New Multicast Performance of 'Dopamine' Is Set To Light Up Your Brain
Author Mikhail Voloshin and narrator Daniel Casper, the creative masterminds behind the sci-fi epic Dopamine, share how they collaborated on this new ACX adventure and learned so much along the way.
November 1, 2019
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
EC: Hello, I'm Emily Curran From Audible's ACX team. And today I'm talking with author Mikhail Voloshin and narrator Daniel Casper, the creative masterminds behind the sci-fi epic Dopamine now available on Audible. This ambitious 10-hour production featuring a full ensemble cast transforms the original cyberpunk novel into a dynamic sci-fi audio adventure by publishing it using Audible's audio self-publishing platform, ACX. Casper did more than just voice Danny, the novel's down on his luck hacker-turned-reluctant hero. He, in collaboration with the author, organized, cast, produced, and directed the entire production in a true testament to the DIY spirit. Now, let's hear about the journey behind the journey. Daniel and Mikhail, welcome.
MV: It's a pleasure to be here.
EC: It's great to have you. So, let's start with a little bit about the novel. Mikhail, can you tell us about where the inspiration came from and why you ultimately decided to take it to audio?
MV: Well, the inspiration largely came from a work that I did in Seattle around the 2000s when I was the lead engineer for a computer security company that was run entirely by professional hackers. And I learned these amazing tricks and vulnerabilities in my time there. I was just kind of in a perpetual state of thinking, "Wow, computers are actually vulnerable to this. Do people know this?" I just wanted to convey that to a general audience.
You probably heard that actual cops, for example, can't stand watching police procedurals or actual doctors can't stand watching medical dramas because the depiction of their work is just so bad. And I eventually got that way with hacking scenes on TV and in movies. I wanted to put a story out there that actually shows what real hackers are capable of and what they actually do, but in a way that's accessible to a general audience. I wanted a story that had adventure and romance and punch. A story that wasn't simply a dry technical manual, but that also depicted the real technology in a believable and graspable way.
EC: I've heard you stress that this is a work of hard science fiction. Is that related to what you're saying? That all the material in the book is really based on fact?
MV: I call it a present-day cyberpunk novel primarily because these things that I write about, they were still fiction 30 years ago. They were still fiction when folks like William Gibson or Bruce Sterling or Neil Stevenson were writing about them in the 80s or 90s. But now they're actually fairly mundane. The technology for them used to be purely fanciful and now it's actualized. And I think of a lot of these books like a Neuromancer or Snow Crash or a lot of the other staples in the industry. And you always get scenes of this gaunt young hacker and he's got a purple Mohawk and he's got a barcode tattoo or whatever and he's got a piercing and it's usually got an electronic device. And he's in a room and it's all dark. It's lit with the glow of his screens and it's covered in cables and there are used cans of soda littering the desk. And there are terminals all over the place with code flowing down the walls.
And that that was all fiction. That was all these visions of what the future would be like except it's not really the future anymore. I've been in that room. I've worked with that hacker. I could literally tell you his name. I've got all those cables that are sinking across his floor. Those are 10BASE T-cables or gigabit bit fiber or USB cables or HTMI, you know? William Gibson didn't have the specific names or functions for these cables because they were just part of his imagination.
It's a novel about actualization.
But now these things actually have designations. You know those computers that are all over his room. Those are Dell PCs running Ubuntu Linux. Half of them are tricked out with Nvidia GEForce GTX graphics cards and they're mining Bitcoin. And he's hacking into some corporation, right? Gibson said that he's cracking through Black ICE. Well no, he's using a program called RainbowCrack to break up the corporation's fire wall and it's not a Black ICE that's a Cisco VPN solution.
It's not fiction anymore. And that's what really amazes me about this whole thing. That's the real point of Dopamine, I think. It's a novel about actualization. It's a story of characters that earn their own self-actualization and learn what that even means. It's my self-actualization for achieving this coup. Putting out something that I'm really proud of and redefining what I mean through that. And it's self-actualization of really the entire computer industry. All of us. The youth of Gen X who were raised on these visions of the future that partly with our predecessors and partly ourselves, we helped make into a reality. And now we have to grapple with what that really means.
EC: How does this become an audio production then and Daniel how did you come to be involved?
DC: I got the idea to do an audiobook when I attended an anime conference back in 2017. I was seeing all these voice actors do cold reads of the script and entertain an audience. And I thought to myself, "That seems like a lot of fun." So I asked myself what kind of production would I want to work on? And I came to the conclusion that I'd want to do an audiobook based on some previous experience I had.
And then I started thinking, well, what novel should I do? I actually edited a draft of Dopamine back in 2015 and I fell in love with it at the time. The hacking was technically accurate. In my previous position as an IT director. I had to deal with email spoofing. I had to deal with DKIM and SPF records and DMARK. I see how hackers exploit vulnerabilities in people and in systems.
So it intrigued me on that level, but it also intrigued me from the perspective of the biological engineering that's also a centerpiece of the novel. The idea of being able to create a germ that could make cocaine and disrupt the entire organized crime world. That's a compelling story. So I fell in love with the novel and I said, "Let's go ahead and let's make this into an audiobook." Mikhail and I had known each other previously. We're friends. We actually met on Facebook of all places and I asked him, "Hey, would you be interested in licensing Dopamine to me to create a production for it?" And he agreed and that kicked off the whole lengthy journey that ultimately culminated in us here today.
EC: And how did you first get into audiobooks?
DC: I started listening to audiobooks in around 2007. I was working at a data entry job, keying social security numbers into a computer system for eight hours a day. And there's only so much music you can listen to before your mind starts to go numb. So I turned to audiobooks to keep myself mentally active and I fell in love with the medium. As far as narrating goes, around the same time, I had a long-distance relationship. So in order to be close with my girlfriend at the time, I started reading books to her every night. Since then, I just haven't been able to stop listening or narrating audiobooks.
EC: Oh, I love that. That's so romantic. Coming from your audio background and your tech background, and approaching this book from the perspective of both a narrator and a producer, how are you developing the concept for this audiobook? Are you setting out to make it distinct or bigger somehow than the novel?
DC: Well, I think of it as a celebration of the novel. So my original concept was to actually bring in multiple actors to differentiate it from other audiobooks in the marketplace. To give the audience something extra to tune into. To bring in three other voice actors besides myself and cast them in various roles and then ultimately release that.
But the scope of the production actually expanded much, much larger than that as we continued on our journey. We cast from a lot of different places. As I got those auditions and I started hearing more and more voices, I asked myself, why can't we have a cast of six? Why can't we have a cast of eight? Why can't we just make the cast as large as it possibly can be? When I looked at the cost to do that, it really wasn't that much higher than having a smaller cast with lots of repeated roles. So ultimately, I asked Mikhail if we could just expand the budget a little bit, bring in more actors, and bring more life to that performance. Create an ensemble of voices that would be engaging to listen to. And he agreed. We threw in some extra production aspects as well.
MV: And I do want to mention that as the creator of this work, the bringing in of additional voices and actor talent really creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. These actors would put in little nuances or inflections or intonations that I hadn't considered when writing the character, for example, but that really add a great deal of richness to the character experience and therefore make the entire work that much more compelling and gripping.
EC: That makes sense. And that's really what a successful audiobook does, right? It's more than just the book reading out loud. It really adds something to the story being told.
EC: As an author, it sounds like you're sort of learning from the dramatization of your own work in a way?
MV: It's really invigorating and astonishing to see how my work can impact other people on an emotional and perceptual level in ways that I had never even intended or imagined. And it really enabled me to see that when I hear the actors putting in intonations and vocalizations that I didn't originally think of. I believe that we all have endless amounts to learn. I believe that living is a process of continuously learning. And I greatly value what I've learned about my own work from what these performers have been able to bring to it.
EC: So what was the casting process like? A cast of 10 voice actors to voice the audiobook? Where did you find them?
DC: Well, we drew from a variety to sources. I mean first and foremost that animae conference I attended, I wound up casting several of the voice actors I met there. Morgan Barry for example, who plays Natalie. Some I met at a workshop hosted by Dave Fennoy. That's where we found a Brandon Solis, who provided a real authentic Latin voice for the character of Francisco. John Baker, who does an excellent job as our Jason. In fact, Mikhail commented he didn't really see a Texan being cast in the role of Jason, but when he heard [John's] audition, he was perfect for the role.
Daryl Mayfield I also met at that merch shop and he had the right bass, rich vocal quality that we wanted for one of our villains named Sergei, who may or may not be the... I don't want to spoil anything. Some people referred to us. Laura Lara Woodhull, you know Bruce Faulconer our engineer and one of our directors referred her and we also had an open casting call on social media, which is where we found Mike Weissert to play Moshen. And then on the production team itself, Shannah linker, my associate producer, we cast her in several parts. And then we even had one additional cast member besides myself who happens to be sitting across from me right now.
MV: I did make a small cameo appearance in the style of Stan Lee or M. Night Shyamalan. I got to play a little bit role somewhere in the production with my own voice.
EC: Oh, how neat. How has that? Had you ever narrated anything before?
MV: I'm no stranger to being in front of a microphone, speaking to a group, but it's usually on technical matters. It's usually me talking about some computer technology or offering some presentation. I was surprised at how much specific vocal intonation the microphone picks up and just how much practice it takes to sound exactly right.
EC: Yes, truly. So it bears mentioning that as you're talking about doing this casting and sourcing you're making casting decisions from all these different places. That's one really good example of how truly DIY this whole production is. And Daniel, how you're sort of pulling elements in all on your own to bring this whole thing together, taking over really more of a role of like producer, director rather than just narrator. So how do you organize all of this? How do you start putting it together after you have a cast?
DC: The casting came very, very late in the stage of the production. I mean by the time that I had cast, I had already spent a year and a half on the production. Starting with the original vision of it and trying to record it in my home to try to work with a small studio like a friend of mine to ultimately creating a production team and hiring a studio professional. So there was a lot that went into it and indeed I actually did a solo read of the entire novel that served as the superstructure that we brought the other actors into. Now, once we had cast through the laborious process of the auditions and some limited callbacks, we brought the actors in one at a time to record for their various parts.
And actually that was kind of the easier part. All of the hard work had been done getting us to that point. From there it was just providing some direction for the actors, making sure that they understood their role and the story itself. And then editing, which took a considerable amount of time as well.
MV: I believe that it's also worth mentioning that there was a little bit of computer science that went into deciding which actors would be most suitable for which roles. Dan realized that the actors should be assigned to characters on a basis that would try to minimize any two characters who appear in the same scene together from being voiced by the same person.
So we had to do a little bit of combinatorial analysis to say like, if you know this actor is playing this character and this other actors playing this other character, then how often do those two characters appear in the same scene? And if they never appear in the same scene, and maybe both of those characters can be the same actor and that frees up that actor for another character and so on and so forth.
DC: Yes. And even at one point in time we had some disagreements about who we should cast and what specific roles and we turned to sort of a data driven approach. And Mikhail really spearheaded this effort where we turn to audience members. We used a survey to collect people's feedback from auditions to see kind of how audiences are responding to one actor versus another. What they saw in their performance versus another. And that ultimately helped us cast a particularly important role for that for the female lead.
EC: I've actually heard of other ACX authors doing this, going to their fans to help cast their own audiobook production. And I think it can be a really useful tool because you get more than just your perspective about the voices people want to hear. So when you actually start recording the audiobook, what is the recording process like? Are you recording all these voices in the same room? Can all the actors see each other? Are you doing them individually? How do you set that up with that many parts and that much vocal talent?
MV: We're in the room right now.
DC: It's true. So one of the benefits of working with Bruce Faulconer here at a Cake Mix Recording Studio is that this is an amazing vocal booth. Unfortunately you can't see it, but it can accommodate multiple actors at the same time. So a while I did do a solo read of the book over the course of five days for six hours a day, which was a pretty grueling process that I not sure if I want to subject myself to that same recording schedule again. But that was how we started and then following that, we brought in the actors one at a time.
There was one scene, however, in chapter seven, where there are two characters who communicate via text messages. So we were actually able to bring those two actresses into the studio at the same time and record them as live speaking to each other with dialogue. They had known each other for quite some time. They're friends. So the fact that they got to play this friendly exchange between each other, it just, everything came out so, so naturally. And I think it really contributed to the strength of that scene.
MV: And had all sorts of like little tiny things that came up that I didn't really expect. One thing we did do is capture multiple reads of each line so that way we could select which one that we liked best. Both myself, Bruce and Shannah Linker, when we would hear a take, we would all vote on which line we liked best. And then we would keep the others for B-roll. But also just in case we found some sort of error or audio artifact in them, then we could use that spare line or parts of that spare line instead of having to bring the actor back in the studio. So that helped cut down on risk and costs there.
And like I said, there were a couple of funny moments. For example, I remember recording, you know John for Jason and the power went out across the entire block. So we just had to sit in the studio for an hour and just go, "Well this is lots of fun. Let's practice some lines." It was a riot. We had one actor who found some material in the script that they found a little objectionable spoilers. There's a lot of cocaine and a story about germs that make cocaine. There's also a love scene towards the middle section of the novel and they weren't prepared for that. So I learned as a producer to kind of throw more stuff out there to the talent, kind of give them a heads up. Like, "Hey, this thing might be happening." And that way everybody's on the same page and everyone is comfortable.
EC: Yeah. So I, yeah, I'm interested to hear a little bit more about your role as sort of a producer and really project manager of this entire project. Had you done anything like that before in terms of the scope of managing a project that large and were there any aspects of it that you didn't feel prepared for? Were there surprises that came up apart from those that you mentioned in terms of trying to pull all of these disparate parts together that were sort of a curve ball?
DC: Yeah, so I mean, thankfully I've had the pleasure of being able to work on music videos before. I've produced some SyFy shorts and I have seven years as a project manager itself in the software industry. Running large scale projects is not something that's foreign to me, but running an artistic project of this size from start to completion --this is a whole new level for me. And indeed this is my first major production that I'm releasing to the public.
So at first, I thought, "Hey, I'm going to just do it all by myself." So started to record at home. Started to run up against the fact that I'm not an audio engineer, that this is my very first audiobook and I could really use some help. So I reached out to a close friend of mine and I started recording in his home studio. But once again, I wasn't getting the quality out of my recordings that I wanted and I realized how difficult it would be to try and bring all these actors into that space.
At that point in time, I decided to stop trying to be an engineer and focus on being a producer and a director. I decided to put together a production team. And the first person I brought onto the staff was Bruce Faulconer. Now Bruce has this amazing recording space here at Cake Mix Recording. He has a PhD in music. He has worked on audio dramas, audiobooks. He's done full sound design for films such as Lady Death. So he had that wealth of experience that I really, really needed on this production.
I brought in Shauna Linker. She has great experience with audiobooks and she also would be able to contribute to the quality of the recordings, helping me do script prep, helping me during the casting process. And her work was invaluable on this production. So with that team together, I could really take kind of a backseat from the technical components of it, which are not my strong suit and focused more on just maintaining that vision for the production and getting the best performance I could out of myself. That's another reason why I brought Shannah onto the production. She was able to with Bruce helped direct me in the booth and get the get the best performance out of me possible.
EC: Wow, so in your first audiobook production, you figured out what I think takes a lot of directors and project managers, several projects to figure out is that a delegation is sometimes your most valuable tool.
DC: Yeah. I would not have been able to complete this production without their help. It was absolutely invaluable.
EC: I know that Mikhail, you remained heavily involved with the project. Why did you decide to remain involved rather than just handing the project completely over to Daniel? And what came out of your collaboration that added to the audiobook?
MV: He was able to keep me from having to take a lot of time out of my day job, let's say, from... I didn't need to stay... I didn't have to micromanage anything thanks to the fact that Daniel really kept things on the ball and was really on point with all of this. That said, the exact intonation of certain sentences or the exact conveyance of tone in some sections might sometimes benefit from author input.
There are certain times, for example, where I know that Daniel wanted clarification on whether a character was pronouncing a line sarcastically or earnestly. And there are certain points where Daniel actually managed to convey exactly the right emotion after consulting with me about exactly what it was that I intended. Any sort of superposition of intonation such as the sarcasm or sincerity can manifest in the reader's mind after the fact, after it's sort of been digested on a background thread. Whereas if you're hearing it in audio, then it is what it is right there in the moment.
EC: It's happening in real time.
MV: Exactly. It's a different medium and that requires more delicate handling and certain parts. this especially came up when we were doing email exchanges and the text message exchanges that Daniel had mentioned earlier where the formatting of the book, the physical text print makes it clear that certain conversations are happening via text message or on a screen or heck there's even a point where a character reads an Apache web server log file. And we had to think of ways to convey that information to somebody that isn't reading it textually on a piece of paper as the way that or on a screen as the information is intended to be consumed. But rather we have to somehow use human speech to confer the data. And that took a little bit of creativity.
DC: Yes. And I would also add that as a producer, I'm not just about to make changes to a novel or suggest changes to a novel, unless the author is on board. I like to take a more collaborative approach. I want them to be just as happy with the final product as I am. So to that effect there is a lot of what I would call a diegetic text or text that doesn't serve a dramatic purpose per se. But when you look at the novel in the written word, it makes sense. Your eyes move past it. Going back to that Apache log. If you're looking at HTTP headers, when you're a reader, you can just skim pass that to like what's important. But as a listener, you're going to have to listen to me read an HTTP header.
EC: So one of the things that really struck me about this production was that even though you know it's a DIY production and you're doing quite a bit already to produce a multicast audiobook on your own. I mean, you said you delegate, but still, that's a big project for one person. You also went beyond that and produced some extra book content beyond just the novel for the audiobook. Can you talk a little bit about the extra content that you produced?
DC: Yes. Given that Bruce has a PhD in music, it seemed only natural to use his skills to produce a musical theme for Dopamine. It's reminiscent of the smallest but perhaps the most dramatically important character of Dopamine: the E. coli bacteria. And so his theme is inspired by its quick reproduction within a lab environment. That sort of starting small and then growing to a frenetic pace. And then kind of just exploding at the end. And then we sampled from the novel itself with Laura Woodhole saying the word "dopamine." We sampled her saying that and inserted it at the end of the musical theme to kind of tie it all together.
EC: Oh man, that's so cool.
DC: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So the theme is directly inspired by the novel and it has the instrumentation from the cyber punk sort of genre that synth vibe to it, that sort of 80s synth vibe to it. This sort of like cool baseline, some electronic instrumentation.
MV: You definitely get the mental image of like flying your hover bike through Neo Tokyo while like neon signs, flash before your eyes and like giant billboard holograms float above the city.
EC: So now that you've pulled off this pretty impressive audiobook feat, a first audiobook for both of you, what's next?
DC: Mikhail feel free.
MV: Oh gosh, no I've got about 700 projects going on at the same time. And it's hard to tell where to begin. I certainly mentioned that I want to productize the tools that I use for writing Dopamine so that they can be accessible to other writers. I wrote them out of necessity, but if others can benefit from them then I can contribute to the writing community in the abstract and I can do something to improve the quality of writing as a whole. And that's something worthwhile perhaps. I certainly have projects in mind in terms of further fiction works that I would like to produce. There's a video game concept that I've been playing around with. Which is a medieval fantasy-ish setting where the magic is treated in a very technology-oriented manner. Protagonist is a blacksmith and the principles of magic in this world are treated with rigorous scientific precision.
It's the story I have in mind is about a sort of industrial revolution that occurs within this medieval setting due to the sufficient development of magical principles. And the social and political upheaval that results from basically introducing industrial capabilities to a society that perhaps isn't quite ready for it.
I've got another novel idea that I'm floating around, which in a nutshell is about cyberbullying. It's about people forming groups with one another and what it takes to get included and excluded from those groups. And it really has to do with a lot of human social dynamics and the fundamental principles that drive those dynamics as we're now seeing in an online world where sort of the... The fact that we interact, we can interact with one another via avatars, sort of boils down at human interactions and those social dynamics to their sort of most elemental forms.
And then ultimately perhaps the next project that Daniel and I will work on, we'll see. But the one that I think is probably most worth seriously pursuing is a video series about the history of computer technology and the development of the machinery that we now rely on for everything we do in our day to day lives. And that we've only really come to rely on it within the last 20 or 30 years.
I kind of want to walk the entire development of the everyday machines all the way back from like inklings of computational machinery in ancient Greece and very early robotics all the way up through the invention of water clocks, the development of spring steel that eventually led to the development of clockwork, the age of mechanical and ultimately electromechanical computing technology through the Renaissance and early industrial period. And the achievements of automaton developers in the 17th, 18th and early 19th century. And then the works of folks like Alan Turing, Claude Shannon, walking through all of that up to the development of stuff like WIFI and touch screens and the protocols that now have become the internet.
DC: As for me, I'm looking for my next audiobook. And I've got several ideas. I definitely want to branch out into nonfiction, particularly in history and in computer science. There are a few historians I'm going to be reaching out to see if I can licensed their work for production. And for my next fiction work I want to continue with the full cast production style, but I want to bring sound design into my production. I think Black Ocean Galaxy Outlaws by J. S. Morin and narrated by Michael Naramore does an excellent job of finding subtle ways to inject sound design into a work either through like interesting character voices or playing around with surfaces. So for my next production I want to definitely consume the script early and then look for those opportunities to include those subtle yet not distracting opportunities for sound design.
I don't want to go overboard with it because you add too much and it can be a little too distracting to the reader slash listener. So you want to have less rather than more there. In general, I like to keep sound design in between lines rather than on top of the lines. I'm also interested in producing an audio drama. Again, I'm either going to write, commission or license a script for it. But I've recently gotten into that medium through the Alien 3 production that audible studios put out directed by Dirk Maggs. I had never listened to an audio drama before and it blew my mind. I've loved the Alien series since I was a child, or at least a young adult rather. Hearing that and hearing how the sound design played out there how they could bring a screenplay to life. Just in audio content only. That's definitely got my gears turning and I'm looking for that opportunity.
EC: It sounds like we have quite a bit to look forward to from both of you. It's been a pleasure to talk to you. Listeners be sure to check out Dopamine on Audible and definitely keep an eye on these two to see what they're going to be up to next.
MV: Thanks for having us, Emily.
DC: Thank you.