Get To Know CSL: Tyler Kottmann on Audio Production at the Colorado Talking Book Library

In a series of conversations, we are finding out about how the people of Colorado State Library (CSL) derive meaning from their work, as well as some of the challenges and successes they have experienced. In this sixth installment of #GetToKnowCSL we have Tyler Kottmann, the Studio Director at the Colorado Talking Book Library (CTBL), a unit of CSL. CTBL provides free audiobooks, Braille, and large print books for persons who cannot read standard print. CTBL is part of a national network of libraries that partner with the Library of Congress to deliver services to the print-disabled. NLS, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, is the Library of Congress unit that provides overall direction for the program. Tyler oversees the audio production aspect of the CTBL service by managing and recording the volunteer readers in CTBL’s four booth recording studio. Before joining the State Library in 2013, Tyler earned his BFA from the University of Cincinnati in Electronic Media and afterwards gained experience working for NLS in Cincinnati, OH. He also has extensive experience as a live music sound engineer and is a long-time musician himself.

Tyler, second from left, interacting with a CTBL patron

Mike: How has your work changed in recent months? I’m guessing you can’t be in the studio like you were before.

Tyler: It’s changed dramatically. The studio is closed. Most of what I do is facilitating the work of the volunteers, and they are almost entirely off the board right now. I’ve gotten a couple of people to do some things from home. We are working on building out a couple of kits for home recording. We purchased a mic, and an interface which goes between a mic and the computer, and we’re working on getting some laptops and some of the peripheral stuff too. So that’s the next big step for me, once I have all the components in place. I have a couple of volunteers who are interested in trying it, so I’m looking forward to getting some material recorded again. In the meantime, I’ve been doing some home recording myself, with a mic that I have setup in my closet. Mostly to keep up with the magazines we do. But I would love to pass the torch back to the volunteers.

[Both laugh]

M: Do you enjoy being recorded reading at all? Or do you much prefer to do the recording?

T: I honestly don’t think I have the talent for it, which just reaffirms how great it is to have the talented volunteers that we do. And when you’re doing it by yourself, it’s slow going. So, to answer your question, yes, I do kinda prefer to be behind the scenes.

M: You mention talent. It’s something that didn’t necessarily occur to me prior to getting in the booth myself, how much talent it takes to read, to maintain that flow and not make constant errors. It’s amazing to me when people can do that, because it’s hard.

T: It is. It’s quite impressive. When I’m doing it here, a little bit each day, I’ll have a day where it seems like I can’t get a sentence out without making a mistake or stumbling over something. Other days I just sail right along.

M: I’ve heard from multilingual people (not me) – certain days they can’t speak certain languages.

T: That’s interesting, I’ve never heard that before.

M: It’s purely anecdotal, but maybe it can be applied to reading out loud. So, will you be assisting remotely with these kits you’re making?

T: A lot of it still remains to be seen because I’ve never done anything quite like this before. People aren’t used to handling the technical side of it at all. So it will be like, record a page so I can assess how it’s sounding, if you’re picking up things you don’t want to be picking up, if the air conditioner is running, or the dogs are barking, or if it sounds too live. I’m excited and optimistic that it will go smoothly, but, at least at first, it will be a pretty interactive, hands-on process.

M: We have all had to improvise and take risks lately. Can you do much editing post-production in terms of removing environmental sounds?

T: It’s really not the ideal approach. Sometimes, yes, but it depends on what the noise is. If there’s a low rumble like a truck passing by you can cut that out. There are noise reduction processes that you can use, but it’s very easy to cross the line into sounding like it’s been processed. We are not held to the NLS standards in the same way paid contractors are, because we are a volunteer program, but we still aspire to them.

M: Having a properly engineered production really affects the overall sound quality, right? I know that also applies to music as well.

T: Absolutely. Any kind of media production, really. Pre-production and production are the most important stages for that reason.

M: And when the mix is wrong, it’s really obvious! To give an extreme example, I’m thinking of small live music performances, say in a bar, where they are blasting amps in spaces no bigger than my living room and drowning each other out. It’s all just noise.

T: That’s one of the interesting things about that type of work. That’s why you see it working as well as it works in larger venues because you have people who really know what they’re doing and it’s like a well oiled machine of people working well together at all stages – as far as getting set up, doing a sound check and adjusting levels throughout the performance. Whereas what you’re talking about – which I also did in my early twenties after I graduated college – the sound guy-band relationship isn’t always cooperative [laughs]. I can’t tell you how many times I had to say, keep your levels low, that gives me more control over the mix, but they are just worried about how it sounds from where they are standing.

M: And then you have albums like Rumors by Fleetwood Mac, where the mix really sets off the music.

T: Yeah. And I learned what I learned in college, but I’ve learned so much more after the fact actually doing the work. And there’s so much information out there where you can learn about this stuff, what was done on a certain album you love. And I’ve found out that it’s not like, oh I have to get this set of plugins to make my mix sound better. The less mixing you’re having to do because of the way it was engineered and recorded – that’s kind of the secret sauce. It’s not about applying things after the fact. The difference is often made up front.

M: You’ve talked a little bit about your background, so shall we talk about how you got involved with CTBL?

T: Sure. I don’t come from a library background. Music got me interested in audio production. So that’s the route I took; in college I studied Electronic Media – video, audio, multimedia stuff, mainly focused on audio production, multi-track production, sound design, things like that. And of course I graduated with a fine arts degree in America in 2009 when economically speaking things weren’t looking great. I ended up working at a music store during the day and running sound at smaller venues around the city at night. Then, Chris Mundy, who I’d met during my internship reached out to me with a job opportunity. He works at the multi-state center of the National Library Service, in Cincinnati. He is the quality control specialist for volunteer recording programs like the one I’m currently in charge of. They created this assistant position for him, and he remembered me and called me in, I interviewed and got the job. So, I would listen to recordings and review them and generate a set of notes, either based on production or accuracy, including pronunciation research. That’s how I got introduced to the NLS. I’ve always liked libraries, but audiobooks never really crossed my mind while I was in school. I worked there for a couple of years and got familiar with how NLS did things, even though I never did the production myself. Then the opening at CTBL came across the wire and I interviewed and eventually got the job.

M: You moved here for the job then. Did you know people here?

T: I feel pretty fortuitous that Denver is the city I landed in – it’s a pretty cool city to live in. I didn’t know anybody here, but I was up for experiencing something new. The opportunity was really enticing. Regardless of where it was, I probably would have taken the job, but I kind of lucked out with Denver. And of course the mission of CTBL really appealed to me. It’s such a cool intersection of things for me, the process of recording an audiobook. And for the purpose of providing access for people who wouldn’t otherwise have it means a lot. I wish I could say that I set out with some grand purpose, but it was a happy accident for me. I received a message from a patron recently who we recorded a book for and she was just expressing her gratitude and what a nice job the narrator did, which was really, really nice to hear – you really can’t beat it as far as feeling good about the work you do.

M: It is really satisfying to know you’ve made a real difference like that. Given the current protests and the surge in conversations that relate to them, do you have any thoughts about equity, diversity, and inclusivity as they pertain to people with sensory disabilities? Because my perspective is that sometimes those folks are not always included in the broader EDI discussion. Is that just my perception?

T: This is anecdotal for me, because that’s not my background or something I’ve studied, I’ve just had the experience of working with a handful of our volunteers who are visually impaired, and I’ve learned a bit about the struggles and daily battles they face. Although in America we have made a good amount of progress since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed 1990, it’s not like we’ve cracked it. The same thing with racial inequality – we made strides in the 1960s, but we still have a long, long way to go to solve these problems. It’s never convenient to address these issues, so a real effort needs to be made. There are so many little things that I take for granted that others struggle with, and that struggle is often overlooked. I just try to keep those things in mind in my day to day life and do what I can in whatever small ways to help out. If you’re blind or have another kind of disability where you’re home a lot of the time – and I guess we’re all living through this being sequestered as we are due to COVID – you realize the importance of social interaction and how far those things can go. That’s one of the nice things about the service that CTBL provides – it does provide a kind of escape for people and fills that human need to not feel isolated, that’s one of the things that I hear from patrons.

M: I recently heard inequities described like doorways. Throughout our lives there are these invisible doorways that some of us don’t even realize are doorways, so we float right on through. But for others, there is a locked door.

T: So much we take for granted. Even gaining an education as a person with a disability presents a variety of challenges – and it trickles down from there, as far as accessing opportunities.

M: I just saw on the internet refreshable braille displays, and they look pretty amazing.

T: They are expensive to purchase privately, but I believe NLS is working on a program that would provide them to patrons. We have this download platform called BARD that people can download audiobooks and magazines from, and also braille files to use with those displays. It’s unfortunate that these technologies get developed that are incredible and increase access for people, but they are almost prohibitively expensive.

M: I suppose it has to do with demand.

T: Correct. And a lot of people who use our service lost their vision later in life, so that demographic typically doesn’t learn how to read braille. Even personally as someone who has messed about with braille by sight – it’s very, very difficult, so you can imagine if you’re older and you’re dealing with this transition, it would be a huge challenge to learn a whole new way of reading. So there’s not a huge demand but the demand is there, especially for people who have been blind their whole lives.

M: It sounds to me like you have real dedication and a belief in what you do.

T: We have a great group of volunteers who are completely committed to the work we do. It’s inspiring. So a big part of it for me is making sure they get the support they need. At the end of the day, I think that adds up to more access to quality content for our patrons.

M: You mentioned pronunciation research earlier. Is that a common point of debate? I enjoy petty nuanced arguments like that.

T: I also enjoy that kind of debate, but sometimes it can be quite tedious digging into the nuances of American place names [both laugh]. There are some parts of the country where the Arkansas River is pronounced differently, for example. Buena Vista is another example that comes up a lot. The preferred pronunciation from the city is that it’s pronounced BEW-na. Some people just absolutely shudder at that. There’s a laundry list of examples.

M: Wynkoop is another one that gets Denverites riled up. I don’t have strong feelings about it.

T: I believe it was always wine-koop when referring to the street, but when John Hickenlooper started the brewery, wine-koop literally sounded like wine, and being a brewery they decided to tweak it to win-koop.

M: There’s always an anecdote being used as a justification, then. I have a couple of random questions. Being a musician, do you ever consider people with sensory disabilities experiencing art, such as people with deafness experiencing music? Or experiencing the visual arts, say, for those with visual impairment?

T: We do have tactile art on some of the walls at CTBL either by or for people with visual impairment. I’d hate to speak out of turn, but I doubt a purely visual medium would hold any appeal for a visually impaired person.

M: Maybe that’s where other mediums like language come in. For example, I’ve heard paintings described in such a way that it’s an experience of its own, or it’s actually an improvement on the artwork in question.

T: Could you chalk that up more to the language used to describe it or the painting itself? That’s interesting to think about. I like to read, and writing can stir visual sensations in you. A visual description of a painting might make more sense to someone who was sighted at some point in their lives. The same thing with deaf people and music – there are elements to music that you experience as a person who can’t hear, in terms of rhythm, you can feel vibrations. It’s hard for me to speak to, but I find it interesting to consider if these things can be experienced in spite of disability.

M: I find the idea fascinating that we could somehow translate an artist’s intention for those who can’t ordinarily experience it.

T: I don’t love some aspects of art criticism, but if it’s done well, it can totally reinvigorate your experience or view of a piece of art. That’s the value of good criticism, it can coalesce what makes a work of art special.

M: Agreed! Finally, I wanted to ask if there’s anything that we’ve not talked about which you’d like to mention.

T: I always want to make sure that attention is drawn to the CTBL volunteers and the work that they do, because they are such a huge part of the services we provide, and it’s not always apparent to the people on the outside looking in. There are hundreds of volunteers who come in throughout the year to help out, and I always like to make sure they get proper credit, since I’m always impressed by what they do and their commitment to doing it. I can’t wait to have them back.