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Are CD's Becoming Obsolete? DVD-Audio Is Here, But Will It Last?
About three-quarters of the way through the seminar, we came to the discussion of 5.1 surround sound. This is where I normally leave or politely nod my head and act impressed by a product's surround features. Like everyone, I have been hearing for 10 years that surround sound is going to be the next big thing. I had filed surround CDs in the same category as flying cars. Sure, it is neat in movies or in elaborate home theaters but the music portion is usually standard left-front-right-front-stereo; the "surround" sounds are bullets flying around the room or planes flying over your head. Not the music. Surround sound in music, like space tourism, is for our grand kids...or is it?
So, as I was putting away my notepad and getting ready to inconspicuously walk out the back door, I caught the instructor saying "Šblah blah blah and you can listen to this on the Acura TL's new DVD-Audio player that comes standard." I sat back down. This was interesting. Of course, I knew there were Super Audio CD's (SACD) floating around on the market, but I thought it was still up in the Hi-Fi audiophile nerd world. However, if people can listen in their cars -- now you are going to the consumer level. Yes, this was definitely interesting.
I spent the rest of that day and a considerable period afterwards exploring the new worlds that really are emerging for surround sound. I found that we audio folk entering into this world must be very patient and cautious. To some in the world of video, music is an afterthought, almost just a necessary evil. In the words of a sales rep, "audio is the ugly stepchild of video production."
You are between two worlds: Audio and Video. You need to talk audio. But, many of the people that will be selling you the products will be video people who really do not know much about the audio portion of the programs, and probably NOTHING about music. This is because they usually just dump the music in and don't think about it again. You cannot just call your local music store to ask them what software and equipment you need because they don't deal in video products.
When you ask the 16 year-old behind the counter, "can this program encode audio to AC-3 or DTS?" he will ask you what that is and you will reply "I want to make a DVD-Audio". He will then proceed to say "Oh DVD -- you need to talk to somebody in the video department." Even the knowledgable sales rep will have a difficult time telling you what you need. I will now give you just enough acronyms to make you dangerous: AC-3, DTS. These are ways of encoding surround audio into a file size small enough to accompany video on a standard DVD-video player.
I bounced around a lot between video companies and audio companies. I was trying to make sense of all of these programs, file formats, acronyms, costs, and so on. I found that in the world of video you compress (compress like MP3, not like a bass amp or vocalist) the audio to make room for the video. This is done in a number of ways, the most common being AC-3, commonly known as Dolby Digital. Now before you scream "HOW DARE THEY COMPRESS MY GLOROUS 5.1 MIX!!!" - hold on. Video people compress their video files as well.
You have probably seen DVDs with a wide screen version, TV Version, director's cut, and bloopers. Imagine being a filmmaker and shooting your movie on beautiful rich color 70mm film. Then you have to get your images into a TV edit. You have to cut the sides off and then make the resolution a fraction of what it was. So the video guys are in the same boat. But since it is DVD-video, of course the video image takes priority. You can't blame them. Our passion is audio, their passion is video.
Here is the good news. DVD-Audio is just about us audio guys. The point is that this disc is for showing off our glorious 5.1 mix. For the audiophile nerds like me, here are the basic specs.
You can add video and still images to the menu (if your user has a TV hooked up to it). The focus is on the audio. This audio is totally uncompressed.
So what does that mean to the musicians and the mixers? I found out. I clicked "New Project," then clicked a button that until now had only been for goofing off: 5.1 Surround Mix. I started working on all of the interesting ways I could open a mix up. I put instruments in all kinds of strange places, mostly because I could. I found out that this was just as much about personal taste as creating the music itself. When stereo came out, people panned guitars in the left channel because they could -- not necessarily because it sounded good (yes that is my opinion). Was I to do the same and put something in the rear right channel because I could? What belongs there? In stereo, the rules are somewhat set. In 5.1 it is different.
At the risk of sounding cliché, we are in uncharted waters. Experimentation led to other tricks and ideas. The type of music you are doing really has an impact on the way you will approach your surround mix. For instance, in a standard rock band you are trying to "rock". You are usually trying to capture a band's live show. Very rarely do you hear a live rock band where the ride cymbal is coming from the rear right corner of the room. However in "newer" styles such as dance and trip-hop for example, there is not as much preconceived notion of how it should sound. So being more experimental is refreshing.
I'm purposefully not sharing any mixing "tips" here. Not because I think what I have is some valuable trade secret, but because I would rather not pollute anybody's creative vision with what I think sounds good. We are working with a new format here let's get creative! After all this is our art let's take the opportunity to make it new instead of doing what we've heard other mixers do because "that is how it is done." If you are having trouble or want to share insights give me a call. I would love to hear about what you've created. With that said, if you are recording/mixing "older" more established genres like bluegrass or rock, I think you'll have some really interesting challenges in front of you with respect to listeners established expectations. If you are working with more ambient genres like Enigma or film underscore, there may be a lot more room for creativity.
I'm sure the record industry is very excited about this next fact. One of the things I did was to go to a record store and purchase a DVD-Audio disc. I wanted to try to rip the files onto my computer to take a closer look at the way it was mixed. But when I tried to do this, I got an error that read "THIS IS A COMMERCIAL DVD-AUDIO DISC. YOU CANNOT COPY," and I was kicked out of the session. Now I am sure there is a 14 year-old out there somewhere that has figured out how to rip it. But that 14 year-old would have a difficult time sharing it over the internet because currently there is no MP3-like compressed format for surround sound. MP3 only has two channels, left and right. DVD-Audio has 6 channels. Music thievery has a new challenge to overcome.
The next thing I did was to author my very first DVD-Audio. The process can be as simple or as cumbersome as you like it. You will probably want to get your graphics programs up to date. It all depends upon how many graphics you want while the music plays. If you are going to be strictly musical and not include graphics, then the authoring process is pretty much identical to burning a CD with two enhancements.
The first is: you can have multiple "groups" or "chapters" on one DVD. So for instance, group 1 may be 5 tracks of 5.1 mixes. Group 2 may be 5 tracks of stereo mixes of the same songs. The second enhancement is that you can have hidden tracks. You can burn a track in a special place so that the end user has to enter a special code to hear it. I am not exactly sure what was the initial intent of this feature, but I am sure we will see some very interesting things come of it.
For a week I spent as much time as I could re-mixing old projects into surround. Then came my next dilemma. Yes. I mentioned before that the Acura TL and RL come standard with DVD-Audio players; and many other cars will soon. But right now they don't. I wanted to hear the DVD-Audio because it is uncompressed, but I don't have an Acura so what to do? I didn't want to just sit in my studio and listen to my mixes. But I don't need a new Acura yet. Do I have to go buy an expensive DVD-Audio System? I shopped around and found the cost of a new DVD-Audio system depends on what equipment you already own. If you are starting with nothing you are looking at around $300.00-$500.00 to get into a complete 6 speaker system. If you have the speakers and dedicated amps you can get a DVD-Audio player that will also play DVD-Video, SACD, MP3's, CD's and has a few other bells and whistles for $129.00.
OK, I took care of myself and now I can hear my own mixes. On to the next obstacle. How can I show my mixes to people who are still on standard DVD? What if I want to show a director or an editor some of my work?
I had mentioned AC-3. My next task was to make my DVD-Audio disc a DVD-Audio/Video hybrid. But before I did that, I needed to really know how to make a DVD-Video disc. There are people that do nothing but author DVDs all day for a living. The particular mastering program I was using had authoring capabilities right in it. And it was made for audio folks, so it made it easy for a greenie like me. Even so, when you jump into the DVD-Video world you are now in that parallel universe I was speaking of earlier. These programs are not necessarily any harder than our audio programs; they are just not what we are used to seeing. They are more like web development programs. After a frustrating learning curve I finally authored my first AC-3 DVD-Video demo for the world to hear.
I have heard some people argue that consumers do not really care about 5.1 and most people cannot hear the difference anyway. Being a music producer, I would agree so far as to say that if the song does not work, surround sound does not matter. But I do not think it is necessarily about hearing the quality as much as it is about marketing the latest and greatest and "keeping up with the Joneses."
At this point, I believe that DVD-Audio has the potential of becoming the main audio listening format for consumers, so long as the record industry, the electronics industry, and the auto industry keep the course. While I have heard different rumors that different car companies are going to have DVD-Audio come standard in their cars/SUVs, I have yet to see them roll out anything. The only one for sure is the Acura.
I think the exciting part for us in the music industry is that, at last, we are going to be able to create a wonderful 5.1 surround mix that has the potential to be heard by our audience. The possibilities are expanding.
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