DOWNSIDE OF UP-MIXING
Your article “DVD Does Music” (February 2002) about DVD authoring for the Dave Matthews Band's The Videos does a first-rate job of explaining how complex the DVD authoring process is for this kind of content, and how it requires more navigation programming and QC testing than many feature-film DVDs. And it certainly confirms that Crush Digital is a very capable authoring facility.
But, there are two specific quotes about the surround audio that underscore what's drastically wrong with much music on DVD, and demonstrate how artists get their music screwed with by careless record labels, DVD producers and/or authoring houses.
Crush's audio engineer Greg La Porta reports that he “created up-mixed versions of the stereo mixes…to create a surround field through a combination of delay and EQ that allowed us to emphasize separate elements. In this process, we push the vocals and lead guitar to the center and front speakers, while using the surrounds to emphasize the rhythm.”
Up-mixed! What chutzpah, what baloney, what a bad idea! The record label wants to say it's 5.1 on the package, so they ask the authoring house to scramble all to hell the original mixes that the band and folks like Steve Lillywhite, Tom and Chris Lord-Alge, Glen Ballard, John Alagia, and many others sweated over and approved. This kind of faux-5.1 is phony. It's a fib that can only reflect badly on the band and their music by ruining the integrity of the original mixes.
Authoring specialist at Crush, Jay Crumley, says, “What I really like about this disc is that it shows much more respect for music videos as a medium. You have the best audio quality and surround mixes to support the music.”
These surround mixes aren't native 5.1 like on DMB's spectacular Listener Supported DVD. They are phony'd-up; sorry, “up-mixed.” Of course, this is not Crush's fault. Crush's client spec'd the job this way, so they did the work requested. We've done the same thing many times at CRC in our DVD Lab when the client demands it. But it still needs to be actively discouraged.
It's critical that DVD authoring houses educate their clients and DVD producers to the fact that this kind of surround audio treatment is profoundly disrespectful to the artists, their music and the audience. And for audio professionals, let's be mindful of how it diminishes the 5.1 surround format itself.
Chicago Recording Company
I read Paul Lehrman's recent column (“Insider Audio,” February 2002: “Is It Time To Go Soft?”) about switching over to software synthesis.
My day job is as a software developer. I have been writing software for 16-plus years, some of it “behind the scenes” and some of it with a UI. In the music world, I'm a fan of the older analogs and hardware in general. However, I recently decided to use a PC for multitrack recording.
Paul's recent column discussed the pros and cons of soft synths in detail. The only thing missing was any discussion of how they sound. Some of the soft synths sound pretty good, but others have that plasticky, small sound sometimes associated with VA synths. This may not matter in a mix, or in certain styles of music, but it should at least be addressed.
Next, the user interface issues he brought up. I spent some time using Reaktor to build a vocoder from scratch, so my comments will be about that particular program, but it applies to most of the others I have sampled. I spent a lot of time clicking and selecting and clicking again to open up various components to modify a value. Building up something nontrivial from scratch was fairly tedious. It would be like starting with an empty modular frame in the hardware world and walking over to a large filing cabinet and pulling out a module, wiring up the power, setting the knobs to some default and then patching it up. In addition, on a large monitor, the modules were small enough that when I tried to click on them to edit a value, it often picked up the click as an attempt to build a patchcord connection. Even with a large screen, I still couldn't fit everything on it comfortably.
To ease some of this, maybe the current crop of software designers could take some guidance from other operating systems. Instead of making the user click on everything to activate it, activate a window/module whenever a mouse hovers over it. It's not the Windows paradigm, but it would make other things easier. Instead of building everything to emulate real hardware, throw away knobs and sliders and implement a basic control that has the value in a display and a simple up arrow/down arrow above it. This way, you could hover above the control and then either click/hold on the up or down arrow, or use the left mouse button for decrement and the right for increment (user-definable). Hover over the number and you could type it in directly. Also, use tear-off menus.
Finally, use the one cool feature from DEC's VMS operating system: file versioning. Put a “working save” button in the bottom-left corner of the screen. Every time you click on it, the current version of your work is saved with a simple version number extension. If users try to exit, then prompt them to save their work under a “real” file name and then ask them if they want to purge the works in progress. This keeps the file system fairly clean, and yet makes saving works in progress easy.
Even with these issues, I still use a PC for multitrack recording. I want the machine to be a recorder/editor only. No plug-ins, no MIDI, no soundcard. Use my external mixing board, external hardware sequencer. The goal is a single-purpose box that is stable and allows me to record and play back easily. So far, it's going well.
Tom, you bring up some great points. Interestingly enough, a lot of the operational features you are looking for have existed in Macintosh music programs for many years. David Ziccarelli's “numericals,” used in Opcode sequencers and patch editors and in Cycling ‘74's “M,” have both the up/down and the direct-typing features for setting values, only they do it with one button. BIAS's Peak audio editor has unlimited Undo buffers and a History window, similar to Photoshop, which has the same purpose as the “file-versioning” feature you cite. And Pro Tools and BIAS's Deck use file versioning to save edits on individual sound files.
The real problem is not that these issues haven't been solved. It's that some designers think that they are doing such pioneering work that they have to re-invent the wheel, when in fact, there are already many wheels out there, and there are lessons to be learned from them.
— Paul Lehrman
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