The FezGuys
We've Been Writing This Damn Column For Three Whole Years!
[ No. 36 - October 1999 ]

Particulates and gas coalesce in a mad plunge following the Big Bang of Internet audio. Startling amounts of money and resources are hurled in frantic attempts to be the Last Word on the digital music delivery standard. Very little of this cosmology of cash makes it to actual musicians. Great strides are made in processing speed but computer audio interfaces remain buggy, non-intuitive and downright odd. Pick up a guitar and it's pretty obvious how to play. Now turn on a computer. It still takes too long to learn how to use the damn thing. We're not asking for developers to dumb-down. We're asking for developers to talk to real-world users of products; the musicians, the people who actually put down instruments and pick up a mouse. Imagine an online music community vibrant with intuitive tools and equitable financial distribution. Ok, we'll stop smoking crack! The truth is: the focus has shifted from great services and tools to great hype for a great IPO.

You've allowed your FezGuys to begin our fourth year of writing about Internet audio enlightenment. Thank you. On this anniversary we'll talk about the state of Internet audio applications for the desktop, an environment where non-compatibility is accepted and irritating problems are common. The industry is fraught with rapid technological advances but that's no excuse for user un-friendliness! We celebrate companies improving and upgrading their products but pledge to you, faithful FezReader, that we'll watch closely to see who settles for merely "acceptable" and who goes the extra mile to common sense, useablility.

After many months of public freaking and backroom speaking the RIAA <> finally realized people aren't going to stop listening to music. The mouthpiece of the Big 5 record labels dropped a suit (after several judges hammered them flat) to prevent Diamond Multimedia <> from manufacturing and distributing the wildly popular Rio portable digital music player. A "mutually satisfactory" resolution depending heavily on the SDMI has been reached. The SDMI is the Big 5 consortium (along with several major technology companies) attempting to dictate a standard for secure digital music downloads using the Internet. Hey, if you can't sue 'em, join 'em. Expect bandwagon jumpers to add a half dozen new portable digital music devices to the market by the '99 Christmas shopping convulsion. The up side for consumers and musicians is that tools for digital music manipulation will be streamlined by the cartels looking to control the new market place.

The popular and very useful Xing Audiocatalyst< encoder Version 2.1 (for PC only) was released in August. V2.1 features a simplified way to add your CD's information into the CDDB <> database. There's expanded Help documentation and the upgrade is free to 2.0 users. New users will pay $29.95 and your FezGuys say it's still worth it. Xing also has released a version of the MP3 encoder for Linux.

Real big, RealNetworks has released the Beta 2 version of RealJukebox and a new RealJukebox Plus. The Beta 2 has multiple GUI "skins" (user interface design options) and features support for portable digital music players (including the above-mentioned Rio) and Liquid Audio products. The Plus is $10.99 to owners of the RealPlayer Plus and $29.99 if you are a first time buyer. You need the RealJukebox Plus if you intend to encode at bitrates above 96kbps. Real calls anything above 192kbps "CD quality." The Beta 2 only encodes to 96kbps. The Plus also features a 10 band EQ.

The new features are nice but the install of RealNetworks products is problematic in the extreme. The companies' apps make file destination decisions without asking. Once installed, RealJukebox software attempts to make itself the default audio application for every audio format, from CD audio to .mp3, .mp3 playlists, liquid audio, .wav, .aiff and even .au files. It seems impossible to divine what audio types it's configured to play. Once RealNetworks tentacles are latched onto your hard drive they're stuck! Sound familiar? Isn't this what RealNetworks testified to the Supreme Court that Microsoft does with their stuff?

And another thing(s)! On startup RealNetworks apps play an irritating four note jingle. Music listeners don't want to be interrupted! And don't bother using the Beta 2 with a filesystem shared on a network, it still can't find music there. Last but not least, the RealJukebox remains a Windows only environment. C'mon people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, etc....

The consensus now: RealNetworks products display user interface problems. Real is not the only audio environment for computers, friends. There are other applications out there.

SoundJam <> the first integrated MP3 encoder/player and CD player strictly for the Mac. It's written by Casady and Greene (who bring you Conflict Catcher) and they know the Mac environment very well. The front end offers a choice of thirteen silly/strange skins and an option to import skins from other players, like Winamp. Interestingly the default skin on SoundJam looks suspiciously like the Quicktime default interface. Some aspects of the interfaces are not very intuitive. Example: To turn on the ten-band EQ users must click a button that says: "OFF." To turn it off users must click the button that says: "ON."

Also: to rename tracks you must use the Mac Command-I on each individual audio file. This is also how ID3 information is accessed for each track. Music "Genres" (a necessary evil) should be alphabetically sorted, too. This would be a very small fix! By way of comparison this Mac-only encoder/player is somewhat slower than the Xing AudioCatalyst encoder. SoundJam has also added a bitchin' bong-hit light show in the form of wacky screen-savers that react to music.

According to documentation Soundjam allows MP3 streaming but on first try (and though the app said it was streaming) we heard nothing. Trying the same set of streams the next day (after a reboot) proved successful. The product is $40US as a download and $50US as shrinkwrap. A limited demo version can be found at the site.

Macamp, the plucky and popular little shareware MP3 player is now available for free preview. The registered version can be purchased for $25US at <>. Version 1.0, (assumed to be their first official "commercial" product release) boasts a new GUI, sports "sexy" (to quote the site text) visual plugins, has a 10 band EQ and supports streaming audio. There is a shortcuts toolbar, an enhanced ID3 tag editor and even a sleep timer (to quit or shutdown computer). Macamp is a quality product and is recommended.

The FezGuys direct your attention to Mixman <>, a distribution system for creating and posting remixes of songs from provided audio templates. Choose from various sample banks, sounds and grooves. You can post your own and review others' work. It's a real/virtual community and amusing for DJs, nascent remix producers or folks who don't only play musical instruments.

The shrinkwrap product and demo are Windows-only, the Mac version (available by the end of September) is download-only. The basic version is $50US and the Pro version is $90US at stores and $80US online. Additional sample banks are available. Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott and Art Of Noise offer sample banks of a song for remixing. Try one yourself and/or see what others have done.

The popularity of MP3 stems, in part, because the source code is freely available. Anyone can purchase the specifications and build their own encoder/player. This fosters speedy technological and interface improvement without the bureacratic obligation of commerce. Now Apple has made the source code for it's Quicktime streaming server (codename: Darwin) available for free. This encourages the expansion of QT server products beyond on the Mac OS. If you care to download the source code go to: <>. By creating your own QT server you won't have to pay for software or streams. People who host their own content can stream QT content without having to run NT (Windows Media) or pay a per-stream fee to RealNetworks. It's available on a number of platforms.

Related item: Check out a resource site about streaming servers (including Darwin) at <>. Also, September will see the final release of the Sorenson Broadcaster product (a streaming Quicktime 4 encoder). Go to the Sorenson Vision, Inc. site: <>.

Old world mentality in a new world order department: get Internet radio airplay by using the USPS to mail your CDs to Green Witch, an MP3 Internet radio station. It's free and they seem nice. Check 'em out at: <>

Letters To The FezGuys

Howdy FezGuys - I want to burn my own CDs from various sources and record tunes for my own enjoyment. Can I get acceptable quality using the Mac's built-in input? I'm somewhat aware of the AudioMedia III card. What are some good choices to look into assuming I need (or would be best served by) a card? Thanks. - Ron

Dear Ron - With a Mac you don't need an extra card if you're only ripping audio to your hard drive for your personal enjoyment. If you're working in a professional environment the AudioMedia card may be appropriate. Consider bypassing CD media entirely: rip your audio to MP3 files. If you need to be mobile there's an increasing number of portable MP3 players easily plugged into a car or home stereo. - The FezGuys

The FezGuys act like we know which side of the bread our toast is buttered on!



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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