Words with Friends
Our authors & collaborators.
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.
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.
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].
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’
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
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.’