From bobrankin@MHV.NET Fri Dec 19 01:09:42 1997
Date: Thu, 18 Dec 1997 17:44:52 -0500
From: Bob Rankin 
Subject: TOURBUS - 18 Dec 1997 - Sound on the Net

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    \___/  \___/  T h e   I n t e r n e t   T o u r B u s    \___/

           TODAY'S TOURBUS TOPIC: Sound on the Internet
           TODAY'S GUEST DRIVER : Bob Crispen

Since Patrick is recovering from oral surgery, his father Bob Crispen
will be filling in today, with the lowdown on Internet audio.  Don't
miss the "Links" at the very bottom!  --Bob

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  I've guest hosted for Patrick a couple of times, talking about VRML
  and some of the 3D treats that are coming to tickle your eyeballs
  on the net.  But that's only one of our senses.  As an amateur
  (*very* amateur) musician and composer I've had an interest in what
  might tickle your eardrums as well.

  The present:

  When you're talking about sound on the net, you've got three
  basic kinds of sound files:

        (a) Digital audio files: these are usually .wav files,
        though you occasionally see .au files and some of the
        other formats such as MPEG 1 and 2.  These files are
        just like tape recordings of the music, and all they
        require your computer to do is turn the digits back
        into sounds, time them, and put them out through your
        speakers.  The advantage of digital audio files is that
        you can record *anything* -- vocals, the sounds of
        particular instruments, and sound effects.  The
        disadvantage, and right now it's a huge disadvantage on
        the net, is that these files are enormous and take
        forever to download.  Instead of sitting around
        twiddling your thumbs while the file is downloading,
        it would be nice if you could start to play these files
        as they download, which brings us to:

        (b) Streaming digital audio: This could as easily fall
        under the first category, but since there's so much
        activity in this area, and since the way you play these
        files is so different from downloading and playing,
        I made this a separate category.  RealAudio by RealNetworks
        ( -- formerly Progressive Networks --
        is the file format that's earned the most mindshare on
        the net lately.  But MPEG (a series of file formats
        standardized by the Moving Pictures Expert Group of ISO)
        ( and other formats can also
        be streamed, and the developing MPEG-4 standard is
        focused on streaming.  At SIGGRAPH this year
        (, some eyes bugged out at a
        demo of MPEG-4 streaming audio, video and 3D geometry!

        The advantage of streaming audio is that you can start
        listening almost as soon as the file starts downloading.
        The disadvantage is the same as for regular digital audio:
        you're still at the mercy of the bandwidth between the
        site and your machine.  Even with an ISDN or T1 net
        connection, you can still get bogged down by a slow
        server.  To help overcome this download bottleneck, the
        audio formats designed for streaming are compressed,
        using various proprietary and standard compression

        But this compression brings up another problem:
        uncompressing uses far more of your CPU power than
        playing regular digital audio does, so if you're
        planning to listen to a digital audio stream, you'd
        beter shut down some of your other applications
        unless you've got a really fast CPU.

        (c) MIDI: The Musical Instrument Digital Interface,
        standardized by the MIDI Manufacturers Association
        ( is a
        different way of delivering sound.  It relies on
        your having a software or hardware MIDI instrument
        build into or attached to your computer.  Nearly all
        PC soundcards have MIDI instruments, and some PC
        motherboards have MIDI instruments built in.  Where
        digital audio (regular or streaming) is a digital
        representation of the sounds, a MIDI file is a series
        of instructions to your MIDI instrument: note on,
        note off, pan, change volume, bend pitch, and so on.

        The advantage of MIDI files is that they're small.
        Simple files with few instruments (and few controller
        messages like pitch bend) can run as low as 2K a
        minute (though 10K a minute is more typical).  Regular
        .wav files are typically 2 megabytes a minute or more.
        The disadvantage of MIDI is that MIDI files depend on
        the quality of your MIDI instrument.  Early sound
        cards had awful MIDI instruments.

        But MIDI instrument quality is only the start of
        the problems with MIDI.  While you can record a
        .wav file of your latest composition and have a
        pretty good idea that your neighbor will hear it
        the way you recorded it, there's no such assurance
        with MIDI.  That's because the General MIDI standard
        ( only
        specifies voices very loosely: what is patch #89
        "Pad 1 (new age)" supposed to sound like?  Is the
        Trombone (patch #58) supposed to be an orchestral
        trombone; a smooth, thin Tommy Dorsey trombone; a
        fat Kai Winding trombone; or any of a dozen other
        variants?  While there's been some de facto
        standardization and agreements between manufacturers,
        sounds still vary a lot between sound cards in
        overall loudness (so the balance between instruments
        you worked so hard on goes right out the window) and
        envelope (the attack, sustain decay and release times
        and values).

        Finally, you're stuck with the 128 patches and
        46 drums in the General MIDI spec.  If you want
        an Allan Holdsworth guitar sound or even a
        kettledrum, tough luck.

        So a MIDI instrument is pretty limited in the
        sounds it can generate.  Of course, so is a piano,
        and you can find some excellent MIDI files out
        there by composers who took the limitations of
        MIDI into account.

  The future:

        Since the main problem with MIDI (lousy MIDI
        instruments) has largely been solved -- it's just
        about impossible to get a truly awful MIDI
        instrument today, though naturally, quality does
        vary -- the MMA is tackling the remaining problems
        (differing sounds for the same patch and too few
        patches) with its DLS (Downloadable Sound) spec
        Hardware and software MIDI instruments conforming
        to this spec can play MIDI files containing not
        only notes and controllers, but also sounds and
        parameters (including envelopes).

        The folks at MIT are proposing an addition to the
        MPEG-4 spec called SAOL (Structured Audio Orchestra
        Language) (
        which intends to combine digital audio files with
        instrument instructions.

        Headspace ( have come up
        with a third future possibility for music on the
        net, called RMF (Rich Music Format), which includes
        both MIDI data and samples in a proprietary format
        which can include copyright notices and encryption.
        Their free Beatnik plugin for Netscape Navigator
        plays the RMF files that their editor (for which
        they charge) generates.  One thing that bodes well for
        the credibility of this format is that Headspace's
        founder and CEO is synthesizer wizard Thomas Dolby.

  Putting your own audio on the web:

        If you have a website, you may be tempted to put
        a MIDI file or one of the digital audio format
        file on it.  If you do, be aware of a couple of

        (a) If you record someone else's song, arrangement, or
        performance, you are probably in violation of copyright.
        The only truly safe songs to put on your webpage are
        your own compositions -- and here you run into the problem
        that someone may steal your work.  Hey, they steal
        Elton John's songs, why not yours?

        (b) If you've got a file set up to play when your
        page loads, make sure you've got the controls for
        the player visible and accessible.  Having a web
        page with no way to turn off the sound is the
        equivalent of turning your stereo up to 10 and
        leaving for the weekend.  Instead of earning a
        reputation for being multimedia-savvy, you'll
        earn a reputation for being a bad neighbor.


           A pretty good introduction to the formats and links to
           the player and demo sites.

        news:alt.binaries.sounds.midi  (this is a Usenet newsgroup)

           A pretty good place to find MIDI files.

  Bob Crispen -

     |    WE'VE GOT ERNIE!  Bob and Patrick have gotten       |
     |    their hands on the coveted SING & SNORE ERNIE       |
     |    dolls, and we're giving them away FRIDAY to a       |
     |   couple lucky TOURBUS PLUS riders!  For details,      |
     |        visit           |

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