May 1998

Why We're Here…
BACK TO THE WEB

CAN WE TALK…AGAIN?

McCauley

ILLUSTRATION: ADAM McCAULEY

BY PAUL D. LEHRMAN

Not too long ago I wrote in these pages about how I hated the World Wide Web, how it was all full of hucksterism and hype, scams and schemes, and what a shame it was that the Information Superhighway was being built more for the sake of the billboards than the travelers.

None of my feelings have changed, except that now I'm an active participant in all this, and you know something?

It's fun.

And it's led to some very valuable connections and some insights about the nature of communications and community.

The column I wrote last year talked about how I was going to set up a non-commercial Web site for the pro audio industry, courtesy of the university where I teach, called Signal2Noise. Well, I did that, and it has been a success on a lot of levels. Readership is steady, we get lots of contributions from all over the world (especially in the horror-story and joke departments), and we've been able to air some important issues that all of us in the audio industry have to deal with. Plus I've been able to link into CNN's video clip of Bill Gates getting a pie in the face, get two heavy-duty audio theorists arguing enthusiastically about the fine points of perception, and post an exhaustive first-hand account from inside the zoo that was CBS's coverage of the winter Olympics in Nagano, complete with menus of the American-style restaurants that have popped up there and visits to the bathhouses. I did this with a modicum of help from fellow faculty and a couple of students, on a budget of exactly zero.

And I have learned that there are plenty of people out there craving good information, and entertainment, about what we do. There are people who have stories to tell, some of which will leave you rolling on the floor laughing (or ROFL as we say in Net-speak), while others will have you wincing in pained recognition. They will make you envious of their gigs, or grateful that you've got your own. If the folks who have responded to Signal2Noise are any representative sample, then the people in this industry (whether they're acolytes, hotshot remixers, ashtray-emptiers, repair-bench jockeys or grizzled, burned-out veterans) are interesting, and are worth listening to and talking to.

Somehow, while I was finding all this out, the folks at Mix were getting the same idea and began looking at ways to enhance their own Web presence to create a "virtual community" around it. Mix Online has been up for a while, but the communication it generates has been pretty much one-way: People log on when they want to read an article or review, and then they go somewhere else. But it doesn't have to be that way. Mix, with its loyal, active readership and enormous depth of information, could be the center of an
interactive community of audio professionals, making its archives available to everyone, and drawing in new ideas and thoughts.

At a certain point, it became obvious that our goals were complementary. In order to make Signal2Noise more effective, I needed a broader base (in other words, more publicity--contrary to popular belief, on the Web you have to work to get people to know about things; word doesn't just "get around") and better economic support. Mix needed someone with the skills and desire that could make the same thing happen on their own turf. It was a logical decision for them to ask me to help them. So a couple of months ago I took over as editorial director of Mix Online. And that's where you're reading me right now.

Although we've changed the look of the site completely (with the brilliant assistance of Richard Elen, whom I've worked with on a score of projects--from ad campaigns to software development to record albums--over the past 20 years, and who has designed more Web sites for the pro audio industry than anyone else in the world), lots of what is on the new Mix Online will be familiar to visitors to the old site. We're posting selected articles from the print (we Netizens call it the "dead-tree") version, including Insider Audio, a few features, and most of the Field Test reviews. We're also making available the Studio News and Sessions columns. Because we're not dependent on a printer and the U.S. Postal Service to deliver our issues, however, we can update some sections, like Industry News, weekly, and when it comes to breaking stories (lawsuits, awards, companies changing hands, ongoing events like the Olympics, that sort of thing), we can publish them as fast as they can be written.

The articles we publish online can be enhanced by stuff that doesn't fit or is simply impossible to include in the print edition: the complete transcript of an interview, for example, or a large portfolio of pictures from a new facility, or downloadable or streaming audio files or QuickTime movies demonstrating a new technology or product.

We are also building a complete archive of Mix going back to when the magazine started being produced electronically, which is about 15 years ago. The archive will be organized chronologically, so it'll be easy to find an item if you know the issue date, but more importantly, there is a built-in search engine that will let you find any or all of the articles that deal with a particular topic or person instantaneously. The whole magazine goes into the archives: news items, session reports, new product announcements (whether or not the products actually ever shipped) and reviews. Constructing the archive, as you can imagine, is an enormous task, and it's not going to be done all at once. We'll be working backward, starting with the most recent years' issues.

Because we're not restricted the way a paper magazine is in terms of how much content we can print or deliver, we can do things on the Web site no dead-tree publication can do. Every month, there are more Letters to the Editor received at Mix's offices than can possibly be published on paper. On Mix Online, we can publish all of them, and have room for the editors and authors to respond and engage in an extended dialog if that seems to be the thing to do. This is what's going on in our Talkback section. We also have discussion groups that are not related to published articles, but just deal with subjects our readers want to talk about.

All of these discussions are moderated and contributed to by yours truly, both to keep them interesting, and so that participants don't have to worry about the things that make life unpleasant in many unmoderated Internet Usenet groups: the personal attacks, irrelevant asides, anonymous "hit-and-run" postings, blatant sales pitches or e-mail address "harvesting" by spammers. None of that will occur here. And if you don't want other readers to know who you are, that's cool (but you do have to tell us...that's for your own protection as well as ours).

If a discussion leads off into a different direction, we simply start a new group, and anyone who wants to follow it, can. We are using some very hip discussion-management software, which makes it easy for people to follow what's being said by whom about what.

Another feature we're in the process of constructing is Ask the Experts. Here you can ask questions about particular products and get real answers from people who know (or at least should). We can get inside the companies who make those products (or repair them) and find exactly the right person to ask, then publish their response so that you and everyone else can benefit from that contact. This feature will be updated constantly, and the questions and answers will be archived just like everything else, so if five years from now you need to find out how to change the idler wheel on a long-discontinued tape transport, that information will be right here.

Two of the most popular features of the Signal2Noise site have been the jokes and horror stories contributed by readers, and we've brought these over to mixonline.com. We're assembling on-line what we hope will be the most comprehensive database on the Internet of industry jokes--not only about the audio business (Q: How many record producers does it take to change a light bulb? A: I don't know, what do you think?) but music, television, and computers, too--as well as a large archive of humorous articles and parodies, such as the priceless Rane PI 14 Pseudoacoustic Infector, which can add "varying degrees of this or that" to any audio signal, assuming you can figure out how to turn it on.

Everyone in this business has stories about the session/client/singer/producer/venue from Hell, and we're collecting these. No names, please (except yours), but if you have a favorite story about the worst gig you've ever done, we want to know about it. Reading this section is guaranteed to make you feel better about whatever kind of horrible session you've just finished.

And there will be other resources: We're collecting and publishing Web links to manufacturers, industry organizations, schools and other sites of interest to the people who read Mix, as well as to the Spanish edition of Mix, our sister publication Electronic Musician, and to the many and varied magazines in our Intertec corporate family. Plus we're working on ways to make the Mix Master Directory and the Recording Industry Sourcebook available online, with search engines for these huge databases so that you can zero in on facilities, manufacturers, services, freelancers or whatever you're looking for in a flash.

The Web site, like the dead-tree version of Mix, is supported by advertising, with a small amount of real estate devoted to ads, which rotate periodically so you don't always see the same ones. A print ad can provide a reader service number that you blacken on a postcard and then wait for a written response from the advertiser, or an 800 number that you call and then wade through a labyrinthine voice-messaging system. On Mix Online, clicking on an ad takes you straight to the advertiser's Web site (assuming they have one). This means you can check out their message quickly and at your convenience, and when you're ready to come back to us, just click on your Back button.

We do ask for something in return for making all of this information available to you: We want to know who you are. Not so we can sell your name to junk mailers and telephone hucksters, but so we can tell who's visiting us on the site, and what part of the industry they represent. Let's be honest: The more we know about you, and what you do and what you need, the more we can tell our advertisers about our readership. This makes us more valuable to them, which in turn gives us more resources (i.e., money) to make the site more valuable to you.

So to use some of our resources, or to participate in our discussion groups, we're asking you to sign up as a member of Mix Online: fill out a simple form right on the site, and you'll get a password that will let you dive right into the archives, the forums and everything else. We can plant a "cookie" on your computer that will automatically remember your password so you don't have to; if you're philosophically opposed to cookies (even though this one has no other purpose at all), you can tell us not to plant one and you'll have to type in your password every time you visit. No salesman will call, no credit card number will be recorded, and there's no age requirement!

And we ask for something else: your feedback. You can e-mail me or the other editors (the addresses are on the site), or fill out the questionnaire you'll find there. Tell us what you like, and don't like, about Mix Online. What's terrific, what's boring, what's obnoxious, what's missing. How we can help you get access to and use the information you need as an audio professional. As with any publication, it's the readers who will make Mix Online successful, and because the feedback loop on a Web site is so fast, we can respond to your needs quickly and effectively.

For those of you who have become Signal2Noise fans, I'm going to keep that site going, as the loose, informal, free-for-all it's become. It's gotten to be too much fun to just let it go away. But the serious information, and the serious communication that our industry needs, can be found on www.mixonline.com. I urge you to explore us, bookmark us and come back again as we grow. I'm pretty excited, and you should be too.


Paul Lehrman's new e-mail address is mixonline@gis.net. Drop him a line.

Copyright 1998, 2001 Paul D. Lehrman. All rights reserved