Music pros in New York often wear different hats and use their studios to service clients in a variety of ways in order to keep business growing. During the last several years, audio produced for multimedia and Internet applications has developed as a viable source of revenue along "Silicon Alley," the strip of Manhattan located on the West Side, south of Midtown. We spoke to a pair of composers with experience in these areas and asked them for tips that might be of help to others seeking to explore this side of the business.
Steve Shapiro is a legitimate triple-threat musician. He has extensive credentials as a composer and producer of numerous jingles, and as a jazz vibist, he has played with some of the best. Recently his vibe work was tracked at River Sound for inclusion on the soon-to-be-released Steely Dan album.
Shapiro, who lives in Westchester County and maintains office/studio space at Back Pocket Studios on West 23rd Street, says that the evolutionary process of multimedia audio is far from complete: "My experience doing CD-ROM and Web projects has been mixed. They usually involve quite a bit of work, and it's important to be organized. The project specs can get very complicated, and music is often used in a number of different ways." CD-ROMs can hold a lot of audio information, and even more MIDI data, and DVD-ROMs dwarf this capacity.
Keeping track of the work you store on this media is critical, according to Shapiro. "Good file-naming is essential," he says. "The best results are still usually with audio files [AIFF/.WAV] because you have the best control of how things end up sounding-although now there are MIDI file/sample-set formats used by game developers which provide consistent quality."
Shapiro, whose CD-ROM work includes Toy Story Animated Storybook, Toy Story Activity Center and Hercules Animated Storybook, is referring to the way MIDI has been implemented in multimedia presentations using the Quicktime Instruments synthesizers built into home computers. These tiny synthesizers, played back through a decent set of computer speakers, can sound okay, but system extension conflicts have caused disastrous problems.
"On the first Toy Story CD-ROM, Pixar's spec called for Quicktime Instruments and MIDI files to be used for much of the background music. I was apprehensive about this from the start," Shapiro says. "First of all, this meant they could include LOTS of music-I ended up transcribing huge amounts of Randy Newman's orchestral score into MIDI files which play behind most of the scenes. Talk about a lot of work. Second, I knew there would be problems with playback, because sound generation was dependent on the system setup. It turned out, if Quicktime wasn't installed right, then the music sounded horrible! All the drum parts defaulted to a piano sound, and it sounded like wrong notes!
"After that, most projects I have done have used audio file format," he continues. "The Disney projects also have tight schedules, because they tie in with the film release. Sometimes, I'd be waiting for a film scoring session to happen one day in L.A., so I could get the materials the next day in NY to do the corresponding scene for the CD project."
Shapiro says that working with .WAV and AIFF can reduce problems significantly: "It takes up more memory, but you know what you're hearing is what will be played back, crunched down to 44.1 and 8-bit. I delivered at 44.1/16-bit, they converted them down. Even the ones with Quicktime, I delivered AIFF as well as MIDI files. Used audio files for the main music, the important stuff. In order to get more music in the product, they incorporated the MIDI files.
"There is a new way of working with samples that the Sony PlayStation, for one, is incorporating," he continues. "The composer supplies MIDI files, but he also gets something like 2 megabytes worth of space for samples, and he or she writes specifically for these sounds. That eliminates a lot of the guesswork and problems that can occur when you write with a certain sound in your studio and the MIDI file gets played back by a completely different sound."
Frank Verderosa is a principal at Planet V, a full-service audio production company that caters to the needs of the advertising, television and independent film communities. In its three years of activity, Planet V has provided recording, mixing, original music and music licensing for a list of clients that include Nike, Bell Atlantic Mobile and Coca-Cola.
"When I first got involved with the Internet, I used to make fun of it. I would compare it to reading a magazine...while turning the pages as slowly as possible!" Verderosa says. "It has evolved so much since then, and I now embrace it as a resource, business tool and most recently as a source of income. I think that new technologies (Flash and the continuing evolution of MP3), have helped the Internet evolve from that slow-motion magazine into a way to express creative ideas using sound, video and animation.
"When Planet V started (about three years ago), one of our first clients was MSN, Microsoft Network," he continues. "Music was composed by Frank Verderosa and Tony Verderosa (aka 'VFX' who was part of the first single ever recorded on the Internet along with Thomas Dolby and Sinead O'Connor, among others) in the form of MIDI files to be streamed over the Internet. Each section of MSN was treated with a different music style, depending on the theme, topics and age group. The challenge back then was to make sure that the files would be universal. These days, Quicktime Instruments seem to be the standard for Mac and PC, but only a few years ago, you would have to compensate for differences between Soundblaster MIDI in the PC world vs. Quicktime MIDI in Macs.
"Although the MIDI files adhered to the layout of General MIDI, there were some programming difficulties that arose when playing them back on the PC after programming them on Yamaha's MU50 synth," Verderosa explains. "The problem was fixed with the purchase of some Roland synth modules that matched more closely how the tracks would be played back. The only real conflicts came from a difference in the lowest octave of the MU50 vs. the Roland standard. We would use some of the sound effects in General MIDI, pitched way down or way up to layer with the regular drum samples creating more interesting textures. The files were then sent via e-mail to the producers at MSN."
These days, Verderosa says, faster modems and faster ways to connect to the Internet allow audio to stream almost as fast as MIDI files used to. That creates new challenges. "A recent project for Planet V involved composing music against a 60-second piece of Flash animation to be streamed over the 'Net. When you mix for commercial work, you always check the mix on an Auratone or other small speaker to make sure it translates to all TVs and radios," he explains. "The Internet poses a new problem. The resolution of the audio is whittled down to AM radio quality or worse in order to be streamed fast enough. When mixing for this environment, special attention must be paid to compression and EQ to get the most out of what will be heard on someone's PC. Just like TV sets-not everyone has a nice set of speakers connected to their PC.
"It will be interesting to see how the business of audio-post begins to blend more with Internet content," he adds. "With DSL and cable modems becoming more affordable and more popular, the bandwidth for audio and video will increase. I imagine that soon the quality of what we see and hear will reach the level that TV has been at. The added ability of the Internet to be interactive within the content will make it a much more exciting medium than television has been. The current version of Quicktime gives you the ability to play back media content that is interactive. It will be great when that sort of thing can be sent over the 'Net in real time."