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The ALEX VAN STARREX Website


MUSIC FILES


INTRODUCTION

This page is devoted to a wide range of topics, all based around the idea of music 'files'. This covers everything from the simple one-off sound effects which you occasionally hear on your computer right through to recording your own CD's (though see the Original CDs page for the latter). At the moment, the information on the page is fairly scant, as I'm just getting into these techniques from the Windows/PC side of things. Of course, I was a dab hand at using samples on my Amiga, and was incorporating them into my four track recordings as early as 1983-84.

The individual sections on the page can be seen as being ends unto themselves, or - as I intend to use them - stepping stones on the way to recording CD's.And as well as the recording techniques themselves, I also have to become familiar with relative file sizes, compression and other sound modification methods. So I'm going right back to the drawing board, and starting from scratch with my new digital recordings.

Readers who take an interest in this sort of work are welcome to contact me, to exchange information on programs and techniques. A list of programs that I've currently installed to find my way around these topics is given with details of my new computer. Additional and better information will be added to these pages as I become aware of it.

.WAVS

The .WAV file is, to the PC owner, the basic sound file that is encountered every day. The Windows 95 and 98 startup sounds, message windows and other 'sound effect' type operations all use .wav files (there are, of course, other types of sound file formats, but I won't cover them here). They are also used in the vast majority of games. Although they can be produced by other means, almost all .wav files that you will encounter are digitised - i.e. recorded by microphone, or direct to disk from a synthesisers. They can also be mixed and modified along the way, to create something that sounds quite unlike the original source sound.

As with all other types of digital sound recording, there are two main variables governing the relationship between original sound and its digitised 'image' - sampling speed and compression factor. The higher the sampling speed, the better quality the resultant file - but the larger the file size will be as well. Compression can help to reduce the file size significantly, though in turn it also reduces the audible sound quality. Most .WAV files are16-bit recordings, which means that they will sound pretty good - and certainly better than the old Amiga IFF 8-bit samples.

Using a modern computer and the right software, it's very easy to create .WAV files. Many programs can, for example, copy existing CD tracks directly to your hard drive with the press of a button. The trouble with the files is that they are so big - a minute of audio can take up 5-10 megabytes - that transferring them anywhere else becomes a chore. Compression of one type or another - usually with a change of file-type - will usually be used in order to overcome this.

LINKS

TRACKERS & MODS

Samples are fine in themselves, but it's difficult to be really creative with them. Even using sample-based instruments in conventional music programs rarely makes for invigorating music. This is why Amiga programmers working in Europe in the late 1980's developed the concept of the 'tracker '- a sequencing program that relies more on the technique of the player-piano than music notation. Tracker programs allowed notes to be inserted anywhere that they would fit within predefined blocks. Any sampled sound could be used as an instrument, while notes to be manipulated in ways that are impossible to score using conventional notation. The disadvantages of tracker music, on the other hand, was its monotonous regularity of tempo and bland, repetitive sound.

Trackers made a transition to the PC/Windows platform, as the latter grew in musical sophistication and sound-handling ability. And while most Amiga trackers were confined to 8-bit, 4-channel sound (with OctaMED being a rare exception), PC trackers took off with high quality samples and extended multitrack capabilities. This isn't to say that most PC mods are generally much better than the Amiga mods of a decade or more ago, but they certainly have a much better sound quality. As happened with the Amiga, certain dominant tracker formats have developed and the ability to play and save mods between these formats can't always be guaranteed:

- ScreamTracker (S3M): This has been the most popular PC tracker format for some years, though this popularity has dwindled since development of the main tracker program stopped. The vast majority of mods that are available on the net are in this format, and S3M compatible player and tracker programs have found their way over to the Amiga;
 
- IntuiTracker (IT): Since the end of development of ScreamTracker, this program has taken over the mantle of top PC tracker. There are however two major obstacles that prevent me from ever wanting to use it properly. Firstly, the program is DOS-based, not Windows-based, so that the actual interface looks like some ASCII-based joke representation of a tracker program. Secondly, the program requires high level reprogramming of the Windows sound-handling system, which I'm not prepared to do (without it, the program sounds scratchy and third rate). this being said, some IT tunes - played through a third party player-program such as ModPlug - sound truly wonderful.
- Other Formats (various): There are a number of other formats vying for the attention of the dedicated PC tracker user. Amongst these are Buzz, FastTracker, and ModPlug Tracker. The MAZ home page (see below) contains a definitive comparison of the latest trackers and much more. It's also worthwhile keeping an eye out for the latest mod player programs - some of which are quite gorgeous to look at, as well as often allowing a wide range of mod formats and other sound files to be played.
 
- OctaMED (SoundStudio): This is an 'also ran' in the great PC music sweepstakes, though it seems to be gaining ground - thanks to a large number of devoted ex-Amiga users. The fact that the program is commercial (and quite expensive) will, however, limit its appeal for the future. OctaMED - and its earlier, 4-channel incarnation of MED - was certainly my Amiga tracker of choice, since I'd produced many disks of music with it. Tests on my own files show that music created on anything earlier than version 3 of OctaMED will not play, unless the song is loaded and resaved this way (though doing this leads to a significant increase in file size). Some instruments don't play well on the PC and 8-channel OctaMED files requires the insertion of a tempo command.

ORIGINAL MED/OCTAMED DOWNLOADS

Even listening to a whole batch of the latest 16-bit, multi-channel PC mods has not persuaded me to relinquish the title of "king of the mod trackers" which I bestowed upon myself (by default) many years ago. It therefore seems appropriate to offer a couple of my MED files - to give readers an idea of what the fuss was about. Playing these files on the PC will require an appropriate tracker or player program, such as FastTracker, Mptrack or ModPlug - here is the freeware "MedPlay" program:

The information in brackets after the following song titles refer to the year of the original creation, the duration of the song and its file-size. "World" is meant to cycle back to the start after finishing - like most of my mods. For readers who like these songs, I have hundreds more - just let me know (though many older files will require work before they'll play on modern computers/programs).

To add even further to your potential enjoyment of these tunes, here are some appropriate graphics-generating programs (for Amiga and PC users) to run while playing the songs:

LINKS

MP3 & VQF

While mods tend to offer, at best, pleasant original background music for computer users, most computer users are interested in complete sound files of music - usually from their favourite recording artists. Leaving aside copyright considerations, it isn't too difficult to look at this part of music making, especially since there is so much material already available on the net. Personally, I don't get into MP3 files that much - unless they involve my own music. They take far too long to download, and I've already got most of the music that I'm after in my music collection (unless its bootleg material). Converting non-CD based music to MP3 can be a little more difficult - just remember that you have to sample the music at either 32000, 44100 or 48000 for the conversion software (I use BladeEnc) to even recognise it as a WAV file. MP3s can also be decompressed (or expanded) for recording as audio files to CD-ROM.

The potential for the growth of the MP3 market is enormous, with dedicated MP3 players already becoming available. Meanwhile, provided that you don't mind listening to the music from your computer, it's possible to fit around 15 CDs worth of music on a single CD-ROM as MP3 format files. There is, however, some competition to MP3 in the newer VQF format - which promises both better sound and smaller file sizes. Unfortunately, as the 'new kid on the block', it will have to work very hard to prove itself as a viable alternative.

LINKS

STREAMING AUDIO AND VIDEO

Streaming audio is quite exciting - with or without the often associated streaming video. Instead of waiting for a file to download, it can start to play almost immediately. Of course, your reception of this material depends on having a good internet connection and low traffic - since any reduction in bandwith quickly translates into a loss of signal. On the other hand, if you want to provide this material from your site, you'll need the right commercial equipment. Real Audio and Real Video are the main choice in streaming rechnologies, but there are alternatives - particularly from Liquid Audio for the former. The only alternative I've looked at - Emblaze Audio - was so problematic to get running that I gave up trying.

My favourite toy for producing "real" content is RealProducer G2. Even the freeware version allows the creation of audio and video in a variety of formats - all compressed in size. Highly compressed audio in "real" format sounds much better than its MP3 counterpart - without the 'swooshing' that accompanies the latter. And though I've only started to offer original Real Audio and Video material from this site, there are still lots of links to non-original work scattered around here - to enable readers to access such material directly from other sites. Finally, of course, there is my own "radio station"- AVS-FM on Imagine Radio.

For my original "real"content on this site, I haven't done all the necessary steps to have the files streamable. This requires making extra link-files and having an ISP (internet provider - to provide the site-space) that can handle RealVideo streaming. To do it proiperly, it also requires better software, licence fees and so on. It's far easire (for me) to just have people download the files.

LINKS

HARD DISK RECORDING

There are all sorts of sophisticated software and hardware tools for dedicated amateur and professional musicians who are willing to spend the money. Everything - from better soundcards and MIDI-interfaces, right the way through to dedicated multitrack hard disk, DAT and Mini Disc recorders - is available for a price. But that isn't where my interests lie (at least not yet). Because the internet provides a number of alternative resources for musicians will low budgets, provided they have an adequate computer system.

The thing to do here is to decide how you want to make and record your music - particularly in terms of either creating the music on disk or importing it from another source. Along the way, you can integrate new music with MIDI files (using RMF - the Rich Music Format) and sequenced samples, or even manipulate previously finished work from tape or disk. Provided that you don't go down the path of producing mindless ear candy, you should do alright.

CD RECORDING

If my current thoughts are correct, CD recording will be the printing press of the 21st century (in this regard, DVDs are simply "high capacity" CDs). It already has the potential to supplant the music collection, photo collection, video collection and library in the average home. Most computer users will shortly be writing to CD-ROM - just as they now write to their hard disks, floppies and removable drives - and, hopefully, computer operating systems will change to reflect this. In the meantime, I'm doing all I can to learn about the creation of data and music CD-ROMs.

With recordable CD's now being cheaper than cassettes and great software like Adaptec's Easy CD Creator being available - not to mention standalone CD-Recorders (like my Philips CDR570) - I've found it quite easy to jump into the recording process. By the way, I've found using the Philips to be MUCH quicker than hard disk recording, though the sound quality isn't as good.

Details of my original CDs can be found here.

LINKS

NEWSGROUPS (that I follow):

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URL: http://homepages.tig.com.au/~avanstar
EMAIL:
avanstar@tig.com.au
Alex Van Starrex