Putting the Power of the Human Voice on the Web

May, 1997

Listen carefully. You can hear them. Voices speaking. Rising up in a whole new way. Explaining, telling, inspiring, preaching, persuading.... A new channel of communications has opened up on the web, and the voices filling that channel are telling stories that need to be told, saying things that need to be said, speaking truths that have for too long gone unspoken.

The software that is making all this happen is called RealAudio, created by a Seattle based company named Progressive Networks. First unveiled in April, 1995, RealAudio has taken the world by storm. Millions of copies of the free RealAudio Player program have been downloaded from the Progressive Networks web page. Everyone from the church down the street to the major television networks have been exploring ways that RealAudio can help broadcast their voices to the world.

What exactly is RealAudio? RealAudio is a software compression program that takes digitized sound files and makes them much, much smaller in size. The process of compressing sound files is called "encoding," and encoded files are typically one tenth the size of the original sound files. Although some of the sound quality is lost during the encoding process, the resulting RealAudio files are usually crisp enough to sound pleasing to the ear.

Once a sound file has been encoded, it can be uploaded to a web page and made available for all the world to hear. RealAudio files can also be distributed on floppy disks, Zip disks, CD-ROM's, and other other kinds of file storage media.

There are two ways that RealAudio files can be made available to the public over the web: streaming RealAudio, and downloadable RealAudio. Streaming RealAudio files are delivered to the person listening to files moments after the person clicks on the RealAudio file name on a web page. Downloadable RealAudio files can be listened to by first downloading them in their entirety, and then listening to the file using the free RealAudio Player.

The power of RealAudio came alive for me on a day in November, 1996, when I attended an award ceremony at which CTCNet member Corliss Grimes delivered a stirring award acceptance speech. Knowing full well Corliss' exceptional oratorical skills, I brought along a tape recorder and microphone to help memorialize this occasion.

At this award ceremony, Corliss and six other persons were honored by the Delta Sigma Theta sorority for their exemplary community service work. While the other award winners all delivered interesting and inspiring speeches, Corliss' speech was the highlight of the day. Grateful was I to have that special occasion captured on tape.

Soon after the award ceremony I sought the assistance of CTCNet Associate Alfred (Alf) Bawcombe to digitize this award acceptance speech, and encode it into RealAudio format. We did the digitizing on Alf's PowerMac, taking the output from his cassette deck into the microphone jack of the computer.

The moment I heard the encoded version of this sound file, I knew then and there that the rest of the world would now have the opportunity to listen to the voice of Corliss Grimes - - - a voice that resonates with the depth of its conviction, and the resoluteness of its owner.

No sooner had Alf and I created this RealAudio file, I sent it over to Steve Ronan, the CTCNet webmaster, who quickly responded with enthusiastic feedback. Steve confirmed that the file sounded real good on his IBM-compatible computer, even though the file was encoded on a PowerMac. (RealAudio files are "cross-platform," meaning that the same file can be accessed by Mac's and IBM's.)

Upon reading Steve Ronan's email message, I was totally hooked on the idea that RealAudio is one of the most powerful tools for having the CTCNet point of view heard. Our voices can now be heard. Literally.

Given the exciting possibilities that RealAudio offers, it behooves us to develop an expertise at gathering the highest quality audio sounds for encoding into RealAudio files. The clearer the source of the original sound file, the clearer will be the encoded file.

All of this goes to say that every one of us within the network needs to become more knowledgeable about techniques of recording high quality audio. We can empower ourselves, and the people we care about, by notching up our sound engineering skills.

Here are a few things I've recently learned about recording high quality sound files:

1. Good quality microphones are more important than good quality tape recorders. A microphone that usually works very well for recording voice is the PZM (piezo electric microphone) mic, from Radio Shack. This $60 microphone has worked very well for me. In my experience, you can get the best recordings from this microphone if the microphone rests on a flat hard surface, such as table. Resting the microphone on a soft rug produces very muffled recordings.

2. The built-in microphones on most camcorders are usually not very strong. To get crisp audio from a camcorder it's strongly recommended that you use an external mic. External camcorder mics come in two main varieties: boom mics and clip-on (or lavalier) mics. I've been very pleased with the clarity of the sound that is captured from lavalier mics. Boom mics work well when you are recording sound from several different people in a room, find it inconvenient to pass around a clip on mic.

One of the best sources for microphones of any sort (and other audio equipment) is the mail-order company named Markertek Video Supply. (Free catalog available by calling: 1-800-522-2025.)

Your local cable access center is also an outstanding resource for learning more about audio. And don't overlook tapping into the skills of the undiscovered musicians you might know. (If you don't currently know any undiscovered musicians, this is a good time to find out who those folks are in your community.)

Working With Sound Files In Digital Format

There are lots of different commercial and shareware programs that can be used to input and edit audio into your computer. One of the best commercial program, for the Mac, is SoundEdit 16, published by MacroMedia. On the shareware side, SoundEffects is highly regarded. Your audio source can be either cassette tapes or videotapes. There are many good sound input/editing programs for Windows, too.

After inputting your sound into a sound program, you can save it in Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF). The free RealAudio Encoder program can then transform your AIFF files into RealAudio files. The RealAudio Encoder program requires a fast Mac (or IBM), and can be downloaded at no cost from http://www.realaudio.com

How Much Does All This Cost?

The good news is that there is a way that you can add RealAudio files to your web page at no cost whatsoever. By using a file transfer protocol (ftp) program, you can upload your RealAudio files to the server space that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) gives you. You can then create a link from your web page to these RealAudio files so that anyone who clicks on the link can download and listen to the files. For an example of this kind of use of RealAudio, check out http://www.his.com/pshapiro/classes/ some audio excerpts from a free "Intro to Internet" class that I teach each week. Also, to listen to Corliss Grimes' award acceptance speech, check out http://www.his.com/pshapiro/ifa.astp.

How Does Progressive Networks Make Money?

A commonly asked question about RealAudio is how does the company make money if both the RealAudio Player software and the RealAudio Encoder software are free. The answer is that Progressive Networks' revenue stream is derived from the "RealAudio Servers" that the company sells. This software lets your RealAudio files "stream" to people who visit your web page. Streaming means that the sound file is played while it is being transferred to you.

Distributing RealAudio Files On Tangible Media

One of the things I find most fascinating about RealAudio is how useful it can be for distributing sound files on floppy disks and other tangible media. How much RealAudio sound can fit on a floppy disk? You can fit up to 10 minutes of RealAudio 3.0 files on a single high density floppy disk. A Zip disk can hold 10 hours of RealAudio 3.0 files. And a CD-ROM can hold 70 hours of RealAudio 3.0 files.

True, there are not many people who have enough time to listen to 10 hours of sound. But the fact that RealAudio lets us fit that much sound on a single Zip disk ought to stir CTCNet people into thinking of ways of digitizing the sounds that we know need to be heard.

Plan, Plan, Plan

If you think that your affiliate will be creating RealAudio files, start planning now for ways to get the best quality audio files from the events you have planned. And do bring redundant recording equipment to important events, so that if some of the equipment fails, you can always have a "back up" recording source.

Surprise the rest of us with the RealAudio files you create. And let the sound of our voices be heard as a quiet roar, growing louder month by month.

Phil Shapiro works at the Washington DC Regional Coordinator for CTCNet. He can be reached at pshapiro@his.com

http://www.his.com/pshapiro/ (personal)
http://members.tripod.com/~pshapiro (personal with QuickTime clips)
http://www.ctcnet.org/ (national work)
http://www.owmc.org (local work)
http://www.mp3.com/philshapiro (music)