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How Important Is Sound Quality?

The other day, I heard an audiobook fan comment that sound integrity did not much concern him. He thought that the single human voice did not need "CD quality."

This disturbed me no end. I don't like to think that listeners could enjoy a book recorded over a bad telephone connection equally with one boasting rich sonorities and clean ambience. Yet, this seems to be the case. There are a small number of very prolific publishers who do quite well spewing out irritatingly flawed tracks.

What do I mean? I mean bad edits. When one hears the volume or environmental overtones abruptly change, one is hearing an edit. The narrator's physical position in relationship to the mic and the recording environment changes from take to take, sometimes radically, sometimes only slightly. Unless producers take care, theses changes are audible. They can make setting listening volume impossible unless one doesn't mind be blasted one moment and straining to hear the next.

Even when the volume and overtones are consistent, indifferent editing can disturb the flow of a book and ruin a performance. An inattentive editor can add a pause, cut one out, or otherwise break the performance rhythm. Doing so subverts the performer's timing. In a volume of humor, it can kill all the jokes. This sort of thing is particularly insidious, because one usually can't hear such edits, and therefore can't tell whether the reader or the editor has done the damage.

It is often easy to correct editing faults, but doing so can consume a great deal of expensive studio time. Hence, lacking a consumer demand for improvement in the tape-cutting status quo, publishers have an economic disincentive and no motivation to do something about this rampant problem. The publishers for whom I've directed and produced seem unconcerned. Their quality control people have asked for new takes of passages marred by mispronunciations, squeaky chairs, paper rustling, stomach rumbling and various electronic clicks and buzzes -- but never for bad edits or, more important, line misreadings. They have never asked me to supervise editing, apparently believing engineers sufficient to the task. And when, on one project, I volunteered to do so, they looked at me as if I were crazy.

Far more annoying and, thank goodness, not nearly as common, are those tapes in which much of the voice is missing: namely, the treble and high frequencies and the very lowest frequencies. Voices sound muffled, muddy. One cannot hear such tracks very well in a car moving through even light traffic. And at home, one has to crank up the volume thereby bringing up the tape hiss and mouth noises one would rather not hear. Mouth noises particularly drive me nuts.

Unfortunately for me as a reviewer, the worst offenders happen to produce unabridged versions of often very lengthy tomes and to grind out a massive quantity of them. Obviously they're making money. Their customers seem satisfied with reasonably listenable renditions of books they'd rather hear than read.

What factors produce bad sound quality? Economics and indifference. Getting it out quick and dirty means larger gross revenues. Another factor may be preference. A publisher may believe that "softening" the voice makes it more pleasant. For those of you publishers reading this who harbor this aesthetic, let me inform you here and now that you're wrong.

I strongly suspect that sound quality can materially influence sales. A distinctive and pleasant house sound can contribute significantly to consumer loyalty. This sound need not be pure. Sometimes, a pure signal is as difficult to listen to as a dirty one. Sound processing is almost always necessary, but GOOD sound processing should not call attention to itself. It should instead contribute to clarity, help the voice emerge above distractions of the listening environment, eliminate sonic schmutz, and compensate for narrator deficiencies such as glassy sibilants, nasality, etc.

Although some consumers are just too busy (or too lazy) to read, I suspect the vast majority buy and rent audiobooks for the joy of being read to, the pleasure of which compliments rather than substitutes for the printed page. If I am right, sound quality should enhance warmth and intimacy. Overtones should not suggest the coffin, the bathroom or the ice chest, as so many now do; they should remind one of the bedside and the hearth and the camp fire.

Will people still listen to their favorite narrator wrapped in gauze when they can get her without a gag in her mouth? Some publishers apparently don't think so. More and more audiobooks are coming out on CD. I'm hearing better readings than I did just two years ago. The artistically ambitious independent publishers, who have had a hard time finding shelf space in stores, are wedging in via direct mail and the Internet. The most accessible web technologies currently deliver lousy sound, but the lucrative potential lurking there for the music industry is rapidly sparking innovation that can only benefit our thus far modest talking tape biz. The wide availability of superior product will create a demand for it, forcing otherwise complacent publishers to keep up.

And once they do, there'll be no turning back.


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