Translating Text to Audio
Written text is an effective medium. It conveys information that can be read, stopped, imagined, re-read, skimmed, and saved on your terms. Reading has been society’s on-demand information before “on-demand” was a thing. However, in my opinion, audio is a great medium for short stories and articles--maybe even better than text. Here’s why...
Sound has more information than text--it’s simply more dense. It’s better at putting someone in a space, conveying speech, and most importantly, communicating emotion.
Putting You In a Space
I can describe the feeling of stepping out into forest using words with some effort: I’d have to carefully chose some adjectives and paint a scene full of life and sensual data. Then maybe I’d pick out a few objects to really pin down while spinning in a little memory to evoke a feeling. It can be done absolutely beautifully with text and sometimes in just a few phrases, but it can also be done very clumsily. On the other hand, for audio to put you in that wilderness, simply listen to 10 seconds of a binaural forest recording and you’ll feel the woodpecker vibrations; you’ll know the scale by the reverberations off the canopy; you’ll even have the sense of fine dawn dew in the air. This is just a passive recording. When you then put pieces of this scene into a competent producer, they can direct your attention to exact attributes of the scene and still effortlessly immerse you.
When writing speech, the sentence, “That’s so amazing!” probably reads as a vote of support. Now, it could be full-throated or it could convey joy or it could be a little desperate or it could even be sarcastic. The written word can be ambiguous, which is why you might spend time agonizing over the right way to phrase an email or a text. Without the right context, it could be very misleading to the reader. But when you hear the sentence in audio, you absorb the information intuitively since it’s conveyed in its own medium. Audio gives a perfect amount of speech information. It doesn’t communicate every nuance of speech because a person’s face does an amazing amount of acrobatics to communicate (we have 43 facial muscles--many of which are heavily used in communication). Audio allows you to exaggerate vocal qualities and to deal back others and even edit out unnecessary tangents so we can convey what we want to convey.
Audio really shines when it conveys emotional information. In speech, you instantly understand the subtle emotional content conveyed without having to wade through the clumsiness of clarifications and even grammar. In audio, the speech’s content goes far beyond the words: a cough, a stutter, a stammer screams nervousness and possibly deceitful intent. A pause and a crack in the voice pulls you into an earth-shaking sadness that somehow pools tears in your own eyes when you’re on your commute. And beyond the immediate emotional information, the accumulation of this information from a person fills out an understanding in ways that are lost in short articles. Podcasts, as a medium, capitalize on this personal understanding. Hosts easily connect with listeners because their bits of personality (no matter how small) inevitably come through over time through the emotionally charged audio.
Of Course, Music
Obviously, music conveys information. Text has no analogue except maybe illustrations or typography. Speaking from my experience, music emotionally secures me to a piece. I realized this linkage very clearly when I read George Orwell’s 1984. The story evokes such a strong sense of space and characters. I wanted to get closer to this 1984 world. I found myself popping on some noise-cancelling headphones and settling into a playlist of Massive Attack, Trent Reznor + Atticus Ross, and Cliff Martinez. It added that needed emotional sense to the book for me. I felt closer to the story. In audio, you’ve got music--an art-form developed over centuries--to connect a person to the emotional content of a story.
Now, audio does have a downside: it progresses whether or not you’re ready. It can be off-putting if you feel dissonance with the emotional content provided by the characters or if you can’t empathize with the situation. But if done right, I think audio can immerse a person in a story better than written text.
Translating Text to Audio
The tiny above arguments are not a thorough discussion for the topic. And I am definitely not arguing for an end to written text in favor of an all audio world. I just think that there are really advantages for sound to communicate place, speech, and emotion. So now, let’s turn our attention toward translating written story to audio. There are lots of pitfalls when it comes to this translation, but most can be avoided if you simply embrace audio’s advantages. And a huge caveat here: it takes years to develop a good ear for the right kind of translation. In any case, here are some general guidelines:
If a written piece has a strong sense of place, be sure to include recordings from that place. Gather as much ambient and close-up recordings as possible to situate a listener in that place. You might be tempted to have a host read the carefully crafted physical descriptions of the environment, but this is probably a mistake. Of course, you could use bits of that description for inaudible things, but I hasten to say that the description should include the right emotional information for the space. If the narrator doesn’t capture it correctly, it feels dissonant and forced.
If there’s speech in the writing, it should be recorded. This might mean that you’ll need to find the people in the story again. You might also need to find other people to give that speech some teeth. Pro tip: speech is much more engaging when people are giving impromptu responses or an event happening in front of the microphone. You can hear when someone is staging something. A good conversation always makes for better speech in audio.
And finally music is that secret sauce that can bring out that deeper feeling that you couldn’t quite articulate or underline enough in the written text. I suggest creating a sort of mood board about your story and listen to a lot of instrumental music to find the right kind of tone. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a keyboard, a few chords go a long way. And don’t be intimidated by some kind of need to compose music. The best music for audio will almost always be simple, subtle music. I have to make sure I include an instruction to myself after every one of my first drafts to cut back the music.