Audio for the Web
Tips on Streaming, File Types,
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.
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.
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
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:
(488KB, 32Kbps, Stereo, Real Audio)
The link points to:
The file "savreal1.ram" contains
Here's how you might format the
All the "play" links are to an m3u file, the download
link points directly to the mp3.
|Like Flies (mp3)
(128 Kbps 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.
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
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?
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"
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
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....
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.
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
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
Sort of a stripped-down SoundForge.
This is freeware, and a small download as well, at a little