The FezGuys
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 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!

Related Links:
Steve Mack Steve Mack
Co-creative Director, Media Publishing Dept. RealNetworks

One of "our own" in the thick of it.

[Audio Bumper]

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 help."

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 publishing time).

Steve has his hands full but obviously loves his work. To see where he works, go to: <>. Check out some of his music at: <>. 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...

Letters To The FezGuys

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!



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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