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Memorandum: You’re Surrounded!

Surround audio: Read about it, learn about it, prepare for it, experiment with it, buy a few more speakers. But don't bank on it. Not yet, anyway.Even

Surround audio: Read about it, learn about it, prepare for it,experiment with it, buy a few more speakers. But don’t bank on it. Notyet, anyway.

Even though surround has that irresistible combination oftechnology, uniqueness and flat-out fun that comes along only once inblue moon (not to mention a catchy shorthand, “5.1”), don’t let thosequalities obscure the fact that there’s an awful lot that has to happenbefore most studios see any real, consistent money out of it. As goodas surround is-and I’m no Luddite here; when done well, it soundsfabulous-its success is contingent on a number of factors, most ofwhich are well out of the control of the recording community.

The politics of surround audio are as complex and Machiavellian asthose of the DVD standard. To give a little historical perspective,when the CD was introduced in 1982, it had basically twoprogenitors-Sony and Philips. Working as a team-a team, it should benoted, that had or was about to have significant content power withPhilips’ ownership of PolyGram and Sony’s forthcoming acquisition ofColumbia Records’ assets-the two multinationals established a formalstandard rather quickly and efficiently, which sent a strong message tothe consumer electronics and entertainment industries that this was notvaporware, that it worked. The CD was sufficiently different fromprevious media-a critical component to any marketing campaign.Consumers responded, as did content providers. By 1985 the CD wasentrenched; by the early ’90s, it was the dominant music format in theU.S.

It would be nice to think that the CD paved the way for otheroptical disc formats. CD-R has certainly become popular and profitablefor recording studios. Making money on CD one-offs has become a smallbut regular profit center for many facilities. The same will likely gofor CD-RW, though the falling price of hardware is starting to allowthe recordable media to migrate to end-users themselves (less than $500for a home CD recorder). Nonetheless, CD-R burners are becoming asubiquitous as cassette decks in studios.

However, it won’t necessarily go down that way for DVD and its audiovariant. Instead of the relatively smooth, strategic moves that the twoCD innovators were able to make, DVD comes with the equivalent of atechnological paternity suit, with 16 major patent participants andcountless smaller ones. Political maneuvering has resulted in numerousdelays in format specifications and marketing moves. (You’ve heard ofcorporate cultures? Better believe in corporate egos, too.) That, inturn, scared off a lot of content providers in the beginning; theDVD-Video format is nearly two years old, but major film studios Foxand Paramount only agreed to provide content for the format inmid-1998.

On the DVD-Audio front, the format’s final specification was delayedby almost a year (Version 1 came out soon after fall AES), no doubtpartly because of a bitter rivalry between DTS and Dolby overcompression schemes. And the major record labels are not exactlychomping at the bit to remix and remaster their catalogs in surround.They would love to see a replay of the 1980s, when consumers replacedentire collections of records and tapes with CDs; however, the musicbusiness is now run by bean counters, not musicians, and the guys withthe green eyeshades have not seen any evidence that there is, or willbe, a significant demand for surround discs in the immediate future.Underscoring this was a recent comment in Replication News quoting aBMG Records representative at a recent DVD confab as admitting that thelabel is “a little bit scared of upsetting the lucrative CD market forDVD-Audio.”

Considering that the CD took a full decade to become the dominantspecies, I don’t want to make it seem as though I’m asking DVD to pulloff the trick in just a couple of years. The bottom line here is, getready, get set, and let’s see just where the surround deal leads. Atthe moment-and it could be a short moment-it sits somewhere between afad and a trend on the cultural phenomenon scale. In the meantime, buystock in speaker companies.