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Between the Lines
DVD-Audio: The Myth of High-Resolution

Mark Waldrep

February, 2001 | Readers of this column know that I'm a fan of DVD-Audio. As a musician, audio engineer, and consumer of recorded music, I'm tremendously excited by the potential of this new DVD format and anticipate that its benefits will transform the way that we experience our favorite bands or artists. But of the few DVD-Audio products that have been released, only a select few demonstrate the real advantages of this new "meta" format. In order for DVD-Audio to become the successor to the aging compact disc format and find a place of favor, there must be a substantial improvement in the quality of the experience. The DVD-Audio titles that have been made available so far fail to reach the necessary standard. It comes down to a matter of recording resolution and mixing philosophy.

The fidelity of CDs is based on the particular technology of their digitization scheme and the specific parameters associated with that technology. Compact discs use pulse code modulation (PCM) to convert analog signals into the bits and bytes pressed into the surface of an optical disc. The familiar 44.1kHz/16-bit Red Book standard defines the maximum "theoretical" quality level of any music recorded according to those standards. Most CDs come up somewhat short of this ideal, but are still markedly better than the average analog LP. DVD-Audio brings a new set of parameters to PCM encoding methodology. Instead of digitizing at 44.1kHz/16-bit, the new machines are capable of playing back at substantially higher rates and with word sizes that extend all the way to 24 bits (although the limitations of the conversion hardware makes achieving that standard virtually impossible).

High-resolution audio is anything recorded at 96kHz/24-bit or higher. However, almost all of the DVD-Audio titles available now or on the way have not been recorded at 96kHz/ 24-bit, but merely transferred at some point in post-production using a high-resolution converter. Contrary to the prominent stickers and lettering on DVD-Audio packaging and the pronouncements by industry "authorities" about how the sound quality is astonishingly clear and beyond anything you've ever heard, the releases so far are predominantly 5.1 remixes of analog master tapes or low-resolution digital masters. How can you hope to attract audiophiles and the music-consuming public to the new format, when the software being made available doesn't even take advantage of one of its major selling points? It's simply another case of LoRez in equals LoRez out. The fidelity of any recording is established at the time of the original session and cannot be magically transformed via HiRez digital copying later on. Yet this has been hailed as a quality improvement as profound as "moving from B&W; television to color." A better analogy would be the "colorization" of classic B&W; films...a development that didn't exactly warm the hearts of the creative community.

There are practical and technical reasons why 96kHz/ 24-bit "source" recordings are not the centerpiece of the new DVD-Audio format. It's expensive and complicated to produce new recordings using only high-resolution equipment. AIX Records has produced and released over 10 new high-resolution recordings. We've recorded jazz ensembles, classical music by orchestras and chamber groups, and a variety of acoustic ensembles including bluegrass bands, solo acoustic guitar, and percussion. It makes a tremendous difference. The music occupies the space with the listener instead of existing behind the speakers. We produced a DVD-Audio sampler disc (available at http://www.aixrecords.com), which demonstrates the fidelity of high-resolution audio and the reality of "immersive" 5.1 channel surround mixing. It's a "Tribrid" disc that's playable on DVD-Audio, Video, and ROM devices.

Where the current range of DVD-Audio products do take advantage of the new spec is in the area of 5.1-channel surround sound. The Fleetwood Mac Rumours DVD-Audio title can never be high-resolution (it was recorded on 24-track analog equipment), but it is a wonderful example of what can be done with multichannel mixing. The listener is surrounded by musical parts and vocal harmonies. The same music that you've been listening to for all these years is reborn and sounds fresh again. There are things in the music that can be heard for the first time because they exist in their own "sonic space." Mixing a surround project is actually easier than trying to mix the same project in just two speakers. There's so much more room to place the individual tracks. Engineers are experimenting with this newfound sense of freedom and no one is really sure how to approach the world of 5.1-channel surround.

Maybe there are several valid ways to mix a multichannel project. Some consumers will enjoy being placed in the middle of the music–choosing the so-called "stage" mix–while others will prefer to retreat to the familiarity of the best seat in the house, the "audience" mix. During the mixing of the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, I was heartened to find that the musicians enthusiastically endorsed the aggressive placement of the instruments around the room. The listener hears the individual parts from the middle of the ensemble and can adjust his or her own blend by moving closer to the instruments that need to be louder. Admittedly, the experience is completely unlike attending a concert, but it is nonetheless compelling and engaging. So there's good news and not-so-good news about how the DVD-Audio format is being handled. There is a revolution coming... you just can't quite hear it yet.

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.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.


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