Josh Work Professional Organizations Trip Reports Conference Report: 2000 USENIX Closing Session: New Horizons for Music on the Internet

by Thomas Dolby Robertson

Tom Dolby is a musician (you'll probably remember him from "She Blinded Me with Science!") who's been working on integrating computers into music for at least 20 years. One historical tidbit: The drums in "...Science!" were actually generated by a discoteque's light control board.

Tom is one of the founders of Beatnik (, a tool suite or platform to transfer descriptions of the music, not the music itself, over the Internet. For example, the description would define which voice and attributes to use, and the local client side would be able to translate that into music or effects. This effectively allows a web page to be scored for sound as well as for sight.

For example, several companies have theme music for their logos that you may have heard on TV or radio ads. These companies can now, when you visit their web site, play the jingle theme without needing to download hundreds of kilobytes but merely tens of bytes. Similarly, a web designer can now add sound effects to her site, such that scrolling over a button not only lights the button but plays a sound effect. Another use for the technology is to mix your own music with your favorite artists, turning on and off tracks (such as drums, guitars, vocals, and so on) as you see fit, allowing for personalized albums at a fraction of the disk space. (In the example provided during the talk, a 20K text file would replace a 5M MP3 file.) In addition to the "way cool" and "marketing" approaches, there's an additional educational component to Beatnik. For example, you can set up musical regions on a page and allow the user to experiment with mixing different instruments to generate different types of sounds.

The technical information: Beatnik combines the best of the MIDI format's efficiency and the WAV format's fidelity. Using "a proprietary key thingy" for encryption, Beatnik is interactive and cross-platform, providing an easy way to author music. And because the client is free, anyone can play the results. The audio engine is a 64-voice general MIDI synthesizer and mixer, with downloadable samples, audio file streaming, and a 64:2 channel digital mixer. It uses less than 0.5% of a CPU per voice and there are 75 callable Java methods at run time. It supports all the common formats (midi, mp3, wav, aiff, au, and snd were what I got written down), as well as a proprietary rich music format (rmf), which is both compressed and encrypted witht he copyright. RMF files can be created with the Beatnik Editor (version 2 is free while in beta but may be for-pay software in production). The editor allows for access to a sound bank, sequencer, envelope settings, filters, oscillations, reverbs, batch conversions (for example, entire libraries), converting loops and samples to MP3, and encryption of your sound. And there is an archive of licensable music so you can pay the royalties and get the license burned into your sample.

Web authoring is easy with the EZ Sonifier tool which generates JavaScript, middling with tools like NetObjects' Fusion, Adobe GoLive, and Macromedia Dreamweaver, and hard if you write it yourself, though there is a JavaScript authoring API available for the music object.

Beatnik is partnered with Skywalker Sound, the sound effects division of Lucasfilms Ltd. Additional information can be obtained from

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Last update Oct08/06 by Josh Simon (<>).