../ Rogue Amoeba "Pumps Up The Volume"
A pair of products introduced by Rogue Amoeba are revolutionizing Internet
audio streaming, making it possible for even the most cash-strapped DJs to run their own radio shows a la Christian Slater's character in the
cult classic "Pump Up The Volume"
By Kevin Greenstein
Televisions became prevalent nearly forty years before VCRs started making their way into homes. When the VCR finally arrived, it addressed a
very obvious need. Viewers could watch their favorite programs on their own time,
and were no longer held prisoner to the networks' schedules.
Twenty years later, TiVo took that time-shifting revolution even further,
adding very useful artificial intelligence and an exceptionally easy-to-use interface.
Internet audio streaming is still a relatively new concept, first introduced
less than ten years ago by Real Networks. There are thousands of
Internet radio broadcasts, and many musical artists post previews of their upcoming
album releases through website audio streams. With the advent
of broadband Internet connections, users can today experience high-quality audio streams, no longer suffering through AM radio-quality broadcasts
and near-constant re-buffering.
A natural extension of the VCR and TiVo, Audio Hijack enables computer
users to easily record these audio streams and listen to them on portable
audio devices and through their home stereos. First released in 2002 by Amoeba Software, Audio Hijack was initially intended to be used solely by
users sitting in front of their computers.
"The basic issue was that people wanted to be able to record Real Player -
live Internet streams - and play them later or play them on a portable
device or CD player," said Paul Kafasis, CEO of Rogue Amoeba Software.
"It was designed to free people from being stuck to an Internet connection to listen to streams."
Of course, one of the greatest advantages of the VCR and TiVo is that you don't need to be sitting in front of the television to operate them. In
fact, many users actually program their TiVos over the telephone.
Aside from their obvious Hacker Vibe, Rogue Amoeba has been in the
sight hairs of many anti-piracy groups who feel that the technology was
developed solely to steal audio streams. Many record labels and artists present their music in streaming only formats to thwart piracy. With
Audio Hijack, it's now very easy to grab these streams from the Internet ether and store them permanently on a hard drive. In presenting
why Audio Hijack is a perfectly legal product, Kafasis referenced a lawsuit filed against an early VCR manufacturer.
"Vivendi sued Sony for making the VCR, because they didn't want people to be able to save things and watch them later," he said. "If you can watch
it now, you can watch it later. Audio Hijack and Audio Hijack Pro have done essentially the same thing.
If something's on at 3am and you can't be there to listen, you can record it and listen at a preferred time."
Kafasis also took exception to the notion that Audio Hijack could be a tool for music theft.
"Audio Hijack does not really make it easier to steal
music," he said. "Storing it for future use has absolutely nothing to do with theft. We haven't faced anything directly, because in terms of a legal
standpoint, we're not accountable for use."
"Merely the fact that they're streaming via Real Player is a deterrent," he continued,
"but it's never said 'absolutely cannot be recorded.' If you're
sending out a stream like that, chances are it's not going to be close to the same quality as a CD or a high-res MP3. If you're doing some sort of
promotion, transmitting at a low bit rate will ensure that people will still be interested in buying the full album."
I tested Audio Hijack by using it to record Bob Schneider's latest record, "I'm Good Now," available on his website via a Flash audio stream. Even
with my high-speed Internet connection and high-quality JBL Soundstick speakers and subwoofer, it's quite clear that
the audio stream is far below CD-quality - on this point, Kafasis is 100% correct.
When Schneider's album is released, this will be an important reason to shell out the $18.
Another reason I discovered why Audio Hijack will not be used to pirate music has to do with tracking.
When you buy a CD, each song is conveniently
housed in its own audio track. With Audio Hijack, the only way to separate an entire streamed album into distinct audio tracks is by pressing the
"split" button during the space in between each song. While that is not a particularly labor-intensive process, it does require that the user sit
at the computer for the duration of the recording.
So, it's clear that Audio Hijack's most useful application - at this point - is to record
Internet radio programs that are broadcast at inconvenient times. However, the souped-up Audio
Hijack Pro has some other valuable uses. A built-in effects processor makes it
possible to do everything from modifying bass and treble levels to adding reverb.
Hundreds of thousands of copies of Audio Hijack have been downloaded since its release,
and some of the unexpected uses for the product have absolutely thrilled Kafasis. "The absolute coolest thing - a blind user used his computer to read him
the news. He used Audio Hijack Pro to adjust the voices so that they sound more pleasing to him. The computer reading the news sounded too computerized,
and Audio Hijack Pro made it sound better."
Needless to say, Audio Hijack has grown far beyond Kafasis' original vision. "At the time
(of Audio Hijack's release), we didn't realize just how large a market this would be.
It was just a plug-in for another product on Mac OS9, and we didn't realize that it would be able to grow into two full products, with
the technologies used in other products as well."
One such product is Nicecast, an application that lets
user create their very own radio station. "It lets you take any audio and
broadcast it out," Kafasis said. "It lets you save audio yourself from any application and then broadcast to the world. This way, artists can stream
their music library - tracks off an album or from a live show - to give a taste of their music style."
"It's also a great promotional tool," he continued, "and it can be used by people running talk shows and play-by-play for sporting events.
It can also pull
audio from iTunes or from popular DJ applications like DJ1800 and Megaseg, letting users easily create a stream so that the rest of the world can tune in."
Of course, this naturally led to questions about the legal issues involved with running
such an enterprise. A major source of income for musicians and
songwriters is when their music gets played on the radio. If everyone can suddenly begin sharing their iTunes libraries with the world,
will artists get the short end of the stick?
"When using Nicecast, you can record to a text file all the tracks that are played," Kafasis
countered. "The onus is on you to take care of those fees.
You can also use Nicecast with Live365, and they will pay the fees to BMI and ASCAP. Unless a service like Live365 is utilized, licensing fees for
popular streams need to be taken care of by the user."
Though the name of the company (Rogue Amoeba) and their most-popular software program (Audio Hijack) both invoke
visions of theft and rebellious behavior, it is clear that Rogue Amoeba has a strong vision for the future.
By making it possible for users to record Internet audio streams, Audio Hijack will
make those streams much more accessible and enjoyable. More importantly, as their technology evolves, a TiVo-style interface will make it possible for
users to take advantage of the vast array of excellent Internet programs.
Finally, by merging that technology with Nicecast, it will be possible for even the most cash-strapped
aspiring DJ to run his own radio show, a la Christian
Slater's character in the cult classic, "Pump Up The Volume." Whether competing with top-40 radio or launching niche-format stations to hype unknown artists,
Rogue Amoeba's Nicecast product makes running an Internet radio station incredibly easy.
The Future: Rogue Amoeba is a company that clearly has a firm grasp of the Internet audio
landscape. Their products, while still in need of improvement, are much desired by the online community and satisfy a distinctive niche. Whether they can continue to
push the audio envelope without licking a few legal stamps is the real question.
>>> Digihear? January 2005