The FezGuys
Why Return To Your Website?
or Your Loops Are Strangling Me
[ No. 22 - August 1998 ]

Things That Are New

AT&T's proposed merger with TCI Cable means kickstarting the timeframe of widespread access to the Internet through your cable service. That's good because we can ostensibly receive 10 megabit downloads. Of course, we can only upload at far slower speeds. One's ISP would be one's phone account. One bill. This is all good for us Internet users, assuming that AT&T figures out that telecommunications is somewhat more than a telephone conversation and that TCI actually offers customer service.

Microsoft's Windows 98 release shipped at midnight recently and if there's anything new or groundbreaking about it we can't find it. Yeah, we read the box. It says that applications launch 36% faster. It appears to be a big maintenance release, with basic webpage editing tools and marketed in a language that assumes we are all dummies. If you're running Windows 97, there's likely no harm in upgrading. Oh yeah, it appears that two or three monitors can now be run simultaneously off the same CPU. Of course Macs have been able to do that for ten years. Ah well. Read the fine print. And remember, as soon as you successfully install Windows 98 an unmarked helicopter will fly over your home.

The RealAudio folks have brought us the newly updated Real Systems G2. It's an overall revamp of the entire RealAudio method. The codecs are a little bit better. That translates into slightly better audio quality. Up from phone talk to FM radio at last perhaps? There does appear to be an improved streaming mechanism (they call it SmartStream). During streaming the G2 system will transparently drop to a lower bitrate version if lines become clogged and slow down. We hope this means that it will also transparently bounce back up if the lines become clear. It also acquires new plugins for your Player so that (as needed) they can be downloaded and quickly updated on your computer without having to go to the Real Networks website to redownload and reinstall. A popup window (appropriately used!) will intuitively update your player with the new plugin (they call it AutoUpdate). There may even be enough goodies included in the new G2 Real Player Plus to make it worthwhile to buy (at last!). There's actually EQ (treble, bass and midrange) available, along with volume level displays and a playlist. The brightness, contrast and color of a video image can be set as well. Currently this product is only available for Windows running (at the minimum) a Pentium 100MHz chip with 16megs of RAM. There's a shocker...

Res Rocket Labs (see column #13 on the FezGuys website) received funding to expand their technology from the well-known philanthropist Paul Allen (one of the founders of Microsoft who bailed early but kept his stock). Res Rocket is a good idea that's cool. There should be a new version out in a couple of months. Hey! If you can think of a new Internet technology that's cool somebody will throw money at you. It's still possible. Contrary to reports of the "end of the golden age" of the Web there are still tons of venture capital funds seeking people and organizations to invest in. Be charismatic.

So there we are, working away in the early morning while innocently listening to a track from the ten CD Steve Reich box (late-twentieth-century classical deconstructionists take note!) when gradually, by stages, we begin to notice a repetitive sound, just at the edge of hearing. After a cursory search of the apartment for broken appliances and a look out the window for car alarms down the street we realize it's coming from the stereo. The CD must be skipping. But no! It's a song consisting of one one-second-long mid-range piano pattern repeated for twelve-minutes. But (get this:) halfway through the piece, the pattern slows down. Suddenly the lights came up in the darkened theatre of delight that passes for our brains. "Lets Not Do This," we think. Let's not repeat ourselves endlessly and then slow down. Let's create a diversionary tactic and suggest, instead, a way to avoid common mistakes in the creation of an audio-content-based website.

Nice segue, huh? Ok. Try this test: Don't be You. Become Another. Now go to your website and give it a spin. That's right: Browse your own website. As you are experiencing the overwhelming sense of New Worlds and Fresh Horizons consider the suggestions below.

First off: when you arrive at your page, do you immediately hear a piece of music while the page is loading? Is this piece of music a loop that, after loading, cycles endlessly until driving you nuts? Do you want to leave your page, or (*gasp*) turn the sound off? Even if it's a nice loop turning 'round and 'round: is it clean? Is the stitch between the loop's beginning and end seamless? The ever-helpful FezGuys suggest using autoloading audio with care. Avoid seam glitches. Aesthetically we feel that repetitive sounds tend to annoy rather than enhance. Of course that throws the last fifty years of musical culture in the dumpster. Somewhere down deep, clawing for air between Philip Glass and Einsturzende Nuebauten, is a Pretty Loop Of Love. Keep digging you Godless Heathens! And here's a thought: consider offering visitors a be-ribboned basket of audio backdrops to choose from but only when and if visitors ask. Find (and walk) the fine line between a static web page and one which results in a slow-to-download aural attack.

Meanwhile, the You who is momentarily Not You is observing the various graphical images loading on your site. These images do not have to be huge. There is no reason to autoload a 100k JPEG file of your album cover. Your lyrics (you sing?) do not have to be embedded in a finely-detailed trompe-l'oeil when a straightforward 2k text file will do admirably. This doesn't limit you from including a link to the large JPEG.

About Screen Width: Not everybody has a 21-inch Trinitron on their desk. Visitors to your site will have to (yeah life's hard, right?) scroll around constantly to access your offered plums. The ever-contrite FezGuys suggest a screen width of about eight inches (or around 600 pixels) maximum. Simple, small and quick. Speaking of quick, what's with the automatic, pop-up browser windows no one asked for? It's irritating to be bombarded by uninvited objects. If it's not absolutely necessary; lose it. Your visitors will anyway. As for multiple frames within your site: think twice about it. Now, think again. Does it really make your site simpler to navigate? If so, go for it, though if you must complexify, consider offering your visitors an option to view without frames. Your ever-goading FezGuys do suggest (if you haven't already) you upgrade your browser to the most current version available. Nonetheless, many visitors may be using earlier browsers and be unable to view your site if it requires frames. Exercising your artistic inspiration is good but keep it simple.

Back to your raison d'etre: the music. Alongside your full song files the ever-polite FezGuys offer that excerpts from each piece be added for easy preview. If the excerpt is from the middle of a song then place a fade-in and -out of it. Keep the excerpt around thirty or forty-five seconds, long enough to get a feel for the composition. Offer the excerpts and the complete pieces in MP3 and RealAudio formats. Provide links to sites where users can download the players (which you've tested yourself!) for these formats. If possible, monitor log files to observe the popularity of these formats. Consider offering files of your songs in the funky old Sun-AU format. Yeah, it doesn't stream or sound good but it works on almost every computer.

Make sure your web server is set up properly for your MIME types (MIME types are the headers included when downloading the soundfile via the web that tell your browser what to do with the file). This way a visitors' browser will launch the correct program to play your music instead of a page of textual garbage. If you are not using your own web server talk to your server's administrator to make sure this is set correctly.

If you expect your visitors will wish to obtain a yummy clean version, consider offering download-only versions of your songs in a very-high-quality, 44kHz sample rate, stereo-imaged, 16bit sample format optimized for rates of up to 128 kilobits per second. For files of this mythic "near CD" quality you may consider charging an actual fee. For commercial transactions try a third party web-billing service such as Cybercash or First Virtual. Of course there's always mail-order. Thousands of musicians have made this system work for them.

Provide an email address for visitors to offer praise, insults or cries for help. Answer your email and, as always, the ever-mannered FezGuys remind you that etiquette is still not dead. Be polite. Collect email addresses. Ask for permission to add your contactees names to your announcement list and do not recklessly trade your email list with innappropriate organizations. Never sell your list.

Though it may be obvious to some that we don't pratice what we preach; the ever-succinct Fezguys offer webdesigners this reminder: good writing makes a difference. Spelling and grammar - use them correctly.

Most importantly: give people a reason to come back to your site. Update frequently with new content. Include a news section and update it often. Include a "last updated" date and don't forget about it. Schedule an itinerary of new stuff. Don't put everything up at once and then leave it alone and unchanged. Creating your online community doesn't happen overnight. The ever-redundant FezGuys remind all that "Slow cooking makes a creamy pudding."

And, finally, those little counters. What the hell is up with that? Those who think an online community is fostered by reminding visitors of their resemblance to a statistic deserve their ego-validation psychosis. Do YOU like being treated like a number? Unless you've got a valid reason for including them ("1000th visitor gets a free CD!"), we suggest you consider leaving the counter out.

The ever-reassuring FezGuys suggest that what's real in the physical world; what has depth, weight and emotional resonance; carries that weight into the virtual world. If it's relevant, it's relevant! Use common sense, so we won't have to.

Letters To The FezGuys

Hi guys - I'm really curious about something... It has to do with MP3 versus CD audio quality. When I listen to an MP3 recording I'm able to hear lines and textures that I totally miss when listening to the same song on the compact disc. Little "hidden things" really jump out at me and I'm wondering if this phenomenon has to do with the MPEG-3 technology or what?... (Just to let you know, the bitrate of my MP3 files is 128 kbps and the sample rate is 44.1 kHz). A good example is the song "Alone" by Heart. When I play the CD it sounds good like a CD should, but when I play my MP3 version -- I mean things REALLY jump out! And this is only one example -- I have dozens of others. So, do you guys know why this is so? Thanks. :^) - Dana

Hi Dana,

MPEG-based (MP3, MP2, etc) compression is based on those wacky Germans' concept of psychoacoustics. It removes sounds that the human ear can't hear. When compressing down to smaller and smaller sizes, the codec starts removing sounds that your ear *can* hear, which results in a very different listening experience. When you listen to 128kbps MP3 files on your computer, it's good enough quality that it's within that "near-CD quality" range, yet is not quite *exactly* the same. So the music will sound different from the way the original engineer mastered it. You may find that certain sounds are accented that you prefer, especially if you listen with computer speakers which result in different qualities of the music being emphasized. An interesting experiment would be to take a variety of songs and encode them into MP3 and see if you can identify what exactly it is that you like better about them. It may be a slight reduction in high end which makes the midrange stand out a bit more; or something entirely different. If you make music yourself, it can help you understand more about how you want your own music to sound. :} - The FezGuys



About the authors:

Jon Luini is a working technophile, a musician (bass player/singer) with full-blown facility and extensive experience on the Web and no free time. He is a co-founder of IUMA and MediaCast, co-creator of Addicted To Noise, and runs an Internet and music consulting and technology company, Chime Interactive (formerly Evolve Internet Solutions). <>

Allen Whitman is a working musician (bass player/singer/producer) with a keen, real-world interest in the practical use of the Web. Music credits include: The Mermen, "Brine-The Antisurf Soundtrack, biL, Deep Field South, Doormouse, Delectric and Drizzoletto. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, Wired, EQ, Revolution, Yahoo Internet Life, Prosound News, Surround Professional, Replication News and others. <>

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