By: Michael Bednarek
Modern web sites are now progressing beyond the static documents from which they were descended and into the territory of the multimedia application. Full user interactivity, bright graphics and animation are commonplace - but the essential ingredient, sound, has so far been a problem. The Internet's transfer speeds are such that even the simplest sound effect or music can take ages to download.
Until now the best solution has been streaming media such as RealAudio. This produced on-the-spot sound at the expense of quality - but it also requires that users have the player application or download a browser plug-in. Now Insigma Technologies claims to have come up with a solution. Their product is called Hyperceive and it is billed as "the fourth dimension in Web design".
Hyperceive is an audio sequencer which has been specifically designed with Web music creation in mind. It works by placing audio (AU) files in a particular arrangement to form a soundtrack. The audio files are small in size and can be anything from sound effects, single notes, riffs, melodies, speech etc.
At the client end, Hyperceive uses Java to give the user a smooth musical experience. The Java player is downloaded, followed by the sequence file, which then starts downloading the first AU file in the soundtrack. When this is done, the soundtrack starts playing and the other files are downloaded in the background. Thanks to the intricacies of the program, there is a continuous sound while this is happening.
Upon meeting this technology for the first time, you'll probably be surprised. No more cheesy tunes which sound like they've come straight from the internal PC speaker, and no more waiting minutes for a short WAV soundtrack. Take a look at this example which I created using the Hyperceive tutorial (NB: one of our Linux users had problems hearing the music).
It's quite possibly the only useful application of Java I've seen so far on the Web, and the advantage is that the sole requirement is a Java-capable browser - even many of the old browsers fit this profile.
I've established that the technology itself is a good thing - but what about the program itself? Hyperceive is straightforward to install, as is the norm with Windows 95 programs these days, and comes with fairly complete documentation. The manual introduces you to the program's concept and technology and also covers all the advanced features of the sequencer. At the end there is a tutorial for you to try out, which is a necessary part of almost every manual. It is easy enough to follow, but could have benefited from explaining more clearly a few of the more complex concepts of the program.
When you first load the program, you are greeted with a splash screen, a sound effect, and a distinctly Java-looking interface. This is not in itself a bad thing, but if you are used to Windows applications you may find that some of your regular Windows 95 shortcut keys and mannerisms won't work in Hyperceive. One thing that I particularly missed in this department was the copy and paste function - if you want a long line of identical beats then you have to set up each bar individually, rather than simply copying the bar and pasting it over as many others as you require.
Above: Hyperceive has a standard sequencer-like interface
A Hyperceive "song" consists of a number of "tracks", which play on a timeline which is split into "beats". A track is a particular audio (AU) file, which is played at specific beats on the timeline. The length of each beat automatically defaults to the length of the first track, but this can be changed manually by creating what is known as a "beat length event".
Hyperceive only accepts 8-bit AU files as tracks. This means if you have all your sound files stored as WAVs you will need to convert them into the appropriate file format. You may also want to perform some editing on your files in order to make them work better with Hyperceive. Thoughtfully, Insigma has included the shareware version of Cool Edit, a popular audio-editing program, on the Hyperceive CD, though being the shareware version many of the features are disabled.
Hyperceive's designers have put a fair amount of thought into how they can make things better for both the music designer and the listener. They've taken into account the effect of the Web's slow download speeds and included a number of useful features not found in other sequencers. For example, you can insert what are known as Loopback points at various beats in your sequence. If, during playback, the next AU file in the sequence has not loaded completely, the player will head back to the last loopback point and continue in this way until the file has loaded. This helps with a continuous flow of sound.
Similarly, you can make your sequence jump from place to place - this will save you from having to insert the same beats over and over again, and also makes sure that the music plays smoothly while the user is on that page. Certain tracks, such as voice tracks, may sound silly if repeated many times, and so you can set a particular beat in a track to play only once.
On normal sequencers, there is usually a Mute option to silence a particular track when testing your song. In Hyperceive, this is known as the Set Unloaded option, and it treats the appropriate track (AU file) as if it shouldn't be loaded by the browser.
Hyperceive plays your songs back at "normal" pace, but it's also possible to hear what they would sound like on the web, thanks to the Modem Simulation feature which acts as if you were actually downloading each AU file from the Internet. It can be set to all the common modem and ISDN speeds, or indeed to the speed of your choice.
Above: The Modem Simulation can be set to any download speed you choose.
When you're happy with your song, it's time to add it to the appropriate web page. Hyperceive again makes it nice and easy for you with its Publish option. You choose the directory you would like to save the song in, and the Hyperceive file, audio files, Java applet files plus an example HTML file are all created or copied automatically. From there you can simply cut and paste the HTML code (it tells you which part using comments) into the web page of your choice. The manual even contains details of how to paste it into a frameset to ensure music wherever the user is on your site.
There are a few niggles in Hyperceive which just stop it short of being a great program. One glaring omission which I noticed almost immediately is the complete lack of an online help system. The Help menu simply provides an About.. option, meaning that whenever you want to find something out you have to look it up in the manual. Some sort of integrated HTML-based help system, as seen in Macromedia products, would be very welcome.
Another feature which could be improved is the handling of beats and beat lengths. As I mentioned, you can add beat length events at points in your song to alter the length, in milliseconds, of each beat. This allows you to place song files closer together and therefore up the tempo. Unfortunately, audio files are generally all of different duration, and with the current system I had great difficulty in getting all my files synchronised as I wanted them to be. In many cases I was reduced to working out the necessary beat lengths with a calculator, and even then the song didn't sound smooth. I'm not sure if this is due to unnecessary complexity or simply my dubious musical ability, but in any case I'm sure there must be an easier way of doing things.
Finally, although it is an ingenious technology, Hyperceive still involves the download of audio files from the web, and this can still take time, especially with some of the more complicated or fancy sound effects. As a result, the songs may appear to be repetitive on slower modem speeds. This is not Hyperceive's really fault, as it is due to the Internet's sluggishness, and to their credit they have done everything they can to remedy the situation.
Hyperceive is truly impressive, and if you'd like to see cutting edge musical technology on your site then this could be the program for you. It is perhaps a little too complicated for the musical beginner, so it helps if you have some previous experience with sequencers and the like. There are also a few other features which could be improved, but they don't detract from the usefulness of the program too much. If Insigma can fix those niggles with the next version, it should definitely be on to a winner.
|A useful and innovative program which perhaps suffers from a few teething problems.|