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Hi-Res Audio's Growing Pains

Surround 2004 Expo highlights state of the art By Frank Moldstad

More than one person at the Surround 2004 Expo held last week in Hollywood commented on the irony of marketing high resolution audio surround sound to an audience that seems content with MP3 audio quality.

While the recording industry hopes to reverse that tide, acceptance of the DVD-A and SACD formats remains slow -- perhaps partly because there are two formats (remember Beta vs. VHS?). Further muddling things is the competition between the two successors to the DVD, Blu-Ray Disc and HD-DVD disc, neither of which has been released yet. Both formats are designed for High Definition Video recording and playback.

Meanwhile, the 24-year-old Compact Disc's 16-bit/44.1kHz sound quality is rivaled by new download-friendly compression codecs. These include Apple Lossless and Windows Media Audio 9, which substantially reduce file sizes without sacrificing quality. On top of a prolonged slump in CD sales, it's a tough market for a new hardware-based format no matter how good the high-resolution 5.1 audio sounds.

But there are bright spots for audio surround sound. One is the rapid growth of home theaters capable of playing 5.1 audio. There's also a solution to the format wars -- a new generation of affordable universal disk players that can handle DVD-A, SACD, DVD Video, CDs and even MP3s. These players from Pioneer, Denon and others are priced as low as $150.

And as the Surround Expo showed, audio engineers, artists and equipment manufacturers have the material, the gear and the know-how to flood the market with high-res audio if and when consumers say the word. Some of the worlds top recording engineers, artists and producers attended the show, and were active in workshops and panels. The halls of the Rennaisance Hotel were crowded not only with attendees from the Surround Expo but from the co-located EMX show (Entertainment Media Expo), and there was healthy cross-traffic between the DVD-oriented EMX and the Surround Expo.

Jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock and guitarist Peter Frampton were among those giving workshops at the Surround Expo on how they work in surround sound. Hancocks presentation included a live surround performance with a band, playing material from his 5.1 ?Future 2 Future DVD. Hancock stressed that surround sound is more natural than stereo, similar to the perspective musicians hear on stage, and that it offers many more creative possibilities. Engineer Dave Hampton, who worked with Hancock on the album and the surround sound tour, uses Digidesigns Pro Control hardware with dual joysticks to manipulate audio in the 5.1 sound field. ?Surround is giving new opportunities, because theres not much happening in the rooms [studios] right now, he said.

Hancock, whose ?Future 2 Future features MX Multiangle technology that divides the screen into four viewer-selectable quadrants, also won the Surround Pioneer Award at the Surround Music Awards presentation later that evening.

Digidesign presented a series of workshops at the show where top engineers and producers discussed their recent surround projects that were recorded and mixed with Pro Tools. Among them was Gregg Field of the Concord Records label, who previewed SACD versions of Ray Charles' final release, ?Genius Loves Company, and singer Monica Mancinis ?Ultimate Mancini, a tribute to her late father, composer Henry Mancini. Both releases were mixed by Grammy winner Al Schmitt. His masterful  approach to using the 5.1 soundstage drew applause from the demo audience of about 50 people after every song.

Reflecting on the surround sound audio format wars, Field said, ?I started out with SACD, and it was ahead. Then DVD-A moved ahead. Now, I just want one or both to succeed.

Similar sentiments were aired at most of the shows other panels and workshops, where broadcast, recording and film industry professionals shared techniques and debated strategies. Among the other seminar presenters were engineers Nathaniel Kunkel and Ken Jordan, who offered a case study of Crystal Methods ?Legion of Boom, going step-by-step from production through replication of the new DVD-A release. Remixed in DTS-ES 6.1 Surround, the DVD-A includes two bonus tracks in DTS-ES and PCM that were not on the stereo release. A DTS-ES encoded featurette called ?The Making of the Legion of Boom is also on the DVD-A. Another case study by engineer Eliot Scheiner and mastering engineer Bob Ludwig followed Becks ?Sea Change from start to completion.

A broadcast-oriented case study was presented by Jeff Evans from Audio Intervisual Design, with members of the Fox production team, including VP of Broadcast Technology Jim DeFillippis. The participants discussed how surround sound impacts broadcast production, from recording, mixing, encoding and final transmission delivery specs..

In the exhibit rooms, manufacturers showed off surround audio production gear Among these, Solid State Logic demod its

SSL's XLogic Multichannel Compressor
XLogic Multichannel Compressor, a standalone box providing six channels of compression based on designs from its mixing consoles. At the Adam booth, Dave Bryce held court with an array of the companys S3-A monitors and a library of excellent source material including Toy Matinee and The Eagles. Other exhibitors included Steinberg, Genelec, Wam-Net, Apogee, Martinsound, TC Electronic, Studer, Manley, and JBL.

And, lest anyone forget downloading has a place in this world, too. SRS Labs showed off its new multichannel internet broadcasting technology, and Herbie Hancock announced that his workshop would be rebroadcast in surround on AOL (http://www.tuner2.com/cgi-bin/listen.pls?sid=11).


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Related Keywords:Surround 2004 Expo, DVD-A, SACD, Apple Lossless, Windows Media Audio 9, 5.1 audio

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