, do you think you could write a children’s book based in Way of the Peaceful Warrior?’ So when she gave me the assignment, Secret [of the Peaceful Warrior] just emerged fairly naturally.
    She had Bob San Souci, a familiar children’s book author, look at it, because as many people don’t realize, it’s just as difficult writing a children’s book, sometimes more difficult, it just has fewer words. I read the first book to my daughter China’s class, and they let me know what they liked and didn’t like about it. That helped me, a little bit of feedback.

Sierra: Why is the main character’s name Danny Morgan?

Dan: I was tired of Danny Millman, you know? I just wanted to make it somebody else but similar. I wasn’t going to change Soc’s name, of course.

Serafim: Not Plato?

Dan: No (laughs).

Sierra: Little Plato…

Dan: (laughs) He naturally became a grandfather. 

Serafim: So it sounds like for the first book, you didn’t receive much of a direction as to what to write. It was very free and you chose this particular story. Was that also the case with the second book? What made you want to write another?

Dan: The first one won a Benjamin Franklin award at the American Book Association, so that was encouraging. And people seemed to like it. I had to find themes for Secret: overcoming fear in the form of a bully, and then conveying the idea of a Peaceful Warrior: Don’t fight, don’t run. And for Quest [for the Crystal Castle] I wanted to explore other themes: kindness begets kindness and the grass seems greener (or more emerald?) on the other side of the fence.

Sierra: Did you have any particular landscape in mind when you were writing Quest?

Dan: A lot of it is subconscious but there was an image of the Fool’s card in the Tarot deck, which is a story of the soul’s journey. The Fool is the first of the major arcana where he’s looking up at the sun, the innocent child, about to step off a cliff and fall into the sea of karma, let’s say, and have to go through what we all go through in life. So maybe that image influenced where Danny tumbles down the hill and loses his resources and has to draw upon his own inner resources.

Serafim: Let’s talk about the audio edition. Did you find the experience of reading aloud the children’s books different than reading your memoir?

Dan: Yes! More challenging in some ways. I didn’t for the most part have to do any other characters in the memoir, so it really makes me empathize with and appreciate actors and others who narrate and perform characters. It’s not easy to feel the characters and use your voice box differently. 

Sierra: Well, you really went for it with the two stories! We were impressed.

Serafim: What I really liked about the performances for both books is the way Danny Morgan grew. In the second book, I heard a little bit more of a mature Danny.

Dan: Thank you. I feel that too, because he was going on quite the adventure. There were some darker elements other than just the bully in the first one. This one, his life is on the line. 

Sierra: One last question, I’ve been curious for a while as to how Joy fits into the principal of ‘don’t fight, don’t run.’

Dan: A lot of that is Joy, because she’s always loved to run. It seemed natural for Joy to appear in Secret and for her to be a good runner. When Joy runs in that book, she runs in the same way as when the police officer in the January 6th riots ran to draw the crowds away from the assembly hall. So Joy wanted the bully to follow her—she was laughing, she wasn’t afraid. Whereas Danny’s running away from the bully. He has a lesson to learn about fear.

A Conversation with Dan and Joy Millman

Peaceful Heart, Warrior Spirit

Dan and Joy Millman

Peaceful Heart, Warrior Spirit

Serafim: Socrates [from Way of the Peaceful Warrior] makes his appearance in this memoir—he’s not one of the four mentors but he plays a key role. How did you decide to include Socrates, Dan?

Dan: I believe it was my daughter Sierra who came up with the idea: ‘Hey, what if you had a conversation with Socrates?’ As soon as I heard it, I knew it was right. I didn’t know what shape it would take, but as soon as I started writing it, I thought, This is fun! Like revisiting the old days…

Serafim: A question for you, Joy—when you were reading early drafts of the memoir (before you added your own commentaries within the text), did you learn anything new? Were your memories different from what Dan was putting on the page?

Joy: Well, of course, I had my own experience with each of the four mentors, so there was some difference, and Dan and I have discussed that many times over the years.
     But I think you get a fuller picture from the book of how the puzzle fits together and how Dan’s teaching grew out of the inspiration of some of the ideas from each mentor. At the same time, having known Dan—he’d done the 40-day Arica training before we met, but I will say a lot of Dan was there before the mentors. They helped give Dan material, you might say, but he was already a great teacher.

Dan: Good point, but as typical, you’re focusing on me and the question was: ‘How did it impact you?’ Were you impacted by these mentors since you studied with them as well?

Joy: (laughs) Yes, it certainly broadened my perspective, and it was a revisiting of things that I noticed had changed in myself.

Dan: I’ve had two muses in my life, Joy and Socrates.
     I have a theory I’d expressed to Joy just the other day that, if there’s anything to reincarnation, she has an older soul, she came in with instincts that I had to learn. So, in many ways, my life is just playing catchup with Joy—I had to do all these things to get to her level of discernment.

Sierra: That’s why you’re chasing after her in various books.

Dan: (laughs) Exactly! This makes me think about when Joy first came out to California [in 1975]. There was a movie called The Difficult Man, which was actually a promotional movie—

Joy: Oh, yeah! He took me to it.

Dan: —about the Guru [my second mentor] and his power and juice and mojo and all that. And I think—this was not strategic on my part, but as it happened, The Exorcist had just come out. So I took Joy to see The Exorcist, then we saw A Difficult Man. It was a pretty stark contrast.

Joy: That’s when I formally agreed that we could explore living in the Guru’s community. And then we also had to get married, you see. If you were going to live together, you had to be married. It sounds ridiculous, thinking back on how the community was…

Dan: But neither of us did it under the least duress—we got married because we wanted to get married anyway.

Joy: And three years later, we got the marriage license.

Sierra: Where did the idea come from to include your memories in the book? At what point in the process did that come about?

Joy: When I was reading one of the many drafts that Dan wrote, I found myself going: That’s not what I remember. And I said to him, ‘You know. I really think I should give my point of view.’ I didn’t think it would be authentic otherwise. Because he was saying, ‘Joy said this and Joy thought that’—and I said, ‘Well, that’s not exactly what I thought…’ What do you think?

Dan: Well, I just remember when you said, ‘Hey, what if I weighed in and wrote something?’ And I immediately said, ‘Yes!’ Again, I recognize a good idea when I hear it. So, I said, ‘Write something up’—and she got right on it.

Sierra: That’s an unusual approach. Most of the time it seems like the author either writes whatever they want or the other person just forbids them from writing about them at all and that’s the end of it. Seems like you arrived at a creative compromise.

Serafim: For both of you, how did it feel to read your stories aloud? Did you have any revelations?

Joy: I think everybody should do it, frankly, because they would have an appreciation for how much it takes to put your own self out there.

Dan: You narrate your life.
     On a more personal note, I read a story to our grandchild yesterday and discovered that—I’m a better book reader now! I hadn’t read aloud since before we began recording.
    It was a pleasure revisiting my book aloud and I was able to find more nuance in the words. Serafim reminded me that I’ll be recording the two children’s books next year. I already miss coming over each day and reading for the audiobook.

Sierra: We’re also looking forward to that.

Serafim: To conclude, what would be one thing you could tell somebody considering your book who, perhaps, in their own life, is feeling a bit lost?

Dan: I think it would come down to this—I hope my example of openness and candor moves my readers to be open about their lives and to trust their lives, the way they’re unfolding, the ups and downs, and to stop comparing themselves to other people.
     I hope it will give people the space to honor their own path and find their own way.

Martin Adams on Sustainable Economics

Martin Adams


Serafim: Why should we read LAND now?

Martin: Reading LAND will help you understand that most modern approaches to create affordable housing, reduce wealth inequality, and promote societal well-being are, by far, grossly ineffective. This is because our system of property ownership causes a community’s privatized property values to increase anytime the quality of life is improved in the community—thus benefiting only a few and hurting the many through increases in the cost of living.
     Every time we make a community more livable—such as through charity, better social services, technological innovation, or business enterprise—a community becomes more desirable to live in; as a result, the value of its land increases. This, however, only benefits those who own land, as well as the Wall Street banks that finance property ownership.

Sierra: Can you tell us a little more about the circumstances that led to your deciding: I have to write this book?

Martin: Many years ago—well, I saw the poverty and the inequality around me and I thought we should all do something to make the world a better place, right? And so I ran a yoga and community center. And I realized, during that time, that we were quite successful in terms of attendance, and we made a big impact on the community and yet we were just scraping by. And I was like, Why is it that a business that by all appearances looks successful and feels successful can’t make enough money to sustain itself?
     And then, when I looked at the books, I had this Aha moment: Okay, we would be making a profit if we didn’t pay rent but paid taxes or if we paid rent but no taxes, but not both. And furthermore, for each person we hired, we were paying a payroll tax in addition, so that didn’t exactly incentivize employment. It seemed like the incentives we’ve created here in our community don’t support the wellbeing of the society that we’re a part of. And so, the next question came up: What incentive would support our collective wellbeing?
     Then I went down this long rabbit hole for many years. I studied the federal reserve and the gold standard and going off the gold standard and all that. And all of that made some sense—but there was poverty before the federal reserve came into existence in 1913, so clearly that’s not the cause of poverty as many gold bugs claim.
     And then I came across this one teaching, somewhere on the internet, and—you know when something just clicks with you, you’re like: That’s it! But I don’t understand it, but I just know in my being that this is it. And that was when I came across the Law of Rent. The more rent you collect in the economy, you essentially drain the community of its wealth. And you can do that through the process of land ownership.

Sierra: It sounds like this is something you normally do, just exhaustively researching, reading, being motivated to learn—is that just an innate part of your personality?

Martin: I think so. It’s just, you don’t want to brush things under the carpet: ‘Oh, that’s just how the world is.’ Like…really?
     Could it be different?
     Sure! Like I said in the book, we created the world that we’re living in; surely, we can create something new if we want to, as a collective. And we have, many, many times throughout history. I mean think about these movements that have come and gone and even stayed with us to this day. Communism is one movement and I’m personally not in favor of it at all. I think it’s done great damage. But you know, everything has some positives and some negatives, and I think there is some negatives about capitalism that we’re grappling with today, even though it has brought us all those good things as well.
     Where capitalism has fallen short is that it doesn’t make the distinction between capitalism and nature. We treat nature as capital just like a car or a computer. And clearly a rainforest is not the same as a car you can buy. Capitalism is fundamentally flawed in the sense that it conflates those two things. What some economists have taught me, especially Dr. Fred Foldvary and others—they have made me realize that you can freely trade in goods and services but that gifts of nature are not part of the free market because there is only a limited amount of nature’s gifts. So oil, for example, by its nature, can’t be part of the free market. The value of oil is not something that can be freely created out of nothing or out of human activity. And it’s the same with land. If you own a piece of land, you don’t own something that can be freely created like a car or a computer. You have to compensate other people for excluding them.

Serafim: So, I’m assuming that you had select people that you started running these ideas by. I’m curious, what was their reaction? Were you getting a lot of positive feedback from these ideas or were you met by a stonewall of misunderstanding?

Martin: First of all, it’s not my idea as I hope I made clear in the book. This idea has existed throughout history. Most recently, it was re-popularized by Henry George, and Henry George has actually created his own movement called Georgism; there are a lot of followers, economists who identify as Georgists. And they are proposing a land value tax, taxes on your property ownership value.
     And, yes, to answer your question, Serafim, of course, most people that are, I’d say, maybe mainstream—I don’t like to use that word because we’re all mainstream in some ways—but people who believe in the way things have been and believe that those things work, those people are for sure resistant to change.
     But before there was all this excitement about getting it done, publishing it—miraculously, it happened within 2 weeks, once I finished. A friend referred me to North Atlantic Books.
     Then the book got published and I realized the magnitude of the resistance that’s in our collective consciousness toward sharing the value of land and of nature—really, not keeping nature privatized—that’s when I fell into a depression and I realized, this is maybe not for today’s age. Maybe we’re not ready for it.
     I’m not depressed about it anymore. I think what threw me into a loop was coming to accept—maybe the word is disillusionment, and it’s a good thing, even though it’s often painful at first, because you’re being stripped of your illusions, the illusion being that this is something that can be done within a few years or a decade even. But rather it’s something that perhaps requires a lot more time and collective effort and sustained attention.

Serafim: Has there been a positive reaction? Did people write to you and reach out to say, you know, that you have actually shed some light on something they’ve already been thinking about?

Martin: The government of South Africa reached out to me. I sent a bunch of books to them and they said they would implement land reform based on some of the principles mentioned in the book. I haven’t followed up with that, but hopefully some good things will come from it. And then, maybe a year ago, Christa and I went to Salt Spring island, which is a small island here near Vancouver, and we went into this bookshop and I said, ‘Hey, I’m an author, do you have this book?’ And they’re like, ‘Are you the author? We love this book so much we’re giving it out for free to people we meet.’

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