In the zone
I went to art college in my younger days. It didn’t take. I wasn’t very good and I didn’t work hard. So I dropped out before they could kick me out.
But I remember one instance where I actually ended up putting in more work than my fellow students—an exceptional situation.
In the first year of art college, we did a foundation course. That’s when you try a bit of everything to help you figure out what you want to concentrate on: painting, sculpture, ceramics, printing, photography, and so on. It was a bit of a whirlwind, which was generally a good thing. If you realised you really didn’t like a subject, you didn’t have to stick it out for long.
One of those subjects was animation—a relatively recent addition to the roster. On the first day, the tutor gave everyone a pack of typing paper: 500 sheets of A4. We were told to use them to make a piece of animation. Put something on the first piece of paper. Take a picture. Now put something slightly different on the second piece of paper. Take a picture of that. Repeat another 498 times. At 24 frames a second, the result would be just over 20 seconds of animation. No computers, no mobile phones. Everything by hand. It was so tedious.
And I loved it. I ended up asking for more paper.
(Actually, this was another reason why I ended up dropping out. I really, really enjoyed animation but I wasn’t able to major in it—I could only take it as a minor.)
I remember getting totally absorbed in the production. It was the perfect mix of tedium and creativity. My mind was simultaneously occupied and wandering free.
Recently I’ve been re-experiencing that same feeling. This time, it’s not in the world of visuals, but of audio. I’m working on season two of the Clearleft podcast.
For both seasons and episodes, this is what the process looks like:
- Decide on topics. This will come from a mix of talking to Alex, discussing work with my colleagues, and gut feelings about what might be interesting.
- Gather material. This involves arranging interviews with people; sometimes co-workers, sometimes peers in the wider industry. I also trawl through the archives of talks from Clearleft conferences for relevent presentations.
- Assemble the material. This is where I’m chipping away at the marble of audio interviews to get at the nuggets within. I play around with the flow of themes, trying different juxtapositions and narrative structures.
- Tie everything together. I add my own voice to introduce the topic and segue from point to point.
- Release. I upload the audio, update the RSS feed, and publish the transcript.
Lots of podcasts (that I really enjoy) stop at step two: record a conversation and then release it verbatim. Job done.
Being a glutton for punishment, I wanted to do more of an amalgamation for each episode, weaving multiple conversations together.
Right now I’m in step three. That’s where I’ve found the same sweet spot that I had back in my art college days. It’s somewhat mindless work, snipping audio waveforms and adjusting volume levels. At the same time, there’s the creativity of putting those audio snippets into a logical order. I find myself getting into the zone, losing track of time. It’s the same kind of flow state you get from just the right level of coding or design work. Normally this kind of work lends itself to having some background music, but that’s not an option with podcast editing. I’ve got my headphones on, but my ears are busy.
I imagine that is what life is like for an audio engineer or producer.
When I first started the Clearleft podcast, I thought I would need to use GarageBand for this work, arranging multiple tracks on a timeline. Then I discovered Descript. It’s been an enormous time-saver. It’s like having GarageBand and a text editor merged into one. I can see the narrative flow as a text document, as well as looking at the accompanying waveforms.
Descript isn’t perfect. The transcription accuracy is good enough to allow me to search through my corpus of material, but it’s not accurate enough to publish as is. Still, it gives me some nice shortcuts. I can elimate ums and ahs in one stroke, or shorten any gaps that are too long.
But even with all those conveniences, this is still time-consuming work. If I spend three or four hours with my head down sculpting some audio and I get anything close to five minutes worth of usable content, I consider it time well spent.
Sometimes when I’m knee-deep in a piece of audio, trimming and arranging it just so to make a sentence flow just right, there’s a voice in the back of my head that says, “You know that no one is ever going to notice any of this, don’t you?” I try to ignore that voice. I mean, I know the voice is right, but I still think it’s worth doing all this fine tuning. Even if nobody else knows, I’ll have the satisfaction of transforming the raw audio into something a bit more polished.
Yes, I’m being a little vague on the exact dates. That’s because I’m still in the process of putting the episodes together.
So if you’ll excuse me, I need to put my headphones on and enter the zone.