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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Audio Players, Music, Thoughts on Standards

Like many other blinks, I enjoy listening to a lot of different audio content.  I haven’t learned to use more advanced audio editing tools but will soon need to so I can expand my capabilities for creating different audio scenarios for experimental purposes.  Thus, I use the more pedestrian audio and media players like Real, Windows Media and WinAmp but have never done more than play around with Sonar, Gigastudio, SoundForge and other such tools.

I use a Linksys Wireless G Music Bridge to play audio content from my PC through my Bose stereo.  The Linksys hardware works pretty nicely for a blink in that it has no user interface, aside from three LEDs that tell one if the device has power and if it can find a signal through either Ethernet or WiFi.  All of the rest happens on the PC through miserably inaccessible software.  One definitely needs sighted assistance to run the installation program as both JAWS, using the JAWS Cursor, and Window-Eyes, using its mouse cursor, cannot “see” some of the information presented to you.  Then, the little application one needs to turn the thing on and off, to revert to the PC speaker for sounds and to adjust settings and such has similar accessibility problems.  With the help of my sighted wife, I wrote some very primitive scripts for the application that work pretty well but would cause problems for people who use a magnifier as I move the JAWS cursor around (which might look like an earthquake has started if viewed with MAGic or ZoomText) and the points to which I move do not seem to work on different computers.  So, if you write to me, I’ll send you my scripts but you must keep in mind that you may have to ask a sightie to place the cursor on the different spots that need to be clicked, ask JAWS to tell you the x,y coordinates, open the script manager, replace those that work on my computer with the values that work on yours, recompile the scripts and you’ll be just fine.  As this task is about one of the easiest scripting that one may endeavor to do, do not think you need to have any real programming skills to get it done.

I’d like to toss in a plug for the DancingDots guys as, although I can’t claim to know how to use Sonar, their scripts and other add-in software makes a very difficult program work very well with JAWS.  So, hats off to Bill McCann, David Pinto and Gordon Kent (and anyone else involved) for an outstanding product.  On the closing night of a CSUN conference a few years back, we got to see the great Ray Charles take the stage at a DancingDots party and demonstrate, along with David Pinto, the real power of their product.  Ray entertained, teased Pinto and showed us just why he chose JAWS as his screen reader.

I have a question about the different audio players: why does every bit of audio software on my computer have its own volume setting?  Real, WindowsMedia, WinAmp, Linksys and, of course, Windows itself all let me set the volume separately.  Thus, if I can’t figure out why something sounds too loud or too soft, I need to look in at least four places: the Linksys Bridge software, the media player, the Windows volume setting and my stereo.  I understand why my stereo and computer would have different volume settings but why does every application need its own way to set volume?

Does anyone know what the “SW Synthesizer” entry in the Windows volume dialogue does?  Using JAWS, with Eloquence, Window-Eyes, with its default synthesizer and every other program I own that uses software speech, I can’t seem to get this control to change anything.  I think it might have something to do with SAPI speech but still haven’t found a way to make it do anything.  

Does anyone other than me find it incredibly annoying that every time one installs a different media player (I only know about Windows Media, Real, WinAmp, QuickTime) that it seems to hose their other media players?  I can install both Eudora and Outlook, Excel and Quatro, IE and Firefox, Word and WordPerfect and seemingly any two programs from any other class of application and they peacefully coexist.  The media players all assume that they should take the lead role in delivering my content to me and, therefore, screw the others up.  WinAmp and WindowsMedia seem to offend the worst but Real and QT don’t fall too far behind.  At least WM 11 Beta tells you that it has seized control of your computer and reminds you to check your other media players for problems it may have caused.  Installing WinAmp seems to have changed so much stuff (using the default installation settings) that it took me a few days to get Real and WM working again.  I have not and will not install iTunes, even if Brian’s scripts make Apple’s superfluously inaccessible but “very cool” interface sing and dance with JAWS – I’m boycotting Apple these days.

If you collect MP3 files and enjoy music, I recommend you go to emusic.com, they have an offer running that gives anyone who signs up for an account fifty free MP3 files.  If you kill your account within 14 days, you don’t get charged anything so you might as well go there, get your fifty free songs and pay nothing.  If you do choose to subscribe, I think their rates look fair ($10 per month for 40 songs) and the site works pretty well with screen readers as long as you’ve can use the Quick Keys in JAWS or whatever Window-Eyes calls their version of the feature.  Unfortunately, the link that brings you to the place where you can sign up for your fifty free downloads doesn’t have a proper label so, as you tab through some nasty sounding links, listen for the gibberish that contains the words “fifty free.”  I suppose I could make a .jgf file for this page if people would want me too.  

I have found emusic.com to have one of the most extensive libraries of MP3 songs out on the web.  I could find really obscure Brooklyn based rappers on very obscure independent labels very easily as well as what seemed to me like the entire Glenn Gould (my favorite classical pianist) collection, something URGE (the MTV owned music download store) had about a third of.  I wish they had full length samples rather than clips as, on many occasions, the intro portion of a song lasts longer than the sample (especially on live albums) so it makes figuring out if you like a song or not kind of difficult.

As I allude to above, I recently installed the Windows Media Player version 11 beta.  Compared to most other media players, it works pretty well out-of-box with JAWS 7.0, I haven’t tried it with the JAWS 7.1 beta or any other screen reader yet.  If you can use the JAWS cursor and tab keys pretty well, you should find it pretty nice to use.  Before I explored the program a bit, I made the assumption that I would be better off with the classic menus, this does make using the player a bit easier but one can use all of its features using the stock UI with JAWS.  As media players go, WMP11 seems to integrate nicely with a number of sites where you can purchase digital content.  MS offers URGE as the default but the beta works with a laundry list of other stores and promises to work with even more in the future.  Unlike the iTunes service which sells music in the iTunes format which only works with Apple software and only lets you purchase music from Apple, MS, once again, takes the populist approach and provides a wide array of choices for its users.  Go ahead, start throwing your rotten Apples at me, I can take it.

As for blinks who create audio content, if you haven’t heard the MP3 getting passed around of JAWS doing some serious gangstah rap you really should find a copy.  I heard that a high school kid somewhere in Arkansas made it.  Me thinks the legendary Patrick Purdue might have some competition from the deeper south.  One BC reader suggested we do a parody song contest.  I think this sounds like a good idea but are there enough people out there with this hobby or the associated skills to have enough entries to really make it a contest?  The last competition we announced here, the BC programming and software design championship, has, thus far, received zero entries which makes me glad I didn’t try to hustle up any prizes as I would have no one to give them to.

Other than the awesome JAWS Jam, I’ve found a lot of new music that I like a lot lately.  First comes Willy Nelson’s latest album,
“You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker,” which may just come as close to a perfect album recorded by a country music performer.  Even if you don’t typically like country or Willy, you should give this record a listen.

Next comes the latest by Bruce Springsteen, on which he assembles a folk act (none of the E Street band on this album) and does songs previously recorded by the great Pete Seeger.  Especially in these times of war and American crisis, these songs stand out in an anthemic manner.  Bruce’s voice lends itself very well to these songs and the folk act smokes.

Otherwise, I’ve found a lot of the politically and poetry charged Brooklyn rap scene to have delivered some truly kicking and thought provoking stuff lately.  If you like creative language and serious ghetto politics, check out guys like Wordsworth, Pumpkinhead and others from that scene.  If you want to hear about blunts, guns and forties, stick to the LA scene and you won’t be disappointed.

Afterward

Maybe I need a music critic alter-ego to go with the gonzo writer, the evil capitalist, the former punk rock singer, the English professor and the rest.

Finally, a recent article that I read on Blind News about the WAI standards not going far enough to bring real accessibility to we blinks made me feel a bit uncomfortable.  I agree that one can follow the WAI standards to the letter and still create a hopelessly inaccessible or, more likely, extremely inconvenient web site for screen reader users but I also feel that any web developer worth the title, if they follow the standards and do not have a severe mental deficiency, can do a decent job without a whole lot of extra effort.

I found the blink who demonstrated how a site could follow the guidelines but produce a page that wastes a lot of the user’s time very annoying.  In the first example he showed his audience, he had to hit the TAB key something like 90 times before he found the link he likes to use most often.  

Is this 1996 or 2006?  What screen reader or web access utility is this nimrod using?  If it’s JAWS, Window-Eyes, HPR, HAL or any other that I’ve looked at the web with in the past few years, this guy needs to learn to use his screen reader.  Every one of these has a way to pop up a list of links and, very conveniently, find the link they want and go to it.  If anyone still thinks they need to hit TAB 99 times, they should find some simpler way to spend their day.  If this guy uses a screen reader or access utility that does not provide this functionality, he should call his vendor and complain about being ripped off.  Finally, if this example comes from some ancient GNU/Linux based, text-only Internet access utility that does not provide a lot of the navigation conveniences available in the proprietary, Windows based, screen readers, then he has the source code, he can add them.  If he can’t program, he can ask a friend to add them.

Standards should not focus on the lowest common denominator but, rather, should address the state of the art as that provides the only motivation for people who develop access software, free, open source or proprietary to take real steps forward.  GW Micro didn’t make a version of Window-Eyes for the NT platforms until Microsoft announced it would no longer ship the Windows 95/98/ME series any longer.  I think this was true for AI^2 and ZoomText as well.  If standards bodies working on disability issues aim to include decade old technologies, we, as consumers, will have to live with decade old support.

The AT industry has enough money and the open source/free software side of things have enough volunteers to take on the challenge of keeping the software we depend upon up to date.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where can that mp3 of jaws gangstah rap be found? I googled it but couldn't find it, it sure would be neat to hear. Patrick Purdoo has done some neat stuff over the years and I'd love to hear some other things others have done.
Thanks!

11:17 AM  
Anonymous James Teh said...

If you are interested in playing with Sonar and want a free alternative to CakeTalking, check out JSonar. I'm biased, given that I am one of the primary developers :), but it now includes almost all of the features of CakeTalking and some neat features of its own.

Regarding individual volume settings for different applications, many, including myself, prefer this because it allows you to, say, turn your music down while listening to other audio, such as a speech synthesiser.

The SW Synth volume relates to the Microsoft GS Wavetable midi synthesiser that comes with Windows XP and is the default midi output device. In practical terms, if you are using this, you can control the volume of midi files/playback.

9:46 PM  
Anonymous fastfinge said...

Can we please not do anything that would encourage the generation of more blink and screen reader related audio? I have a complete copy of the dectalk archive, comprising seriously hundreds of files, and I can say that it's all been done. The shakers and movers in this stuff would mostly agree with me; as anyone who knows Patrick Perdue anywhere near well would be aware, he's completely left that particular audio scene and is trying hard to forget. It was fun for about a year, but I think we as a blind community are done, now. The public dectalk archive is at:
http://public.www.planetmirror.com/pub/dectalk/?fl=d
Although long-time dectalk folks will notice that ratguy has decided to remove many, many pornographic and otherwise obbjectionable files.

12:13 PM  
Anonymous Snoopi Botten said...

Hi guys! My name is Snoopi Botten and I program Dectalk to sing like no one in the world can. We are working on my website tonight and I was sitting here wondering why I don't get much traffic. Could it be that I don't get on the net and tell anyone?

I found this site on a search and it looks like you guys like Dectalk stuff. So, go to www.dectalksings.com/order1.html and you can select any of my 4 CDs to demo. You can sample every song on all CD's and the entire song will play.

I use Dectalk version 4.40 to do all my work. I think you guys will love this!

6:20 PM  

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