An On Screen Interview with Widescreen Review
Tricia Spears, Widescreen Review: Has surround music been a disappointment as far as market penetration to this point?
Mark Waldrep, AIX Records:
In terms of the DVD-Audio and SA-CD formats themselves, yeah, they have not reached mainstream acceptance to the degree that anybody would have hoped. But the world of high-resolution surround music is alive and well. I think it’s even expanding. For example, AIX Records just finished a custom sampler for Acura, which is going in each of their new high-end RL model automobiles. They have two more automobiles with surround systems in them and are planning to equip their entire product line within a year or two. There are also several from Infinity and Nissan, Toyota and Lexus as well. Detroit is getting into the act, so the ability to play surround music—it may come from a music server, it may come from XM satellite radio or from optical discs, but the move to surround music is inevitable. It’s just going to take a little bit more time than what anybody would have liked.
I have just opened up my new high resolution, surround mixing/demo facility. It’s really a wonderful room, all digital signal path, B&W speakers, Niveus, Meridian, Audience, Cardas, Stewart, Runco…a state-of-the-art media delivery room. I had the Los Angeles and Orange County Audiophile Society in for a visit a few weeks ago. This is a group that is traditionally two-channel. In fact, they’re advocating vinyl over CD’s regularly, and I am naturally sensitive to that because I’ve never made a CD. They don’t sound good—even the best CD’s pale in comparison to true high resolution recordings. I tried to down-convert one of our tracks and make CDs as demos for some vendors at the Home Entertainment Show and it just didn’t survive. But the audiophile group was assembled in the midst of my 5.1-system and the opening salvo included a question from one of the most conservative guys. He asked, “How many people in here are really interested in having this kind of surround system in their house?” and only two people in the audience raised their hands. But after some explanations and demonstrations, many of them understood my motivations and that I was serious about what I’m doing. They appreciated that I have dedicated a lot of my time and resources to making the best high resolution, surround projects possible and that my background is in music. I have a Ph.D. in music composition as well as academic degrees in Art and Computer Science, so they got it that I wasn’t just a “gimmick hound” that was trying to come up with something to make more sales happen. When they listened and rotated in and out of the sweet spot, several of them said aloud, “This is the best music reproduction I’ve ever heard,” and several others came up to me confidentially afterwards and said, “You know, you’ve opened a door here. I had no idea it could be like this.”
So, it’s my belief that exposure to a great system and to music well performed and recorded can turn even the most ardent stereophiles into multi channel believers. AIX Records is creating programs that actually advance the state-of-that-art as new technology becomes available for production and delivery. Sadly, what some other labels have done is simply repackage older standard resolution tracks in 5.1 surround and hoped that people would flock to their titles. They have usually been disappointed. So DVD-Audio and SA-CD may have failed to catch on but the confluence of HD Video and High Resolution Surround audio in the new optical disc formats [HD-DVD or Blu-Ray] may just be the second chance that we need. And I think, more importantly, media servers and online delivery are going to shake things up in a big way.
AIX has got over 700 tracks that have all been recorded the same way. The word of mouth on our stuff has been very encouraging…enough to keep us in business over these past 6 years. I get emails everyday from bew customers saying, “I had no idea that audio could sound so incredible. Keep up the great work.”
WSR Spears: How may DVD-Audio discs have you made?
Waldrep: We’re up to 50 individual titles. That’s about 10 new ones per year. There are another nine that are are in various stages of post production. Some advocates ad reviewers have said that AIX is one of the best “DVD-Audio” labels out there. I’m not a DVD-Audio label at all; I’m a high-resolution, surround music production company that is currently delivering on the DVD-Audio/Video format. But we’re also developing a high resolution download Web site called iTrax.com that will be online this fall. Imagine accessing and downloading high resolution, surround music directly to my Niveus media server. The new site will be the first to deliver real high resolution, surround music.
My problem is that distribution is challenging in remote areas of the world. If somebody in Oslo, Sweden or Johannesburg, South Africa wants an AIX track or album, they have to wait until a physical disc gets there. And that can be tremendously expensive in terms of value added tax, shipping, and insurance. But iTrax.com will be able to deliver an iTunes-type experience except without the fidelity compromises.
Danny Richelieu, Widescreen Review: So, how would those files be delivered? What format would they be in?
Waldrep: Windows Media Audio. Customers would have the choice as to what quality level and what mix perspective they want. The tracks would be available in a variety of quality levels and in several different mixes. A customer can chose between a lossless “stage” mix or an “audience” perspective that doesn’t take up much time to download. iTrax.com is completely scalable. When you go to a download Web site right now and purchase a track, they tell you what quality you’re going to get. It might be 128, 192 Kbps, even up to 500, or even more kbps. iTrax will give you a variety of fidelity levels, all the way up to true lossless high-resolution. If you start with CD quality sound, it doesn’t matter as much as recordings that were captured at 96 kHz/24-bits. You can’t get any better than the quality that you start with, which means analog tape or CDs are never going to be as good as real high-resolution tracks. And that’s what we deliver, real high resolution recordings and we’ll continue to deliver them through whatever means are available. We’ll use physical optical discs, online delivery and even satellite broadcasts.
WSR Richelieu: So iTrax.com will only provide high-resolution tracks…nothing that came from a CD or analog tape?
Waldrep: Right. When someone goes to iTrax.com, they will be guaranteed that these tracks were recorded at high-resolution and that they are being delivered to you in high-resolution. No funny business with upsampling or decimating down or whatever. When you take a track from most of the people that have been doing older mixes into the 5.1 surround format, you start with analog tape or low-resolution digital. There’s just no way to improve the quality after the source is made. Think about this… if you shot home movies in 1958 at a family Christmas on 8mm film and then did a telecine to a high-def 1080p capture, it’s still going to look like 1958 8mm film not like the footage that new equipment can deliver. The amount of data that you have in the beginning is what you get.
AIX Records is a specialty-type label. I know that. We produce products of uncompromised quality to give listeners that really appreciate music and that have reasonably good systems a chance to hear music the way that it should be heard. There are many thousands of people that appreciate what we do. We’ve been very fortunate that many of them pass along the information to their friends. Getting our tracks into the Acura RL automobile wasn’t an easy thing, but after they had heard a bunch of other tracks, they came back to AIX and proposed to use only ours.
WSR Spears: That’s great.
Waldrep: Seven of our best tracks are on that “Gift of Music” sampler.
WSR Richelieu: So, I take it that you’re expecting the surround music market to go more towards downloads through a media server in the home. Do you still plan on producing DVD-Audio discs?
Waldrep: Oh, sure. The kind of things that we’re doing with DVD-Audio discs are really much more than that. I’m finishing up one with Lowen and Navarro right now, and it has four sides. It’s a DualDisc® with a DVD-Audio side and a stereo CD side for portability. The other disc contains a two-hour linear “PBS-type” program using DVD-Video and the other side has all the media in an interactive layout.
WSR Spears: What about SA-CD?
Waldrep: I’m not interested. One, it doesn’t have multimedia capability, which I think is the future. Our productions have over three hours of multimedia content. I’m finishing up a six-minute montage on Eric Lowen’s career and life and am using Ken Burns-style photographic fades through the background over a piece of surround music. There are plenty of really good-sounding SA-CD’s, but I prefer high resolution PCM and the DVD-Audio/Video format. There are lots of traditional record companies and consumers that are all about the music experience. They simply want to listen to the tracks and SA-CD does a reasonable job of that. With the CD hybrid layer, it’s even better.
But at the end of the day, I’m building media experiences, so our choice was DVD-Audio/Video. We’re a media record label rather than just audio because we shoot video of everything. We want our customer to have the ability to sit down in front of a big ten-foot screen and watch high-def video of people playing live in surround sound. I think it’s a better experience than just listening to it on a stereo CD or even a good quality SA-CD.
It’s about sales and marketing. Look, people make great sounding SA-CD’s and people make great sounding DVD-Audio discs. I get particular pleasure when somebody writes me and says, “You know, until I heard your stuff, I was an SA-CD fan.” It’s so much more about the production process that goes into making the discs…where you record, how you record, whether you use equalization and compression and all the other stuff that can really destroy fidelity. When you don’t do all that stuff, you can make some really great-sounding recordings.
WSR Spears: Right. Have you looked into surround music releases on HD DVD or Blu-ray Disc?
Waldrep: I have. It’s pretty disappointing that most of the discs that are out there don’t actually use TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio yet. The tools are very much in their development stages. Theses formats continue the ability of an optical disc to carry forward with a surround mix but will they get the chance in the face of broadband delivery? It’s extremely expensive, for one, to make those discs right now. There are only 10,000 players that were made from Toshiba. Maybe the Blu-ray numbers will be a little bit higher. The feedback on the forums has not been encouraging. Right now there are over a million media servers in America’s homes. So, if home installers are putting media servers into the high-end rooms, and my clientele are high-end guys that like to have the best, I’m not particularly bothered by not being able to get HD DVD or Blu-ray products out. They present a linear movie kind of experience. Music can be enjoyed without your eyes glued to a screen. While I would love to be there and have that equipment, it’s not worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars to me to go after a market that’s at war with each other. Online delivery is coming to home theater new you very soon. It’s no joke that Intel® and Microsoft® are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make a machine capable of playing high-resolution multi-channel audio.
WSR Richelieu: So, what are your impressions so far of these new codecs-Dolby Digital Plus, TrueHD, DTS-HD and DTS-HD Master Audio?
Waldrep: The specifications are very impressive. That they expand these things out to greater channels and so forth is admirable, but I don’t think that it means a whole lot, at least for the time being. We have to get the world ready to listen to music in surround. And being a guy that got a Ph.D. in binaural audio and knows a lot about what stereo, acoustics and hearing are all about, we’ve got a format right now that works great. I’ve recorded everything with stereo pairs and microphones and created the sort of soundfield that people are describing as hyper-real. “It’s the first time I’ve heard things sound better than real life,” that type of feedback. So, yeah, we want greater capability, but we have to make the marketing shift to people listening to more than just two speakers before we get too far down the line. I’ve heard 10.2, I’ve heard all the stuff that Tom Holman’s doing—I’ve even heard 100 speakers in a room down at a research lab in San Diego, but you can’t deliver that into the home. So, let’s stick with a format that we’ve got right now and make better quality happen, so that at the end of the day we can really deliver for the first time lossless audio and high-definition video at the same time. We’ve never been able to do that before and now we can. But we can and will do it. AIX did it at the Home Entertainment Show, I played high-definition video and lossless audio through our Niveus media server. It was a lot less expensive to make than a custom disc, I’ll tell you.
WSR Richelieu: So you think that’s how new consumers are going to get into surround music in the future, through media servers?
Waldrep: I do, yeah.
WSR Richelieu: You don’t see optical discs really driving the mass market?
Waldrep: I don’t, no. I think, and I stood in front of the International Recording Media Association in Scottsdale as a presenter/speaker a few years ago and said, “Look you replicators don’t have to worry about discs going away,” and they don’t. There will always be discs but the growth won’t be there like before. The AIX Collector’s Edition thing that I’m doing—it’s a $50 retail product—and the people that love Lowen & Morrow want a signed and numbered copy to put on the shelf, but in terms of just getting music down to listen to and enjoy, it’s going to be servers at home and in your car. Alpine® and Bose® have got that kind of technology today.
WSR Richelieu: Right. Going back to HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc, the formats allow for up to eight channels of 24-bit, 96 kHz LPCM on the disc, which would mean you could put a full 74-minute album in LPCM at its full data rate on these discs. Is that something you’re looking into?
Waldrep: Well, I’ve all ready got that. I mean, if you use MLP right now, you can do that. It’s only when you try and tie it in with a picture that it becomes difficult. So, yes, the idea of having LPCM means that I wouldn’t have to encode into MLP, which maybe would make things more compatible across the board if machines don’t have MLP decoders or Dolby TrueHD. They do, so whether it’s 5.1-channels or 7.1 or something in between, I mean, we have the capability and the producers will choose, depending on what they’re developing, whether it’s music or movies or some kind of art piece, just how much of that technology they’re going to use. I’m tremendously excited about it. I think it’s the right thing to do. There’s a lot of power there. It’s just not been popularized or marketed in such a way. When multi-channel audio came out the first time [on computers] I did a big sampler for Creative Labs with our stuff on it, and the problem that you’ve got even getting out to a million and a half people now that have surround systems attach to their computers through Creative Labs’ Sound Blaster X-Fi is this… are people sitting there listening to music that way? And what they’re listening to isn’t always a pleasant experience in surround land because of the variety of quality levels that get delivered. A lot of people that came up to me at the Home Entertainment Show said, “Mark, DVD-Audio is great; I love it, but I never know what I’m going to get. Because if I buy a disc from Company X and if I buy a disc from Company Y, or from you Mark, they might be three different things. One might be an old CD that’s been extracted and upsampled and called a DVD-Audio disc, one might have come from an analog tape from 30 years ago, and your stuff was recorded six months ago.” You never know what you’re going to get, so the quality level is all over the place, and that sort of killed it because people would get their big name band or their Yellow Brick Road or Dark Side Of The Moon. Depending on your format, they would be unhappy or many of them would be unhappy or feel violated that somebody took a classic record and spread it out into surround or that the old soundstage is moving in the midst of the mix. But that’s personal taste, and whether people have gotten used to that or not, but my experience has been, once you’ve played something for somebody that tries to build this high surreal surround field, there’s no going back.
It’s not about the business of music, I don’t do this to get rich, or I wouldn’t be putting out the kind of artists that I put out. I do this because I really want people to understand what the capabilities can be, and gladly we’ve bumped along enough and gotten enough recognition from people that we’ve made enough money to make the next one. In fact, enough to build a beautiful studio here to show off what we do to potential artists and managers and consumers and others.
WSR Richelieu: So kind of just to wrap this up, on the surface, surround music might look like it’s in a state of flux, with DVD-Audio and SA-CD waning, but how do you see, what do you see for the future of surround music?
Waldrep: I don’t think there’s any other place it can go. I absolutely believe that the only way that we’re going to be able to improve the listening experience is through multi-channel, surround music. You’ve got all the resolution in the world in terms of fidelity we don’t use it. Producers go to mastering sessions everyday and reduce the fidelity of their tracks. That’s what mastering engineers do. I spent 16 years as a mastering engineer. Make it louder. Do it again, it’s not as loud as it can be. There’s too much dynamic range. They’ve got to get this thing on the radio because that’s what record labels need, making a track sound louder than the previous one helps. So, there are all kinds of really slick tools to make what is generally dynamic music a pancake or a flat brick of sound. It’s not pleasant to listen to, to me, so if you’ve got that resolution and use it, and you then spread that out into a soundfield that is wider, bigger, and more immersive than what people have had, they love it. Surround will be built into homes, built into cars, they’ll even use convolution algorithms like Dolby Headphone to get it into a set of two-channel ear buds. That’s what people will hear, music more as an immersive type thing than previously. There’s no other place for it to go. The quality we’ve already achieved. I mean, when you listen to high-frequency cymbals and stuff at 96 kHz, you’ve got all there is to get. And dynamic range, if you leave it alone, it can be captured in 24-bits just great. But where else do you go? The future is in surround. I think I would end by saying the future is in high-resolution surround with media, visual, and otherwise.
WSR Richelieu: Yeah. Great.
Waldrep: It may take a bunch more years. It might take five years. It might be ten years. Think about what’s required to deliver lossless high-resolution 5.1, and it’s getting closer and closer to being reality. In my neighborhood, 15 to 20, or even 30 megabits a second coming through the pipes in the road is a common thing. And that’s even bigger in Scandinavia and in the Pacific Rim, they’ve already got it. So, yeah, it’s changed my attitude a lot over the course of the last two or three years to see what Intel and Microsoft and some of these high-end media servers are doing. We’ve now been able to compress the music without losing the fidelity and get it through a pipe so that anyone can listen to high-quality music virtually anywhere in the world. So if somebody wants to demo a high resolution, surround track, they can. I did it down in Florida at the EHX. I attached an Ethernet cable to the media server played our Demmy Award-winning track from Laurence Juber’s “Mosaic” record from his Guitar Noir recording, and people didn’t know it was coming through the Internet. That was a lossless file that I was streaming in 5.1 channels into that room.
WSR Richelieu: That’s great.
WSR Spears: Yeah.
Waldrep: Yeah, it was pretty cool. We are in a state of flux, but it’s not doom and gloom from my perspective. Maybe the formats didn’t catch fire, but the good content is still there, high-resolution music is still viable.
WSR Richelieu: Thanks, Mark, for a great On Screen interview.