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DVD-Audio and SACD Flounder Partly Because of The Need for 5.1 Remixes  Print E-mail
Home Theater News Music - Technology News
Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Wednesday, 01 May 2002

Both new audio formats, DVD-Audio and SCAD, are randy for consumer momentum and significant record company support after basically missing the all important Christmas season in 2001. A clear-cut format war between the Sony-Philips team vs. Matsushita, AOL Time-Warner and others isn’t helping clear things up either.

On the creative side, there is another complicating factor that is rarely discussed. Few enthusiasts disagree the power of both DVD-A and SACD lies in high-resolution surround sound capabilities, but making a stereo version of a record into a surround version is not as easy as waving a magic wand at the master tapes. In fact, the process can be downright difficult on both a creative and a political level.

When stereo recordings are remastered for CD, the goal is nearly always to take a master recording mixdown dedicated to stereo and make it sound better, better being defined as "more like the master tape of the original event." In the event of 5.1 audio, "better" isn’t necessarily more like the master tape, because all but the newest recordings (and a limited number of quad recordings from the late 1970s) were not mixed and mastered for surround sound applications from the start.

The difficulty arises when you creatively have to reinterpret how a very familiar song or album sounds in stereo for surround. Just look at the way the under-enlightened, old-school audio-video print magazine writers attacked veteran record producer Bob Margouleff’s early DTS CD remixes of Boyz II Men and Marvin Gaye. Yes, they were different from what we were used to, but at the same time, they rocked in ways that stereo recordings couldn’t. Most enthusiasts liked the mixes or at least saw the potential for the new formats for music playback, yet they longed for more. DVD-Audio offered new hope and the powers behind SACD got wise to the consumer demand for surround sound and developed a surround sound specification. To date, there are over 215 DVD-Audio discs, all in surround, and a few handfuls of SACD titles are also in surround. The argument that there are no systems that can play the discs is frequently made, but SACDs play on conventional CD players and DVD-Audio discs play in surround (in the default surround mode like DTS or Dolby Digital, as opposed to the higher resolution MLP surround Mix) on a traditional DVD-Video player through its digital audio connection on your receiver or AV preamp. The real problem is that it is logistically difficult and politically even harder to make a surround mix that the artist, management, original engineer and record label will accept for release to those of us with the gear ready to rock at home.

The logistics for getting a record remixed and remastered to surround are insane. Imagine, for example, if EMI wanted to release Rubber Soul on DVD-Audio. They would need to remaster it to surround. With John and George gone, you’d might need to hire original producer George Martin and get Paul and Ringo in for consultations. Then you’d need an engineer/producer who knows 5.1 like Alan Parsons (who engineered Abbey Road) to oversee the surround mix. You then need to book costly time in one of the better recording studios or mastering houses to do the project and there aren’t many of these suites around the world. You can see how the costs get sky high and the logistics make the project practically impossible. Factor in how few systems to date can realize all of the advantages of SACD and DVD-Audio at their best and there is no wonder the record companies are shy about releasing lots of content. It is going to take a few more years on the market and pressure from the content conglomerates like AOL-Time Warner and Universal to make one of the new formats fly. It wouldn’t hurt to add in a few million car audio players, as well as to standardize a digital connection for these two formats that allows for suitable copy protection. Then you’ll see the CD go the way of the LP.

In the not so distant future, we may see mainstream music adopt a different model for remixes much like the one currently found in the world of electronic music. Unlike the makers of popular music, electronic artists are encouraged to remix other artists' music, adding their own signature sound to the core sound. Bjork, Orbital, Underworld, The Dust Brothers and William Orbit are heavily involved in re-crafting both electronic and even popular songs. Jazz and blues musicians have re-styled songs for years live. Jimi Hendrix and Van Halen covered Dylan and Kinks songs in ways that sounded completely different. Creatively it worked.

Perhaps the idea of re-mixing for surround sound should be re-thought itself. What if surround sound mixes were done by any number of talented engineers and creative producers? Back to the Beatles example: it would be great to have the dream team remix Rubber Soul with the goal of absolute accuracy with the best possible restoration. I’d also be interested in hearing what Bob Margouleff or even someone as avant garde as William Orbit would do with a surround mix, perhaps released as supplemental material. There is room for some of these goodies on a DVD-Audio disc or even as a two-disc set.

With SACD and DVD-Audio, there are far more colors and far more canvas to use in painting audio masterpieces. Perhaps we the consumers and the record companies who own the masters need to re-access the way we look at music in surround mixes in ways that make it easier and more profitable to release music in surround. Art isn’t necessarily about accuracy and restoration as much as it is about interpretation. Just ask any symphony conductor.







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