Making music online

In the arena of online entertainment, interactive music mixers are a fairly common offering. Visitors are presented with a piece of music (or components thereof) and encouraged to play with moving various vocal and instrumental tracks into the foreground or background of the final sound. These virtual studios provide technically interesting diversions, but a site that never takes you past the mixing board can suffer from an interactive 'sterility.'

A Break in the Road, on the other hand, makes the creative act more complete by sending you out into the streets before you hit the studio, and in the process, makes the experience a good deal more entertaining.

Created by London-based New Media artist, Luke Whittaker, and the recent recipient of a Broadcast Education Association Award, A Break in the Road builds an entire story around your search for the perfect sound - and makes you work for the samples that will build your masterpiece. Entering the site as someone (like myself, in the interests of full disclosure) who is not a fan or follower of the hip-hop sound will not be a major drawback to the overall experience of the site, though fans will doubtless take the mixdowns more seriously.

Break opens with a spectacularly colorful opening street scene and voiceover that introduces the lead character's (and now, your) assignment: to record sounds from around the city and mix them down into something approximating music, to play that night at a dance club. Unlike most Flash-based animations that frequently lose the viewer's interest with long stretches of still frames and deafening silence (as if the animator was simply too lazy to finish the job), this introduction is full to overflowing with both movement and sound - so much so that it actually has the feel of a full-motion video.

After the intro, Break loads the first of a series of street scenes from which you will gather your raw material. Along the bottom of the screen, a minidisc player waits with six tracks available for recording your chosen samples. On the street, the mouse cursor (now in the form of a microphone) singles out ambient noises for scrutiny, and as the microphone hovers over a recordable source, a "REC?" prompt appears. One click and capture is complete.

Of course, this site is as much about exploration as mixing, so the scene that follows the introduction is only the start of your travels. Move the cursor to various street corners and doorways and, much in the style of Quicktime Video Reality tours, you can move beyond line of sight into new territory. Available locations run the gamut from back alleys to 'suburbs' to the inside of a pub, and the sounds range from someone singing in a London subway station, to a Sisyphean battle with a garage door. (If you get lost at any point, a popup map will guide your way, or permit one-click movement to any location.)

Occasionally, the exploratory stage might introduce surprises that even the designer didn't anticipate - as when Windchimes Street started spontaneously layering multiple copies of a skateboarder clip, no matter where I put the microphone. I was beginning to wonder if the street or my computer was going to suffer an auditory overload, when a step back to the previous locale cleared the air.

Once the samples are gathered, the next step is the home studio, where a mixing board stands ready for drag and drop composition. With so many samples to choose from, you may fill your six tracks well before finishing your explorations, but you can eject a clip from your recorder at any time in order to substitute another, or after trying mixes with your first six choices, go back out to the streets and gather more sounds.

Ironically, the actual mixing may be Break in the Road's weak point - there is no volume control for individual tracks, samples occasionally refuse to be dragged onto the mixing console (or disappear when released), and sounds only seem to play for half the duration indicated by the Timeline. (It's possible to compensate for this last idiosyncrasy by overlapping samples at half-length increments.)

Mixing done, you have the option of testing your composition in front of the cheering throng at the dance club, with the "Crowdometer" evaluating the level of your hip-hop prowess. In my case (again, full disclosure), the final mix could best be described as "junk," and long stretches of silence seemed to get as good a reaction as my 'music,' did. But the audience was being kind - the silence should have received a much better response than the sound.

Though I preferred the exploration to the composition, that may simply be a reflection to my musical taste. And even if your tastes never stray outside country, classical, or Tuvan Throat Singing, A Break in the Road is worth the visit simply to see the effective integration of narrative and interactive.

A Break in the Road can be found at http://www.lukewhittaker.co.uk/breakintheroad/.

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