The FezGuys
Online Audio: Squashing vs. Streaming
(Appeared in The Gig Magazine)

You bust your ass for years learning to play your instrument, writing songs, getting and keeping a band together and finally recording, mixing, mastering and manufacturing your album. All while holding down a day job and maybe having a family, too. As if all that weren't time consuming enough, now there's a new challenge: taking advantage of the global promise of the Internet. They say it'll cut out the record business middleman. They say it'll simplify your life. They say a lot of things but one thing they don't say is: it's a lot simpler than you might think.

Let us introduce ourselves. We're the FezGuys, and we're all about de-mystifying and de-tangling Internet audio. We think hype sucks and common-sense rules.

Getting Your Song Onto Your Computer

We're going to assume you already have a computer that can manipulate audio. A Macintosh Power PC, G3 or G4 does this right out of the box. If you have a Windows PC, make sure it has a soundcard. They aren't always automatically included. Look around back and see if there are 1/8" plug in/outs.

The first step is transferring your songs from the master recording to the computer. To do this, simply plug in the playback device for your particular format. If it's a one-time job, you can plug directly from the playback device into the soundcard. A better solution is to send audio from your master through a mixer. Take a tape-out from the mixer into the computer's audio input. A mixer allows consistent recording level to the computer when switching between source media types.

Most computers of the past three years have a CD-ROM player. If your master is already on a CD, pop it into the CD-ROM player of your computer. The process of pulling audio from a CD onto your computer is called "ripping," and you'll need a ripping application. Xing Technology's AudioCatalyst software <> is a solid application (Windows and Mac) for $30. Make sure you edit the "preferences" by setting AudioCatalyst to rip to WAV/AIF instead of MP3.

If your audio master is not on CD, you'll need an application to create a WAV (AIF for Macs) file from the line input in your computer's sound card. There are several choices.

For Macintosh, the FezGuys recommend:

For Windows, the FezGuys recommend:

If your music is already on a CD and you are just creating downloadable MP3 tracks, you can avoid the intermediate step of WAV/AIF file conversion. Simply rip directly from your CD to MP3 files using Xing's AudioCatalyst app. A couple of mouseclicks and you're done. If you need to finesse the EQ of your audio for low bitrate streaming the intermediate conversion step will be necessary.

All these apps work in a similar manner. Open the app and select the appropriate option to record to a file on your computer. If there are options for bitrate, stereo mode, or sample rate the FezGuys recommend selecting 16 bit, stereo and 44.1kHz, respectively. Sometimes it's only a matter of hitting "record" on the app and pressing "play" on the playback device (not unlike taping to cassette from an LP). After processing you'll have a file on your computer. Depending on the length of the song the file may be pretty big, which is why it needs to be compressed to shrink the songfile so users can access it quickly. There are two ways in which people will listen to your music over the Internet: streaming and downloading. Downloading is delivering an audio file without being able to hear it until it's completely transferred to your computer. Streaming is delivering an audio file while users listen to the music in realtime. Streaming files are usually not saved to your desktop (there are ways around this). The brutal squashing of your song to shoot it out over phone lines to the Internet requires an extra step of sonic sculpting. (Note: if your music is professionally mastered and you plan on offering the files as downloads, you can skip the steps described below and go right to "Encoding Your Song.") If you plan on providing your song to stream over slow modems (low bitrates), you'll need to equalize your song to keep it listenable. This is called "optimizing."

Optimizing Your Song

Optimizing, in this context, means radically reducing the dynamic range of your music preparatory to encoding (which reduces the song's dynamic range even further). Song files are typically optimized in two different ways for the two different transfer methods.

Since downloading doesn't require as much squashing as streaming, optimizing a songfile for download is relatively gentle. MP3, the most popular download file format, squashes the file heavily but your song will still sound pretty much like your song. To optimize for encoding to MP3 the FezGuys recommend using the "Normalize" filter (set to 95%) found within most encoder apps.

The process of encoding an audio file into a streaming file is pretty gnarly. Imagine taking everything out of your refrigerator but the milk. You can live on it but only barely. That's how streaming audio files tend to sound: the song sounds like the song but only barely.

The RealNetworks web site suggests (and the FezGuys agree) using the compression or dynamics features found in your audio software. By specifying a compression ratio you control attenuation (turning down the loud parts). Then you can readjust input levels. For multipurpose dynamics compression, set the threshold to -10dB, the ratio to 4:1, and the attack and release times to 100ms. Adjust the input level to get around 3dB of compression and an output level around 0dB.

For voice-only content, RealNetworks also suggests making the file more intelligible by cutting frequencies below 100 Hz and "carefully" boosting frequencies in the 1-4 kHz range.

Encoding Your Song

The process of creating your optimized audio files to be streamed or downloaded is called "encoding." The FezGuys recommend using the in-the-limelight MP3 file format for songs that will be downloaded. MP3 encoders are the software programs that create MP3 files. There are several choices.

To create downloadable files using Windows, the FezGuys recommend:

To create downloadable files using Macintosh, the FezGuys recommend:

To create downloadable files using Linux, the FezGuys recommend:

In the preferences or encoding options for your application the FezGuys recommend selecting the bitrate, channels and sample rate settings as 128 kbps, Joint Stereo and 44.1Khz, respectively.

If your encoder enables you to enter ID3 tag information (artist, song title, genre, copyright, etc.), now's the time to do so.

There are many different MP3 encoders available on the Internet. Many are free, but the FezGuys strongly recommend investing $20 to $40 to purchase a professional encoder. It'll be faster, generate better sounding files and come with technical support.

There's basically only one choice for streaming file formats: RealAudio (<>). The RealAudio system works great but don't let the name fool you, it's not "real" audio. Over a modem, it's horrendously squashed audio. But, seeing as how there are more people out there who will listen to you using RealAudio than anything else (75 million players downloaded make it the fast food of streaming audio), it's a common sense choice. All the above mentioned apps go out of their way to make the process simple. If you're motivated to offer multiple formats (always a good idea!), look into adding Apple's QuickTime 4 streaming (<>) and Microsoft's Windows Media (<>). We should also mention that it is possible to stream lower-bitrate MP3 files, but they don't sound as good as these other formats designed specifically for streaming.

Miscellaneous Tips

Now, with any luck, you have a folder of audio files on your desktop ready for streaming and downloading. Take your original WAV/AIF file and create a one minute streaming segment. Place fades into and out of this segment. This will be a short teaser for people to listen without having to commit to the whole thing. Optimize and encode as usual.

Always make sure your music survived the encoding process. The simplest way to test your new MP3 or RealAudio file is to play it. Below are some common, free MP3 players available for download on the Internet. The RealAudio streaming player also supports MP3 and is freely available at: <>. Be warned: there's no good reason to pay money for an MP3 player - most vendors offer perfectly good free versions. It may be necessary to hunt for them on the site. They'll typically try to sell you something before giving it away.

For Windows, the FezGuys recommend:

For Macintosh, the FezGuys recommend:

For Linux, the FezGuys recommend:

What are you going to do with these files? Put them where people can find and get them! These subjects are covered in depth on the FezGuys resource and community web site: <>. Many tools, tips and techniques are offered. There's a search engine to help find the subject of your choice quickly. There's no advertising and the information is free. Come visit and contact us.

The Internet is an invaluable resource for the independent musician. Leave no stone unturned!



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. <>

©1996-2003 The FezGuys™