December 19, 2020 | 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 and 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 multi-channel
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
Fundamental questions loom regarding the philosophy of recording
and mixing. Is a recording supposed to capture a specific performance
within a particular space for reproduction in your living room?
Reality went out the door when Les Paul started using overdubs
in his early 3-track recordings. Maybe there are several valid
ways to mix a multi channel 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.