Whatever happened to 5.1-channel music?
This fall sees the tenth anniversary of the launch of Super Audio CD by Sony and Philips. Thanks to the format's generous data capacity, a single SACD could contain stereo and 5.1-channel surround mixes. Not only that, dual-layer, hybrid SACD/CDs were backward-compatible with standard CD players. The future looked bright back in 1999.
DVD-Audio appeared a year later, launched by a consortium that included Matsushita, Toshiba, and Warners on little more than faith that the next-generation music format could ride on the coattails of DVD-Video's rousing success.
Can you say format war?
SACD was designed around Sony/Philips' Direct Stream Digital (DSD) codec, which stores music as 1-bit data sampled at an ultra-high 2.8224MHz. Stereo DVD-A boasts uncompressed PCM with a 24-bit word length and up to 192kHz sample rate; six-channel surround DVD-As encoded at 24/96 employed Meridian Lossless Packing compression. Both super formats sounded phenomenal.
Great, but high-resolution sound alone wouldn't slay the Compact Disc. The DVD-A crowd's mantra of "added value" was supposed to put DVD-A over the top in the mass market. To entice converts, record labels would pile on oodles of bonus tracks, videos, live concert footage, interviews, commentaries, photo galleries, lyricsand, best of all, multichannel sound. The labels were giddy about surround's future: "Now that 5.1 music is here, listening to stereo is like watching black-and-white TV."
Obviously, 5.1-channel sound makes sense for movies and home theater, mostly because 5.1 was an outgrowth of theatrical film-sound technologies stretching all the way back to the 1950s. Movies and surround go together like popcorn and Coke.
Except for one thing: Surround at home without video doesn't sell. Remember the rise and fall of Quadraphonic in the 1970s? True believers blamed the demise on Quad's baffling range of discrete- and matrix-encoded variants: 8-track cartridges, open-reel tapes, and at least four types of LPs. Once Quadraphony was dead and buried, surround music didn't try to make a comeback until the late 1990s.
What was needed was a unified surround format that didn't require music lovers to invest in new playback gear. Surely such a format would prove the viability of music surround . . . wouldn't it?
DTS Entertainment introduced such a system in the late 1990s: The DTS Digital Surround CD. Those 20-bit discs were playable on any DVD or CD playeras long as it was connected to a digital A/V receiver or surround processor. Tens of millions of homes were so equipped, but the Digital Surround CD barely made a ripple.
Still, one way or another, 5.1 was coming, and it was left to recording engineers and producers to grapple with the specifics: ie, how would the extra 3.1 channels be used? Would the speaker placements for music surround conform to those accepted for a Dolby/DTS 5.1-channel home-theater setup: left/right speakers in front, a horizontal center speaker above or below the monitor, and a pair of small surround speakers flanking the listening position, mounted a few feet above the ears of the seated listeners?
That would have made too much sense.
The home-theater model was rejected in favor of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) standard: five full-range speakers, all at the same height, placed equidistant from the sweet spot. As a standard for recording studios, ITU is fine; for home systems that have to accommodate families and furniture, it's completely impractical (footnote 1).
What about a subwoofer? The sub's role in home theater is twofold: it supplies both the missing low end for bass-challenged satellite speakers, and the Low Frequency Effects (LFE) or ".1" channel. But the ".1" channel's duties for multichannel music were never really nailed down. (It actually didn't have to be a subwoofer channel at all; DVD-A's sixth channel could have been run full-range, though this option was not included in the medium's specification.)
Then there was the matter of recording and mixing 5.1. Sure, it would have been great if surround delivered complete, 360° wraparound imaging, but that rarely happened. Instead, we got so-called center-of-the-band mixes with panpotted, disembodied, multiple-mono imaging, instruments popping up willy-nilly all over the five channels. I preferred the other tack: mixes in which the band was in front of me and the ambience was in the surrounds. But you didn't need SACD or DVD-A for thatyou could achieve pretty much the same effect with five speakers and stereo LPs and CDs processed with Dolby Pro Logic II matrix surround.
For the most part, the surround aesthetic never matured past its rudimentary beginnings, though there were notable exceptions. For example, the Talking Heads' keyboard player, Jerry Harrison, and engineer E.T. Thorngren made masterful 5.1 remixes of the band's eight studio albums. Check out "Found a Job," from More Songs About Buildings and Food (DualDisc, Sire R2 76450). Listen to the way David Byrne's and Harrison's guitars arc from the front to the rear speakers, and how the syncopated closing vamp reveals unsuspected complexities lurking deep in the densely layered patterns of guitars, handclaps, keyboards, and synths, all within a holographic soundscape. After that, the stereo version sounds pretty ho-hum.
In the first rounds of the SACD/DVD-A format war, in 2000, both sides promised a full slate of titles by the end of the year. They repeated that pledge the following year, but the major labels squeezed out only small batches of six or seven titles at a time, followed by months of no multichannel releases at all. The long-term commitment to SACD of audiophile labels such as Chesky and Telarc far outstripped Sony's own. Strange.
Eventually, substantial chunks of the catalogs of Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, the Kinks, the Moody Blues, the Police, and the Rolling Stones were released on SACD, and the catalogs of the Doors and Neil Young are well represented on DVD-A. Even so, most of the SACD titles are two-channel only. SACD and DVD-A are still here in 2009, but new jazz or rock releases in 5.1 surround are increasingly rare.
That said, if you have a hankering to hear surround-sound versions of music by Calexico, Elvis Costello, Eminem, Korn, Dave Matthews, My Morning Jacket, Radiohead, or the White Stripes, you canall have released terrific-sounding concert videos on DVD-V and Blu-ray. Some of the Blu-ray releases feature surround mixes in lossless high-resolution Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio. As I said, I don't question the appeal of surround, so long as it's accompanied by video. Which I think is where I came in . . . .Steve Guttenberg
Footnote 1: I beg to differ with Steve here; five full-range speakers is the only uncompromised format for multi-channel music playback, particularly in terms of matching the center channel to the front L/R speakers.John Atkinson