Web Noise




Listen up! As the web moves closer to true interactivity, people are beginning to want multimedia effects that catch the eye and the ear. And as is the wont of the web, they want it– NOW! No more waiting for downloading AIFF, AU, or WAV files. It just takes too long to hear the stuff, right? Put it this way. The average joe is connecting to the net with a 14.4 dialup. No snickering! To download a 20 second clip of audio, we’re talking a bunch of downtime. Hardly instant gratification.

Thank God for the engineers of the world. They recognized that to make audio a practical dimension of the internet, we’d need something different. The idea they came up with was streaming audio. Streaming audio combines two aspects. First, the file is compressed using a mathematical algorithm. Then it is buffered, so it can play locally as it is downloaded. Essentially, we’re talking about clicking on an artist, icon, or hypertext and then immediately (@ 7 seconds later)-music. Instant gratification.
Several companies have championed this campaign to bring this technology to the cyber-masses. They are: Xing technologies, Progressive Networks, and VocalTec Inc. All of them claim to have set a new quality standard for streaming audio technology. Yet they all do the same thing– pretty much the same way. So, which one is right for you?

Following the lead of Netscape, Progressive Networks Real Audio gives you the player and encoder for free. You have the option to register for $29. plus shipping and handling. Companies who want to use this technology however, have to buy the server, ($2,490 to 13,500). The Real Audio website boasts that over three million RA players have been downloaded. Currently, Real Audio Player 2.02 and its PC kin fly off the site at about 1,000 an hour! Progressive Networks is aggressively going after the internet audience. Sites such as ABC News, National Public Radio, PBS, CNN and many web radio stations support this format. One site, The Entertainment Connection, lists thousands of RA clips in its archives. Every song on every disc in the Top 100 is posted. All of these sites are mucho cool. Check them out. BTW…the CNN page has the complete Don Imus speech that everyone has heard about, completely encoded in Real Audio. Just another reason to love this product!

Xing (pronounced ZING!)Technologies product is the aptly named StreamWorks. The press release guarantees FM radio quality across a 28.8 connection. Users connected at 14.4 will enjoy a listening experience similar to granddad’s old AM radio. The big difference with StreamWorks is that in addition to audio, it can also stream low bit (4 bit) MPEG, full stream, full motion video.

“StreamWorks capabilities will blow the lid off the entertainment industry…with a greater percentage of the public having access to exclusive up-to -the-minute news programming, educational programming, and more.”-Howard Gordon, Xing President and CEO. If you listen to Howard, then your choice is easy. People I talked to at Xing said that they will be coming out with a Netscape Plug-In in the near future. The sound quality of clips in StreamWorks is said to be better than some of the other products out there.

The Xing player software, when registered for $29, includes full technical support. Registering isn’t really required, of course. It’s technically freeware. But if you’re the type that likes techie talk, you might as well shell out the beans. If you decide to get the player, you probably want to know what sites support Xing technology. (If you’re wondering, the Xing servers cost from 3,500 to 50,000 dollars). So, here are a few: NBC Financial Reporting, Capitol Records(many great sound clips by your favorite artists), the new WOW! service of CompuServe, the wildly popular SportsLine, and Bloomberg Communications all have Xing streaming audio and video at their sites. Check them out!

I have heard mention of another product, GSM audio playing/decoding/encoding software. Not too many people use it, but hey, it’s free! It comes in Mac, PC and UNIX formats, so it might be worth a looksee.

VocalTec, Inc., the maker of I WAVE only has versions for the PC and UNIX at this point, but a company representative told me that, “A MAC version of Internet Wave is not available today but VocalTec continues to add platforms and features to its existing product line. ” I take that response to be the online version of “the check is in the mail.”

Another player in this hotly contested market is DSP Group’s True Speech. True Speech comes in versions for the Mac and Power PC. There is no encoder or recorder for the Mac platforms, however.

So the question remains…which one is right for me? It all depends on your needs.

Companies that wish to have fully tricked out sites may opt for the impressive Xing StreamWorks. Sound quality is better, but the price remains a limiting factor.
Music companies and online music stores will all eventually find themselves Real Audio clients.

Most home page designers will use the Real Audio product. As far as price, ease of use, and sound quality, Real Audio has developed a platform that works fast and without much hassle on behalf of the user. In addition, Real Audio has aligned itself with Netscape so that it ships with their product. The player is already installed. People can clip out sections of their favorite songs with Sound Recorder or Kaboom! and run them through the Real Audio encoder to compress it. That’s about all there is to it.
Mac Users should rejoice at the newest arrival in the Real Audio family. Called Real Audio Xtra, it’s an encoder that mates with our old friend Sound Edit 16. Using a plug-in, it lets Sound Edit export clips as Real Audio. It is a great timesaver! No clipping and then having to wait. Xtra does it all for you.

Real Audio also puts out a helpful booklet on how to make the resulting clips sound as nice as possible. You might want to read it yourself, as I definitely benefited from a quick read through. It tells you how to normalize your sound clips, and keep things like “popping” and “hissing” from messing with your message.

24 hour tech support is available, not that you need it. I think that the 1-2 combination of Netscape and Real Audio makes it the true leader in the streaming audio
biz. Download it soon, or you might never get into the stream of things…


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