TidBITS recently signed a licensing agreement with AudioMagNet, a new company that provides the service of converting Internet texts to audio cassette, using a 16-bit computer voice. AudioMagNet approached us with the idea several months ago, noting that such tapes might be appreciated by commuters and by anyone who - for whatever reason - doesn't find it convenient (or possible) to read text. TidBITS is AudioMagNet's first title, but the company plans to have more soon, based in part on suggestions they receive.
AudioMagNet is selling the audio version of TidBITS at $5.00 U.S. per cassette (one issue of TidBITS, at 30-45 minutes, fits on each cassette). You can also subscribe to the service and receive a small discount. Subscription prices are: $120 for 25 cassettes, $235 for 50, $350 for 75, and $460 for 100. The cost includes the conversion service, cassette, and shipping.
I met Sylvain Laroque, AudioMagNet's co-founder, at Boston Macworld Expo and he told me about some of the details involved in creating an AudioMagNet audio tape. Intrigued by his comments, I followed up by conducting a short email interview with Sylvain and his co-founder Chantal St-Pierre.
- [Tonya] What voice do you use in the TidBITS issues? Is it a standard PlainTalk voice?
[Sylvain & Chantal] No, it is not standard PlainTalk. We use Victoria, a high-quality voice which is available on the Apple speech page.
- [Tonya] Do you do any special editing on the files before you record them? Are there characters or words that have to be changed before they will record correctly?
[Sylvain & Chantal] There are approximately six hours of editing before the actual recording phase. First, all email addresses, phone numbers, and URLs are removed - we refer listeners to the Internet version of TidBITS for that information. Victoria spells out anything her internal dictionary does not recognize, which created interesting listening material while we were testing our product. To hear "h-t-t-p slash-slash w-w-w (pause) tidbits (pause) com" isn't a pleasant listening experience, and for some addresses it can be confusing. For the same reason, we remove any configuration strings and advise the listener to consult the Internet version of TidBITS. We also have to watch for brackets, parentheses, and symbols like quotation marks, as Victoria either stops and says nothing or tries to pronounce everything she sees.
The second step consists of a search and replace on all the words we know Victoria cannot say properly, such as email, online, Macintosh and CompuServe. We trick her into pronouncing words like "Los Angeles" and "WYSIWYG": that well-guarded secret leads us to the third step, where we carefully examine the issue for words we suspect Victoria will not be able to pronounce, come up with a new spelling to trick her, and add these new words into our search and replace dictionary for future issues.
We also have to watch for long sentences and break them up with commas to avoid a bunch of endless sound. We insert what we call "forced silence," especially between paragraphs. These longer pauses are designed to indicate changes in subject.
Lastly, we listen to the final product, work out any glitches, time the issue, and select a custom tape to produce the master. And then we proceed with the recording.
- [Tonya] What sound equipment do you use to create the recordings?
[Sylvain & Chantal] Our master copy is produced on a Chrome custom-length cassette, directly from a Mac to standard recording equipment. It is then reproduced at high speed on an audio cassette duplicator for the required amount of copies.
- [Tonya] What made you decide to set up AudioMagNet?
[Sylvain & Chantal] Sylvain thought about the service a long time ago to make his life easier. Isn't necessity the mother of invention? As a professional Mac consultant, Sylvain has to stay informed about new products, trends, updates, bugs, problems, solutions, etc. Reading magazines and press releases to keep informed is a necessary evil, but for people who aren't fast readers (or who don't enjoy reading) the task can be overwhelming. Sylvain spends a lot of time in his car commuting: he thought that if he could come up with a way to get the information he needed while driving he could maximize his time. So he started recording the information he needed, and thought if it was a good time-management idea for him, it could be useful for anyone.
AudioMagNet -- <firstname.lastname@example.org>