Oyez! Oyez!


(This post has been recorded as an AudioBlog. See bottom of page.)

By popular demand, here’s a summary of my experience with using Text-to-Speech (TTS) technology to record an audiobook edition of Irish Firebrands.

As a person with multiple disabilities, I’m acutely aware of the limited options for people like me. In addition, I wanted to make an audible copy of my first novel for my mother, who had gone blind while I was writing it.

My mother was an avid, eclectic reader, who amassed an enormous personal library, read to me from my infancy, and taught me to read. Cataract surgery restored enough of her sight for her to enjoy the landscapes visible from her windows, and  to watch television, but because of eye damage from other causes, she can see only parts of pictures. Her brain makes Gestalts to fill in what’s missing, although a related disadvantage of that, is she also developed Charles Bonnet syndrome (visual hallucinations that can afflict sighted persons who become blind).

IrishFirebrandscoverartIt’s also impossible for my mother to read large-print books or even magnified characters on screens, so for many years she’s had to rely on talking books from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, at The Library of Congress. When I published Irish Firebrands, all she could do was hold a paper copy in her hands and admire the cover art.

BalabolkaThere are a variety of TTS software packages, most of which use a combination of operating system voices and proprietary voices from other sources. They cost a fraction of what hiring voice talent would cost, but even so, the programs are still too pricey for my nonexistent Indie budget. So I downloaded Balabolka, free software that uses a computer’s built in SAPI 4 or SAPI 5 voices. It reads text in 16 formats (including DOC, DOCX, EPUB, HTML, MOBI, PDF, and RTF), and formats recordings in WAV, MP3, MP4, OGG or WMA.

For the basic document, you choose one voice and set its rate, pitch and volume, but you can record different sections separately and combine them, and the software will also combine different recording formats into one audio file. You need to know how to nest HTML commands (for temporary changes to rate, pitch, and volume), but no other programming ability is necessary. Balabolka is supposed to be able to accept changes to its pronunciation database, and to add emphasis, but I haven’t been able to get those things to work, although that may be a limitation of the voices instead of the software.

pdf_logoThose same problems exist with Adobe Acrobat’s Read Out Loud utility, which uses only whatever built-in voices are available. This characteristic makes Read Out Loud of limited utility as an audiobook option, because the changes you make to the text to fix pronunciation problems for one computer voice, don’t necessarily work when the document is read by another. It also has the annoying habit of reading everything on the page, including headers and footers, and it will pause at page breaks and the end of every line that terminates with a hard return. And depending on the PDF conversion settings, it may read aloud the punctuation, along with the text.

For best results in Read Out Loud, you have to strip out page breaks, headers, footers and apostrophes; then convert the file to PDF, using Standard formatting (no conversion alterations). When you listen to the PDF, take note of any additional pronunciation problems, fix them in your source document, and re-format. Anybody else who listens to the document must use the same voice preference settings you used.

recorded at fromtexttospeechFrom Text To Speech is a free online service, and you can save the files you record. It offers a selection of proprietary voices in American and UK English, as well as pronunciation for other major languages. The proprietary Peter and Rachel (both UK voices) that they use sound good, with fewer mispronunciation problems, and the best ability to automatically add emphasis and interrogatory inflection. I’ve used Peter and Rachel to narrate recordings that appear on this blog. The drawbacks of the website include a limited number of voice adjustment options, it may be set up to periodically block the ISPs of frequent users, and the length of time it takes to generate an MP3 means it’s appropriate only for short reading selections.

After replacing the computer that I used to write Irish Firebrands, I discovered that the Windows 8 OS came with 3 new SAPI 5 voices: David and Zira (American English) and Hazel (UK English). Hazel is the only one of the three that automatically pronounces “Celtic” properly, with a hard C – but she can’t say the name of my female MC, Lana. (UK Peter has no trouble with Lana, but he can’t pronounce the name of my male MC, Dillon.) Although they’re afflicted with the same limitations of most other computer-generated voices (they don’t automatically elide, nor can they express emphasis and questions without help), their otherwise lifelike timbre made them a vast improvement over the SAPI 4 generation of voices.

Aside from difficulties due to hearing loss, I find most SAPI 4 voices impossible to listen to for any length of time, although some Sci-Fi writers may like to use them for their hollow, “robotic” qualities. In the Olden Days of cinematic and television sci-fi, it was assumed that robots would express themselves in flat, unfeeling tones – until the advent of the shouting, gesticulating robot in Lost in Space (“Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!”), who struggled with his emotions.


120px-HAL9000.svgHe was followed by the frankly psychotic HAL9000 (“I’m sorry, Dave…”). Eventually Droids came out of the closet with their feelings: in Star Wars, a machine sounds like a man (C3PO and his many emotional meltdowns), while a man sounds like a machine (James Earl Jones’s sinister inflection, helped out with a SCUBA respirator, as Darth Vader). R2D2 still “speaks” only with beeps and boops, but his whistles and squeals are distinctly anthropomorphic.

Before starting on the recording, I had to learn how to use the voices at my disposal. To do this, I recorded a book trailer with a voice-over track. I used all three of the new voices, and MovieMaker software. The work took about a week.

On the basis of this virtual audition, and about six months of additional testing, I decided that I liked Hazel, the UK voice. To me, the enunciation of most British actors naturally sounds more clipped than that of Americans (who elide, or drop, most of their gerund Gs and many middle Ts, and soften lots of terminal Ds). Hazel uses non-rhotic Received Pronunciation (dropping Rs, or, paradoxically, inserting them where they don’t exist, such as between a word that ends with a vowel, and one that begins with one), but I was willing to trade the necessity of creating David and/or Zira’s endless elisions, for Hazel’s non-rhotic-English habits. 

map_cm_eng_infoSince then, I’ve figured out how to trick Hazel into pronouncing some Rs, which has improved the clarity of a few words, but probably makes her sound more like what some critics may disparagingly call a “West Brit.” She definitely doesn’t sound Irish, because like most varieties of American English, Hiberno-English is rhotic: The Irish pronounce their Rs. But Hazel has learned a little bit of Gaeilge, with the help of the synthesizer at abair.ie.

I’ve learned to correct the multitude of bizarre mispronunciations that crop up unexpectedly, by creatively misspelling words, hyphenating syllables, running words together, changing pitch and speed, dropping terminal punctuation – and adding a few elisions. Unfortunately, there are very few changes that can be made with Balabolka’s global find-and-replace function: most of Hazel’s mispronunciations are dependent on syntax.

Many people dislike computer-generated voices, on principle: The owner of an audiobook hosting service refused to accept my recording, when it came out that I was doing it with TTS technology, even though many of the human-read stories on the site are badly performed or ill-recorded (e.g., sloppy diction, uneven volume, background noise, etc.). It’s also been difficult to recruit and retain beta readers, so I’m very grateful to those who have stuck with the project. Their feedback has been invaluable, while I’ve worked to whip the narration into shape. When it’s “as clean as humanly (and robotically) possible,” the Irish Firebrands audiobook will be available for distribution to the visually-impaired … beginning with Mama.

Readers and writers who decide to try Balabolka are welcome to ask me questions (in comments here, or via the Guestbook page on the Feedback menu) about specific pronunciation problems they’re encountering. I may have already found a tweaking trick that will work for you, too. And anyone out there who has some favorite fixes, please share them with us? No sense in all of us reinventing the wheel! Eyes – ears – even sanity – may be at stake! Thanks!

Christmas_theme_-_Ilex-_04Only 100 days left until Christmas! If you like to get your holiday shopping done early (as I do), now’s the time to order a copy of Irish Firebrands for the Hibernophile on your gift list! ;)

This blog post was recorded in Microsoft Hazel United Kingdom English, edited for rate, pitch, and pronunciation, using Balabolka text-to-speech converter. How many pronunciation edits can you find?


Filed under Audiobooks, Reading, Visual disability

Quoth the Pilcrow….

Edgar_Allan_Poe_by_Samuel_S_Osgood,_1845Every Writer who commits digits to the keyboard of Indie Author-hood soon identifies with the protagonist of Poe’s famous poem.* Will that story that came to perch upon your shoulder, tap-tapping on your pallid pate, ever retire to a quiet corner of the bookcase?

Farm-Fresh_pilcrowNowhere in this blog site have I claimed to have written a perfectly edited book; on the contrary, in The Joys of Editing I stated, “These strategies helped locate most (but not all) of the things that needed fixing in Irish Firebrands.” I’m now engaged in producing an audible version for the visually impaired (more on this, soon!), and offhand, I can recall finding two spell-checker glitches and two terminal-punctuation irregularities that eluded fifteen months of editing and revision. Inevitably, more will turn up.

Dore_RavenI employed conventions common to current Hiberno-English usage, which involves many archaic words, and ungrammatical elements; so some readers may find it hard to reconcile the grammar and style with their training. I also used non-standard punctuation, as a way to portray the mental status of two characters who suffer from psychological disorders. Some readers may consider this usage to be over-the-top; it was a challenge for me to break the habit of correct punctuation, to which I was accustomed from my background in clinical, academic, and technical reading and writing.

Farm-Fresh_pilcrowIrish Firebrands is written in the third person, with only two point-of-view characters, which I’m confident that I maintained consistently. After more than 50 years of reading experience, it seems to me that the quantity and quality of narrator omniscience are more a matter of interpretation than of strict technical accuracy, and I believe I achieved balance in the limited omniscience exhibited by the anonymous narrator, in the summary and expository passages.

George_Hazelton's_The_Raven_(Edgar_Allan_Poe)_1908Over a writing and editing time in excess of 4 years, the corpus of Irish journalism and other media, commercial, educational and government sources that I consulted grew far too large to document (but all websites were bookmarked). In addition, to augment my findings, I spent 2 weeks visiting Ireland, and I acquired a large personal library of research material (see the Bibliography, available via the Sample Chapters menu). Some may disagree with my portrayal of facts and historical events, but the controversial viewpoints expressed by my characters echo opinions publicly – and often vehemently – voiced by the Irish, themselves. Irish Firebrands is an interpretive work of fiction, but it has no factual errors.

Farm-Fresh_pilcrowJ. R. R. Tolkien never finished fiddling with The Lord of the Rings; indeed, its multitudinous reprints introduced errors that were never there to begin with, and the great man’s heirs are still revising them out of his magnum opus.

HN5791I’m an avid reader, and often during the last 7 or 8 years, I’ve been appalled by what passes for well-edited books from traditional publishers. Thus, I crusade to encourage confident self-editing by Indie Authors: after all, fewer mistakes in the manuscripts for which some Indies may be able to afford to hire editors, can only make those people’s jobs easier.

Statue of a raven at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historical Site in Philadelphia, PA.

Click on the image to hear  The Raven, read by Fergus Ross Ferrier.
Recorded May 2014 in Edinburgh, Scotland. 90px-CC_some_rights_reserved.svgCc-by_new_white.svg24px-Cc-sa_white.svg

* While listening, I found out from whom I acquired my avid appreciation for alliteration.


Filed under Art, Literature, Novels, Reading, Writing

G’day, Gutenberg! ’Allo, Aldo!

Contrary to popular belief (fostered by the current contretemps between A Major Online Retailer and A Traditional Publisher), the pocket-sized paperback was not a mid-20th-Century innovation. It was invented in 15th Century Italy by Aldo Manuzio, alias Aldus Manutius the Elder (1449-1515).*


Here’s what a favorite non-fiction writer had to say about it:

By 1482 the printing capital of the world was Venice, and the busiest printer there was a man called Aldus Manutius who used to have a sign outside his shop saying ‘If you would speak to Aldus, hurry – time presses’. He had good reason. No single printer did more to spread the printed word than he. Aldus knew that his market, and the market of all printers, lay not in the production of expensive, commissioned editions of the Bible or the Psalms, but in an inexpensive format that could easily be carried in a man’s saddlebag wherever he went. So Aldus made his books small, and cheap. The Aldine Editions, as his new format was called, were the world’s first pocket books, and they sold faster than he could produce them.

Aldine Editions were treasured by their owners, and thousands of them still exist in collections around the world. There are more than 500 in Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library, alone.

There’s a lot of speculation about the demise of traditional bookstores and the disappearance of printed books. I hope I don’t live to see that day, but a mail-order book-pusher that I used to patronize for several years seemed to feel the pinch. Their mailings shrank from being thick newsprint tabloids that I could hardly get through browsing before the next one came, to standard magazine-size catalogs, and then to skimpy 6×10 1/2-inch booklets.

I don’t get out much any more, except to visit the doctor, so after attending an appointment that involves two dozen injections into my back, while the anesthetic lingers it’s a treat to visit a brick-and-mortar chain bookstore in one of the shopping malls of our nearest big city. Thankfully, it still seems to be as well-stocked as ever, and to go inside and breathe deeply the aroma of soy ink is as good as catnip is to my Kitty. (Do bookstores have aerosol “new book smell” with which they spray the carpet after hours, the way that car dealers use cans of “new car smell”?)

Erasmus. Photo by Frank Versteegen, Rotterdam

When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes. – Erasmus

But frequently, I find myself leaving the store empty-handed: there don’t seem to be as many compellingly written books, anymore. I pick up a half-dozen volumes gleaned from the wide variety of genres that I read, and after leafing through them, I end up leaving them behind. The stories that are being shopped by today’s agents and purchased by traditional publishers rarely match my taste, and the quality of editing has deteriorated to a dismally off-putting low standard.

I’ve begun to do more buying from second-hand bookshops, both in person and online, looking for replacements for the books I inherited when my mother divested herself of her library, after she began to lose her sight, and which I have re-read until they’ve fallen to pieces. The second-hand dealers also supply me with my own copies of the few decent books I manage to unearth each year from my city’s public library, by virtue of a long-term, e-mail association with a local book club that I can no longer attend in person.

And despite my best intentions to materially support Indie Authors through my purchase of their Art, I’ve had to turn away from several listings at A Major Online Retailer, because they are offered only as e-books. I don’t own an e-reader, for reasons explored in Here’s Your Brain, on Books. In addition, the visual impairments I cope with make it exhausting to read from screens, no matter what adaptations I can make to the display, as detailed in Breaking Out of The Bubble.

I’ve found that I need to reserve most of my virtual-page-reading time for my own writing, or else I end up too tired to get any work done. I’ve already begun to send favorite blogs through a text-to-speech converter, to save on eyestrain.

bDoes anybody here recall that scene in the 1960 motion picture adaptation of The Time Machine, of the Time Traveller’s rage when he picked up a book from the Eloi library and it crumbled to dust in his hands? There was no mention of e-books, although the Eloi did have electronic archives that spoke, but the technology didn’t seem to have done them any good: the people’s intellect, energy and motivation had all withered away.

And despite all the nagging to “go paperless,” I fail to see how doing away with paper bills and paper books does anything beneficial for the environment, when, in order to access your e-banking, e-pay all your bills, and then read your e-book, you end up using enough electricity to run a refrigerator for a day. Trees are a renewable resource: after harvesting them for pulp, just plant new ones, and they’ll gladly keep sucking up all that carbon dioxide, over which the environmentalists are losing sleep. And plant an extra tree for me, in honor of the next mechanically printed book I buy, because when I “go,” they’ll have to pry a paper book from my cold, dead hands.

When I published Irish Firebrands, I formatted it first for hard copy by a POD. I had to reverse-engineer the formatting, to put it on Nook, and then on Smashwords. That was more of a pain in the drain than I like to deal with, but both projects went without a hitch, and yielded decently formatted e-books (it helps that I’ve been computing since before the parents of the latest generation of users were gleams in their daddies’ eyes).

Going in the other direction (from e-book to paper) would be faster and easier: just set up margins, gutter and paper dimensions for your desired trim size; paste the text into the resulting page template; format and embed fonts; hyphenate and fully justify; adjust widow and orphan control; add pagination and running heads to headers and/or footers; and if necessary, tweak line spacing and illustrations or other special effects. Add a spine and back cover to the cover file, send everything to a POD, enable an e-store page – and there’s another market cornered for your magnum opus.


A 16th-Century printing shop.

A fellow Author who had recently published a title in e-book, upon learning of my disappointment that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it in that format, graciously gifted me a copy of the manuscript, so that I could run it through my text-to-speech converter and make an audible copy. I don’t expect everyone to offer such generous disability accommodation, but I will make this appeal to other Indies: Please don’t say “Goodbye, Gutenberg!” and “Adios, Aldo!” Publish on paper, too. We Luddites will love you for it.

* We can also blame Aldus for commas, semicolons and italics.

Burke, J. (1978). Connections. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Erasmus statue: photo by Frank Versteegen, Rotterdam


Filed under Indie Authors, Reading, Visual disability, Writing