With the proliferation of cheap or free MPEG Layer-3 (MP3) encoder/decoder programs on the Internet, it seems you’d need a pretty good reason to spend $369 for such a package. But for a variety of professional applications, Telos System’s Audioactive MP3 Production Studio makes sense. In the context of an overall investment in digital audio, this is a minor expense for the ability to take full advantage of digital distribution over the Internet. Even the most modest project studio will find the Lite version ($59) irresistible.
Product PointsApplications: Audio processing; file transfers on the Internet; recording studio; project studio
Key Features: Uses standard-setting Fraunhofer Institute codec; outputs 16 different compression ratios; also comes in Lite version
Contact: Telos Systems at 216-241-7225.
+ Standard-setting codec
+ Ability to compare compression ratios/preview files
+ Easy upgrade path
The Score: Extremely flexible professional MP3 software certainly sets the standard for this new technology.
Audioactive Studio is a Windows-based package (it will run on a Power Mac under Connectix Virtual PC 2.0) for compressing standard linear WAV files. This is a complete solution for most any application from working with voiceovers to music.
Utilities for calculating finished file size and for previewing the end product are elegant features that streamline the producer’s task. Despite the advanced capabilities, its simple, commonsense operation is self-explanatory. If you prefer to go by-the-book, the 30-page manual is encyclopedic. Either way, it’s an excellent combination of power and ease-of-use.
MP3 is a standard for playing audio files, not encoding them. MP3 files can be created by different encoding schemes. What sets the Audioactive Studio apart is its use of the Fraunhofer Institute codec and the flexibility to use it with a wide variety of stream bit-rate and sampling options.
If you haven’t spent much time with online audio, the stream bit-rate will be something new. Basically, it defines whether your online connection is fast enough to listen in real time. For example, a 56k analog modem can realistically handle around 40-48 kb/s. Online audio producers need to keep bandwidth issues in mind to properly serve real-time listeners. The highest quality files will typically be downloaded before playing.
The Fraunhofer Institute’s audio research laboratory helped developed the MP3 standard – its codec claims purebred status. MP3 achieves data reduction from perceptual coding. The aspects of the audio signal that are least perceptible or imperceptible to human hearing are left out. According to Telos, using the Fraunhofer Institute codec promises the best sound over the widest possible range of source material.
Developing a codec is as much an art as a science, so there is an inevitable subjective factor. An A/B comparison with the Xing Technologies codec that comes bundled with the Rio portable player left no doubt about the Fraunhofer Institute’s codec’s superiority. The Audioactive program produced a more accurate rendition – even at lower bit rates. Again, tastes vary, so you may want to download the Audioactive shareware version (a 30-day free trial of the Lite package) and experiment with different source material.
Aside from the quality of Audioactive’s codec, the program is in a different league from others available. It outputs in some 16 different compression ratios, mono or stereo, and converts sampling rates as necessary. Going from a 256 kbps audio stream (56:1 compression) down to 8 kbps (199:1) produces an output that ranges from near CD to nearly garbled. In between, there’s plenty of room to negotiate compromise between sound quality and data transfer time to suit most any purpose.
The program’s operation is straightforward. First, choose files for conversion. Once they’re selected, you can encode at the default setting (128 kbps at 44.1 kHz), preview what it will sound like or choose different encoding properties/rates.
Decision-making between different encoding choices is aided by an embedded utility that instantly calculates the file’s compressed size and indicates the compression ratio. Previewing takes a bit longer since it actually processes some of the selected file. The default setting is for the track’s opening 5 seconds. That can be increased or decreased, and other portions of the cut can be selected for preview. From there it’s just a click away from hearing the same clip uncompressed for comparison. For users into tweaking sound, these tools can save a lot of time.
Once settled on the correct compression, the encoding process can be set to optimize sound quality or processing speed. The length of time to convert files depends on the stream bit-rate, resolution, and system processing power. The lower thecompression, the longer it takes. Using a middle-of-the-road Pentium II 333 with 256 MB of RAM, the high sound-quality setting was crunching the file in nearly real time at a 56:1 compression.
Opting for faster processing and higher compression sped things up considerably – six to eight times faster than real time. If this (or any other) software encoding is really too slow for your real-time demands, the Audioactive program is also the control interface for Telos’ DSP-driven MP3 hardware encoder.
The Telos System’s Audioactive MP3 Pro Production Studio is terrific. The only real issue is whether or not the Lite version will suffice for your needs. It uses the same codec, but with far fewer choices for high-quality compression ratios. If you want to offer multiple versions (say, a low-quality sample as a freebie and a high resolution for sale), the Pro version is key.
The more fundamental issue is whether you should invest in this while the technology is so new. Will it soon be outdated? Though the Fraunhofer Institute codec (and MP3 as a whole) is the current state-of-the-art, the Audioactive interface is designed to be upgraded when superior compression technology becomes available. Also, plans call for incorporating whatever copyright protection schemes become standard. Telos’ aim is for Audioactive to be the interface-of-choice for processing pro audio for digital distribution. For now, it certainly sets the standard.