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DVD-Audio: while producing DVD-A is no longer a problem, acceptance hasn’t happened yet

DVD-Audio: while producing DVD-A is no longer a problem, acceptance hasn’t happened yet

Mark R. Smith

The buzz surrounding DVD-Audio (DVD-A) is easy to comprehend: it offers high resolution sound. So, while normal CD uses Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) audio at 16-bit, 44.1 KHz resolution, DVD-A supports 24-bit, 192 KHz stereo and 962, 24-bit surround sound using MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing) encoding. For an audiophile, hearing the format in a professionally equipped room sounds like an aural dream realized.

Still, the fledgling format is at a crossroads. It’s so new that the Arlington, VA-based Consumer Electronics Association, or CEA (www.ce.org), just started tracking sales of player units, but isn’t releasing them yet

Accordingly not only are the offerings from the record companies a relative few popular titles (about 500 to date), the industry has consumers sitting on a fence, wondering whether to plunk their dollars down on a player (which also play Philips Red Book audio CDs). They retail in the $180 to $1,000 range.

That’s not to mention competition from other formats, notably Super Audio CD (SACD), Dolby Digital or DTS. But do consumers really want or need superior quality to jam to their fave tunes? Before anyone starts to wonder if DVD-A will become the next Quadraphonic, read on.

OUT OF THE GATE

Not only is the biggest problem with DVD-A the lack of consumers who own players, explains Jim Taylor, president and GM of Sonic’s Advanced Technology Group (www.sonic.com) as well as president of the DVD Association (www.dvda.org), but a pure DVD-A won’t play in a standard DVD-Video player.

For now, Taylor recommends that interested consumers buy DVD-Audio discs with a DVDVideo component ‘Those discs will play the audio from their DVD-Video player today Then, when they upgrade to a DVD-A player, they can play the high-fidelity DVD-Audio tracks.”

Encouraging early sales of DVD-Video players are part of the reason for his optimism. “When you realize the number of DVD-Video players already sold as set-top players (CEA reports that 35.4 million set-top units were sold by manufacturers to domestic dealers as of July 2002), then PCs and game consoles like XBox and PlayStation2, it piques your interest. The numbers add up to a market that manufacturers of DVD-A players and discs can’t ignore.”

Jeff Stabenau, managing director of Blink Digital (www.blinkdigital.com) in NewYork City, seconds that emotion. “Record labels are seeing the importance of DVD-A and are starting to create new bonus DVDs to accompany regular CDs.”

He points to the Dave Matthews Band’s recent release, via RCA, as proof; Busted Stuff includes an enhanced CD and a bonus DYD. “It provides a way for the record labels to enhance the purchase of CDs while differentiating the packaged CDs from downloadables,” he says.

Other groups are also getting into the act. The Rolling Stones new ABKCO Remastered Series was recently released in hybrid form, meaning an SACD layer was on top of a PCM layer and the CDs can be played on Red Book CD as well as SACD players. It was mastered by Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering in Maine using the Sony Sonoma.

“The record industry is proceeding down a path that will lead to the acceptance and mass market of DVD-A,” he says, noting that Blink Digital also authored a DVD for The Strokes recently. “If you take a product like Busted Stuff and have music on one disc and DVD on another, there’s value in that, plus the high resolution audio and built-in copy protection that isn’t offered by existing music CD technology. “As soon as the public and record companies realize that this is a good idea,” Stabenau concludes, “the logical next step will be to inevitably move toward DVD-A as the medium of choice.”

THE COMPETITION

But Randolph Hudson, CEO at Broadness (www.broadness.com) in NewYork City and board member with the DVD Association/NY, took another tack. “No one is talking about MP3s anymore.” Hudson states, “but [they are talking about] surround and how good the sound quality is with DVD-A and DTS.”

While noting the reasons to put an ear on DVD-Audio and SACD, Hudson thinks DTS is leading the race, since it provides for media “that can be enjoyed as near audiophile experiences on 5.1 consumer systems.”

Hudson explains that his company was recently engaged by NYC’s Whitney Museum of American Art to specify a DVD system for their biennial. A specially designed 5.1 room was part of the exhibit, which featured composers and artists like Meredith Monk and Marianne Amacher, who worked with John Cage and Stockhausen. Also included were ambient DJs Gregor Asch and Marina Rosenfeld, as well as a 5.1 recording captured from the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center during Hurricane Floyd in ’99.

This use was new, Hudson says. “When people look at surround for DVD-Video, you have Dolby and DTS as competing formats. But DTS sounds very close to MLP, and the consensus is growing that DTS may be the format that allows high quality, audiophile surround assets to be available to DVD-Audio systems, as well as DVD-Video players that can play DTS. And do note that the MLP, DVD-A and SACD formats do not support bass management among other features.”

Still, Ross Goodman (rossfgoodman@yahoo.com), one-time Masterdisk director of DVD operations and now an independent DVD producer says he’s starting to see a wider acceptance of DVD-A.

“Not only are titles coming out from bigger artists, but I think more current acts like Beck and the Beastie Boys should push the envelope,” he states. “We need a Sgt. Pepper For our generation to move units and jump start DVD-A. That would speak to the people who are buying music today. There have to be people recording in 5.1,be it DVD-A, SACD or DTS CD.”

The prices of DVD-A players are dropping already, Goodman notes. “However, the public has to perceive a clear winner before they start to spend their money on the format.”

Like Stabenau, Goodman brainstormed to think of a compromise that would get this mini-revolution rolling. “I know Sonopress has a system that allows replication of DVD-Video on one side of a disc and Red Book audio on the other. If they can do that with DVD-A [with Red Book CD], that would give consumers both formats, so they don’t have to buy it twice: 5.1 sound at home and regular CD for a Walkman, for instance.”

That sounds good to David Anthony president of Metropolis DVD (www.metropolisdvd.com), with studios in New York and London. “About 50 percent of our business is music-related DVD-Videos, like concerts, music docs and video compilations, but not new albums. The industry is grappling with the format and getting a handle on preparing programming for DVD-A as the format is launching. And writing, mixing and mastering in 5.1 is a lot to do.”

The house just worked with Moby on his Play DVD, which encompassed 10 music videos, a 90-minute megamix, a camcorder movie and live TV appearances, all in stereo and 5.1 — even the ability to remix two of the songs on a PC.

That makes what used to happen seem like small spuds. “It was always a conversion before, from LPs to cassettes to CDs, a stereo progression,” he notes. “You didn’t have to hurdle the programming and the format at once. Today, you have to master in stereo as well as surround to take real advantage of the format. But many producer’s decisions are made with stereo in mind.”

ON THE HORIZON

Simply put, the issue is deep. “Talk to a record company exec and they’ll say it costs 80 percent more to mix and master in surround, when they aren’t sure they’ll sell enough copies to cover the difference,” relates Anthony.

Sales have been slow initially, but he thinks “if 10 percent of the market buys DVD-A players, it’ll fly,” noting the CEA figure of 25 million US homes with a home theatre that can play some form of multi-channel audio.

Still, the wary attitude of the execs is understandable, since they fear history may repeat itself. Taylor observes that music video generated high hopes, but it never sold well on VHS. However, he’s seen the reports about DVD-Video sales taking off for music videos and concert performances.

The DVD-A launch was slowed in part because of two years spent wrangling over the encryption formats, plus there aren’t as many compelling reasons for people to jump into DVD-A the way they have into DVD-Video, Taylor continues. “But since DVD-A is part of the hugely successful DVD-Video family, its long-term success is essentially guaranteed.”

Anthony has worked with Gloria Gabriel, associate VP of A&R for Atlantic Records (www.atlantic-records.com) in NewYork on some DVD-Videos for Brandy, Sugar Ray and Hootie & The Blowfish.

“We’re going to make DVD-A a bit more sophisticated — with DVD-Video,” she says. In the near future, look for DVD-Audio discs with the motion menus, behind-the-scenes footage, live performances created in two-channel stereo and 5.1 surround, plus a menu page that offers only high-end audio in two-channel 9624 uncompressed stereo and 5.1 surround.

And that’s not all. “We’ll still have enough room left on the disc for the CD-ROM. The perfect commercial,” Gabriel surmises,” would be for someone to use the 5.1 surround in their car,take that same disc inside to watch a video on the DVD player, then take that same disc and plug it into PS2, XBox or computer to play a game.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Sorting it out

DOLBY DIGITAL — Also known as AC-3. A perceptual coding system for multichannel digital audio developed by Dolby Laboratories and used for DVD and DTV. Dolby Digital reduces the amount of data required to represent an audio signal by removing elements that are can’t be heard by the human ear.

DTS — Digital Theater Sound. A perceptual audio-coding system developed for theaters. A competitor to Dolby Digital and an optional audio track format for DVD and DVD-Audio.

DVD-AUDIO (DVD-A) — The audio-only format of DVD. Primarily uses PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) audio with MLP encoding, along with an optical subset of DVD-Video features.

MLP — Meridian Lossless Packing. A lossless compression technique (used by DVD-Audio) that removes redundancy from PCM audio signals to achieve a compression ratio of about 2:1 while allowing the signal to be perfectly re-created by the MLP decoder.

SACD — Super Audio Compact Disc. A high-fidelity audio format for DVD media developed and promoted by Sony and Philips that uses Direct Stream Digital (DSD) encoding. Many discs come in a hybrid configuration that can also be played on standard CD players. SACD can be considered a competitor of DVD-Audio.

The above definitions were garnered from the glossary to “DVD Demystified” by Jim Taylor, which con be accessed on the Internet at www.dvddemystified.com

COPYRIGHT 2002 Advanstar Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group