Saturday, November 24, 2007

Many people have firmly developed tastes in music, matured over a long time listening. But there's something else getting lots of listening time and it's an evolving medium where the standards are anything but set. They're called audio books-- they can be just one person reading a book on a set of CDs-- such as President Bill Clinton's autobiographical memoir a few years back-- or they can be elaborate fictional productions such as the Pigalle Soundwalk, or entertaining seminars such as A History of The English Language by Michael D.C. Drout. Once you enter the world of audiobooks, you'll find everything from totally amateurish, boorish productions to amazing sound tricks wonderful enough to make a blind person see. (Reading for the blind was undoubtedly an early influence on this medium).
As a judge of the Audies competitions-- the national industry awards for audiobooks-- I've always been impressed by the criteria for excellence, well thought out and designed to bring out the best in this medium's producers. I will list some of these criteria, which are easy to apply when you are doing critical listening. I should also mention that audiobooks are easy to obtain through our audio book store.

  1. Suitability-- if it was an adaptation, such as a printed book, now produced to be listened to rather than read-- was the original suitable for adapting? Some books are better to skim or read out of order and audiobooks are clumsier for this purpose than a print version.
  2. Performance-- there are all kinds of voices doing audiobooks, and as many tastes for listening. Still, you will know when you hear professionalism at work. Beyond sounding professional, a narrator can enhance the listener's experience by being appropriately chosen for the work; by using their vocal tools as a musician might use their instrument, varying pitch, timbre, tempo, rhythm, dialect, tone and inflection; and conveying the human touch we call emotion, inspiration, or passion.
  3. Direction-- Like a movie, audiobooks are directed and one can often hear the results of the director's silent work. Is the pacing holding your attention? Is the use of music and sound effects appropriate, entertaining, and do they enhance the setting? Habitual audiobook listeners also want an easy transition among chapters, or sequence of CDs, etc.
  4. Script--Many audiobooks are not based on previously structured productions such as printed books. More and more, production are being designed as original audiobooks. If so, issues of length, narrative flow, content and expression come into play. The palette of tools available to the audio producer can easily become a distraction to the story being told.
  5. Engineering-- The audiobook has evolved very quickly as a full fledged member of the pop culture industry, the education industry, and the information industry. Nevertheless, there are still quality issues in engineering such as consistency, signal levels, relative sound mixing between words and music/effects, and overall mix. Some publishers are better than others at ensuring consistent audio mixes from product to product.
  6. Listenability-- Finally, an audiobook should compel you to listen. If you don't like what you are hearing, don't blame all audiobooks. They are different as night and day. The flawless, complete integration of voice, direction, sound design and script is still a holy grail for producers and publishers, always sought and often falling short. Nevertheless, there's nothing like a good story well told.

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