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DVD-Audio Arrives!

Finally! The Wait is Over! A Special Mix Section Despite the rapid pace of technological change, the introduction of a new consumer format doesn't happen

Finally! The Wait is Over!A Special Mix SectionDespite the rapid pace of technological change, the introduction of a new consumer format doesn’t happen overnight. And from the first announcements of DVD-Audio more than four years ago to the eventual consumer rollout in time for Christmas 2000, it’s been a long time coming. But DVD-Audio is finally here and, just like you, we here at Mix are still trying to figure it out.

To kick off this special section on DVD-Audio, New York editor Paul Verna writes about the many challenges facing the new format’s introduction, from record label marketing strategies to the practical questions facing equipment manufacturers. New Technologies editor Philip De Lancie examines the DVD-A specification itself and explains the choices available to content producers. Contributing editor Rick Clark details the behind-the-scenes activities surrounding the 5.1 remix of Frampton Comes Alive, one of the best-selling live albums of the ’70s. And East Coast editor Dan Daley expands on the forensic and legal hurdles that can hinder the repurposing of existing audio material.

DVD-Audio is finally ready for prime time; the Warner Music Group released its initial batch of DVD-A discs on November 7, 2000. Those releases – on the Warner Bros., Atlantic, Elektra, Teldec and Erato labels – carry a suggested list price of $24.95, packaged in jewel boxes and clearly labeled as DVD-Audio titles. More Warner releases, including titles on the Nonesuch, Giant and Rhino catalog imprint, are set for a December 2000 and January 2001 release. With regard to hardware, DVD-A players are already in the marketplace or soon due from such brands as Panasonic, Technics, Denon, Onkyo, JVC, Toshiba, Kenwood and Pioneer. The players range from home units to car players to shelf systems to portables, and the prices range accordingly, from the low hundreds of dollars to $1,200 and up. Most of the DVD-Audio players in the U.S. incorporate the encryption technology mandated by the recording industry, and some include a watermarking chip that is designed to protect music copyrights.

Warner Bros. is the first major music label to embrace the new format, and, having spearheaded the promotional effort to launch DVD-A in the marketplace, is predictably bullish on the format.

“DVD-Audio represents a dramatic leap in quality,” says Warner Music Group senior VP Jordan Rost. “[The DVD-A format] can take advantage of technological advances [that have occurred] in the 17 years since the CD was launched. That’s many lifetimes in the digital world. We also can take advantage of the momentum and the acceptance in the marektplace of DVD [Video]. This is very different from any other music industry format launch. We have replication capabilities in our plants already in place, and millions of players are already out there. In fact, [the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association] says there are almost 10 million DVD Video players out there, and 20 percent of homes in the U.S. have surround systems.”

DVD-WHICH? CROSS-PLATFORM COMPATIBILITYDespite Rost’s enthusiasm, the viability of DVD-Audio is still an open question. Skeptics point out that the improvement in sound quality vis-a-vis CD is not significant enough to entice consumers to buy DVD-Audio players. Furthermore, say critics of DVD-Audio, the installed base of DVD-Video players may act as a deterrent to the new format, because first-generation DVD-Video players are unable to access the full-bandwidth, multichannel audio layers on DVD-A discs.

Taking these potential hurdles into consideration, Warner and the other majors – BMG, Universal, Sony and EMI – are making sure that they cater to the installed base of DVD-Video users, while also trying to create a new market for high-resolution, uncompressed multichannel sound. The labels are also mindful of the hundreds of millions of consumers who appear to be content with their CD players and vast collections of discs.

In order to reconcile these distinct but overlapping market segments, Warner is equipping each of its releases with a DVD-Audio layer, which will play only on dedicated DVD-A players or combination DVD-Audio/ Video decks; a high-resolution stereo stream (typically 24-bit/96kHz for the DVD-A player) and a Dolby AC3 layer so that owners of DVD-Video players can still listen to multichannel versions of the audio titles – albeit in a compressed form – through their DVD-Video surround sound systems.

With regard to backward compatibility with the CD, Warner chose not to include a Red Book layer on its DVD-Audio discs; however, Red Book CDs will play in both DVD-V and DVD-A machines, ensuring that consumers’ CD collections remain viable as they upgrade their hardware. (For an in-depth look at the DVD-Audio specification and what it offers to content producers and listeners, see “Music Meets Multimedia”.)

THE GREAT DEBATEIn fact, the DVD-A format has been debated fiercely in the recording industry for at least three years. First there were the technical hurdles of the format itself – deciding on the bit resolution and sampling rate, as well as the inherent structure of the discs. That debate was further complicated by the development of Super Audio CD by Sony and Phillips. SACD is a competing sound carrier based on Direct Stream Digital (DSD) encoding, which is incompatible with the Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) technology that underlies the CD and DVD-Audio. That issue was resolved; Sony and Phillips will market their product separately, targeting it as an audiophile format rather than a mass-market sound carrier.

Then came the entanglements over compression technology, which was needed to deliver six channels of full-bandwidth, high-resolution audio on a 12cm disc. Dolby was already using its AC3 compression algorithm on DVD-Video discs, and Digital Theater Systems (DTS) had developed a compression system that allowed for the use of multichannel audio on conventional CDs. However, neither system was acceptable to the recording industry, which insisted on a “lossless” compression technology that would be transparent to the listener.

Industry executives got their wish when Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP) emerged as a truly lossless compression system that, according to such golden-ears listeners as Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering & DVD, is not audible. (“The MLP encoding can take several hours to do,” says Ludwig, “but it seems to sound transparent.”)

Having cleared the compression hurdle, the industry seemed poised to launch DVD-Audio in late 1999, but just then a hacker in Scandinavia cracked the DVD-Audio copyright encryption code, sending developers back to the drawing board. Now, with that obstacle out of the way, the industry faces only creative and marketing challenges.

NEW FORMAT, NEW CHALLENGESWhile some of the creative challenges of DVD-Audio production have been explored by the producers of multichannel audio mixes for DVD-Video releases, several new issues confront studio professionals just now getting their feet wet in DVD-A.

For starters, the ability to deliver full-resolution audio signals (24-bit at 96 or 192 kHz) direct to the final product is enormously exciting to producers and engineers. Ken Caillat, a partner in Los Angeles-based 5.1 Entertainment Systems, recently remixed rock classics like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare for DVD-Audio. The Fleetwood Mac project was especially close to Caillat’s heart – he was the original engineer and co-producer of the album. Calliat not only knew the source tracks inside out, but he also kept meticulous notes. On one cut, “Songbird,” the DVD-Audio format gave him the luxury of bringing out ambient mics that had previously been buried in the stereo mix.

“When we tracked `Songbird’ at the Zellerbach Auditorium at U.C. Berkeley, we put tube mics out in the hall,” recalls Caillat. “Originally, those mic signals got blended in under the piano and the vocal, but this time I was able to place them discretely in the soundfield. In some cases, in the stereo mix, the delay in the rear mics was too much, so you’d have to pull them way back, but in multichannel you want that space.”

For the Alice Cooper title, Caillat and the album’s original producer, Bob Ezrin, were faced with the challenge of re-creating a bus flange that was a hallmark of the original recording, which appeared in 1975. “Flanging went out in the ’70s, but we had to re-create the effect on `Welcome to My Nightmare,'” explains Caillat. “First, we tried doing it digitally, but we ended up renting a couple of analog multitracks and flanged all five channels the old fashioned way. When Bob Ezrin heard it, he said, `How much more can you give me?’ He overemphasized what it was doing in the stereo mix, and it sounded great. Even better than the original.”

Although Caillat, like many engineers working in the multichannel medium, is not afraid to use the surround sound field to its full potential, he respects the sound design of the original recordings. “We try to be faithful to the original CDs, so fairly soon into the mixing process we start doing comparisons,” he observes. “We don’t want to come up with Ken Caillat’s cool echo things when Joni Mitchell or Fleetwood Mac had a sound that the consumer wants to hear. Our yardstick is that if someone down the hall from the studio where we’re mixing these albums in 5.1 hears them, they should sound like the original album.” [For an in-depth look at a 5.1 remix of an iconic album, see “Frampton Comes Alive in 5.1”.]

AUTOMATIC FOLDDOWN SPEEDS REMIXESWhile the DVD-Audio format allows for a discrete stereo mix, many producers who are remixing classic albums are opting for the automatic folddown feature, which extrapolates a 2-channel master from the 5.1-channel tracks, according to the producer’s instructions. Most of the Warner titles, at least in the initial batch, employ the company’s proprietary SmartContent folddown technique. Similarly, the Lonestar DVD-Audio was also “folded down” automatically from the multichannel surround mix, according to the project’s engineer, Jeff Balding.

“The Euphonix console at Emerald in Nashville, where we mixed Lonestar, allowed us to do several different things at the same time,” says Balding, noting that he created a discrete, 6-channel mix and a folddown in stereo at the same time. “In the monitoring section, we could go between 5.1, stereo and mono. We had a formula that folded in the sub and rear speakers into that, and it really kept everything intact. We also had it set up so we could check bass management, as well as discrete audio.”

Balding, like many engineers, was initially of the mindset that DVD-A would necessitate two separate mix passes. However, his positive experiences with folddown have persuaded him otherwise. “I thought I would want to do two mixes, but I don’t think it’s going to be necessary,” he says. “Folddown is going to work well enough so that it’s going to be a matter of simply checking to hear how well everything relates.”

Noting that mixing for DVD-Audio is still in its infancy, Warner’s Rost says, “The studio infrastructure is still developing. We’ll see more and more work on the surround mix as people are mixing for stereo at the same time, and that will facilitate the whole process. A lot of people who are mixing for surround tell us that it’s actually easier than they anticipated, because they’re not shoe-horning everything into two channels.”

RECORDING FOR 5.1As the craft develops, more and more producers and engineers are taking multichannel into account at the recording stage. For instance, Balding has been laying extra tracks down on most of his projects for the past few years, with the hopes of being able to put more ambience into multichannel mixes down the road.

At 5.1 Entertainment, Caillat and his partner, engineer Gary Lux, made a surround recording from the ground up with the Big Phat Band, which 5.1 has signed to its Silverline label. The DVD-Audio, “Swingin’ for the Fences,” featured the band set up in a semicircle in the studio and the final product reflecting the “in-the-round” style.

“It was amazing,” says Caillat. “The whole band decided to place the instruments around the room, so there was a lot of point-counterpoint between the front and back speakers. At first, the concept was new to the musicians, but once they got it, it was great. It was the first thing we did from the ground up in multichannel.”

Balding is enthusiastic about the new creative possibilities that the medium affords him. “I think it’s got a lot of potential,” he says. “If you look at it from the creative standpoint, from an engineering or producing perspective, you’ve got a whole new palette. From the consumer’s standpoint, music is about entertainment, and this is going to provide more entertainment for the listener. Even when you’ve got a tune that isn’t very creative, production-wise, like a ballad, you can still pull the mix around you so you really get that live, sitting in the room with the band feel.”

For those who really want to feel surrounded, the car is one of the best venues for multichannel sound. In fact, there’s a school of thought in the industry that believes, in Ludwig’s words, that “the car’s going to be what sells 5.1. It’s amazing in the car.”

In order to make the DVD-Audio launch as comprehensive and effective as possible, Warner Bros. has covered all stylistic and demographic bases. Other labels are expected to follow suit with product launches in late 2000 and early 2001. However, as this article went to press, no label group other than Warner had announced a specific release schedule.

The first DVD-A releases from the Warner Music Group cover a wide range of pop, rock, jazz and classical repertoire:

– Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5, conducted by Daniel Barenboim with the Staatskapelle Berlin.

– Johann Strauss in Berlin, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Berlin Philharmonic.

– Core by the Stone Temple Pilots.

– Tigerlily by Natalie Merchant.

– Brain Salad Surgery by Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

– Hommage a l’Orchestre Lamoureux, consisting of Chabrier’s Espana and Ravel’s Bolero, by the Orchestre Lamoureux conducted by Yutaka Sado.

– The Bedroom Mixes by the Jazz at the Movies Band.

Releases scheduled for December, January and beyond on Warner-owned labels will include DVD-Audio discs from such pop and rock artists as Barenaked Ladies, Tracy Chapman, Alice Cooper, The Corrs, Deep Purple, The Doors, Fleetwood Mac, Foreigner, Fourplay, Metallica, Steely Dan, Rod Stewart and Take 6. Other popular artists appearing on DVD-A for the first time will include the Buena Vista Social Club, Olu Dara, Miles Davis, the Firesign Theatre, Bela Fleck, k.d. lang, Pat Metheny, Luis Miguel and Joni Mitchell. The classical and new music repertoires will be expanded with works from Philip Glass, the Kronos Quartet, Daniel Barenboim (conducting Beethoven’s complete symphonies) and Zubin Mehta (conducting Orff’s Carmina Burana and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2). DVD-A product launches expected from labels other than Warner include the Lonestar project on BMG’s BNA label, the Blue Man Group’s “Audio” project (EMI), Sting’s Brand New Day (Universal) and Hanson’s “Direct TV” special (also Universal).

Greetings,I and my studio manager attended the Mix magazine Studio Pro 2000 conference this past June in New York. There was lots of excitement about 5.1 as it relates to music. I was quite frustrated when I encountered presenters – some of whom design studios for a living – who seemed to think that 5.1 music is a separate issue from 5.1 film sound. At one point in a seminar, I challenged a studio designer’s contentions about optimum listening position for the engineer and [asked] why was he recommending such different speaker/mix positions from the Dolby 5.1 spec? His response: “Why would you listen to Dolby about how to mix in surround?”

What worried me most about the conference was the implied supposition that people listening to 5.1 music mixes would want to have a different listening environment from the one they listen to their 5.1 movies in. By insisting that 5.1 music should be optimized for 5-point source speakers with the listener at dead center, as opposed to the Dolby spec of prime listening position two thirds of the way back in the room with more diffuse surrounds, are we imagining people have two living rooms? Or that they’re going to slide their couches around and reposition their speakers depending on whether they’re watching a movie or listening to a DVD-Audio disc?

Mixing anything in 5.1 is so much more fun than mixing in stereo. But with well-established standards already in place from the film industry for dynamic range, speaker placement and subwoofer channel response, I was really surprised to see that the music industry is barreling ahead on the 5.1 bandwagon assuming that those film standards are not particularly relevant.

Rob BryantonPresidentTalking Dog Post & Sound