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Music on DVD: A Test for Terminology and Format

Mark Waldrep

August 2000 | If you've installed a 5.1 surround sound system in your home entertainment area or automobile, and have begun looking for music software that will take advantage of your new multispeaker setup, you may be confused by the variety of products that are available. What should be a fairly simple process can be daunting even to those who follow the world of surround music. For instance, what are the differences between a "music DVD-Video," DVD-Audio, and "DVD-Music" product? In fact, is DVD-Music a product line or a new subcategory of the format? And how do you know which features of a particular software title will play in a particular hardware setup? Can a DVD-Audio disc released using only MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing) to encode a 5.1 surround stream at 96kHz/24-bit play on your already-installed DVD-Video system? With the new "smart folddown" of 5.1 to stereo or "5.1 extraction" of stereo to 5.1, who's making the decisions about what gets collapsed and what gets expanded?

Then there's the question of packaging and retailing new optical discs focused on music. Do you look in the CD section for DVDs that contain surround music, and will they be in CD jewel boxes or DVD-Video packaging? Maybe the titles will be in the DVD-Video section along with the movie releases. While the record companies and the RIAA have been grappling with format issues and CSS-2 encryption schemes for DVD-Audio, DVD-Video titles that focus on musicians or live concerts have proven very popular among devotees of the format. Some blockbuster titles like the Eagles' Hell Freezes Over concert have approached unit sales of 200,000, and even older "repurposed" VHS live events, by artists like Barry Manilow or Iron Maiden, were in the top 30 list of all music DVD-Video releases at press time.

Clearly, there's a demand for well-produced products that you can enjoy over and over again. A music product, unlike a motion picture, can be played repeatedly without losing its appeal. When produced with 5.1 surround audio tracks, the experience is further enhanced and worth buying again in the DVD format. Consumers need a buyer's guide, a sort of lexicon "plus" to find the artists/titles they're interested in, which will allow them to wade through the techno-babble issued by the promoters and marketing gurus that sell the stuff.

DVD-Video products, packaged in VSDA standard boxes, can contain concert video and 5.1 surround music tracks. The surround audio that accompanies the video is prepared using Dolby Digital or DTS "perceptual" encoding methodologies, both of which are considered "lossy" and therefore unacceptable to the recording industry (even though most of the consuming public couldn't tell the difference between the input and output). If you want an audiophile-quality listening experience, you'll have to wait for the DVD-Audio format with its "lossless" MLP encoding scheme, which is capable of presenting full high-resolution 96 kHz/24-Bit 5.1 surround. The surround audio track on any music release can be completely re-mixed from the original multitrack master (using the same outboard gear, producer, and engineer) or "extracted" from the stereo master using phase switching, delays, reverbs, and EQ techniques. Just because the package says there is a 5.1 audio track doesn't necessarily mean there is a "discrete" multichannel mix on the disc. Extractions are required when the original materials are unavailable or the cost of remixing the audio would be too great.

The pros and cons of mixing music in surround are currently being debated among artists, recording industry insiders, and the engineering community. I recently read an interview with flautist Ian Anderson of the group Jethro Tull, whose take on the surround question was that "human beings have two ears, therefore two speakers should be plenty." Even if an artist/producer subscribes to the validity of using 5.1 speakers, the placement of the instruments in the mix can dramatically affect the overall listening experience. Is it appropriate for individual instruments to emerge from the surround speakers or should only room ambiance be delivered from behind a listener?

My opinion is that anything goes. If you can enhance a piece of music by using the full magnitude of the technology available, including placing individual instruments in their own "sonic spaces," then go right ahead. One of my favorite recordings, and soon to be released as a DVD-Video/DVD-Audio disc, is the Ives Quartet with Delores Stevens performing the first Brahms String Quintet in F minor. Each member of the ensemble is allocated his/her own physical location in the 5.1 mix. The listener can experience the music completely immersed in the sound, or switch to the audience perspective and listen as if sitting in the hall and not on stage.

But once you've decided where you stand on surround, how do you differentiate the different DVD disc types? DVD-Music is not a subformat but instead a marketing moniker for music DVD-Video discs. The DVD-Audio specification is coming, but has been delayed once again due to concerns over copyrights and encryption. The CSS-2 "upgraded" security methodology is still undergoing scrutiny before being installed into the new hardware. Pioneer has actually issued "universal" hardware in Japan and promises to install new "firmware" as the CSS-2 issue is resolved. For now, getting "into" surround music remains an unnecessarily difficult challenge but is still worth the attempt.


Mark Waldrep (mwaldrep@aixmediagroup.com) is the President and CEO of AIX Media Group, an international company specializing in the innovative use of emerging technologies such as DVD and the Internet. He is also a professor in the Division of Performing and Media Arts at the California State University at Dominguez Hills.

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