January 25, 1996

arts@large / By MATTHEW MIRAPAUL

CDLink: Multimedia Liner Notes
To Complement Your Music Collection

Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with a tour guide who elbows you and bellows, "Look! Tangerine trees and marmalade skies!" A tour guide's observational insights can enhance a cruise. Constant declarations of the obvious or irrelevant can capsize it.

Both experiences can be had through a promising new program, CDLink, available for downloading from a Voyager Company World Wide Web site.

The free software works with Web pages that feature new interactive "liner notes" for about 50 albums, connecting the text with its matching audio CD (assuming it is in your collection already) while it spins in your CD-ROM player.

Click, for example, on the highlighted words "ethereal introduction" in Bruce Eder's informative essay on The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and you'll hear the keyboard opening to "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" accompanied by text explaining that Paul McCartney played the passage on a Hammond organ - not, as is often thought, on a Mellotron.

Better still is Michael Ullman's commentary on Thelonious Monk's "Brilliant Corners." A note-by-note dissection of the first bars of the title track illuminates, as do samplings of the soloists adhering to the tune's structure. Mr. Ullman also peers into Monk's career, the recording session and its players' styles.

In a recent assessment, the combination of software and Web site did turn 10 regular audio CD's - ranging from Elvis Costello's "Imperial Bedroom" to the Nonesuch recording of Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony - into interactive, annotated CD-ROMs, much like Voyager's Criterion line of video laser disks.

Because the music is taken directly from a CD instead of from a downloaded sound file, it is clear and dynamic - within the limits of the source material and your computer system's speakers.

And it is multimedia, even if the visuals rarely amount to more than screens of type and a small reproduction of the album's cover art rendered in such low resolution that you seem to be viewing the famous "Sgt. Pepper's" photo through kaleidoscope eyes. But ultimately the success of any annotation depends on the quality of the tour guide.

Sources include record labels, SPIN Magazine reviews and freelance efforts, but to date, Voyager-sponsored material fares best at demonstrating the strengths of the medium. The company's commissioned authors point out new sights even on the most familiar musical landscape.

For example, the "Sgt. Pepper's" page identifies through separate snippets the instruments that, spun together, form the helter-skelter circus sound of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!"

Eder's discussion of the Rolling Stones' "Beggars Banquet" accurately recognizes historical and contemporary influences, then plays the precise moments at which the Stones echo Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground.

Also noteworthy is an independent Web site developed by David S. Haber, a Northridge, Calif., computer consultant who uses Voyager's technology to compare two versions of The Beatles' "She Loves You" from "Past Masters, Volume One."

Using six "A/B" comparisons, Haber tries to prove that the German-language version, generally believed to be a redubbing of the English-language hit, is actually a complete remake. Decide for yourself, starting at Mr. Haber's Beatles home page.

Not all is smooth sailing, though.

Sometimes tangerine trees obscure the forest. Jim Guterman's analysis of "Imperial Bedroom" does a superior job of sampling its stew of sonic elements, but misses the mixture of Tin Pan Alley song craft and rock-and-roll passion that marks it as Costello's masterpiece.

And sometimes there's no there there, as is the case with a SPIN review of David Byrne's eponymous 1994 album, which offers a not-so-grand total of six clips from four of the disc's 12 tunes.

Most vexing is the far-too-frequent problem of a highlighted lyric that, when clicked on, merely plays the same phrase being sung. Click on "I thought you said you were lonely?" from Freedy Johnston's "This Perfect World" album and all you get is that lonesome line.

Technical issues also arise.

CDLink requires Netscape or another Web browser supports helper applications. At the moment, this rules out accessing CDLink Web sites through America Online, whose proprietary browsers do not support helper apps.

Graphics remain rudimentary, and a few niceties are needed. Selected segments often end abruptly; a fade-out function would be desirable. Nor is there a simple way to start a song until you are ready to access an excerpt; a "play" button for each track would help.

Despite these limitations, the CDLink Web site library is growing. Albums expected to be added shortly to the Voyager registry include The Clash's "London Calling" and Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage."

George O. White, the CDLink product manager, says he would like to see a Web site for Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville," complete with her commentary on how each song has a parallel on the Stones' "Exile on Main Street." White indicated that recordable CD's and digital video disks could expand CDLink's applications to include Web-based album mixes, annotated films, and music videos on demand.

Plasticine porters with looking-glass ties? Now there's something I'd like to see pop out of multimedia liner notes.

Matthew Mirapaul at welcomes your comments and suggestions. Because of the volume of e-mail he receives he cannot personally answer all correspondence.

arts@large is published weekly, on Thursdays. Click here for a list of links to other columns in the series.
Related Sites
Following are links to the external Web sites mentioned in this column. These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over their content or availability. When you have finished visiting any of these sites, 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 Voyager CDLink home page.
  • David S. Haber's Beatles Home Page.

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