Steve Mack - The Project Studio Owner As Internet Audio Advisor|
[ No. 33 - July 1999 ]
Things That Are New
More money spent and more takeovers. AOL buys Spinner (Internet
radio programming) and Nullsoft (makers of Winamp and the
Shoutcast MP3 streaming system) for some ridiculous stock swap
estimated at $400 million. AOL wants to leech cash from you
by being the bullet boy for any and all digital music activity.
Good luck. Then there's giddy MTV sucking up TCI Music's
SonicNet, Addicted To Noise and The Box in exchange for a 10%
cut in the Buggles Project (including Imagine Radio, a competitor
to Spinner.com). They buy, they sell, they grow, they swell.
Why should anyone other than stockholders care about all this
corporate clustering? Repeated consolidations show how very
important the Internet is to large media corporations. This
raises the barriers to entry for smaller companies. Though
unlikely to be immediately noticeable, it might make it even
harder for small bands to get noticed by cool small content
sites, since those same cool small content sites are more and
more often controlled by a parent company's bottom line.
Also: as mentioned above, the second beta of the RealProducer
for Macintosh is "on its way" and the RealNetworks G2 player
for the Mac is finally out. The squeaky wheel gets the grease!
Co-creative Director, Media Publishing Dept.
One of "our own" in the thick of it.
Are you convinced that everybody who works for Internet audio
technology companies is a programmer, a sadist or merely
tone-deaf? Do you accept the notion that these people stay up
late, fiendishly inventing new ways to complicate the life of
a musician by creating overly complex applications that run on
unstable operating systems? Well take heart! One of "our own"
people works in the thick of it at RealNetworks. His name is
Steve Mack and this month we talk with him about what it's like
to be a musician helping to shape the tools we use to get our
music on the World Wide Web.
Steve explains some of his multifarious duties as Co-creative
Director of the Media Publishing Dept. of RealNetworks. He
didn't create that title, he tells us. Actually, "I don't give
a shit what my title is as long as I get to do fun stuff!"
Asked to be more specific he offers this explanation: "I prime
the pump. Anything that moves or makes noise is my responsibility.
Any video or audio that goes up on our (Real) websites I have
something to do with, by recording it or giving guidance."
While it's true that he often gives advice to Real's larger
corporate clients he's not above handing out tips to beginners.
But he feels that the manuals for RealNetworks products are
"really pretty good," and a person will learn more by downloading,
installing and using the software then by asking him up front.
Nonetheless, he takes real pleasure in showing musicans how
they can do cool stuff to take advantage of RealNetwork's
technology. He's a natural gadabout, genuinely enjoying his
calling as an auctioneer for practical Internet audio.
Born in Greenwich Village, NYC, Steve has lived all over the
world. His Dad worked for General Motors as a corporate guy
doing "God knows what." When Steve grew up he became an "itinerent
musician for many years," traveling around the world as the
singer in a noisy, melodic and diverse Eighties rock band called
"That Petrol Emotion" until landing, currently, as a
songwriter/singer/guitarist in "Anodyne" (aka "Marfa Lights"
in Europe). We'll get back to his first love in a moment.
But first, let's find out about working in the bosom of the
Internet audio world.
It's "never a dull moment," at RealNetworks, he says. His job
interview consisted of: "Do you know audio? Yes? You're
hired!" He laughs at the memory and warns that the process
has now become "pretty ferocious." Steve reports that hopeful
hirees sit in straight-backed chairs under bright lights while
a disembodied voice with a thick German accent intones: "How
long can you go without food and water?" After 4 years at
RealNetworks Steve says he's considered an authority, which he
feels is happily surprising, given that "we're more or less
making it up as we go along." Like any other young and growing
organization there are new problems every day and he has to
constantly come up with creative solutions. "A lot of it's
practical problem solving," he explains, "there's a handyman/fixit-guy
mentality for basic problem solving in the Internet. This is
why more and more audio engineers are showing up. They're very
good at tracing faults and finding problems. We start at the
source and modularize the problem to figure out where it's gone
wrong. Then we figure out a way to patch around the problem
in the meantime and hopefully fix it in the morning."
So what might be wrong with working in this environment? "I
don't get enough time to play music!", he fairly shouts. But
the times are changing still. In the beginning, with a mere
thirty employees, it was not uncommon to work 100-plus hour
weeks. "It's a lot more reasonable now that there are 500
employees." As Steve puts it: he finally has "a little more
Naturally, The FezGuys thought it might be useful to ask him
a bit about the RealJukebox, the latest in a long string of
reinvented Internet audio applications from RealNetworks.
"RealJukebox (RJ) is the first step towards completely digitizing
the way people consume music." That's a mouthful for anyone
and Steve isn't a promo hack. There must be something to this.
We ask him to elaborate. "Well, RJ not only makes it simple
to load CDs into computers and organize your own custom playlists
but it also makes it easy to download music in a variety of
formats, like a2b, LiquidAudio, etc. It's one stop shopping.
The more people realize the convenience, the more people get
hooked on it."
What about the Music Industry, the Lords of SDMI, and their
RIAA Piracy Paranoia platform? "The whole piracy issue...that's
just people squawking. It's the same squawk the majors put up
against DAT technology, against the CD, against cassettes, for
God's sake! We all know the industry will always find a way
make money off of music...that's what they're good at. They've
done it for years." Steve explains how listeners' habits are
changing: "If I'm 15 years old and want to hear the new Metallica
song *now* I don't want to go to Tower Records. I want to hit
a button on a website and pay 99 cents for it NOW!"
What's in store for the next generation of RealNetworks software?
"More user-interface stuff..." Interestingly, Steve wasn't
initially a believer in RJ. In keeping with his refreshing
candor, he feels that "all of our stuff is rectangular, and I
wish it wasn't. But our focus is on making the technology
work. Real always includes software developement kits (SDKs)
so people can move the user interface technology forward by
building customized interfaces." What's really going to drive
acceptance of these new technologies is more bandwidth, he
says. "I used to have a 56k dialup account. Now, geeky/cutting
edge guy that I am and with DSL installed at home, I go straight
to the Web for anything and everything. I have better connectivity
at home than at work." It's only a matter of time until
high-bandwidth is readily available to any and all Internet
users. Anyone that has used Internet connections at high speeds
knows it's like the difference between opaque Pixel Vision
video and crystal-clear HDTV broadcasts.
Along with the bandwidth increases, the codecs are getting
better. Steve suggests that, at 128kbps, audio compression is
"pretty good already, but there are codecs in development,
namely MPEG AAC, that are even better. Another year, another
codec." Though Real won't do multitracking, the company hopes
people will build multitracking tools that export files straight
to RealJukebox/RealProducer. "Real wants to be the conduit
between the musician and the Internet," he says. "The Internet
is where people get music heard. At some point I'm going to
be able to record all my stuff in my basement, throw it online
from my own Linux box and turn around and sell it to my mailing
list. I can make records and break even on them without having
to sell even 5,000 CDs. I can sell CDs or just offer downloads
to dump right into their RealJukebox player."
The FezGuys asked Steve to tell us about his first love: making
music. He describes running Bang Bang Studios in London for
4 years. "We started off with an A80 Mark I Studer 2" 16-track.
I had cannibalized all the 7 1/2 IPS cards to keep the 15 IPS
cards running when a new partner who had an A80 Mark II 2"
24-track showed up in the nick of time." When Steve moved back
to the States he kept his TC delays, Lexicon reverbs, Genelec
monitors and all his mics, "waiting for the right day." He
bought a brick house with an underground, insulated basement.
And, he acknowledges, he has "very understanding neighbors."
As a working musician and typical musical packrat, he's been
collecting guitars and amplifiers for the last few years,
"building my own playground." He admits he's still slightly
wary of the digital recording environment. "I started off in
the analog world, I still love analog, and at the end of the
day I don't trust hard drives." He reports that some engineers
pronounce: "we don't need tape." He retorts "I like tape!
There's nothing I like better than rocking reels and slicing
tape. If it was good enough for the Beatles, it's good enough
for me." Nonetheless, Steve expects he'll also have a Mac and
a PC and be "trying out as many different platforms as I can
get my hands on."
So what does Steve Mack, the analog audio guy and working
musician, bring to RealNetworks? Though there's "not a lot
of need for analog audio engineers at work I'd like to think
I have the better ears in the place. I've been engineering
longer." He suggests his experience brings a more prepared
approach. "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. I want
to have at least two backups to every system we put up. Whether
it's a streaming event, a download situation, or a product
demo, everything has to be over-engineered, and that attitude
comes from being a live sound man." Steve "discovers issues in
using the tools as a musician" would. He can then go to the
right people inside the corporate structure and say: "this is
what's got to happen". He remembers when it was a "semi-hostile
relationship" between his group and programmers. But now they
get coffee and bagels and are included in the planning stages.
"Things are pretty darned good."
Your FezGuys had to ask about RealNetworks's glaring lack of
support for Macintosh or any other platform besides Windows.
"You got us there," he admits. "We finally got a decent version
of the G2 Mac player and producer, and we know there are still
problems. It's frustrating to constantly apologize to people.
They look at me like I'm a fool! It's extremely high on my
agenda just to get the Mac version of the RealProducer installed
and running. Beta 2 will be up imminently" (should be by
Steve has his hands full but obviously loves his work. To see
where he works, go to:
Check out some of his music at:
<pages.prognet.com/marfa/>. Take heart, Internet
audio refusniks! Though your cause has been just, there are
some of us on the inside. Now if we could just get a DSL line
into the FezLab for twenty dollars a month...
FezGuys - Do you have a good sugesstion for a SEA (self extracting
archive) that I can use on my Mac to send WAV or AIFF files at
22k or higher, as an attachment to an e-mail? This type of
program would open itself at the reciever's end and allow them
to play the attached music file on their "built in" audio player
on their repective computer. - DK
DK - There are two issues you need to address: 1) What format
do you send? 2) How do you send it? If you are sending to
a friend with a Mac, you could simply use the regular AIFF
format (WAV for Windows). If you are only concerned about the
size of the file, encode it into MP3 or RealAudio instead of
sending a raw AIFF or WAV file.
Most modern mail readers can detach and play audio file
attachments (provided the person you are sending it to has the
appropriate player installed). When you send a file as an
attachment, it will automatically encode it to make it send
properly, so you shouldn't need to make it a self-extracting
archive. No reason to make a thing more complicated than it
has to be! - The FezGuys
The FezGuys never say "Yeah, whatever." We want to know what you think!