Mix Magazine interview


March, 2000

by Gary Eskow

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."

copyright ©2000 by Intertec Publishing