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Audio for the Web
Tips on Streaming, File Types, and Software

We're strangely thankful for the slow growth of broadband and the lack of PC speakers in the average workplace. They've both contributed to keeping the use of audio to a purposeful minimum on the web. Which begs the questions:

1.) Whose idea was it to make midi files work with web browsers?

2.) Who ever thought the success of that idea was a good thing?

Two things you can do to anger and antagonize visitors: embed .midi files in your pages, or use a .wav file in the "bgsound" tag. Enough said.

Streaming Audio

If you've ever read tutorials about how to put audio files on the web, they probably suggested, for instance, that you put the audio file called something like "file.mp3" on your server and then created a link like "http://www.mysite.com/myfile.mp3" to point to the file. The problem? On most systems, pointing to a media file directly will bring up a dialog box asking the user if they want to open the file or save it to their computer. The workaround? Stub files.

Creating Stub Files

Real audio and mp3 are the two most commonly streamed audio types on the web, so we'll use them as examples. If you've dished out thousands of dollars for RealServer licensing, stop reading. If not, read on.

First: create a properly compressed set of audio files. It's a good idea to present two levels of quality, not only so both dialup and broadband users can play the files, but because even with broadband, larger files will often choke somewhere along the way, whether on the server or client end. For the low quality file, 16 or 32kbps, 11khz, mono is recommended. Studies have shown, oddly, that most listeners think this sounds better than a 32kbps stereo file. It's also half the size. The other file can be from 96-192kbps. Any higher is higher than CD quality.

Second: open a text editor and type the URL of where the audio file will be located. For instance: "http://www.mysite.com/myfile.mp3". Make sure there's a line break at the end of that line. Save the file as "whatever.m3u", and upload both this file and the mp3 file to the server. The m3u file tells the user's system to treat the mp3 file as a playlist. If you add more URLS to the m3u file, it will treat them accordingly. For Real audio, the stub file should be a .ram file, pointing to a .ra file. All the same principles apply.

Here's an example of this trick with a Real Audio file:

Play "Savannah"
(488KB, 32Kbps, Stereo, Real Audio)

The link points to:

The file "savreal1.ram" contains one line:

Here's how you might format the links.
All the "play" links are to an m3u file, the download link points directly to the mp3.

Like Flies (mp3)
(32Kbps Stereo)
(128 Kbps Stereo)
Download (128Kbps Stereo)

There are other issues here; if your server's running Apache, it may not be configured to handle streaming mp3's, as there is a rather inconsistent definition of the MIME type for this kind of file. Check with your system administrator for help if necessary. Sometimes adding the MIME "type" tag to the link to the m3u file helps; sometimes you need to edit or create an htaccess file for that directory.

Another option that's gaining in popularity is creating a player application in Flash and serving audio in .swf files. One especially positive aspect of this is that most users these days have a Flash/Shockwave player installed by default. The downsides? As the creator of the audio, you may not have access to Flash as an authoring tool, and .swf files aren't very cross-platform when it comes to hardware.

File Types

There are a number of options for file types to use to distribute music and audio via the web. Below is an overview of the pros and cons of the more popular types in use as of this writing.

The pervasive web audio format. This format, as is so often the case, gained popularity because of marketing rather than inherent quality. The now defunct (or at least repurposed) mp3.com made the format famous in the late nineties. For the web, you can convert standard audio formats like .wav to .mp3 with compression ratios of anywhere from 4:1 to 12:1, making it easy to deliver sound files from your web site. Sample rates of 128-192 Kbps are considered rougly CD quality. 128Kbps usually results in files that are roughly 1MB/minute of audio. The lower sample rates make it possible for even dialup users to sample a file before streaming or downloading a higher-quality version. See the sidebar links for more on creating and serving .mp3's.

Windows Media
Microsoft surprises us once again by developing a truly impressive file format for audio. The .wma format surpasses the quality and file size of mp3's in almost every regard, and uses one of the most widely-installed media players on the market. Microsoft even makes a converter available for FREE. Did I just type that? Freeware from Microsoft?

Real Audio
Again, a well-distributed format, with nice compression options. Unfortunately, the player provide by Real.com is perceived (not entirely without reason) by many to be one of the most evil pieces of software ever developed. A download of over 10MB, it's a major resource hog that reports your usage to Real by default, and turns the average user's system to molasses on a regular basis. We recommend downloading RealAlternative* and unistalling RealPlayer altogether.

*Link to the development page. If the resource moves, just do searches for "Media Player Classic"

Ogg Vorbis
Developed as an open source alternative to mp3's after Fraunhofer (the original developers of mp3-related technologies) announced plans to require licensing to use mp3's, Ogg Vorbis is slowly gaining in popularity, and outperforms the mp3 format in many ways. Many common media players support the format, and codec downloads will help enable many that don't.

Software - Media Players

There are literally hundreds of media players available, many for free. Our quick take on the more common players:

We still prefer Winamp to many other media players, particularly for playing mp3's or Ogg Vorbis files from the web or from the hard drive. It's relatively light on memory usage, stable, and has a pretty straightforward interface. We use Version 3 (yes, it's 2005 and we're sticking to this version for now). Why? It's stable, lightweight, and we don't really care for the later "improvements" like custom skins and visualizations. If it ain't broke....

Windows Media
We stick to version 6.4 for security and stability. After version 7, this player became a monstrously insecure piece of software that tries to access the web constantly for updates and rights confirmations.

Real Media
To play Real Media, we recommend RealAlternative, also known as Media Player Classic. RealPlayer is worse in our opinion than the newer versions of Windows Media Player.

Software - Converters

Again, there are hundreds of tools out there, but we've elected to stick to a few trusty options:

A really amazing piece of freeware. With all of its codecs installed, you can convert quickly to and from .mp3, Windows Media, Real Media, Ogg Vorbis, and less compressed formats like .wav.

Windows Media Encoder 7
It's free, and does a great job of converting to (duh) Windows Media files. Also nice for converting video files for streaming.

Actually not a bad converter for Real Media,. If you can find the free version, it's worth having in your repetoire.

A straightforward and stable CD-ripping tool if the files you need to present are originating on a CD.

Software - Editors

Although recent versions are not backwards-compatible with older Windows versions, this remains an essential piece of audio editing software for editing and adding effects to audio files. Plugs in with other Sony/Sonic Foundry tools as well.

Sort of a stripped-down SoundForge. This is freeware, and a small download as well, at a little over 2MB.


Recommended Software:

Sound Forge Audio Studio 7

Or any version since 5.0 that your system supports. A great tool.

Recommended Freeware:

A powerful and FREE sound editing tool.
Windows Media Encoder
Yes, we're actually recommending freeware from Microsoft.
"The Swiss knife of audio"; an excellent and versatile converter that happens to be free as well
A great CD ripping utility. With nice CDDB support.
We still like version 3, which may be hard to find.

Recommended Links:

A nice overview of the various file types from Wikipedia:
Ogg Vorbis
Real Audio
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