AIX Records founder/president Mark Waldrep is the first to admit he can be “a bit verbose.” The guy loves to talk. Fortunately, what he has to say is invariably interesting and provocative. Long a popular recording industry gadfly, Waldrep always seems to have one eye on the distant horizon, as if he's envisioning the next step in audio's evolution. As a self-professed audiophile, in charge of a label known for its immaculate sonics, he, of course, has his moments where he despairs about a world where compressed MP3s seem to be “good enough” and the bar for audio fidelity feels like it's getting lower in many circles, not higher. But with AIX Records, he's trying to lead by example, believing that his is not just a lonely cry in the wilderness — and talking (a lot) to anyone who will listen.
Waldrep's latest audio cause is high-definition downloads, which he believes is the wave of the future. He's usually right about these things, so give a listen. “I still make physical discs and we still sell them,” he says from AIX's Los Angeles headquarters. “I sell more every month than I did the previous month. But it became pretty obvious to me that the catalog of roughly 60 records I've done — with hi-def video — wasn't going to take over the world as physical spinning discs.
“So that got me to thinking — what's the next thing? It's going to be downloads. Because Comcast and [Verizon] FiOS and others have got the bandwidth growing out to your house for video, we can take advantage of that and make music happen through there, too,” he continues. “So let's start a Website that is — to use a kitschy phrase — like iTunes for audiophiles, for people that really care about audio quality; the real deal. I don't put quotes around ‘CD-quality.’ Let's see if we can't allow people to download without the need for a physical disc, the quality of the stuff we've been recognized to produce.” Waldrep trademarked the name “iTrax” years before “iTunes” even existed, originally attaching it to enhanced CDs he'd made. Now, itrax.com is the site where his high-def downloads can be found.
Waldrep, who besides being a composer and audio engineer, is a professor of Digital Media Arts at California State University, Dominguez Hills, started AIX Records in 2001 after a number of years operating a studio that specialized in digital mastering. From the outset, AIX Records was designed to showcase new, all-digital, high-definition (96kHz/24-bit) stereo and 5.1 surround recordings and video. All of the label's sessions are captured live in the studio, with no overdubbing. Equipment in the state-of-the-art room includes a Euphonix System 5 console and R-1 digital recorder; Benchmark Media Systems preamps; Sonic Solutions mastering and DVD authoring systems; Butler and Bryston amps; Audience high-res mic and speaker cables; B&W 801 surround monitors; a slew of great mics by Neumann, AKG, Schoeps (and others); and lots more. The company's catalog encompasses music from a wide variety of genres: classical/orchestral (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Revel); chamber (Brahms, Scarlatti, Haydn); jazz (Patrice Rushen, Luis Conte); vocal (Lizbeth Scott, John Gorka, Cheryl Bentyne); acoustic guitar (Laurence Juber, Lowen & Navarro); and even country (John McEuen/Jimmy Ibbotson, Albert Lee). I first got turned on to the label through an amazing DVD (audio and video) by Jamaican music pioneer Ernest Ranglin called Order of Distinction — in addition to visually and sonically superb performances by Ranglin and guests including Jeff Lorber, Monty Alexander and Robbie Krieger, the package included a documentary featurette and a lovely booklet.
Waldrep hasn't completely given up on physical discs — AIX recently became the first audiophile label to strike a Blu-ray deal to put out high-definition video/audio discs — but he clearly believes that his company's future lies with the downloads. And though he wants to blow you away with the purity and brilliance of his 96/24 recordings, he's not a snob about it: “I want to be able to sell the same track to people multiple times — an MP3 for your iPod, as a Dolby or DTS file for your car, or when you don't have your high-end system with you. You can go to Windows Media Pro, Windows Media Lossless, to FLAC, to 96/24 PCM uncompressed — take your pick. Everybody can have what they want. It will sound good on anything.”
AIX is not the only label doing this, and Waldrep is quick to acknowledge that there are many people out there who are striving to improve the state-of-the-art, but he does want to distinguish himself from companies who are releasing 96/24 versions of either old and recent analog recordings, or digital recordings made to analog tape: “Both are going to have some hiss throughout; it's a flavor of recording,” Waldrep notes. And he recognizes that the journey to full acceptance of surround is a long one: “Probably 75 percent of the people are still locked into the stereo mode. That's fine, but it's a little less interesting than sitting somebody down in the room and playing them this incredible [unreleased] Jennifer Warnes session in 5.1 with Dean Parks and Vinnie Colaiuta and all these great musicians surrounding you. That will convert you!”