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 CD Home < Web Techniques < 2001 < August  

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 it.

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,, or 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 technologies—as the book's subtitle suggests—into a well-integrated, efficiently organized practitioner's manual. You can read each chapter independently, or the entire book from cover to 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 immediately useful.

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 the problem.

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 up again.

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.

Analyzing Language

Horn's thesis is that the integration of text and pictures results in a whole new language—a 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 a predicate?

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 practices and no-nos for effectively integrating images with text.

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 communication—such as charts and timelines—were invented.

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

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Copyright © 2003 CMP Media LLC