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
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, 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
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.
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
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:
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
and Microsoft's Windows Media
(<www.microsoft.com/windowsmedia/>). 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.
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
The Internet is an invaluable resource for the independent
musician. Leave no stone unturned!