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CYBURBIA

THE GOODS : System Breaks the Net's Sound Barrier

September 15, 1995|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The worst movie ever made, according to afficianados, is "Plan 9 From Outer Space," that begins with the immortal speech, "Greetings, my friends. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives."

The future has arrived. Now you can listen to the entire soundtrack of "Plan 9" over the Internet.

I call that progress, and not just because the movie is so bad that it's wonderfully entertaining. The true magic is not in the content, but how it is delivered. "Plan 9" is just one of the sound files you can now access via RealAudio, the most exciting development to hit the Net since the World Wide Web allowed easy access to graphics.

Sound has long been available over the Internet, but unless you were blessed with an ultra-fast, ultra-expensive connection, it wasn't of practical use. The problem is that sound is a far more dense medium than text.

For example, an online, text copy of the entire novel "Huckleberry Finn" takes up 564,000 bytes of memory. But just two minutes of sound--an excerpt of a Philip Glass piece that can be found at the Kronos Quartet site--takes up 1.2 million bytes.

Sound files are so huge that they cannot be sent quickly to the average home computer over the Internet. They need to be downloaded, and that takes time. As a test, I downloaded a 46-second sound clip of Elvis Costello recorded on stage at the 1995 Edmonton Folk Festival.

Even though I have a respectfully fast modem (19.2 baud rate), it took 4 minutes and 37 seconds, a ratio of just over 6 to 1.

When the sound arrived, it was of digital quality. But few sounds on the Internet are worth that kind of wait.

RealAudio, formally introduced in April, is a compression system developed by a Seattle company, Progressive Networks. The system strips away frequencies to the point that a sound can travel with hugely increased speed through the Internet.

Indeed, it moves so fast that you only have to wait a few seconds after clicking on a RealAudio icon before the sound starts playing. And it keeps on playing until the end of the clip, even if it's hours long.

That's what the industry calls real-time audio. Essentially, it's audio-on-demand.

The major drawback is that with all those frequencies gone, the sound quality is hardly what we've become used to in this compact disk era. It's muffled, mono and akin to what you hear when tuning in a distant AM station on a transistor radio. Music sounds particularly muddy over RealAudio, but for a newscast or interview, it's certainly acceptable until communication lines become equipped to handle heavier loads of information.

To hear these sound clips on your home computer, you need to first download the RealAudio player, which can be had for free in either the DOS/Windows or Macintosh version. It can be downloaded off the RealAudio home page at http://www.realaudio.com.

Return to that page and you can start clicking away at a wide range of sound clips, including several from National Public Radio, one of the first groups to jump on the RealAudio bandwagon, which can be accessed whenever the listener wants. And you can also get oft-updated recordings of radio newscasts from ABC.

But the really wacky stuff can be found under the heading, "Other RealAudio Sites." There you can find "Plan 9," as well as talk and music clips from around the country. From Pennsylvania comes music excepts from recordings distributed by Charnel Music, which has on its roster such bands as Crash Worship, Allegory Chapel Ltd. and the ever popular Torture Chorus. Internationally, there are a number of Japanese-language RealAudio clips, as well as aboriginal music from Australia.

Watch for RealAudio to be increasingly incorporated onto existing Internet sites. Museums can add audio tracts to enable an artist or curator to comment on an artwork viewed at the site. Storytellers and other audio artists can find a wider audience for their works.

RealAudio makes the Internet a more interesting place to spend at least part of the rest of our lives.

* Cyburbia's Internet address is Colker@news.latimes.com.

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