Flash - beyond animation 2

by Joe Gillespie — Mar 1, 2001

With Web graphic file formats, you can't go far wrong. You choose from GIF or JPEG, depending on your subject, and you can be pretty certain that your audience will see what you expect.

With audio, it's a different story entirely.

Web audio has always suffered from serious bandwidth problems. Sound files are big!

Ok, you can trade off sound quality for file size like you can with JPEG pictures, a squeaky sound effect doesn't need to be high fidelity and even human speech is perfectly acceptable within a very low quality audio environment. But in these days where high fidelity music is the norm and everybody has a hi-fi in their living room (and a probably a personal stereo as well), low fidelity music is no longer acceptable.

Apart from bandwidth, the other big problem with audio on the Web has been the indifferent support by the browser makers. Had there been a decent standard for Web audio and built-in support from day one, we wouldn't now have the plethora of different file formats requiring an array of plug-ins to hear them - .AU, .WAV, .RA, QuickTime, Beatnik, etc.

The lowest common denominator for Web audio is the ancient .AU format. I say ancient not because it comes from the distant mists of time, but because, compared to modern audio formats, it's crude and nasty.

Then, along came streaming audio, which was a major breakthrough. The surfer could hear the audio as soon as it started to download, and provided the modem and computer could handle the datastream, they heard continuous sound, albeit at a fairly low quality.

As computers and connections to the internet became faster, it was possible to increase the audio quality, but streaming audio meant having a special server set-up which was capable of 'transmitting' the continuous datastream without interruption.

The one audio format that has really made its mark is MP3. MP3, is to all intents and purposes, the audio equivalent of the JPEG. It reduces bandwidth requirements by discarding parts of the signal that are virtually inaudible anyway, so the end result is fairly faithful to the original, uncompressed version, but many times smaller in file size. MP3s can be streamed, or downloaded and played by a wide variety of plug-ins and players, but not all are as seamless and transparent in operation as Flash.

Flash allows you embed an MP3 inside a .SWF file and can stream it without any special server arrangement. It doesn’t pop-up any annoying 'player' controls or require any intervention by the user whatsoever - other than that of having the Flash 4 or later plug-in installed, and that accounts for some 86% of surfers, according to Macromedia.

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