Azalia BlossomsHD AUDIO INITIATIVE TO SUPERCHARGE PC PLAYBACK 11/01/2004 7:00 AM Eastern
While San Francisco is known for such prosaic schlock as the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman's Wharf, the former farmland to the south is where bellwether technology is born. The South Bay is home to numerous geeky pioneers, from the audio empire of Digidesign that emerged from sleepy Scotts Valley to Palo Alto's Hewlett Packard and Xerox PARC. None of these companies, however, has had as broad an impact on our lives as Intel.
There are few places in the world that haven't been touched by the fruits of Intel's labor. Founded in 1968 by Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce to exploit the then-new Large Scale Integration (LSI) technology, Intel started life as NM Electronics on Middlefield Road in Mountain View, Calif., about half-a-mile from Moffett Field. Noyce and Moore had left the pioneering Fairchild Semiconductor to try their hand at manufacturing solid-state memory. By the following year, sales of their RAM had topped half-a-million dollars, and by 1970, the fledgling company was already making $4 million in sales. For us media geeks, 1971 is when things got really interesting: That's when the first microprocessor was born.
These days, microprocessors and their progeny have become the opposable thumb of media production and consumption. Not only is most of the pro and CE gear digital, but so is the content that we purchase. Forrester Research tells us that the number of North American households with home networks is expected to reach 46 million during the next five years. With the slow death of dial-up, VoIP (Voice over IP, or “phone calls over the Internet”), disk-based PVRs and DTV are about to pop over consumer's noticeability threshold. The convergence circle is nearly complete, and Intel, with its Grantsdale and Alderwood motherboards, has launched an HD Audio initiative, code-named Azalia, to capitalize on this trend.
The dominance of Wintel in the computing world has led some folks to predict the death of home entertainment as we know it. If you've ever tried to set up a home theater from scratch, then you may just agree that a pre-configured HTPC, or Home Theater PC, is a potentially better mousetrap. Kristopher Kubicki, senior editor at D.I.Y. tweek site AnandTech.com, says that 7.1-channel motherboards are set to arrive in Little Jenny's Christmas stocking from all of the major manufacturers. “HTPC is definitely making waves with Microsoft Media Center and Linux alternatives like MythTV,” he says. “As more and more TiVo-like convergence devices show up with commercial backing from Microsoft, Dell, whoever, we will definitely see the low- to mid-fi sector take more advantage of the better audio codecs — things like picture-in-picture or split screen with two DVDs, or one DVD and an HD cable feed are suddenly possible with the better [hardware] codecs.”
To Intel, a codec is both hardware and software. Intel's High-Definition Audio/AC '97 Programmer's Reference Manual stipulates that “…a codec extracts one or more audio streams from the time multiplexed link protocol and converts them to an output stream through one or more converters. A converter typically converts a digital stream into an analog signal (or vice versa), but may also provide additional support functions of a modem and attach to a phone line, or it may simply de-multiplex a stream from the link and deliver it as a single (unmultiplexed) digital stream, as in the case of S/PDIF.” This verbiage uncovers the codec's additional function as a replacement for the hardware modems of yore.
While the aging AC '97 audio specification could only support 96k/20-bit stereo and six channels at 48k/20-bit, HD Audio can handle up to eight channels at 192 kHz with 32-bit words. It also understands the concept of multiple isochronous streams, say a 6-channel 5.1 program out of one jack and a simultaneous stereo program out of another. This is a key enabler for upcoming PCs with DVD-Audio playback capabilities. (Ar, can you say “pirate”?) So as to make the multimedia PC experience as idiot-proof as possible, it also allows for “jack re-tasking,” in which the computer recognizes and automatically configures microphones, headphones and speakers as they are connected to the motherboard.
The hardware aspect of a codec, really AD/DAs with some extra bells and whistles, are currently supplied to Intel by IHVs (independent hardware vendors), which are approved companies that provide subassemblies. SigmaTel, a newer small IHV, provides a good example of what's available to motherboard manufacturers. Its pin-compatible C-Major
I'm still not clear on that “automatic” speaker configuration thing, but other vendors such as market leaders Realtek and C-Media add features such as noise and echo canceling for voice command and VoIP applications. They also support what Intel calls “beam forming,” which uses phased arrays of microphones to improve intelligibility and gain before feedback. All of these features simplify installation, improve stability and decrease support costs, which directly affects the bottom line. HD Audio is, after all, a consumer enterprise, so low cost of goods and support are paramount.
“So,” you may ask, “what does this consumer push have to do with me?” Dan Snyder, audio segment manager at Intel's Consumer Solutions Group, says that HD Audio has the ability to do a lot of the things that quality-conscious recording folks want. “Though some of the hardcore guys are going to want to have dedicated audio [add-in] solutions…HD Audio does have the [technological] ‘headroom’ to satisfy the prosumer market.”
Dolby Labs, Digidesign, Magix, Neumann, Native Instruments, TC Electronic and Steinberg have all worked closely with Intel to maximize the opportunity that Intel has provided. Tom Loza, Intel Technologies initiative manager who oversaw the HD Audio Working Group, adds that the spec is broad enough to allow for third-party upgrades. “The integrated audio architecture uses the CPU for all the signal processing, but what we have done is [allow you to] add a codec to the link inside the box.” As a result, front panel retrofit kits should appear, exploiting that expandability for those who want to improve on what the motherboard vendors provide.
All of this discussion about Intel would be for naught if I didn't mention the 800-pound gorilla quietly guarding the door. Though HD Audio will benefit the microscopic production-on-Linux community, Intel's HD Audio Web pages tell us that Microsoft has chosen HD Audio as the main architecture for its new Universal Audio Architecture (UAA), which “…provides one driver that will support all Intel HD Audio controllers and codecs. While the Microsoft driver is expected to support basic Intel HD Audio functions, codec vendors are expected to differentiate their solutions by offering enhanced Intel HD Audio solutions. The result is high-quality PC-based audio that delivers a seamless convergence of digital entertainment between the PC and consumer electronic devices.” The Microsoft Universal Audio Architecture initiative aims to create and maintain Windows audio drivers for HD Audio, as well as USB and 1394 audio technologies.
UAA is an appropriate name for both Intel and Microsoft's work. Their hope is for one driver, one architecture to rule them all. Standardization is key to that low-cost, higher reliability thing I mentioned earlier. Len Layton, senior VP at C-Media Electronics, told me that, with HD Audio, Intel is earnestly trying to improve audio quality while simultaneously attempting to keep parts costs as low as possible. They want to get their vendors into a standardized, plug-and-go state. “We [the IHVs] live and die by their standards,” he said. Those standards, for us, mean better overall compatibility and stability on the Intel platform, greater portability for our production rigs and improved playback predictability for PC-based multimedia.
Frank Kara, president of Yukatech LLC and its Digital Audio Wave turnkey studio CPU division, thinks that the “end-user is the clear winner.” He stresses that HD Audio is not designed to replace pro audio add-ons, but rather “complement the client's usage models” in today's continuously evolving production environment. Clients are one thing, but “having an in-built 7.1 system is certainly useful as a reference if you are mixing to surround formats,” opines Robin Vincent, technical director at turnkey DAW hardware heavyweight Carillon Audio Systems. “But until some sort of connection between recording software and onboard audio exists, you are stuck with having to master to DVD before getting a chance to preview it.”
John Atkinson, editor at Stereophile and believer in DAW-based audio production, told me that increasing the native audio capabilities of Wintel machines is generally a positive step. “The Mac world has been enjoying the benefits of OS X's Core Audio for almost two years now, and both [HD Audio and Core Audio] enable the migration of media onto the computer, resulting in an open-ended future for music reproduction.” He's a bit less sanguine, however, about the bigger picture. “It will help Microsoft further its plan for domestic media playback domination that started in earnest with WM9.”
Though there's still progress to be made on the OS and driver front, as far as I'm concerned, this Azalia thing is all good! Next month, I'll wrap up my multi-volume IT glossary — stay tuned!
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