L.A. Grapevine

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The DVD-Audio bandwagon is finally starting to roll. Inexpensive DVD surround sound systems are in the stores, automotive manufacturers are installing them in cars and labels — both major and indie — are ramping up releases. The format is poised for mainstream acceptance and nobody has a bigger leg up on that bandwagon than West Los Angeles-based Silverline Records/5.1 Entertainment. Silverline has been in the forefront of high-resolution, multichannel audio since the company opened in 1999. The first-ever label to release a commercial DVD-Audio title (the Grammy™-nominated Swinging for the Fences by Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band), it now boasts a catalog of more than 200. Sister company 5.1 Production Services has under its belt not only Silverline's releases, but numerous other high-profile discs from artists such as Fleetwood Mac, Sting, Queen, Herbie Hancock and Foo Fighters, along with soundtrack mixes for films including Moulin RougeHow to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Charlie's Angels II. 5.1 Entertainment was also responsible for production of one of the biggest-selling DVD titles to date: Norah Jones' Live From New Orleans.

The wall of DVD jewel cases that grace the 5.1 Entertainment conference room bears witness to the company's dedication to the format. Genres run the gamut from punk to classical, and there's a lot more in the pipeline. Under an agreement made this year with Britain's Sanctuary Records, Silverline will be releasing approximately 140 more titles, including work from Bob Marley, the Sex Pistols, Joey Ramone and The Kinks.

“Silverline is a DVD-Audio label,” explains company president Jeff Dean. “For the most part, we license from a variety of sources repertoire that already exists. When we develop a title, we have to ensure that the artist approves of the mix, the visuals — the whole package. In the case of Sanctuary, we have a sweeping deal that covers all kinds of things from their catalog. In other cases, we've gone after one record or one artist. Having a wide variety of choices benefits both our label and the format. The format is still getting going. We want people to go to the DVD section of the store and have a lot of selections. Obviously, what we choose to release has to be commercially viable. I try to pick things that people who are currently buying DVD titles will be interested in, but I also pick away at the fringes of that and push the envelope a little.”

As a separate division of 5.1 Entertainment Group, Production Services is an integrated DVD-Audio and -Video production company servicing both Silverline and outside clients. Housed in the 10,000-square-foot facility are three digital audio studios operated under the auspices of veteran mixer Gary Lux, along with all of the mastering, authoring and graphics entities required to ready a DVD for manufacturing. Lux, who also recently finished 5.1 mixes for OutKast, Usher, Aaron Neville and Blues Traveler, as well as stereo projects for Shania Twain, points out that he and the company also do work — including commercials and film soundtracks — in other formats. “We're known for our 5.1 mixing,” he says, “but we're an overall production business. A lot of times, I'll do both the stereo and the 5.1 mix for a project.”

As mainstream labels seek to get DVD-A titles to market, they come up against the unique intricacy of the process, something that 5.1 Entertainment has had plenty of time to streamline. “The amount of work we do for other companies has really escalated,” comments Dean. “That's good news for our production guys, but it's also good news for the format. The complexity of creating music DVDs is daunting for those new to it. Visuals are an almost obligatory part of the package. That puts a lot of pressure on the content provider to come up with material. It's also necessary to locate original multitrack masters to provide the elements for surround remixing. Generally, we get the original packaging art from whatever label our deal is with photos, lyrics, etc. But on almost every project, we go further. If a video or an EPK (electronic press kit) exists, we'll get it and we license photographs from all over the world. If an artist is in town, we'll often go out and shoot our own content. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it when we see how excited the artists get about the package.”

“Most music labels are a bit shell-shocked with what it takes to produce DVDs,” notes 5.1 Production Services president Bob Michaels. “It's an immense amount of information and asset gathering. We have an advantage, not only because of our experience, but also because of the synergy between our divisions. Our multimedia effort isn't linear. We don't just mix a project and then hand it off to graphics. When we start, we talk about what's envisioned for the project and then it fans out into five or six departments and runs parallel. That's how we're able to achieve such high quality in such a short time. People are becoming aware of that, and also that we're not just a studio for our own label.”

Jones' Live in New Orleans was an example of 5.1's fast turnaround time; from concept to DVD was a remarkable five days. Just weeks before the 2003 Grammy Awards, executives at Blue Note/EMI decided that Jones' chances of winning a Grammy were strong enough to warrant a new release to be ready immediately after the broadcast. The concert, recorded at House of Blues in New Orleans by Crawford Communications, had to be remixed from the original 48 Tascam DA-98 tracks to 5.1, then locked to the edited video. Lux handled the mixing, and other departments at 5.1 Production Services coordinated conforming to video, graphics design and authoring. Jones was vacationing in Australia; mixes were shipped via Internet to a studio in Australia where a reference disc was burned and then delivered to her for approval. The finished product was released on the Tuesday after the Grammys and, according to the RIAA, has shipped 2 million copies to date.

“We're really proud of what we do here,” says Lux. “We have a kind of creativity that we think is akin to other labels in the past, like Stax and Motown, that excelled in their genre. They had house producers and a core team, and they were standouts in what they did. We're in a parallel universe in that we're a format-driven label. We've got terrific mixers, and our graphics people are great; they're the guts behind the look and feel of our discs.”

Upcoming DVD-As from Silverline include, along with the Sanctuary roster, the Artemis Classics catalog, which comprises 35 master recordings originally recorded in the '60s and '70s for the Vanguard label.

“The DVD brand itself is synonymous with quality. I think a lot of people get that,” concludes Dean. “That's one of the main reasons why DVD-Audio is catching on. But it's moving away from the audiophile mentality and becoming a very general consumer-friendly format. There are home-theater-systems-in-a-box that give a credible surround experience for $300. And the coolest dorm room on the planet has to be the one that's got the Creative Labs system on a PC playing DVD-Audio. It doesn't get more compact than that. In the space of a dorm room, that can really be rocking! The point is, DVD-Audio has come down to a level where it's available to pretty much everybody. But the best news, for us, is that we're not doing this by ourselves anymore!”

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