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Straight No Chaser
page 2
by Dan Richards

What is MPEG-4? Will the real MP4 please step forward.

MPEG-4 is a different beast altogether, and this is where things start to get interesting. Working quietly just out of the spotlight is a team of scientists and engineers who are developing what promises to be the next standard for audio on the Internet. The Machine Listening Group is part of the MIT Media Lab in Boston and is one of the institutions that helped develop MP3. They have been busy tackling the next internet audio technology problem. The problem is the length of time it takes to deliver sound on the web. Much has improved with the use of compression to dramatically shrink sound files while still retaining the same level of quality. But the improvement hasn't been enough to deliver "streaming audio" without sacrificing quality. RealAudio can be streamed but the sound is closer to an old transistor radio.

So, a new idea enters, and it's called Structured Audio. It is a means of describing sound rather than compressing it, and it's also known as MPEG-4 and MP4. The idea of sound description is not new as much has been written on the subject. But now it's time to turn the writing into reality, and this is being done in two projects. MPEG-4 Structured Audio and another project called NetSound. NetSound sprung out of something called Csound, which is a computer language for describing sound on synthesizers and was developed by Barry Vercoe, head of the Media Lab. Not only is the score written in the language, but the sounds are as well. NetSound was born out of the desire to move Csound files around on the web, and has done much to develop and legitimize applications of MP4 and sound description technology.

MPEG-4 Structured Audio is actually a name that describes a set of tools that will be the next standard for " computer music, audio for gaming, streaming Internet radio, and other multimedia applications," according to the Media Lab website. And if anyone knows, it's them. As enticing as MPEG-4 might sound, it's not yet available. But if you've got a interest in seeing what there is to play with, you can get started with the MPEG-4 Structured Audio toolset. And another good place for information is and the MPEG Audio web page.

MPEG-4 is the project that intends to deliver real Structured Audio over the web in the the new few years. And while the spotlight is also on broadband technologies, these folks are quietly developing low bitrate technology. While everyone is screaming for more room for their 18 wheeler size files to roar down the pipes, others are designing the equivelant of rocketpowered matchbox cars to deliver the message. Low bitrate promises something we may not have been expecting while we've all been watching the other broadband hand. As the highways of the web are growing larger, the files are getting smaller. With that in mind, the implications over the next few years for web applications become nothing short of "Holy shit!"

So, there you have it. On the one hand if you just use and are an end user, you don't need to be confused and add to the smoke by being a confuser. If you like to dig a bit more, there are all the links here to get you started. MPEG did a pretty good job with MP3 without much fanfare and little or no marketing because MP3 spoke for itself and people listened. MPEG-4 is quietly whispering in the distance, and it's coming this way.

Watch, look and listen.

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b i o

Dan Richards lives in New York City where he tinkers with trying to place his entire recording studio on the internet.

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