How Success is Reached by Climbing a Stairway Built of Failures
My father once said that, in the Army, he learned that “Success is a lousy teacher.”
That aphorism has stuck with me for decades.
I’ve understood it in many different ways over the years. Usually as a variation on the theme that if you get things right, especially when trying something new out, it’s hard to know what you did to get it right, and worse, you’ve got no guidance about what to avoid.
It’s confusing. Makes repeating a successful try that much harder.
But when you fail, it’s usually easier to divine what you did wrong and make a note of that. Then, not repeat it next time. Working, in small steps, both effective and not, towards success.
And there’s nothing like learning a new skill to show, clearly, just how true that bit of wisdom is.
Adventures in Audiobooks
About three weeks ago, I began work on the Audiobook. I’m hardly an actor and I know very little about recording software.
To do this, I bought a class on Udemy, got a mic, pop filter, microphone arm, and basic recording software.
Following the instructions, I set things up and practiced various functions when instructed. Figured out how to treat my room for sound and find quiet times in Brooklyn to record (6 to 8 am—most days).
Wrote the introduction and connecting pieces. Made the text all pretty.
Made up checklists for running a recording session, both as sound guy and actor, including a list of voice exercises to do each time.
I was PREPARED.
Thinking about it excited me. A bit more than it worried me that I’d never pull it off.
Still, loved the idea I would be reading my work—after all, I know how it’s supposed to sound. And, this would be a new avenue to reach people, so yes, this is COOL.
Until…. I had to actually record it.
Stage fright came back hard, of course. But I’ve given lectures and speeches and read my stuff live, so I got over that quickly.
Pulling the mic over, I set up the script on my iPad and had all the settings on Reaper (the Digital Audio Workstation—software) set. Ready go. Ran my mouth through some exercises.
The room was quiet.
Then, the DAW couldn’t find my mic. I could see my voicing making my iMac’s levels jump, but Reaper completely ignored it.
I checked the routing, not that I understood the buttons and labels all that well. Read tips online.
Nothing I did worked.
But, it HAD worked before. Yet I had no idea what I’d done to make it work before.
I felt like punching something.
Instead, I rapped my knuckles on the desk and glared at the misbehaving software as more and more quiet time dribbled away. Then, I remembered—I had to arm the track (push a red button). With nothing to loose, I moved the cursor over that small red circle, clicked it, arming the track, and lo, the red and green levels in Reaper jumped and bobbed.
But, by then, the workers across the street started up for the day, and I realized I’d blown two hours chasing my tail.
Well, next time, I wouldn’t make that same mistake.
As expected, the failures from the day before made sure damned sure I didn’t make that same mistake, and those the red and green levels jumped and leapt right from the start.
But, when I started recording, I couldn’t hear anything through the headphones.
Nothing. Nary a peep.
But it had worked before.
What the hell!?
Remembering something something I’d learned on different software, I fiddled with the headphone jack on the mic, confident that would fix things.
I went through the same rigamarole as the day before and came up empty.
Then I want back to the very start, the earliest preparations on the checklist, which lead me to the Mac System Preferences then to the Sound tab and a game of whack-a-mole.
Once I saw the output was set to “Boom2 Device,” I realized that was the problem. So I chose my Q2U mic. Simple.
But, it zipped right back to “Boom2 Device.” And I chose the Q2U again, and it zipped right back to the “Boom2 Device” and so on for several more tries. What the hell is this? WHY? It WORKED before! Finally, it dawned on me that “Boom2 Device” is driven by an app on my Mac.
I turned it off, and voila, I could pick my Q2U mic as Output. And DAMN! I could hear myself through the headphone.
Why I’d never had that problem before? No clue.
I had no idea what I had done right earlier and so could never repeat whatever the hell I’d done before.
But now, I knew how to fix yet another problem.
Finally, I got a few minutes of recording in before the workers across the street started drilling again.
Another day, more lessons applied: Turned off the Boom2 app first thing and make sure I armed the track. Super, got the levels jumping. Heard myself just fine, but, um.
There was no waveform.
The waveform is the shape sound makes in the DAW (software), so I can find where I’d stopped, where I need to correct mistakes.
It had always been there before. Why the hell not today?
This drove me WILD. Nothing I did fixed it. Not expanding the track area. Not increasing or decreasing the zoom. Quitting and restarting the DAW. Nothing in the chatrooms I scoured helped.
And nothing, over and over.
Again, I rapped my knuckles on the desk.
Then, finally, deep in some discussion or other, I found the tail end of a thread, which explained that this just happens sometimes. It’s a bug, and the only thing one can do is keep restarting it until it works.
Nothing for me to do but deal with buggy software. (Imagine here a grunt of disgust.)
To be fair, in the nearly two weeks since, I’ve had zero problems with the waveform, and even know how to zoom in and out at my pleasure. In the end, I know it’s not me; it’s Reaper; and there’s a simple solution.
This day proved the most exasperating. I got the mic running into Reaper, the headphones feeding me my words, the waveforms jumping, and even laid down tracks. But, when I tried to fix my first mistakes, Reaper refused to act the way it should.
There is a sound recording technique called “punch and roll,” which is used by professional voice talent all the time. Reaper has specific settings, which I had meticulously set up, that make punching in corrections a breeze… until it didn’t.
The way it should work is that I stop recording, then put the cursor in front of the error, finally hit the record button. The track rolls back a few seconds, then I hear what was being said a few seconds before the mistake, and there, I start recording right over the error. Reaper even as a preset crossfade that makes seamless transitions between these takes.
Only it was forcing me to save the project each time I stopped to punch over a correction.
And I’d practiced this. I knew everything was set up correctly. It absolutely was not supposed to keep asking me to name and save the project for EVERY error.
This drove me nuts.
No! No! No! This was NOT how it works.
I researched online. I rewatched the video.
By then, it was too late—the workers had started up.
Still, what the HELL was going ON?!
I came to the session, unhappy. Then, as I tried to figure out the punch and roll problem, the weekly garbage pick up began. Trucks rolled by below my window, ruining any chance I had to record for the day.
Still, I played around with the punch and roll problem.
I tried hitting pause.
Then, I remembered something from the video: the instructor had talked, almost offhandedly, about hitting the “pause” bar.
Having nothing else to lose, I played around a bit as the trucks clamored and roared on the street below. Hit the space bar. The recording stopped. I moved the courser back to just before the error and then hit the record button.
Like a well-behaved bit a software, it rolled back and then started recording right where I made the mistake.
Precisely as it was supposedto have done.
Only then did I understand there are 3 ways of stopping a recording. One is to hit stop. This requires me to save the project. It wraps things up. Two is to hit pause, which does pause the recording, but then it ignores all the “punch and roll” settings, so won’t roll back nor insert the crossfades. Three is to hit the space bar, which somehow triggers the “punch and roll” settings.
And thus, after nearly a week of stupid mistakes and things beyond my control, I was ready to start recording.
Which I’ve been doing since.
Week Two Plus
Since this rocky start, I’ve been following the lessons these failures have taught me, and I’ve been able to record over an hour of material, with various fits and starts and problems with airplanes, trucks, and workers tuckpointing the building across the street. Lost one day to rain as it hammered out its tattoo on the air conditioner 6 feet from the mic. Minutes were lost to the headphone jack actually not working and another time the external hard drive whining away.
I also learned that my voice starts getting rough after about an hour and a half of reading. Two hours tops.
In the second story I read, “More Things on Heaven and Earth,” I was really getting into the performance side of reading and gained a bit of fluidity using the software.
So, I finally gave a listen to the book introduction, the introduction to part one, “Stories of Mexico City,” and the two short stories “La Fiesta de los Toros” and “More Things on Heaven and Earth,” and while I liked a great deal of it. I did find several problems.
Like shifting volume and style between takes, difficulty pulling off a woman’s voice (only 10 or so words—nothing serious), somehow cutting out two sentences and finding out that Punch and Roll doesn’t start where I want it to, but where I left the insertion point, so I’d cut off the first word or phrase in a number of spots.
No big deal, I shrugged.
Confidence Borne of Practice
By the end of the second week, the software no longer intimidated me. I no longer feel that whatever words I’ve been able to, finally, get recorded are too valuable to junk and do over. In fact, by screwing up so often and having to record so many takes, I’ve learned that I can do unlimited takes for any place I want to punch and roll. So I keep recording takes until I nail it.
I also found out that after I punch in a new take, I can listen to exactly what I just recorded by simply hitting “play,” and if I don’t like it, it’s already set to rerecord without doing anything new.
Finally comfortable with scaling the size of the waveform, I move forwards and backwards quickly. I know how to split sections,move them around, and cut out odd pops and clicks.
Hell, I enjoy it.
Love it.Look forward to a recording session every morning, confident that, no matter what happens, I can figure it out.
So dad, I finally get what you were saying with “Success is a lousy teacher”—it’s that success is reached only by climbing a stairway built of failures.
The Udemy course I took is “The Audiobook Production and Narration Course” by Paul Jenkins. Look it up here.
The DAW I use is Reaper. Well worth the $60.00.
The book I’m recording, as talent and sound engineer is Selecting Ourselves, a sampling of my journey as a writer, from literary short stories, to literary novels (A Perfect Blindness & Solitude of the Knight) and finally ending up back with what inspired me to be a writer in the first place fantasy (samples of both Walking the Darkmaker’s Way and The Book of Visions, both works in progress.)