Monday, September 25, 2017

The Making Of: The Library of Babel Podcast Season 2

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This summer, I revived my college-era short story podcast, The Library of Babel Podcast, for five new episodes. I called it, "Season 2." Here's how I did it.

When I was making the podcast back in college, I was just trying to get things out there and have fun, and I didn't have too much concern for copyrights. I realized later that a bunch of my episodes were not, strictly speaking, legal for me to have made and distributed. I've since taken down episodes with serious copyright problems, and I wanted to avoid having to do that this time. So, I started by doing a broad search for short stories in the public domain and Creative Commons—that is, stories that are too old to be copyrighted, or stories that were released without copyright protection.

To narrow my search a bit, I searched for speculative fiction: sci-fi and fantasy stories. My main resources ended up being Project Gutenburg, an online database of writing in the public domain, and Free Speculative Fiction Online, a searchable database of spec fic that is available online, which helpfully includes the ability to search for works that are in the Creative Commons. I further narrowed my search to try to exclude works that already had an audiobook recording somewhere out there, and then put it all into a spreadsheet.

The material in the public domain tends to be quite old old. So much stuff that really ought to be in the public domain is not, because American copyright law is designed so that Mickey Mouse will never fall into the public domain (seriously) and Mickey was created in the 1920s. Writing from before the 1920s, especially speculative fiction writing, often sounds clunky and silly to modern ears, and I really wanted to avoid having to use that kind of thing this time around. So, I sorted my spreadsheet by date, reading the newest stuff first, hoping to find something from after 1950 that I could actually use.

I rated each story 1-4 based on how likely I was to want to use it in the podcast. I also wrote where I found it, typed some comments, and included a link so I could find the stories, as well as a rough word count. Here's the result:



As you can see, I ended up with a lot more material than I was ever going to use. I decided to focus on stories between 4,000 and 6,000 words, since I wanted to do 30-minute episodes and stories that length turn out to be roughly 30 minutes long when you say all the words one after the other. (For a while I strongly considered including a longer story and breaking it up into two episodes, but none of the longer stories ended up needing to get read.) Most of the stories on my spreadsheet have italicized ratings, which means that I didn't bother to finish reading the story, usually because I knew I didn't want to use it. There were lots of reasons for this. Plenty of these stories were just not very . . . good, like the writing was bad, or the stories were offensive or boring or offensively boring.  As I read, I got better at seeing red flags and deciding to stop reading and move on. After that, I judged stories based on how well they fit my interests—I wanted things that I could comment on!—and whether they would be fun to read and, of course, listen to (interesting characters, unique voice opportunities, compelling plots). Eventually, I had 5 stories that I liked a lot. I was especially pleased that they were all written in the last 30 years (between 1995 and 2009)!

The next step might be a little surprising, since this one might imagine this as an exclusively electronic project. I wanted, though, to have a hard copy of the stories to practice with and use for recording. I like feeling things I read with my hands and having light bounce of a piece of paper before it hits my eyes. I copied the stories from the web into MS Word, fiddled with margins and fonts and settings to make them look good, and printed them off as booklets using Adobe Acrobat. I then sewed the booklets with a 5-hole pamphlet stitch, using some bookbinding thread I had lying around from an old project (nerd). Here's what they looked like:

Beneath the Language was the first one I printed; you can tell I hadn't quite figured out that I could fiddle more with font and margin settings because the text is quite small and far from the edges of the page 

I live in a house on a busy road, so I rigged up the closet in our spare bedroom with blankets, sheets, and towels to muffle outside sounds and damp down echoes in the room. Frustratingly, the result is that it sounds like someone talking inside of a closet, but you know, it's better than someone talking in traffic.

Studio Closet

I rehearsed the stories several times, reading them aloud all the way through and trying to develop distinct voices for each character while working out and noting which parts were hardest to say. (Beneath the Language took the longest, because I tried to give the main character a Papua New Guinea accent, and finally realized that I just could not nail that accent down to my satisfaction and gave up.) Then, I went in to my "studio," plugged in my microphone, and recorded the stories from start to finish in Audacity. When I made mistakes or thought something sounded odd, I went back and said the words over again without stopping the recording. This made it easier to edit later, although not stopping at all during recording did mean that my voice tended to get a little hoarse by the end of each episode.

After recording, I used Audacity to make the recordings louder, compress them so the quietest parts were less quiet and the loudest parts were less loud, and finally soften the "s" sounds, which can make your ears hurt if they're not dealt with in many recordings. Then I removed all the mistakes and inserted pauses where I wanted music to go. Doing this typically took twice or three times as long as the episode itself, and was the most tedious part of the whole process.

Next up, I used GarageBand to add sound effects and music that I found on the internet. Many of the effects and most of the music was from the amazing YouTube Audio Library, which is full of copyright-free material. I did miss making my own music for episodes like I used to, just a little bit, but having professionally produced music in a variety of genres was really helpful for setting moods and generally enhancing the quality of the project. Adding effects and music was my favorite thing about this season!

My audio editing setup—Audacity is on the left, and GarageBand is on the right. Both screens show The Invisible Empire

Finally, I went back and listened to each episode, both for errors and for ideas on what I could discuss about it on the show. I typed up notes and recorded and edited them just like the episodes, using Audacity and GarageBand to edit and add them in when I was done.

I won't bore readers with details on how to actually set up a podcast so that a person can subscribe to it using iTunes, but suffice it to say that it is quite tedious and somewhat complicated. Here are the steps that I used to do it with my preferred service, Blogger. The main nice thing about using Blogger to host a podcast is that you can do it for completely free! (At least, as of 2017.) It's the same service I used to set up my other podcast, the Bible Scholarship Podcast.

I'm really proud of and pleased with the final result, and I hope that listeners will enjoy it, too.

Read about and listen to old episodes of the Library of Babel Podcast here. Subscribe to the current season on iTunes or using this RSS feed. Listen on the web over at Soundcloud.