An Overview of Digital Audio

sponsored by Audio Explosion

So you may or may not have heard, but there’s been some buzz in the media concerning digital music. There’s all sorts of talk of “pirates” and startups and copyright and something called “watermarking” and a big organization called the RIAA. Here’s what’s going down with the software scene:

RealAudio

It’s possible, likely even, that you’ve heard digital audio samples through the Internet in RealAudio format. RealAudio is the most popular form of audio on the Internet and has been around for a few years. RealAudio fiiles start playing right away regardless of how long the piece goes for. This is its advantage and disadvantage. RealAudio works by playing back the audio a chunk at a time — this is called “streaming.” When you click on a four hour long RealAudio file, it doesn’t grab it in its entirety but instead just downloads the first few seconds. It starts playing this music back as it goes out and grabs the next few seconds of audio. On the plus side, music starts coming out of your speakers right away. On the minus side, the music only sounds as good as your network connection is fast. If you are connected to the Internet very slowly, like over a 14.4k modem, the music will be of very poor quality, because your connection will not be sufficient to download enough information about a given second of music to make it sound good. If you have a faster connection to the Internet at your work or in your dorm room, you can listen to higher-quality music. To try to reach as many people as possible, most music sites that use RealAudio do so in a manner that sounds acceptable to someone listening on a 28.8k modem. While this is enough to convey the gist of a song it is not, as you may have noticed, of pleasant quality.

.WAV / .AU

You may have seen some files laying around that end in .wav or .au. The ones that end in .au probably don’t sound that great, and the ones that end in .wav are usually huge for even just a small snippet of audio. This is because .wav files are not generally compressed at all and .au files are compressed poorly and with low sound quality. CDs actually store audio uncompressed, so it’s pretty straightforward to take audio from a CD and store it on a hard drive as a .wav file. (There are a number of programs out there on the Internet to do this, called “CD Rippers”)

Liquid Audio

A California company called Liquid Audio came up with a new, protected audio format that uses a slightly improved version of the compression algorithm found in RealAudio (it’s called Dolbynet). It allows for secure purchase and distribution of digital music and lets you burn your downloaded song onto exactly one CD-R. It has not, however, hugely taken off over the two years or so that the company has been around, despite many marketing efforts. This is largely because the encoding tools and server are complex, cumbersome, and expensive and few people already have the player.

MP3

MPEG-1/2/2.5 Audio Layer 3 (also known by its file extension, MP3), is a high-quality compression algorithm co-invented by Thompson Consumer Electronics and Fraunhofer IISCommercial Research Institute. It was engineered in 1992 as a way to allow audio to be transmitted in realtime at near-CD quality over ISDN (128kbps) and satellite lines. The algorithm was extremely computationally difficult to run, and it wasn’t until about two years ago that an average user’s desktop had enough CPU power to let them listen to MP3s. Fraunhofer happened to notice in late 1996, and released an MP3 encoder (L3ENC) and Windows player (WinPlay3) as shareware on their site. Some people noticed, tried it out, told their friends, and the MP3 community exploded overnight. Now with an estimated 10 million people worldwide (and growing) listening to MP3 files, MP3 has become the most popular underground format on the Internet. There are many excellent MP3 players out there (I may review some in a later column), but most notably WinAMP and Sonique. Fraunhofer naturally makes one of the highest-quality encoders (sold through Opticom) but Xing is known for its extremely high-speed encoder. Xing’s encoder, now calledAudioCatalyst was recently lumped together with some nifty tools that allow you to just put a CD into your Mac or PC drive, press a button, and come back a few minutes later to a stack of neatly titled MP3s on your hard drive. Not a bad buy for $30. I remember when Fraunhofer was trying to peddle their shareware encoder for a few hundred US$…

AAC

MPEG-2 Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) was developed by Fraunhofer, AT&T, and several others as the next generation of audio encoding beyond MP3. AAC could be thought of as “MP4.” Unfortunately, Fraunhofer and others have decided to not release the complete specification. Why? Fraunhofer had received an enormous amount of flak from the recording industry when the released specifications of MP3 were gobbled up by applications programmers and released on the consumer market: the technology allowed consumers to easily copy and share high-quality digital audio. Fraunhofer was not eager to find itself labelled as a company that made tools for pirates, and decided to not release AAC so as not to make the same mistake twice. For this reason, there are no public high-quality AAC encoders or players. (AT&T’s a2bmusic is in fact the only source of AAC files; they will be covered later.)

VQF

NTT (Nippon Telephone & Telegraph, Japan’s version of AT&T) had been working on new ways to squeeze very high quality voice data efficiently through their networks. They invented TWINVQ (Transform-domain Weighted INterleave Vector Quantization) as a new way to compress data. TwinVQ compression works very differently from MP3 and is not based on the MPEG/ISO standards. TWInVQ files are saved with an extension of .VQF, hence the other, shorter, name for the format. VQF is superior to MP3 audio, capable of producing very crisp sound at 80kbps: better sound with 30% fewer bits. AAC is slightly better than VQF, but not by a large margin. Yamaha, who has licensed VQF technology from NTT, has not [yet] pushed to heavily market VQF in the United States. Kobe Steel, incidentally, will be releasing a portable .VQF player in 1999.

[read my review]

Encryption/Watermarking

“History has taught us to never underestimate the amount of money, time, and effort someone will expend to thwart a security system.”

– Bruce Schneier, Author of Applied Cryptography

Several companies have made quite a fuss about encryption and watermarking. The basic idea is that encryption will scramble a digital audio file in such a way that only people who have validly purchased the music can listen to it, and watermarking will allow officials to trace illegal audio distribution back to the pirate who first copied a piece of music. While on the outside, such standards may seem reasonable, they remove a large number of consumer rights that we take for granted. Books may provide a suitable metaphor for me to demonstrate the Huxlian horror that may soon be upon us: what if there were no libraries? What if at a bookstore, every book was shrinkwrapped and could not be returned? What if letting someone borrow your book was a criminal offense? While these scenarios appear patently ridiculous in regards to books, they would become reality if tight encryption technology were to survive.

Thankfully, they cannot. Fundamentally, audio encryption for playback on a computer is a narrowminded idea. In the 1980’s, software companies tried very, very hard to implement complex protection schemes that would prevent any piracy at all. Unfortunately, the plan backfired: the more difficult a program was to “crack,” the more prestige was given to the individuals that cracked it. It became a challenge, a race, to see who could crack a program first. Engineers that had spent months on protecting a video game or a word processing application would see cracked versions floating around mere weeks, if not days, after the product was released. They gave up. Software companies simply could not afford to be spending all of their money on protecting programs, so most decided to drop the issue altogether. The moral of the story is that it is unlikely that the music industry will be able to suddenly come up with a magic formula that will still afford consumers the rights they currently have, satisfy artists, and protect against piracy. People still buy software, even when it is available freely from the digital underground. Microsoft is not going out of business. Time-Warner, Virgin Records, and Atlantic aren’t going to go out of business even if all of their music was available freely and illegally. Which is good, because it’s equally unlikely that they’ll be able to stop it.

A Box To Fit In: Marriage and Gendered Roles In Society

The human mind thrives on classification. We like to put things in boxes. We love to learn about something that we don’t know by lumping it with things we do; or at the very least, to lump a bunch of things we don’t know about together and declare that we know something about them. This tactic often makes us feel more comfortable and wise and sometimes does genuinely provide information as to how the universe works. For example, it’s quite useful to categorize tornadoes, asteroids, and molecules. However, this system becomes non-optimal when the things we’re putting in boxes are aware that this is happening.

Physicists have a theorem that the more definitively you measure something, the more you end up actually changing it. It’s called The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. When we categorize a person, calling them a Scorpio, an ‘ENFP Meyer-Briggs type,’ or ‘manly,’ we are not just passively saying something about that person; we are actively modifying how they perceive themselves and how they act. This can ultimately be a very destructive tool, because people are told that they must act in a certain way to be themselves. The person’s true personality may conflict with their societally imposed personality, causing a feeling of schizophrenia and internal imbalance.

Ruth Hubbard states in her Politics of Women’s Biology that “most characteristics [of gender] vary continuously in the population…To compare groups…we must use such concepts as the ‘average,’ ‘mean,’ or ‘median’…These numbers obscure the diversity that exists within the groups (say, among women and men).” We see then that no single model can serve as an ideal for a group of people. If men and women have characteristics across the spectrum, it is clear that asking them to conform to definitions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ limits and confines the breadth of human spirit to two narrowly typed genders. We see this narrow typing in fraternity bonding, where incoming pledges are ‘taught to be men’ and are strongly discouraged from exhibiting behaviors outside of the strictly masculine stereotype. Just as destructive are female bonding groups that discourage masculine behavior and reward feminine conformism: one of my friends related her disgust at a Girl Scout camping trip that turned into a (mandatory) makeup how-to session.

This is the underlying problem that gender categorizations lead to: males and females alike are forced into roles that conflict with who they truly are. This problem is exponentially exacerbated in a relationship: there are now two people, each of which is trying to find his/her gender identity, and both of which are trying to understand what box their relationship fits in. While these problems are certainly prevalent in most romantic relationships, marriage in particular has longstanding and well-defined roles for a husband and wife. The act of getting married, hoped to be an innocuous expression of love between two people, causes most people to believe that they should fit into the Barbie & Ken spouse stereotypes to achieve happiness. This process may be conscious or subconscious; when it happens, it can cause increasing tension between the partners.

In marriage, the burden of split personality rests most heavily upon the woman. The man can act according to his will and apart from his family. His work is an expression of his being and varies as he wishes. The woman, however, loses her individuality and her will to the role of housewife. If that role is intrinsic to her, as it may be to a small part of the population, she may yet be happy. The rest, however, must face the choice of suffering a life of split personalities, divided between desires and actuality; changing their personality to fit the housewife mold; or ultimately breaking apart from the relationship. This difference in burden and the assimilation of the woman’s persona into that of the housewife is clearly illustrated in the class movie Saving Private Ryan. Susan Okin also carries this theme throughout her chapter ‘Vulnerability by Marriage’ in Justice, Gender, and the Family: “The traditional expectations of marriage influence the attitudes, expectations, and behavior of married couples.”

Women are especially tightly bound to an ideal in motherhood. The Ideal Mother is a highly typed psychoprofile that is almost sacred. The notion of valid motherhood extending beyond the at-home mom of the 1950’s is generally distasteful to even today’s society. As Shirley Glubka gives account in her Essay on Unconventional Motherhood, stepping outside of this role is difficult even in cases when it would greatly benefit both the child and the parent(s).

In self-contradictory fashion, the ideals of universal motherhood only apply in actuality to well-off white women. Poor women, especially black women, have a different ideal: they are expected to go out into the workforce, for to stay at home would denote laziness. Recent legal movements, such as the Social Reform and Personal Responsibility Act imply that women who devote themselves to raising their children are irresponsible for not finding a job. The boxes into which we are trying to make women fit are in this way not only restrictive, but socio-economically differentiated.

This marks the tip of an iceberg of structures set up for women that, it would seem, were specifically designed to crush her spirit and destroy her chances for creative living. The woman most capable of pursuing a professional career and using hired help (and a husband!) to aid in the upbringing of her child is told to stay at home and subordinate herself, while those most in need of societal aid to help in raising their children are spurned and called reckless and uncaring if they all but abandon their children for work.

Media images of beauty also seem specifically created to oppose women. They are designed to create a sense of self-loathing within a woman, a hatred that can be soothed but never satiated by an endless stream of consumer goods. An ever-disturbing trend towards sickly thinness has been all the rage in female models since ‘Twiggy’ first appeared on the scene in the 1970’s. This, if anything, is to me the most inexplicable trend: the majority of my male peers find such extreme thinness to be not only not alluring, but verging on the repulsive. This unhealthy trend is a pure product of capitalist marketing: it serves to fulfill no need other than an induced worry. Hair color, wrinkles, and skin blemishes, indeed the very act of aging itself is made out to be horrific, disgusting, and to be avoided via a vast array of consumer products and surgeries at any and all possible costs. Tied to the ideal of the wife holding the family together, she must make herself sexy and attractive not only for herself, but for her husband. Implicit in many of the beauty ads geared towards wives, especially those featured in class in the video Killing Us Softly, is that a man will leave his wife and her children if she does not continuously excite him and stun him with her possession of a vast array of beauty products and a learned skill at applying them. This, coupled with the strain of undergoing an alter ego of loving housewife, creates a nearly impossible environment to navigate.

Women are placed in this position by society, but also by themselves. It is a self-reinforcing system when generations of women pass on the false ideals of the feminine mystique that they learned to accept. What is called for here is a recognition that forced roles often have negative impacts on people unless, by chance, they happen to be well suited for the role. This holds true for men as equally as for women, but given the sheer number of negative ‘boxes’ that women are forced into solely by their sex, it would seem prudent to focus most earnestly on the breaking stereotypes surrounding women, or at least to harness the women’s rights movement to liberate both sexes from restrictive ideals.

While it has been to a lesser extent, it is important to consider the negative effects that the stereotyped male has upon men and the restrictions that are placed on their development. I remember in third grade watching two girls greet each other with a kiss on the lips. I asked, “Why don’t the boys do that?” “Ew,” they squirmed, “then you’d be a faggot.”

Although I myself am a heterosexual, I am more expressive of ‘my feminine side’ than most, and as a result have felt the effects of homophobia. I’ve often been called ‘gay,’ and have needed to procure a date or wrestle a friend to the floor to ‘prove my manhood.’ Societal taboos on homosexuality have made men uncomfortable hugging each other: a man can hug a woman, and two women can hug each other, but it is taboo for two men to hug. At an Argentine Tango Dance two weeks ago, one dancing friend of mine approached my date and hugged her in greeting. I reached over and hugged him, but he pushed me back and looked confused. ‘No, no,’ he explained in his somewhat broken English. He extended his hand.

What needs to happen is this: people need to cast out gendered social roles. They need to interact as purely themselves. Jane must not ask herself “Who am I as a woman?” but must instead ask herself who she is as a person; to ask who Jane is. “What does it mean for me to be female?” should ultimately be classified under the same realm of questions as “What does it mean for me to have freckles?” After all, both your gender and your freckles can usually be noticed and both involve body hormones (testosterone/ estrogen versus melanin). Future discrimination by gender would ideally be roughly equivalent to modern day freckle discrimination. Some would argue that this would end a notion of a ‘Universal Sisterhood’ of sorts, but association or promotion to a group by merit, and not birthright, has shown itself to be optimal in systems of government and economics. For the same reasons that people found an Aryan Brotherhood to be intolerable, I find it desirable to end any notion of being proud to be a man or a woman and to just get on with our lives as humans, as individuals living outside of the box.

The MP3 Artist

sponsored by plug.com

As an artist, you may be scratching your head, wondering what the heck is going on with all of this babble about music on the Internet. Some people are talking about piracy and security and RealAudio and Windows Media and MP3 and AAC and the possiblity of the RIAA introducing a new standard that maybe people might adopt but possibly not and…AUGH!

You don’t care about technical jargon. You want people to hear you and to sell a few CDs. Maybe you get your giggles off of the notion of getting fan mail from India. And if the Internet can help you do that, you might just jump on the boat.

First thing I should tell you, and maybe the most shocking thing: don’t worry about protecting your music. This is hard to swallow, I realize. But the software industry had to go through this 15 years ago, and they learned the same thing the hard way. They spent millions upon millions of dollars and years of work trying to make sure that nobody could copy their software. Most software was cracked days after its release, to the tears and cries of those whose job it had been solely to make sure that it would be impossible to do such a thing. Eventually, the software companies gave up. The vast majority of software on the market today has effectively zero copyright protection. And the surprise? These companies haven’t gone out of business! Microsoft isn’t turning belly-up any time
soon, despite the fact that all of their products can be (and are!) easily copied around the Net.

Why? Because software companies are making reasonably good products and are making them easily available at generally reasonable prices to the public. Only a small percentage of people are cruel enough to steal all of the software they use. Most people use a little copied software, but that, contrary to the reports of the software companies, isn’t hurting anyone. You get exposed to the software, hooked on it, and then you will be likely to buy a copy when the next version comes out. McAfee Associates, who makes various anti-virus products, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal last year as saying “Pirates are our best distribution channel in this business.”

Your business is not software, obviously, but the lesson should be clear: even with all of your assets in the open, the vast majority of people will still buy your product and support you, providing you make “being legal” convenient.

A very large number of college students (I should know, I am one!) would be willing to buy music from our favorite artists online if it was readily available on a cool website, we could hear previews of what it was going to sound like before we bought it, and we could share it with our friends. Since only a limited number of artists have actually moved forward on this (the exceptions being notable: Public Enemy, Alanis Morisette, Beastie Boys, Frank Black…), pirated music abounds. Again, this is not because college students and the like are inherently thieves, but because there is no legal way to obtain singles of our favorite music over the Web.

Another thing to realize is that your music will spread: people will ineviatably copy it to their friends. How else do you think the Grateful Dead became so popular? The bootlegged copies of their tapes spread around the country and people got hooked on the sound. The key here is what I call “Push Out, Suck In.” If you release a song on the Internet that people like, people will copy it around. Even if you sell a song to someone, it’s unreasonable to expect them not to want to share it with their friends if they like it. This you must embrace as a Good Thing. Remember the original South Park Christmas episode? It was spread around the Net hundreds of thousands of times. Its creators quickly became rich after they got media recognition and their own TV show — all as a result of “pushing out” their content.

But pushing out is not that difficult. The part that you need to pay attention to is sucking your pirate listeners to your website. If you manage this, you can turn people who liked listening to your music into people who buy your music, into fans who you can connect with. There are a few options you have for sucking people back to your website. One good way is to include your band’s URL in all of the music you give out or sell. This way, every copy of that piece of music that gets distributed makes it easy for the listener to connect with your website.

Ultimately, this is a win for the consumer, who can now better connect with her or his favorite artists and buy more music they like; and it is a win for the artists, who can get exposed to larger audiences on a global scale. (When’s the last time you shipped your promo CD to Sri Lanka?) Managed properly, giving away part of your music may give you increased revenues and added exposure.

And you can make money on this. You can work with an Internet music distributor (there are many out there!) to sell your music either in downloadable format or on a CD. These places will give you percentages far greater than in the record industry: whereas an excellent and well-respected artist might earn up to 15% of sales on her CD, it’s possible to earn 50-90% of sales on these sites.

Of course, there’s the tempting (and easy!) route to just do it yourself. All you need to do is slap up a web page with your address and have people send you a check if they want a copy of your CD. You can get a CD-R for ~$150-$200 these days and blank media for under $1/disk. When someone sends you mail requesting a disk, just burn a fresh copy and ship it out to them. Hell, offer T-shirts, too. They’re pretty cheap to make and you can sell them at your concerts, too. Play this game right and you’ll earn *all* of the sales,
minus your expenses. You can even start up your own underground Internet radio station and/or submit music (for no charge) to be played on other such stations. It’s not too hard to do and can be a really fun way to connect with your listeners. More on this later.

One quick caveat: if you do decide to let someone handle your music sales for you, like an independant label or an online music site, it is important to read the fine print. One company tried to get signing artists to write away nearly all of their promotional rights. (Later this clause was removed when artists protested.) Never sign exclusively and be careful what rights you’re giving away regarding your music.

So go for it. This will make you “cool” with your listeners, “hip” to the Internet crowd and offer a great way to be heard and maybe get some more people to buy that song you wrote last week. Sell some T-shirts online. Be heard in Djibouti. Have fun and welcome to the music-filled land of the future!