A Practitioner's Guide to Web Audio
By Eugene E. Kim
Several months ago, some colleagues and I wanted to
Webcast a meeting so others could watch it remotely.
My colleagues and I are knowledgeable and experienced
technical people, and yet not one of us knew how to do
I was reminded of this incident as I read Josh Beggs'
and Dylan Thede's Designing Web Audio: RealAudio, MP3,
Flash, and Beatnik. At first, I didn't think I'd find
the book very relevant to my needs. After all, how
often is the average Web developer asked to enhance a
Web site with sound effects? How often do you wish
that the Google, ESPN.com, or WebTechniques.com sites
played sound effects as you browsed?
It turns out that Designing Web Audio is about much
more than sound effects, although the authors do cover this topic extensively.
The book provides everything you need to know to
Webcast a meeting or set up a streaming MP3 jukebox in
your house. In short, Web audio may be more useful
than you think.
|Designing Web Audio: Real Audio, MP3, Flash, and Beatnik
By Josh Beggs and Dylan Thede
O'Reilly & Associates, 2001, 382 pp.
|Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century
By Robert E. Horn
MacroVU Press, 1998, 270pp.
An Amalgam of Material
One of the difficulties of adding sound to a Web site
is that there are so many options available. The
authors handle this problem masterfully, interweaving
discussion about a range of technologiesas the book's
subtitle suggestsinto a well-integrated, efficiently
organized practitioner's manual. You can read each
chapter independently, or the entire book from cover
More importantly, the authors manage to evaluate the
technology without being overly preachy. Should you
use RealAudio or MP3 for your streaming Web site?
Beggs and Thede weigh the positives and negatives,
then explain how to use both individually.
Occasionally, the authors provide too much detail. For
example, in the chapter on MP3, they describe WinAmp
extensively, including how to change the player's look
and feel. As a Web developer, I don't care much about
WinAmp or any other MP3 player that users employ, as
long as my site works with the users' software.
My favorite chapter describes the art of sound
preparation and editing. I had no doubt that I could
figure out how to use the software, but I knew nothing
about the science of sound. Fortunately, Beggs and
Thede are professionals in this area, and they explain
sound in a way that is accessible, authoritative, and
Why Web Audio?
My biggest gripe is with the first chapter, which
describes the art of sound design specifically for the
Web. My issue isn't with the chapter's content, but
with the fact that the authors appear to be getting
ahead of themselves and the currently available
technology. In the vast majority of cases, we can't
design Web sites the way we design CD-ROMs, mainly
because of the Web's technical limitations. The
authors seem to suggest that we should. Simply moving
this chapter toward the end of the book would resolve
Overall, however, I think that many Web developers
will find Designing Web Audio relevant. Even if you
don' t have any pressing needs, you may be inspired to
explore ways to take advantage of audio on the Web.
On Pictures and Words
Robert Horn's brilliant book, Visual Language: Global
Communication for the 21st Century, looks like a badly
drawn picture book. The images are coarsely compiled
clip art, and chunks of text are interspersed
throughout. If you were to glance through the book
superficially, you might put it down and never pick it
That would be a mistake. Get past the pictures, give
the book a chance, and you'll realize that it's loaded
with important insights on information design. Horn
not only presents a framework for communicating
effectively using both pictures and words, he uses the
book's framework as an example.
Horn's thesis is that the integration of text and
pictures results in a whole new languagea visual
language. As such, he argues, it can be studied and
analyzed linguistically. However, that's easier said
than done. What's the equivalent of a word in a
picture? What are the visual parallels to a subject or
As Horn points out, syntactical rules in languages not
only explain what's allowed, but also what's not
allowed. In other words, linguistic analysis of visual
languages should ultimately result in a set of best
and no-nos for effectively integrating images with
Devising a formal framework for analyzing visual
languages isn't easy, but Horn gives it a shot. He
covers quite a bit of scholastic ground, explaining
several difficult academic concepts. To his credit
(and the credit of his technique), he makes these
concepts fairly accessible.
Pictures Back in Vogue
Few would argue against the importance of images in
communication. Nevertheless, they're fairly
underutilized and often misused. Horn describes
communication's historical evolution, explaining that
while written languages were originally pictographic,
they evolved into abstract alphabets. Innovations such
as movable type made it far easier to reproduce text
than pictures. But Horn also notes that as information
needs became more complex, new forms of visual
communicationsuch as charts and timelineswere
Horn argues that computers make it both possible and
simple to integrate images with text, which means that
all of us should know how to do this effectively. Web
developers will find Horn's thesis tough to dispute,
and his book hard to put down.
Eugene writes, programs, and consults on a freelance basis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.