The Recording Studio

A few days ago I let slip (like how that sounds like it was an accident?) that I am going to try my hand at podcasting episodes of The Silence of Ancient Light. Now, I have never done this before, and it’s not quite as simple as it might seem. One doesn’t just put on the earbuds that came with your mobile phone and hit Record and start speaking. The learning curve on this is a tad steeper than that.

If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be professionals out there making a decent living doing this (and a bunch more trying to break into the field).

I’m not trying to become a professional audiobook narrator, I’m just trying to produce a reasonably decent narration of my own book for you to enjoy. After all, since making that announcement, a handful of you have let me know that you are quite enthusiastic about this idea. Seems audiobooks are a thing? Plus, it seems like it might be fun.

So, I took the opportunity to invest in a decent “broadcast-quality” headset, with a proper dynamic microphone. My thinking here is really three-fold. Perhaps like many of you, I now spend large parts of my working days on videoconferences with my colleagues, and the old earbuds, despite being high-quality for listening, are turning out to be less than optimal for delivering quality when I’m the speaker. They’re ok for a phone call, and yeah, they’re ok for an online meeting, but it’s pretty clear they won’t cut the mustard for recording an audiobook. So, improving my teleconference experience is part one.

Perhaps also like many of you, I’m watching quite a bit more streaming films and shows in the evenings these days (I know, I know, I’m supposed to be writing, but forgive me, ok?). Some of those are with my wife, but when it comes to science fiction shows (The Expanse, anyone?), she really isn’t interested. So, when I watch those, it’s on my own, and in order not to disturb her, I need headphones. To date, I’ve been using those same earbuds I mentioned in the previous paragraph, as well as a too-short extension cable, which has meant sitting on the floor closer to the TV. Not very comfortable. A decent pair of headphones, that do a better job of muffling outside sound, and a longer cable, are really what I need here. So, improving my streaming experience is part two.

And then, of course, there’s this whole recording thing. Now, most audiobook narrators and producers will tell you to go with a standalone high-quality studio microphone, something like the venerable Shure SM58 (with which I’ve had much experience decades ago when I ran sound for a local pop band, but that’s a whole other story), and to avoid headsets. I won’t say they’re wrong, and ultimately, if I keep doing this, I may still end up going that route. But, I really wanted to be freed from having to be careful about maintaining a set distance from a mounted microphone, so I thought… headset! But not a gaming headset with its cheap mic, but a broadcast-oriented professional headset. And, of course, I didn’t want to buy new headphones (with mic!) just for streaming and videoconferencing, and also another expensive mic for recording. So, minimizing how many different pieces of expensive equipment I’m purchasing is part three.

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So, I picked a headset based mainly on the quality of the attached microphone, the Audio Technica BPHS1. Overall, I’m pretty happy with it, but being pro gear, it has a few complications when it comes to attaching it to a computer (remember, videoconferences). For one, it has two cable connectors, neither of which is the standard 1/8″ connector common on laptops, computers, many phones, etc. The input connector, for the headphones themselves, is a more prosumer-like 1/4″ connector, which you would commonly see on higher-end stereo gear, guitar amplifiers, analog mixing boards, that sort of thing. No problem, 1/4″ to 1/8″ adapters exist.

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The other connector, for the microphone, is an XLR connector, which is a larger 3-pin connector commonly used only for pro-level recording. This is the same connection that the afore-mentioned Shure SM58 uses, for instance. This connection is common for low-output analog devices like microphones that will need pre-amplification. To get a signal from the XLR-connected microphone into the computer while maintaining high quality, I needed a very special adapter, an XLR-to-USB adapter, which is more than just a plug adapter, it’s also an analog-to-digital converter. There are many ways to achieve this goal, but I went with the relatively straightforward and very easy-to-use Shure X2u. It’s a bit like a cylinder, with the XLR jack at one end and the USB port at the other, and very simple controls and indicators on the side. With this device, I can record straight to my laptop, which is also not something the professionals recommend, but, hey, I’m already going a bit overboard here! I have a very quiet (albeit old) MacBook Air, with no spinning drives or loud fans, so as long as I’m not typing on it, it doesn’t make much background noise. And, this way the MacBook doubles as my reading platform, since after all, I have to read from something while I’m narrating, right?

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So that’s the technical equipment, but there’s also a non-technical component very much required. A quiet room. And, not just quiet, but acoustically deadened. Professionals use a proper recording studio, with specially insulated walls and door, and fancy foam shapes all over the walls and ceiling to trap any stray echoes. That’s a bit much for a podcaster on a budget to reproduce, unfortunately, but there are ways to achieve some of this at home. Even if, like me, you live in a small condo in a noisy building on a noisy street in the heart of a noisy city, with trucks, trains, and planes constantly rumbling around. When my upstairs neighbors run the faucet, I hear water swooshing through the pipes. For that matter, when they walk, I feel it in my own floor, as the structural timbers carry an echo of their steps down one level. I’m pretty sure my downstairs neighbor has the same experience with regard to me. Even if someone walks by outside, on the sidewalk, holding a normal conversation, I can hear it inside my unit with the windows closed, along with birds chirping in the trees that are one of the things which make this neighborhood attractive.

It is noisy here, and that fancy new sensitive microphone can hear it all.

I can’t stop all of that, but what I can do is set myself up in the closet, with the doors shut, and hang wool blankets over the doors, another laid across the wooden floor, and otherwise depend upon the hanging clothes to act as natural dampeners. Does it work? We’ll soon see, but I just spent two hours in there trying my best to get about twenty or thirty minutes of recorded narration. My first attempt, which I’m about to start editing down.

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When you listen to yourself through headphones in a quiet room while speaking into a quality mic placed right up to your mouth, you hear every timbre of your own voice, not the way it sounds in your own head, but the way others hear you. It is weird. But I already knew that, and so did you. The other thing you notice is every time you take a breath. Breathing is loud. And when your mouth gets dry and as a result you lisp a little on a phoneme. Or you stumble on a word. Or burp. Yeah, that happened, too.

Folks, this is hard. Eventually I learned to stop killing the recording every time I stumbled, just pause, say “scratch that last bit” into the mic, pause again, and start again, backing up a few sentences or to the beginning of the paragraph. The constant restarting of the recording was far too distracting, so I just let it run, made “audio notes” when I had stumbled, and kept going. My next job is to go through and edit out all those bits to turn it into one continuous narration.

And I won’t be done there, either. Just because I’ve got my voice recorded doesn’t mean this is a finished and produced piece of work, ready to publish. I need to filter out the noise floor, compress things so that the volume is consistent throughout, see if I have too many “esses” from my S’s or pops from my Ps (not sure what I can do about those, except do it again?), and so forth. And, when I’m happy with the vocal narration — if I ever am — I have to decide if I’m going to find some music to go with it (or not; that’s a decision point to make), and perhaps other adjustments to turn the audio file into an actual podcast.

So, the first episode is recorded, comprising the first three scenes that you’ve already read, but it’s still going to take a while to get all the above done.

Stay tuned, friends.


Header image by user:KutterKind / Pixabay.com under Pixabay License

All other images in this post are my own

Land of a Thousand Hills

Le Pays des Mille Collines is how Rwandans refer to their own country, and it’s an apt description. There are eleven hills in the capitol city of Kigali alone.

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And as you leave the city behind, that hilliness only continues.

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Rwanda is also mostly a very green country, due to a healthy rainy season, and that leads to a veritable bounty, but those hills can either help or hinder when it’s time to get to market.

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Of course, it’s not all green hills.

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And it’s not all domesticated animals, either.

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Sometimes the animals can be a bit difficult to see, especially in the long grass.

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Do you see him there? Let’s take a closer look.

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You see him now, yes? One must remain vigilant! Of course, when he finally stands up, it’s a bit easier.

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At the end of the day, back in camp, it’s time to stop worrying about the lions and just enjoy the scenery.

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Meanwhile, other parts of Rwanda are higher, steeper…

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… wetter, and definitively more lush with rainforest growth.

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But this is what you must tackle if you want to meet this fellow.

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Thank you for coming along with me on my recent trip to Rwanda. My wife and I traveled there at the end of December 2019 and beginning of January 2020, and while in-country, besides the city of Kigali, we visited two of four big national parks, Akagera (where the savanna wildlife photos are from) and Volcanoes (where we met a family of six (out of twelve) gorillas). Akagera is in the eastern part of the country, bordering Tanzania, while Volcanoes is in the Virunga Massif highlands in the northwest, bordering Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


All photos used in this post are either my own or used with permission from Carole Bianquis, copyright 2019, with all rights reserved. However, please feel free to reblog or share the post and the photos, as long as you include attribution and a link back to this original.

Home Again From the Holidays

Hello friends!

I know you’ve been missing me — well, I don’t know that you have, actually — but I have a good excuse. I’ve been traveling for the holidays, and staying almost entirely offline the entire time. Where did I go?

To Rwanda.

My wife has a large extended family living in Kigali, so we spent 25 hours flying to spend a couple weeks with them. While there, we had the opportunity to tour the country a little bit, and when I’ve had a chance to sort out the many photos I took, I’ll post a few of the best ones here for you to enjoy.

And then I’ll get back to Silence, I promise.

How did you spend your holidays? What are your hopes for the new year?

Eulogies

Why have I been so quiet lately, you ask?

I have been a little busy, dealing with a bit of a family emergency. However, I have not gone away. You’re not getting rid of me that easy! But, if you would like to know a little more (warning: this has nothing to do with science fiction, nor fiction of any kind, but it does involve a little writing), delve a little further into my own personal life, then I invite you to take a peek at my other, older, and until today much dustier, blog.

I don’t advertise the existence of that blog very much, because it has no real meaning except for my own family and myself. Strictly speaking, it’s a genealogy blog, but it’s also a blog where I share thoughts on things going on within my own life.

Until today, I had not written anything over there for five years. The last few posts I had written all had to do with the death of my father, six years ago, and my experience as executor of his estate.

And then a month ago, my mother passed away. And now I am writing about that.

I’ll have more to say before I’m done with that subject, and then I will be getting right back into the thick of it over here, but meanwhile, feel free to peel back the covers of my life and see what lies hidden away.

It starts on February 6th. That is the day the office at your mobile home park, where you have lived for twelve years, calls your daughter to express their concern. It seems you forgot to pay the rent for the space your home sits in, and in twelve years this had never happened before. You are in the habit of visiting the clubhouse each day, making a pot of coffee, and chatting with the manager there, but on this day you seem to have trouble with the coffee pot, and when the manager asks you about the late rent, you don’t know what she’s talking about.

Read the rest at https://clan-fraser.org/2019/04/06/eulogies-part-1/


header image credit: pixabay.com

Changes in Latitude

4°.

Well, 3.7° to be more precise. No, not the temperature (not by an order of magnitude!). The latitude. 259 miles south of the equator. 340′ above sea level.

Hot. Humid. Muggy.

There are no direct flights from North America into Iquitos, so first one makes one’s way to Lima, the capitol of Peru. Even that is not a straight shot from Seattle, so instead I flew to Chicago, which felt sort of like going the wrong way, and from there to Toronto, which really felt like going the wrong way, where I met up with Dale in the airport before catching the long leg down the east coast, across the Caribbean, and into South American airspace. We arrived in Lima in the middle of the night and made our way to the airport hotel, where I had my first taste of the classic Peruvian pisco sour.

I could grow to really like this drink, I thought.

In the bar of the hotel we met up with Kate and Steve, Canadians who would be paddling in the race, and subjects of Dale’s documentary. With their arrival, I had a second taste, and the four of us kept the barman busy until it was time for the Canadians to catch their flight to Iquitos. I think they found this preferable to trying to nap on the floor of the airport.

Wait, what race? What documentary? And what are we doing in Peru, again? Hmm, rather than explain it all over, go back one blog post for the introduction to this story and how I found myself, on practically no notice, dropping everything to jet off to the jungle.

Meanwhile, Dale and I stayed in Lima an extra few hours. I was scheduled to appear as a speaker on a professional webcast that morning, and the hotel WiFi in Lima was going to be far more reliable than anything we’d likely find in Iquitos. That proved true, the webcast went well (“Greetings from Peru!”), and as soon as it was over we rushed back into the airport for our own flight.

Where we waited. And waited. Then we waited some more, as our flight was delayed, then delayed some more. To make things worse, the stated destination over the gate kept changing. Sometimes it said Iquitos. Then it would say Tarapoto. We were pretty sure the plane was going to both cities, we just weren’t sure in which order.

Domestic Gate at Lima Airport

“¿Es este el vuelo a Iquitos?” asked an older gentleman of us as we stood in line to board. Is this the flight to Iquitos? Even the locals were confused!

“Sí… Yo creo que,” replied Dale. Yes… I think. Ah well, they accepted our boarding passes, so surely it was the right plane.

By this time it was already evening, and as Tarapoto lies between Lima and Iquitos, we assumed we’d be landing there first. It was pitch black outside, so no landmarks could be seen to assure us. To my regret, I never was able to catch sight of the famous Andean Cordillera when we passed over. It was only as we started to descend, and we began to see rivers and tributaries reflecting the starlight, that we knew we were well and truly over the Amazon basin. We began to see the lights of river barges as we flew lower and lower, and then we touched down on a short runway between the bright city and the dark jungle.

Heat. Humidity. Flying insects. Unenclosed airport (though not as glamorous as Kona, perhaps). I could grow to enjoy this place.

Bags collected (pelican case, photography gear), the haggle for a moto-taxi ride into town began.

“¿Diez soles?”

“No, no, veinte.”

“¿Quince?”

“Veinte.”

We moved on. 20 soles (about US$6) was too much for the ride, though we knew we were unlikely to get it down to 10. The second driver we spoke to said ok to 15, and off we went for a night ride through the streets of the city.

The streets of Iquitos are busy, crowded, with everyone seeming to go wherever they felt was best for them, and as such they are difficult to navigate in a regular car (though people do). So, they are crowded with motos, or moto-taxis, the same as tuk-tuks found in southeast Asia. Essentially these are the front half of a motorcycle and the back half of a rickshaw, able to carry three passengers in addition to the driver, and they dominate the city. Almost all of them are for hire, operating on a cash basis, so it is essential to carry plenty of coins in order to have correct change. Residents and visitors alike get around by moto-taxi, and as long as you negotiate your fare before getting in, the drivers will honor it without hassle when you arrive at your destination. Indeed, a good moto driver can make or break your search for just the right place in Iquitos when you need a certain part for the construction of a raft, but we’ll come to that later.

Belen Market, Iquitos, Peru

Motos are not clean machines, contributing greatly to the smoke filling the streets, nor are they quiet. From about 6am until Midnight, the sound of moto engines can be heard all over the city. On a hot night, however, riding in the back of one can be just the thing, a breeze in your face and hair, to make you feel that little bit less sticky.

It’s about a half-hour ride from the airport into the heart of the city, to our lodgings at the Green Track Hostel. We arrived to a dark street, and a barred and gated doorway. We rang the bell.

Moments later, the door opened, light flooded out, and there stood Kate! We were in the right place.

“Where’ve you guys been? We were expecting you hours ago!”

“Long story. Flight delays, changing destinations…”

“This is Peru,” she said, and off we went to find dinner at the Plaza de Armas, a picturesque, green, and lush city square ringed with shops and restaurants and, yes, motos.

Iquitos Street Corner

I could grow to like this place.