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Multimedia Authoring Software For The PC

Published February 1995

Panicos Georghiades explains how PC multimedia authoring programs can be used to put additional information on to a CD along with the music.

Multimedia is said to be the marriage of computers to all existing media. It encompasses anything from electronic books to interactive television and virtual reality, and has widespread applications in entertainment, business, education, and many other areas.

Multimedia can be delivered in a number of ways, including cable, but the prevailing distribution medium at present is the CD‑ROM. This is of great relevance to us musicians, as CDs are presently the most important means of issuing and circulating music recordings. Ten to 15 years ago, the dream of every aspiring musician was to have a single or LP produced on vinyl. Today, it's a CD, but in a few years from now I can safely bet that it will be a CD‑ROM. Why? Because this new delivery medium opens the way to a complete package of videos, still photographs, and other graphically depicted background material relevant to the music and performers.

There are many different standards for CDs, one of them being the audio CD [see 'CD Formats' sidebar]. The one that is of most interest to us here is the mixed mode CD, which is covered by the Yellow Book standard. This is similar to an ordinary audio CD and you can play all but the first track on a CD player. Track one is exclusively used to store the computer data: programs, text, still images, digital video clips, MIDI files, and so on. It is also possible to include digital audio in any resolution or sampling rate required — as opposed to the audio on the main body of the CD, which has to be at 44.1kHz, 16‑bit.

So what use is track one then if you can't play it on a CD player? Well, unlike an audio CD player (which cannot play this track), a computer fitted with a CD‑ROM drive can, and can also play the standard audio tracks that follow.

This facility introduces many wonderful possibilities, the obvious one being that of having the CD cover, booklet information, and more, stored on the CD itself. Possibilities include viewing pictures and reading text whilst listening to the audio tracks, having a preview of the video or movie clips associated with the music, having information and even samples of other CDs, and so on. Another possible application is that of score publishing — something not attempted as yet. It is now feasible to release your music on CD‑ROM and include a high resolution printable score, MIDI files of the music, as well as the recorded audio performance — all in one product.

What has been attempted, and with considerable success, are music listening guides. There are a number of titles already in existence — you can now buy Beethoven's 9th Symphony and other works, with a listening guide and other notes embedded on the CD itself. These guides typically describe each part of the music, the instruments playing, the various melodies, a biography of the composer, and so on. Each piece of information is at your command if you want it, when you want it, and in the form you want it — MIDI, CD‑audio, or even sections of the score — it is an entirely new and different experience.


So how can you produce such a CD‑ROM for your own music? Although fancy animations and special effects may be the ploughing fields of expert programmers, they are not entirely out of your reach. If you can handle editing synthesizer sounds and playing around with MIDI System Exclusive data, then 'authoring' a CD‑ROM should not be that difficult.

The software reviewed here will all run on a PC under Windows 3.1. You will need a powerful multimedia PC. My recommended minimum requirements are a 486 33MHz with 8Mb of RAM, and a 16‑bit sound card, but always use the most powerful machine you can get your hands on. A 486 with 16Mb RAM would be adequate for most applications. In addition, you need a large hard disk with some backup device — tape or magneto‑optical disk. The size of the hard disk will depend on whether you intend to master the complete CD‑ROM (audio and computer data) yourself, or whether you will only master the computer data and deliver the audio data on DAT. A CD‑ROM can hold about 740Mb of data. CD‑audio data takes 10.5Mb per minute, so you have to decide the division of data between audio and computer data — you do not have to fill up the whole disk.

If you choose to master the CD‑ROM yourself, you will need to be able to store at least twice the amount of data (including music), that will go on the finished product — a minimum of 1.5 Gigabytes. If you just author the CD‑ROM and deliver the music side of it on DAT, you only need a hard disk big enough to hold your computer data, but not the music. Remember: in addition, you will certainly require space for other computer programs and extra data that you may not even use in the end, as well as adequate working disk space. You are probably looking at between 2 and 3 Gigabytes of storage space — a 2Gb PC hard disk today costs about £800.

This article is concerned with the software side of the authoring process. The investment on hardware depends on how far you want to take it or can afford to go with the authoring process yourself, or whether you prefer to pay for external services. One choice would be to concentrate on recording the music and employ a multimedia company [Co‑Activ in Leeds can be recommended — Ed; call 0532 467667] to program and master the CD‑ROM. Another choice might be to produce the music as well as author the CD‑ROM yourself, then send the whole thing away to be mastered and pressed. One‑off test copies are really a must, because unlike audio CDs, CD‑ROMs require more testing, so you may need to do this a few times. If you wish to 'burn' these discs yourself, you will need a CD writer drive that costs at least £2,000. Or you could have them done for about £100 a time.

Authoring Software

Multimedia authoring software enables you to put together what is essentially a computer program that handles sounds (digital audio, MIDI, CD‑audio), images (stills or moving pictures), text, and other media objects into either an interactive electronic book or a passive TV‑like presentation.

Some multimedia authoring programs also possess tools that enable you to edit and prepare the different individual media objects that make up your application. For example, there may be painting and drawing facilities enabling you to prepare backgrounds and animations; there may be digital video editing facilities allowing you to record and prepare video clips, and so on... Alternatively, some authoring software makes the assumption that you already have other programs to prepare the various media clips, and all they do is just put them together on the screen.

There are also differences in the way the various authoring programs work. Some work like computer paint programs: you select and place specific tools on the screen from a multimedia palette. For example, there may be a tool called 'CD‑audio', which can be placed on the screen as a button with definable properties, such as the number of the track to be played together with the start and finish time within that track. When the user clicks this button, the computer plays that particular defined section of the track.

In contrast, some authoring software includes complete programming languages, enabling you to set up complex functions that do things beyond the simple display of multimedia objects on the screen. You may wish to develop an application that teaches someone how to play a keyboard, for instance. In this case you would probably display the picture of a score, have the computer play it, and then ask the 'pupil' to play it too. You would therefore need to be able to record (using MIDI) what the pupil has played and compare it with what it should have sounded like, in order to give some feedback about whether it was right or wrong and how it can be corrected. This is all possible, since Windows has built‑in commands to enable you to record MIDI, but most PC multimedia authoring programs don't have a simple function enabling you to compare and correct mistakes, so you would need to program this facility yourself.

However, a great deal of impressive work can be achieved simply by selecting options from menus and tool bars offered by the various programs, without resorting to programming. For example, building the kind of CD‑ROM where there is a menu which includes the titles of each track, the biography of the artists and some background information on tracks, is really dead simple. By using stills, text and CD‑audio, it could take less than a day's work to put together. If you want to create complex animations and multiple windows showing different video clips, or give the user the ability to carry out their own mix of the music, then these are all complex functions and could require months of work.

Multimedia authoring programs start at less than £100, and go up to about £5,000. In this article I will look at those costing up to £1,000. Incidentally, all the programs reviewed here do not require you to pay any distribution fees — some other programs do.

Illuminatus 2.0

This is the only program under review that is manufactured in the UK, and version 2 has only just been released. It is affordable, easy to use, and requires absolutely no programming at all. At its simplest, you can use the 300 supplied templates (ready‑made screens). Each template encompasses a layout of buttons and frames and can be given a background image, or a wallpaper design. Text, images, animations, and video can all be placed into the frames, whilst commands can be attached to the buttons to add interactivity. When the user clicks on a button it triggers sound (digital audio or MIDI), animation, video and so forth. Illuminatus 2.0 supports many common file formats: BMP, WMF, PCX, GIF, IMG, TIF, TGA, CGM, JPEG, WPG for graphics; MID and RML for music; WAV for digital audio; FLI and FLC for animation, and AVI for video.

Each frame and button on the screen is an object, and through these you define the names of the MIDI files and sounds you want played, their start times and more. Clicking on each object with the mouse allows you to define its properties by selecting options from the dialogue boxes that pop up.

Unfortunately, Illuminatus does not have a built‑in function to trigger CD‑audio tracks. There is an optional utility which does, but it costs another £19. However, you could achieve the same result by triggering the Windows Media Player instead, as Illuminatus enables you to run other Windows programs from within your application. You could, for example, run your favourite Windows‑based music sequencer from a program that you develop — you can't, however, distribute it on a CD‑ROM without permission from its authors.

Illuminatus is well suited for the production of newsletters, disk‑based catalogues, on‑line books and such‑like. It is also ideal for preparing rolling demonstrations for use in exhibitions and shop windows. Thoughtfully, there is also a timer for keeping track of how long you've been working on a project!

When you have completed your application, Illuminatus turns it into a fully independent program that does not require a run‑time player. This can then be run on its own from an icon in Windows, just like any other standard program. There is also a facility for creating a distributable copy of your application on CD‑ROM or floppy disks. If you are going to distribute on floppy disk, Illuminatus compresses the files into suitable chunks to fit the floppy disk size you are using.

The program comes with four small booklet manuals that guide you through the process of compiling an application. It also includes many useful tips about the best ways of using colour, sound, and so on. It does not try to compete with the top‑of‑the‑range multimedia authoring packages in terms of features. The resulting simplicity and ease of use are its best selling points. Overall, Illuminatus is very good value for money considering what it offers.

Illuminatus 2.0£116.33 inc VAT.

Super Show And Tell 1.1

This is another budget program which is also easy to use and does not require any programming. You can even buy a trial pack for £9.95. It is geared towards presentations, and this is probably why it uses the slides metaphor. Each screen is a slide, and each slide can hold several different types of media objects or slide elements. A variety of attributes and actions can be assigned to each element. An attribute is used to define specific qualities for the element — for example, which font is used to display a line of text or the name of a sound file. An action on the other hand, is something that happens to an element once the slide 'plays'. For example, a graphic object can move, text can scroll, a sound can be played, and so on. Several slides can then be put together to form a carousel, which may be a complete presentation, although there is the possibility of using a number of different carousels to make up presentations.

To build an application you simply construct a number of slides and put them together. Constructing a slide involves giving it a background colour, image or sound, and then adding media elements and actions to it. It is all pretty simple stuff and this is further aided by the screen layout. At the bottom of the screen you have thumbnails of five slides (the current one being worked on, together with the two before and the two after), while a quarter‑screen window shows a working preview of the finished application. Repositioning slides is easy — you just drag and drop them — and playback does not need to be sequential.

Each slide has an Action Playlist, which enables you to synchronise different media. For example, you can set a certain piece of text to scroll onto the screen while a specific section of music is playing, then freeze the screen for a definable time, and finally scroll out while another musical phrase is being played. The minimum time unit is one millisecond (1/40 of an EBU frame), and yes it is possible to synchronise your digital audio to a MIDI file.

The program handles WAV and MIDI audio, BMP, DIB, GIF, TIFF, PCX, and TGA graphics formats, FLC and FLI animation formats, and AVI digital video. Unfortunately it cannot handle CD‑audio (ie. play CD tracks), so you cannot use this to create mixed mode CD applications (as discussed earlier) — but you can use digital audio and MIDI together, and the program is good for creating demos. Its strong points are media synchronisation, the facility to animate text, and its keen price.

Super Show and Tell £92.83 inc VAT.

Microsoft Multimedia Viewer 2

Compared to the other products reviewed here, this program is the least friendly to use. However, it is relatively cheap and has been used to produce many well‑known commercial titles available in your local shops: Microsoft Encarta, Cinemania, and many others. So next time you find yourself in a big computer store, have a look at what it can do.

The program works in conjunction with Microsoft's Word for Windows word processor; you cannot use Multimedia Viewer on its own. All the authoring and editing is done in Word for Windows. Unlike other authoring programs, there's no paint facility for placing multimedia objects on the screen; instead, you insert special commands within the text, at the required positions where you want multimedia objects to appear.

Once you have written your application in Word for Windows you then save it as a RTF (Rich Text Format) file. This is then read into Multimedia Viewer and compiled to become your multimedia application.

Multimedia Viewer is sold as an authoring toolkit — in other words, it is a collection of programs. Apart from the Compiler you also get a Hotspot Editor — a program for creating hot spots on images (areas that you can click on for something to happen); there's also WaveEdit, a basic digital audio recorder /editor; BitEdit which is a paint program; PalEdit, a program for editing colour palettes to use with images, basically to change the colour content of images; and Convert, a conversion program to convert files from different formats to those that Viewer can read.

Putting aside the program's unfriendly user interface, this is quite a powerful program if you are prepared to become familiar with the syntax of Windows MCI (Media Control Interface) commands. These are used to access multimedia devices. Finally, there are the usual facilities for assembling applications in a form ready for distribution. You also need to distribute a run‑time version of the program with your finished application.

The product is marketed as a tool for producing electronic multimedia documents. The key word being 'documents', because it handles this type of application very well. There's full hypertext support (moving from a hot word to a related topic), as well as a full text search facility. Multimedia Viewer is very good for producing reference applications and many of Microsoft's own CD‑ROM titles are very good examples of what this program offers.

Despite the unfriendly user interface, Multimedia Viewer cannot be ignored: it bears the Microsoft badge, the price is good, and the power is there. If you are interested in multimedia, you will just have to invest time in learning how to use it

Microsoft Multimedia Viewer 2.0 £235 inc VAT.

Available in most computer shops; you cannot buy direct from Microsoft.

Asymetrix Multimedia Toolbook 3

ToolBook is probably the best‑known multimedia authoring program for the Windows environment, because demonstration disks of the first version were bundled with Windows 3.0 back in 1990. Consequently, it is a bestseller with more than 100,000 units being sold. Multimedia Beethoven, probably the first musical multimedia CD‑ROM title ever to be released, was written using an early version of ToolBook.

I looked at the latest version, which is now six months old, and a lot has been added. There are many new functions and improvements in performance and speed.

ToolBook uses a book metaphor. Your application is an electronic book with each page containing multimedia objects — text, video, sound and others, and each object having properties — colour, size, position, etc. An object may also have instructions attached, so that something happens when a user clicks on it with the mouse, such as triggering a sound or jumping to another page. You can place objects on a page by selecting them from a palette, as you would normally do in a paint program, and you can assign properties through a pop‑up dialogue box.

Multimedia objects supported include video (AVI, Director movies, JPEG, QuickTime movies, audio (WAV and MIDI) and images (BMP, DIB, WMF, GIF, PICT and Kodak Photo‑CD). You can also incorporate Asymetrix MediaBlitz files [see SOS August 1994 review].

Using ToolBook, path‑based animation can be created fairly easily with the new animation tool and audio can be synchronised with this, to provide special effects. A volume and sound mixer now integrates sound from a range of sources. There's also an easy to use Digital Video Producer utility for editing video (along the lines of Adobe Premiere), where you can work with audio and video clips simultaneously and easily synchronise the two. In addition, there's full support for Video for Windows, including run‑time software.

Further sophistication can be programmed into your ToolBook applications using OpenScript, the built‑in programming language whose syntax attempts to resemble ordinary English, rather than a computer language. OpenScript is very comprehensive and does not fall far short of a fully developed programming language. To get you started, Multimedia Toolbook includes a good library of pre‑written custom scripts, so you won't have to program from scratch if you wish to perform basic activities, such as jumping to pages and playing sound files. In addition, there are 15 fully functional example applications, to aid learning, as well as a new step‑by‑step interactive tutorial.

The program lets you create multi‑window applications and there's support for 16‑bit and 24‑bit colour graphics, for displaying photo‑realistic images, with automatic dithering when applications run on machines with lower colour‑ depth displays. You can import text from word processors (in RTF format) and retain formatting, as well as in‑line graphics, colour hot words, multi‑colour text, superscripts and subscripts.

When your application is complete, a Media Packager utility assembles all the relevant files, compresses them, and packages it ready for distribution on CD‑ ROM or floppies.

Other goodies worth at least a brief mention are: full text search, a British spellchecker, OLE 1.0, and support for embedding your own TrueType fonts within applications.

In summary, none of the cheaper authoring packages offer as much as Multimedia ToolBook and some of the more expensive packages lack a number of its features. It is very clearly the best value for money at the moment.

Multimedia ToolBook 3.0 £938.83 inc VAT.

Director 4.0 For Windows

Director is the industry‑standard multimedia development tool for the Macintosh, but this is the first version available for the PC — only recently released. Macromedia, the program's developers, are well‑known for their top‑of‑the‑range multimedia and graphics products, being the producers of Authorware Professional and Action!.

Because it was originally a Macintosh program, Director offers the possibility of cross‑platform development for Macs and PCs. A new binary compatible file format allows production for both machines, and enables the same Director application to be played on either computer without conversion. This is clearly one of the product's best selling points.

With Director, each multimedia application you create is called a movie and each movie consists of frames. In this context frames mean distinct actions, rather than equal divisions in time as is the case in real movies. Unlike Multimedia ToolBook, which uses the book metaphor with each screen in your application emulating a 'page', in Director you move from one frame to another.

To create a movie you only need to use five of Director's 11 windows. In the Paint window you design background screens and animation objects; in Cast you store the various movie elements (called cast members); in the Score window you keep track of the position of each cast member within each frame, control tempos and the timings of sounds, transitions and colour palette changes; while the Stage window is where you display the finished movie. A Control Panel, with VCR‑type button controls, lets you control the movie playback.

Cast members cover every element in a movie and include sound effects, music, graphics, text, colour palettes, and digital video clips. Even buttons and Lingo (Director's programming language), scripts (commands that make buttons work) are also considered as cast members. Most of the work involved in setting up an application is done simply by dragging and dropping a cast member into a score.

The Score window is a grid of cells, each one containing information about a particular cast member at a particular moment in the movie. A column of cells represents a frame (ie. a single moment in the movie), while each row represents a channel (analogous to a sequencer track). There are five effects channels — tempo, colour palettes, transitions, and two for sound — plus a Lingo script channel and 48 channels for all the other objects your application will contain.

Macromedia Director is exceptionally good for creating applications that contain animations. To animate an object on the screen, all you need do is select it with the mouse and drag where you like. The program records the moves, either in real time or step time. Furthermore, the program's In‑between function will interpolate and create intermediate animation frames automatically.

Digital audio is handled extremely well, better than in any other PC authoring program. You can have two independent stereo sound channels playing at the same time (four tracks) if you have hardware that supports this function (two PC sound cards, for example). It also enables you to fade sounds in and out and change their volume levels. Unfortunately, there's no direct way of incorporating CD‑audio or MIDI (you have to use Windows MCI (Media Control Interface) commands.

Special effects are another area where Director excels: transitions, colour cycling, colour gradients — all are automated and chosen from dialogue boxes, so they're easy to apply.

Finally, you create a Projector — a distributable play‑only version of your application in the form of an .exe file.

With Multimedia ToolBook, this is one of the top two authoring packages for Windows under £1,000 or so. It is hard to say that one is better than the other, since they both provide a wealth of features and have both proven themselves in the market place. Some functions are covered better in one package than in the other; Director is better and easier to use for animation, while ToolBook has the edge on handling user input. The choice of which to buy will depend on the type of multimedia applications you are developing.

Director 4.0 for Windows £1173.83 inc VAT.

CD Formats

  • CD‑DA (Red Book)
    The original digital audio CD.
  • CD‑ROM (Yellow Book)
    Adds to the Red Book standard the ability to be read by a computer. It has two modes. Mode 1 describes a way of storing computer data, and Mode 2 describes a way of storing graphics and audio data. Unfortunately, you cannot access both modes at the same time.
  • High Sierra
    Specifies a common filing format for storing Mac, PC and Unix files on the same CD.
  • ISO 9660
    An improved High Sierra format.
    XA stands for eXtended Architecture. Based on ISO 9660, this is an improved Yellow Book standard that redefines Mode 2 and enables you to access audio and computer data simultaneously.
  • CD‑i (Green Book)
    A format related to CD‑ROM XA, for use with the Philips CD‑i player.
  • CD‑Bridge
    A combined CD‑ROM XA and CD‑i format.
  • Kodak Photo CD
    Describes how Kodak stores photographs on a CD that can be read by a PC, Mac or CD‑i player.
  • Video CD (White Book)
    Developed by Philips, Sony, Matsushita, and JVC, it describes how to put 74 minutes of MPEG‑1 digital video on a CD.