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Applying DVD-Audio: Authoring Pioneers Report from the Frontier

Philip De Lancie

July 2001 | In theory, the genius of the DVD family of formats lies in the ability of a single medium to handle a multitude of applications. Built on a common physical and logical foundation, yet flexible enough to accommodate diverse requirements, DVD boasts economies of scale and–imperfect though it is–a measure of cross-format compatibility within the family. As a result, every new DVD format begins life with a big head-start. But unlike in politics, it takes more than good family connections to survive in the consumer electronics marketplace. It's not enough to be born a DVD; you have to justify your existence by filling a need that isn't otherwise met. Of the six DVD formats accepted so far by the DVD Forum, DVD-Audio seems to be having the hardest time making its case heard. The consumer electronics and record industries spent years defining the format's capabilities, including not only ultra-fidelity audio, but also integrated graphics and text, plus playback of DVD-Video material. But once they finished wrangling over details of the specification, they seemingly lost interest, and they haven't yet followed through with the kind of grand launch that's usually required to get a new format off the ground. Instead, there's been a trickle of hardware, and the major record labels (with the exception of Warner Music Group) have essentially done nothing to supply titles. To make matters worse, Sony and Philips have been busy with their own alternative, Super Audio CD.

While most labels and manufacturers continue to fiddle, the Internet phenomenon is blazing, and music download is one of its hottest applications. By now, the very idea of buying music on a prerecorded disc has come to be seen as terminally un-hip by some tech-savvy fans, many of whom might otherwise have been early adopters of the new DVD-Audio format.

Against this discouraging backdrop, a few facilities with DVD authoring capability have taken the leap into DVD-Audio, working on the first generation of titles. Guided by their input, it's possible to get a feel for how the new format might be used, and to explore some of the issues that will ultimately determine its fate.

Better than Good Enough?

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for DVD-Audio is the success of the format's closest forebear, CD-Audio. Given the huge installed base of CD players and drives, the justification for moving to a different format has to be very strong. DVD-Audio promises better sound quality than CD, but as the MP3 phenomenon clearly shows, fidelity is by no means the only determinant of a format's appeal. Even if it were, the percentage of listeners who will be able to tell that DVD-Audio is better than CD is probably quite small. "I don't know anyone," says James Moore, technical director and operations manager at Metropolis DVD in New York City, "that has said, 'This CD just doesn't sound good enough–I need a better-sounding format.'"

Of course, CD doesn't offer surround sound, but Moore is skeptical that this will be enough to float DVD-Audio's boat. "Most people don't have a surround sound system," he says, "let alone one that is capable of reproducing 192kHz/ 24-bit audio." Moore, who's completed five DVD-Audio titles, hastens to add that he's not at all opposed to the format, and that he is "as much of an audiophile as anyone," with a background in audio recording, mixing, and mastering. But he wonders whether DVD-Audio is the right vehicle for combining extended fidelity with multimedia.

"On DVD-Audio," he says, "high-resolution audio can only be played back with a set of about 15 still images before you need a break in the audio stream to load more graphics into memory. And you cannot have high-resolution audio and video playing back at the same time."

In Moore's view, the most sensible solution to these limitations is the format that was already building its installed base while the DVD-Audio specification was lost in limbo: DVD-Video. "DVD-Video has an audio spec that far surpasses the CD," he says, "plus incredible video and interactive capabilities. So we can show the labels that we can put their 24-bit audio and incredible-sounding surround sound–along with MPEG-2 video and Electronic Press Kit material–on an interactive format that already has an installed base in the tens of millions. If you need video and interactive content, you should be making a DVD-Video."

Not everyone, however, shares Moore's concerns that DVD-Audio doesn't offer enough advantages over its better-established relatives. "Record labels, producers, artists, recording engineers, and mastering engineers have all been begging for a format that can play back audio at higher sample-rates and larger bit-depths," says Kurt Alexander from DVD-Audio Client Services at Panasonic Disc Services Corporation in Torrance, California. "This format will now realize those needs. And the DVD-Audio format also allows for copy protection of the audio content."

Of course, as Moore has pointed out, high-resolution audio is supported on DVD-Video as well. But the total bit rate allocable to audio on a DVD-Video is limited to 6.144Mbps, compared to 9.6Mbps on DVD-Audio. And DVD-Video does not incorporate Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP), an audio encoding scheme that can achieve data reduction of 40% or more in linear PCM (LPCM) signals while maintaining bit-for-bit integrity between the original and the decoded output. MLP makes possible six channels of 24-bit/96kHz audio on a DVD-Audio. On a DVD-Video, audio at the same resolution is limited to two channels, while the highest resolution for six-channel sound is 20-bit/48kHz.

If the audio resolution supported by DVD-Video is, like that of CD, generally perceived to be "good enough," and if–crucially–the audio outputs on DVD-Video players truly take advantage of what the discs themselves can deliver, then once again there's a question about what unique benefit the new format offers, particularly given DVD-Video's rapidly growing installed base. Luckily, labels don't really have to choose; if their budget allows, they can combine both formats on one disc.

"Record companies care about their audio and know that the norm is going to be DVD-Audio fidelity, not Dolby Digital or DTS," says Mark Waldrep, president and CEO of AIX Media Group in West Hollywood, California. "So we make sure that the titles take advantage of both platforms." Waldrep uses the word "Tribrid" to describe discs that deliver the same content in a DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, and DVD-ROM environment. For now, such discs may end up being played mostly on DVD-Video players, but their DVD-Audio content will be accessible to those with DVD-Audio and "Universal" players (both DVD-Video and DVD-Audio in one box).

Reissues and Fresh Tracks

AIX has completed about five Tribrid discs to date, and is currently working on another 20. "We expect to complete 50 to 100 in the next 12 months," Waldrep says. So far, the titles include both reissues that are remixed from analog 24-track masters and new productions using newly recorded 24-bit/96kHz multitracks. The company also makes demonstration discs for hardware manufacturers to bundle and use at trade shows.

"We consult, design, and prepare both audio and video, and author DVD-Audio and DVD-Video," Waldrep says. "For audio, we have the capacity to record, mix, and master at high-resolution using our Euphonix R-1 digital multitrack deck, Euphonix System 5 console, and Sonic Solutions HD Mastering system. We're using SonicStudio HD version 5.3 and OneClick to prepare the files for the Sonic DVD Creator authoring system." AIX also has a complete graphics department for static and motion images, a video editing and production area, and multiple DVD authoring systems.

"We make extensive use of video and camera angles, alternate mixes, and, of course, the high-resolution audio in MLP," Waldrep says. "We use dedicated stereo mixes rather than rely on the machine to downmix during playback. We include files for Web connections, and we place slide-shows and lyrics in the DVD-Audio portion."

Because DVD-Audio's main advantage is its priority on fidelity, the format is largely the province of labels catering to audiophiles, just as CD was in its early days. "When a client decides to create a DVD-Audio disc," says Ari Zagnit, DVD developer at Henninger Interactive Media Services in Arlington, Virginia, "they have in mind that they need to cater to an audience that appreciates and can hear the difference between compressed audio formats–Dolby Digital, DTS, and MPEG–and the full-bandwidth nature of LPCM and MLP. The clients that we have try to gear their products toward that kind of individual."

Zagnit says Henninger currently has three DVD-Audio titles in production, and expects to complete about 35 this year. "To date," he says, "we have done everything: preparing the sound files for DVD-Audio, encoding, authoring, and outputting disc images for replication."

So far, Henninger's DVD-Audio projects have primarily been new releases for rock and alternative bands, as well as some Jazz. "They've all been encoded in either 24-bit LPCM or MLP surround," Zagnit says. "More often than not, the title provides an equivalent surround experience in both DVD-Audio and DVD-Video; the majority of the commercially available discs that I have seen have been designed like that. Plus, the discs we've done all include companion video segments and additional graphic content for added value." At PDSC, Alexander reports that over 20 DVD-Audio titles have been completed so far. "Thirteen are available now," he says, "from labels such as SurroundedBy Entertainment and 5.1 Entertainment. We also have a dozen or so titles currently in progress that should be completed within the next month, including some projects from Universal Music Group and other major labels." The titles are all DVD-9s (single-sided, dual-layer), in genres including Classical, Jazz, and R&B.;

"Most of the projects are new releases, with surround audio as the focal point," Alexander continues. "They contain the most common DVD-Audio features, such as browsable pages with audio playing in the background, linked-lyric Slide Shows, video elements, and multiple sources of high-definition audio. Additional advanced features include customized speaker testing and hybrid discs with DVD-ROM information."

For the coming year, PDSC anticipates working on some 100 DVD-Audio releases. "We are expecting our clients to as much as double the number of projects," Alexander adds, "once key major labels demonstrate their full support of the format."

Alexander says PDSC's Compression and Authoring Department is set up for all aspects of DVD production. "Our services," he explains, "include everything: disc design and consultation, audio capturing and encoding, video compression, authoring, and quality assurance. PDSC can handle disc replication, packaging, and fulfillment as well. Future plans include providing full video production services, from on-location shoots to video and audio editing. The ultimate goal is to provide our clients with a turnkey solution for their final products."

Learning New Steps

Many of the processes and tools used for DVD-Audio in areas such as video encoding and graphics preparation are the same as those used for DVD-Video. Some steps, however, are quite different, including authoring, encryption, and MLP audio encoding.

"It turns out that making MLP files is very touchy," AIX's Waldrep says. "There has to be constant QC'ing of source elements and encoded files along the way." Moore adds that the only way to thoroughly check MLP files is to burn a reference DVD-R, because there are currently no "WYSIWIG" MLP proofing tools.

"Once everyone likes the audio," Metropolis DVD's Moore continues, "we can start authoring." While DVD-Audio and DVD-Video seem broadly similar on the surface, the details of the specification are different in many ways, so the well-developed authoring tools available for DVD-Video don't work for DVD-Audio.

"GUI [graphical user interface] tools for this part of the process are still in the Dark Ages," Moore continues. "So, believe it or not, most of the authoring involves hard-scripting by hand using a text editor. Fortunately, DVD-A doesn't allow for the complex interactivity of DVD-V, so authoring scripts will usually be less than a couple hundred pages of code. But if some company could make a GUI tool for creating these titles, they could have a monopoly on the market."

Apparently, Moore isn't the only one who recognizes that there's room for improvement: Sonic Solutions announced at April's National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention in Las Vegas that it was integrating a DVD-Audio authoring system developed by Panasonic's parent, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. (MEI) into Sonic's DVD Creator AV DVD-Audio authoring tool. The companies claim that MEI's DVD-Audio tool-kit will offer authors "a simplified user interface and intuitive drag-and-drop operation."

As for encryption, DVD-Audio's protections against piracy include not only the CSS approach used for DVD-Video, but also a system called CPPM. When the title's content is completed, approved, and verified, PDSC's Alexander says, a DLT is created with all necessary flags for CSS, Macrovision, and CPPM. CPPM encryption currently involves an off-line system that requires manual implementation. "To complete the encryption process," he explains, "the information from the DLT is dumped back to a hard-drive, the disc image is scrambled using the encryption software, uploaded back to DLT, and then verified once again."

From Infancy to Acceptance

To get into the DVD-Audio game early, these authoring facilities have had to make time and money investments that may only be recouped if the format achieves broad acceptance. They are mindful of the uncertainties, but for the most part hopeful. "The technology is still in its infancy," Henninger's Zagnit says. "As more production tools become available, making a DVD-Audio disc will become a less cumbersome process, which should in turn help to make more DVD-Audio titles commercially available."

Zagnit also points out that the current situation isn't necessarily indicative of DVD-Audio's long-term pros- pects. "If we've learned anything from the history of new technologies," he says, "the introductory phase will be slow, but within a couple years, we should see a boom in sales. Of course, with competing formats coming out, like Super Audio CD, you never know what's going to happen."

Meanwhile, Moore anticipates a longer, slower lift-off. "I think that it will be five years before DVD-Audio becomes practical," he says. "It's going to require better tools. It's going to require inexpensive Universal players. And it's going to require inexpensive high-quality playback systems."

Another important requirement, as Alexander suggests, is to promote awareness– among both the public and professionals–of what the format is and why consumers should invest in it. "Developers and supporters of DVD-Audio," he says, "must generate an understanding within the record and re- cording industries that this format will take their music to the next level that has been demanded for so long."

Alexander adds that the recent introduction of Universal players for DVD-Audio and DVD-Video should act as a catalyst for DVD-Audio. "It will bring in not only those who do not own a DVD player," he says, "but also those who plan on upgrading their DVD player within their current home theater system."

Waldrep, the most bullish of the bunch, agrees that Universal players are the key. "DVD-Audio and DVD-Video hardware will meld into a single unit by the end of the year," he says, "with the arrival of $250 players that handle both. That will make every consumer household a potential surround sound/DVD-Audio-capable home. And with the format's installation in automobiles, I believe that the outlook for Tribrid DVD-Audio/Video discs is even larger than for DVD-Video movies."


Companies Mentioned in This Article

AIX Media Group
8455 Beverly Boulevard, Suite 500, West Hollywood, CA 90048; 323/655-4116, 323/655-4771; Fax 323/655-8893; http://www.aixmediagroup.com

Henninger Media Services
2601-A Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA 22201; 703/243-3444; http://www.henninger.com

Metropolis DVD
1790 Broadway, 9th Floor, New York, NY 10019; 212/675-7300; Fax 212/765-9336; http://www.metropolisdvd.com

Panasonic Disc Services Corporation
20608 Madrona Avenue, Torrance, CA 90503; 310/783-4800; Fax 310/783-4804; http:/www.panasonicdvd.com

Sonic Solutions
101 Rowland Way, Novato, CA 94945; 888/766-4248, 415/893-8000; Fax 415/893-8008; http://www.sonic.com

Warner Music Group
http://www.wmg.com



Philip De Lancie (pdel@compuserve.com) is a freelance writer on media production and formats, and co-author of the book DVD Production from Focal Press.

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