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March 21, 1996
arts@large / By MATTHEW MIRAPAUL Bio

Music Central 96:
Microsoft's Bemusement Park

An encyclopedia can be a carnival of colorful and exciting information. I could easily lose hours to a good music guide as I stray from the midway into a fun house of cross-references or try to test the strength of my opinion against an expert's assessment.

Sometimes, though, source works are not all they should be, the equivalent of finding yourself in the tunnel of love with the bearded lady -- or being the owner of Music Central 96, a Microsoft CD-ROM title that is high on frills but low on the thrill of completeness.

Music Central bills itself as an "interactive one-stop music source," but if your interest happens to be the classical genre, you'll have to invest in other of Microsoft's multiple titles in that category. Searching the CD-ROM's database for "Beethoven" turns up the rock band Camper Van but no mention of Ludwig van.

Still, this multimedia software covers a remarkable range of popular-music genres, from rock, folk and country to rap, jazz and a virtual universe of world music.

Music Central amasses an impressive-sounding 8,000 biographies from the recently published Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 5,000 album reviews from Q Magazine, and discographical details on 60,000 albums from Muze (whose touch-controlled data kiosks can be found at Tower Records and other retailers).

One aspect that Music Central shares with other Microsoft encyclopedias, including Encarta, is that users with Internet access can visit Microsoft's World Wide Web site or on-line service and download monthly updates at no extra charge.

It took me about 45 minutes at 28.8 Kbps to retrieve six months of updates and integrate them into the CD-ROM installation, which is the only way they can be read. Once this is done, a bright red-and- yellow "new" logo will appear on an updated page.

I found these updates to be of limited value, rarely providing more than a line-item entry about a select new CD. Worse, the same punchy "new" symbol graces the short obituaries for Dean Martin, Gene Kelly and other late performers.

Dean Martin

Absent, however, was a death notice for Julius Hemphill, a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet and described here as "one of the most inventive and original composing/arranging brains in contemporary jazz." Despite such accolades, his death almost a year ago, on April 2, 1995, went unnoticed by the Microsoft brain trust.

As a multimedia product, Music Central supplies more than 30 minutes of video footage and excerpts from more than 50 songs. The standard sniping about this sort of snippet is that users should get the total tune, although the economic reality of performance rights often prevents that.

Music Central's clips seem generous in length, but tend to be oddly selected or poorly annotated. For example, in separate videos, B.B. King and Eric Clapton are framed so that their guitar playing is off-camera. Ella Fitzgerald is seen scatting girlishly, but Ray Brown, titan of the bass, is not identified as her band mate (though their biographies note that they were married for a time).

Stranger still are the choices for sampled songs. Bruce Springsteen is passed over in favor of Bruce Hornsby. Similarly, 67 seconds of the saxophonist Art Pepper is more than sufficient, especially when influential players like John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young are not represented with audio samples.

Ella Fitzgerald Scats With her Band

Album reviews are drawn from the London-based rock monthly Q, but the magazine's local focus and relatively recent start-up mean that catalog CDs, particularly those not reissued in Britain, are apt to be overlooked. So, Randy Newman's "Trouble in Paradise" gets five stars while his earlier milestones, including "Sail Away" and "Good Old Boys," are ignored.

The Q entries are delightfully lively in style, routinely calling guitarists "plank-spankers" and giving Paul McCartney the moniker "Macca." But some of the Britishisms, in both the Q reviews and the Guinness Encyclopedia biographies, can confuse in rather gob-smacking ways.

A live album by James Taylor is described as necessary "for those who stopped buying his records when they moved out of their bedsitter in 1971." A review of AC/DC's "The Razor's Edge" concludes with the ironic and very Anglican "More tea, vicar?" Despite selling half a million copies in the United States, XTC's tasty "Oranges & Lemons" is "a perplexing commercial mystery" because it barely cracked the United Kingdom's Top 30.

Music Central also commits sins of omission. I was unable to find a biography for the Latin-music superstar Willie Colon. Only one of Pearl Jam's three albums is reviewed. Prospecting in the database for Goldie, a leading proponent of the new style of acid- house music dubbed "jungle," did not pan out; instead I found an entry for Goldie Zelkowitz, the singer later known as Genya Ravan of Ten Wheel Drive.

Some material is just plain wrong. A long paragraph on the legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey says "he would lean with his elbow on the surface of the drum to change its intonation" and incorrectly labels this move a "press roll." The discography for Blakey's one-time pianist James Williams lists this Memphis keyboard magician as the bass player on a Teddy Pendergrass album. A link from the biography of the Texas singer- songwriter Butch Hancock to his "1981 (A Space Odyssey)" album leads instead to "1981" by Impacto Crea (I don't know the band, and no further info is given).

Art Blakey

The interface for Music Central is modeled on Microsoft's highly successful Encarta. While avid electronic encyclo-pedalers might find it easy to navigate, I struggled with a layout that always seemed to require one click more than necessary. And in building links into THE text, THE decision to highlight repeatedly THE same word was not THE best idea in terms of THE readability of THE page.

The indexing system for searches also was irksome, generating far too many choices and often emphasizing the wrong one. Typing in "Smithereens" defaults to a video collection, not to the band's bio.

Music Central's creators pride themselves on the CD-ROM's bells and whistles, like a feature that allows you to compile a want list, print it out and take it to the store. First, though, you must decode the Muze filing system that's used to organize artists' discographies. The chronologies are jumbled. Each title's lead artist is not always obvious; a minor appearance as a sideman can look deceptively like an major project.

Another bell that does not toll for me is the music-suggestion feature. Clicking on a lightbulb icon leads to a volume control that you are forced to manipulate to produce the performers "most like" and "less like" your primary pick. A number of Web-based programs, including The Similarities Engine, do a far more comprehensive job.

Music Central does have some good points. There are hundreds of meat-and-potatoes -- well, bangers-and-mash -- histories of artists, both well known and obscure, and the Muze listings do reveal some surprises. Even though the late Danny Gatton is a guitar hero of mine, I learned that he made a guest appearance on a Deanna Bogart CD, a recording previously unknown to me.

As a passionate music lover, I expected Music Central 96 to take a few hits in my shooting gallery. After all, no reference work could possibly achieve perfection. As I began to discover that something important was missing from almost every page, I realized that none should be this imperfect.

I will still be eager to take Music Central 97 out for a spin when it is released next fall, but when the carnival comes to town this spring, I know what I'm taking to the ring toss.

  • Gary Burton Reviews His Own Profile on Music Central 96

    (Music Central 96, which is available for both the Windows 95 and Macintosh operating systems, has an estimated retail price of $39.95.)

    arts@large is published weekly, on Thursdays. Click here for a list of links to other columns in the series.

    Related Site
    The following link will take you to a site that is not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over its content or availability. When you have finished visiting this site, you will be able to return to this page by clicking on your Web browser's "Back" button or icon until this page reappears.

  • The Web site for Microsoft's Music Central is still a work in progress, with many links under construction. This column will take another look when more progress has been made, but a larger typeface is highly recommended for some of the feature articles and album reviews.

    Matthew Mirapaul at welcomes your comments and suggestions.

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