The experience of recording an audiobook

An update on a side project I expect to to wrap up next month: creating the audiobook version of my book Conserving Mount Nittany: A Dynamic Environmentalism.

Last July when I was at Penn State for a meeting I sat down with my friend Ben Novak. We met in the Pattee Library Knowledge Commons, which has a few private recording studios and over the course of a few hours knocked out the raw readings of the book.

But here’s the thing. It’s producing that raw audio that’s an incredibly humbling experience. You’re creating something that you want to be as pure as possible. A narration that contains no audible “artifacts” that distract a listener or pollute the narration.

When you’re recording, you need an absolutely quiet recording environment. A tap on the table, a distant car horn that leaks into the studio, the slightest verbal stutter or tick. You keep hacking away until the narration is perfect, first in the raw read and then in production when all the screw ups and stutters and coughs need to be manually (and painstakingly removed. The result should be as close as possible to a beautiful narration that lets someone experience the story rather than experience someone reading them a story. Does that distinction make sense?

As I was working on producing Chapter 4 on Hort Woods, sitting for hours staring at the screen, listening for the slightest problems in the waveform, I realize why this it felt so humbling.

It wasn’t just because it was laborious. It was because you were confronted with a thousand or more screw ups in trying to read something for just 30-45 minutes. So many little failures of pronunciation, of little stutters, of errors in timing a sentence.

It’s a hellish experience. It’s not something I’m delighted to be doing, but I’ll be happy when it’s complete. It was humbling because I imagined having to experience the same thing, except instead of 45 minutes of narration, I imagined my entire life’s narration.

A thousand or more minor screw ups in 45 minutes. How many minor or major ethical, moral, prudential, whatever screw ups pollute the story of a life?

If this sounds strange, I get it. But it was a visceral moment for me editing a little bit of audio, and seeing through that experience how frail we are. It was a good, humanizing experience.

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