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Internet Digital Audio 
    (Paul Lansky, Princeton University, 7/99)

    by Douglas Dixon

The growth of the Internet has created both wonderful new opportunities for people to share their work with a much wider audience around the world, and frightening changes that threaten to destroy existing businesses. Both of these forces are at work with the distribution of music over the Internet: powerful audio compression technology makes it easy to publish and download music anywhere in the world, and at the same time widespread distribution of "free" music threatens to put the record companies out of business. "Like everything else on the Internet," says Paul Lansky, chairman of the Department of Music and professor of music composition at Princeton University, "it's totally chaotic, and very exciting."

Lansky has been teaching at Princeton for 30 years. As a composer of digital music, he has seen the development of digital audio technology from a lone pursuit that required huge expensive machines to a commonplace activity that today's kids take for granted when they play a music CD on their PC. As a published artist, Lansky also uses the Internet to post information about the solo CD's of his work, and even to provide sample clips for downloading. The Internet greatly increases the community of people interested in his work. "I have contact with more people," he says, "significantly more." A recent work, "Dancetracks," with Steve Mackey, is downloaded around 300 times a week.

Internet Audio at Princeton

The Department of Music at Princeton also has been moving rapidly to take advantage of Internet audio technologies to share information and distribute faculty and student work to a much wider audience. The department's Web page not only provides the expected information about the department, its staff, courses, and activities, but also provides links to special collections of music information hosted at Princeton.

Princeton's Gregorian Chant Home Page, for example, was developed to support advanced research on Gregorian chant, particularly for the graduate seminar "Problems in Early Christian Music" taught at Princeton. Developed by Peter Jeffery, professor of musicology, it contains links to Princeton course materials, as well as other chant research and related sites. This popular site has won several "Web site of the week" and "way cool site" awards, and was selected as a resource for Discovery Channel School's Great Books Program. It attracts researchers interested in post-doctoral fellowships in this area, and receives around 10,000 visitors a month.

For the more technically inclined, the Princeton music Web site contains "lots of materials for students looking to study music," says Lansky, "as well as links to on-line applications." The site includes extensive material from current and recent Princeton courses, and the Princeton Sound Kitchen, a collection of "home-made" music software developed at Princeton that has been made publicly available at no cost.

Beyond providing information, the Web also provides the opportunity to distribute recorded music directly to users around the world. In 1995-96, Princeton published two CD's of music by Princeton composers, which were made available for $5 to cover shipping and handling. In December 1998, Princeton held its first Princeton Sound Kitchen Internet Radio Show, which broadcast music performances directly over the Internet. No fuss, no muss, no shipping and handling, just your music distributed directly to anywhere in the world. Princeton has since held two more Radio Shows, in February and May.

The power of Internet distribution permits you to both broadcast live performances, and to archive them so other visitors can listen to them later. Princeton uses the RealAudio format from RealNetworks, Inc. for compressing and transmitting audio sequences. Using the RealPlayer software at your computer, you can receive "streaming" audio or video material over the Internet, and hear (or see) it in real time as it is received, instead of waiting to download a file before you can play it. "RealAudio has been very encouraging for us," says Lansky, "they keep our audio files on their site."

MP3 Audio

The Web pages for each Radio Show also provides links to each of the five or six pieces that were performed during each hour-long show. These are stored in RealAudio format, and also in the new MP3 format. MP3 is an abbreviation for MPEG audio, level 3, developed by the Motion Picture Experts Group as part of a series of international standards for video and audio compression, which are used on PC's (sometimes), and in consumer products such as high-definition TV (HDTV).

The magic of the MP3 audio compression format is that it cuts down the amount of data by a factor of 10, and yet still sounds quite good. The compression algorithm takes into account knowledge about how the human auditory system actually works, and removes sound information that is less audible to the human ear. Music is stored on an audio CD in uncompressed format, and can be copied to your PC in Microsoft Windows Wave format. In uncompressed form, a stereo music clip requires 10 megabytes of data per minute, or 40 MB for a four-minute song, which means you can fit a maximum of 16 songs on a 650 MB audio CD disc. But with MP3 compression, songs only require 1 MB per minute, or around 4 MB for a typical song (or even less if you give up a little more quality by applying more compression).

At these sizes, it's not difficult to copy and store music as digital files. You can extract your favorite songs from CD's and burn a single CD-ROM with 160 songs. Or you can download them to the new Diamond Multimedia Rio MP3 Player, a small portable personal music player that is like a Walkman, but with no moving parts, just computer memory to store and play back your song collection. For around $200, you can store 64 MB of songs, or up to 60 minutes of digital-quality music and up to 12 hours of voice quality audio.

The Internet Audio Threat

But, worst of all for the record companies, at these sizes it's also quite reasonable to post and download songs right over the Internet. You can download a high quality four-minute song in around 20 minutes over a good 50K modem connection, for just the cost of the phone call. As a result, MP3 has taken the Internet by storm in the past year, and kicked up a lot of fuss from the record companies as artists started posting their own clips, and others posted bootleg copies of popular tracks from new CD's. New sites like have sprung up to offer independent musicians the opportunity to bring their music before a broad audience, and even established artists have begun posing samples. claims to have tens of thousands of clips available, and has 200,000 visits a day.

The recording industry's initial response to this threat has been to go to court, but with mixed success. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued Diamond Multimedia over the Rio MP3 Player, but lost the decision in federal court earlier this June. has also been threatened with legal action, but the recording industry is now turning to industry groups such as the Secure Digital Music Initiative to work out joint standards for selling and transmitting digital audio. ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, also recently announced a licensing agreement with providing royalties for downloaded music.

Even with all this turmoil, Lansky is "not pessimistic" about the recording industry. "People will want their own music," he argues. "They like to have the CD box." Lansky has chosen not to distribute his work through these mega Web sites. "I want them all in one place, so I have control over them, and can change them." He was disappointed in an earlier experience with one of the sites, which posted some "terrible" CD sound samples in mono, giving an experience "like listening with one ear to AM radio." At his own site, he can provide the larger context of his work, so "people can know what I do," and he can provide links to "CD liner notes, articles, and software".

Paul Lansky

Lansky became interested in digital music almost as soon as he came to Princeton as a graduate student in 1966. The late 1960's were pioneering days, when they used the one computer on the Princeton campus to generate digital music, and then had to drive up to Bell Labs to hear the results, which were "usually awful." By 1973 they had their own equipment, but the process was still a struggle as they had to write tapes and carry them over to a separate machine. By the early 1980's, he was working full time on digital music, and has devoted most of his time to it.

Digital music is interesting to Lansky because you can "look inside" music, you can "take microscopes to sound." His interest is in "using sounds in musical ways," and "finding ways to get computers to help tell us musically interesting things about the world around us." His recent compositions have involved exploring music derived from recorded sounds, finding music in the ebb and flow of the sounds around us.

Lansky's "Conversation Pieces" (Bridge Records, 1998) contains "musical journeys in the company of familiar friends," building on the sounds of a casual conversation or even the resonance of a single piano note. In "Folk Images" (Bridge Records, 1995), he works from familiar folk songs to develop his own personal perspective about what he loves best about folk music. Earlier, in "Homebrew" (Bridge Records, 1992), he works with the "mundane, everyday noises of daily life," to make "the ordinary seem extraordinary, the unmusical, musical." He found "implicit music in the 'worldnoise' around us," including night traffic, reading to children, and Quakerbridge Mall.

The exciting aspect of digital music for Lansky is the control he has over the whole process: "It can be manipulated without degree, transferred, copied, edited." Digital music composition is "more powerful and interesting," with the equivalent of "lots of small wheels and buttons" for controlling the process in fine detail. In addition, with digital audio, there is no inherent loss as happens when transferring an analog tape to an LP record, in which every step introduces noise and more degradation. Instead, "everyone gets my original sound."

Lansky enjoys the feedback from maintaining his Web page. He "got in very early, five or six years ago." He admits his pages are "sloppy," done by hand, but he likes the sloppy look: "It's the feeling of a workshop, not a lawyer's waiting room." He includes links to CD stores selling his work, and posts clips of his pieces and "teasers" of his new work to solicit responses. He also checks the access logs to find out from where the pages are being accessed. Links to the Princeton pages show up in unlikely places, particularly when the links are generated by automated Internet search robots. Recently, the search engines found the "Princeton" name and indexed their pages under the artist formerly known as Prince. Lansky's "Fantasies and Tableaux" (CRI, 1994), based on a poem by Thomas Campion, was indexed under "erotic fantasies."

"It's a zoo," says Lansky, with "lots of activity." The Internet provides a "good way for students to get their work out there." With digital audio, the "spirit of the Internet" is alive and well.


Paul Lansky, composition

Princeton University Department of Music
The Gregorian Chant Home Page
Princeton Sound Kitchen
Princeton Sound Kitchen - Internet Radio Show

RealNetworks, Inc.