Universal Music Group's Pop/Rock/Jazz Pure Audio Blu-rays
To fresh your memory, the data on Red Book CDs is limited to a sample rate of 44.1kHz44,100 samples of data per secondand has a word length of 16 digital bits per sample. This yields a range of 65,536 possible values. UMG's High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-rays, on the other hand, are sampled at 96kHz96,000 samples of data per secondand have a word length of 24-bits per sample, which yields 16,777,216 possible values. Among the sonic benefits of this increase are richer tonality, truer timbres, increased air and depth, and a greater sense of "you are there" reality. Utilized at their full sonic potential, Blu-rays up CD's dynamic limit of 96 decibels to 144dB. Not that anyone who values their hearing would want to listen to 144dB
One of UMG's slogans for its 24/96 High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-ray initiative is "No compression No video No compromise." While there's more than a fair amount of hype behind the claim that listening to 24/96 material, whether on High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-ray or via uncompressed downloads, delivers music just as the artist intended it to be heard, there is no question that, with material originally recorded and mastered without compression in 24/96 digital format, that 24/96 has the potential to get you close to what the recording and mastering engineers heard on their studio monitors or through headphones.
Part One of this interview, posted a few days ago, concerned itself with UMG's classical initiative. For the second part of my exploration, I spoke with Joshua (Josh) Phillips, UK-based Product Manager for UMG's pop Catalogue Department, and Olivier Robert-Murphy, UMG's Global Head of New Business. Josh manages the entire process of Blu-Ray High Fidelity Pure Audio titles, including title selection, audio sourcing, artwork development, and strategic release dates. Olivier, in turn, looks after "brand partnerships."
Jason Victor Serinus: Please tell us about the start of your High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-ray initiative.
Olivier Robert-Murphy: Three years ago, I had dinner with a friend, and we decided we needed a better sound. That's when we decided to launch High Fidelity Pure Audio. It's also when I recruited Joshua and we started the adventure together within Universal. Then we discovered another group of people doing a similar initiative, called Pure Audio, from Germany, and joined everything together to make a big initiative with Sony, Warner, and everyone.
Serinus: Are you both excited about Neil Young's launch of PONO? How might you interface with it?
Robert-Murphy: Anything promoting high-fidelity sound is a good thing. Here's an example. In France, and now becoming international, there's an initiative called Qobuz, a website dedicated to hi-fi music. When its founder learned about High-Fidelity Pure Audio, he said, "This is great. Finally everyone is going to focus on getting high-fidelity masters."
He realized, as we do, that if you want to download a very high-density file, it takes ages, and it takes a lot of space. That's why Neil Young created his player. So the specific answer I can give you is, practically everyone knows what a CD is. Yet the fact is, everyone has a Blu-ray player rather than a CD player these days. Every new TV box is a Blu-ray player, every game box. So it's very easy to get the best sound you can get from a Blu-ray. You don't have to plug anything in; it's there.
The second thing is, if I understand what Neil Young is doing correctly, [PONO Music] is offering one format [FLAC]. The fact is, with Blu-ray, we have PCM, DTS, and Dolby, with all of them in 5.1 if needed, which is what we are trying to do.
Blu-ray is easy, it's simple, it's there. You have no loss, because it delivers sound exactly like the artist intended it.
Serinus: Well, as close as you can, depending upon, among other things, the sample rate of the original recording and whether it's the same as on the Blu-ray.
Robert-Murphy: The releases we work with are all between 24/96 and 24/192. We take advantage of Blu-ray's huge capacity for audio only, as in Pure Audio.
Serinus: Do you add any video extras, or to stick solely to audio?
Robert-Murphy: That's a very good question. No, we don't include any video. We still remember the bad stories about DVD-Audio, with everyone trying to get more material on their discs to make them more valuable.
The truth is that, today, there's a real appetite for quality. Listening to a Blu-ray is a completely different experience than watching a Blu-ray. So we are issuing a Blu-ray that doesn't require you to switch on your TV. You just listen to pure music, which is, in terms of quality, 10 out of 10, with a CD being 5 and an mp3 being 1 or 2.
Honestly, if you're listening to a classical concert, you're going to hear things you've never heard before on CD. You'll rediscover part of the music.
Serinus: How many Blu-ray releases do you plan for 2014, and in what genres? Can we find the list online?
Robert-Murphy: As of today, Universal has 100 hi-res Blu-rays available. There are probably over 100 more others available from other companies [eg, Naxos].
Joshua Phillips: It's going to be a big year for Pure Audio Blu-ray. We're in the process of completing the international release of our first new front-line title, George Michael's Symphonica. This is a big deal for us, because he's a big international high-profile artist.
We also had our big classical conference here this week. I met with the folks from Decca and Deutsche Grammophon, and they're really excited about the format. There will definitely be some movement fairly soon on some major titles we began work on quite some time back. I'll give you this information as soon as it's confirmed. We're looking to roll out 2030 new titles in the next couple of months.
Robert-Murphy: Most of them will be from Decca, and appear in 5.1.
Phillips: One of the challenges we faced quite early on is that people who purchase Blu-rays have a real demand for surround sound and 5.1. We initially focused solely on the quality issue, but we found out quite quickly that people buying Blu-rays want 5.1 mixes in addition to stereo mixes. It depends on your personal taste, whether you'd rather have trumpets coming from the back of your head or sit as you would at a normal concert and have stereo. But one of our definite intentions this year is to get 5.1 masters onto Blu-ray, so people can choose from either 5.1 or stereo.
Serinus: You won't be remixing stereo masters into 5.1, will you?
Robert-Murphy: If they want this, they will be killed and crucified in a public place. You can quote me.
Serinus: How many more titles in the pop rock and jazz sphere can we expect this year?
Robert-Murphy: Since the merger with EMI, we have acquired quite a lot of Blue Note jazz titles. I would say that we'll have at least 50 international releases.
Serinus: I know that ECM records most of its new material in 24/96. Do you plan to issue those new jazz titles on Blu-ray?
Robert-Murphy: It's not that feasible at the moment, but it's something we'd definitely like to do.
Serinus: Will the titles you are releasing in Blu-ray also appear as hi-res downloads?
Robert-Murphy: In France and some other countries, we are offering, along with the Blu-ray disc, a voucher for a free download of the same material in either MP3, FLAC lossless, or high-definition, depending upon what we had and what we could make available. [footnote 1]
Serinus: Are you discovering that physical media is selling less? Do you think that Pure Audio Blu-rays may be a way to invigorate physical sales? Do you feel that there is a demand for downloads without having to buy the physical product, and that Pure Audio Blu-rays are kind of a transition step in that direction?
Robert-Murphy: There is still a physical market. Years ago, people were predicting the end of physical media. The fact is that if you look at Japan, France, and Germany last year, even France actually grew slightly physically. I'm absolutely convinced that, 20 or 30 years from now, there will still be a physical market.
The main reason I'm absolutely convinced of this is because of the gift purpose. We generate a lot of sales at the end of the year because of gifting. In the future, instead of buying just a disc, you may buy a nice book with a disc inside. But it's still going to be physical.
Phillips: From my side, there is still a physical market, even though we are seeing a shift to digital. The shift is natural, given how accessible downloads are. But another key point is, for me, for the physical market, we need to add value to what you're purchasing. It's easy to misconstrue this as a CD, when in fact it's a luxury product in much the same way that people are again buying vinyl and CD deluxe box sets. The added value that people are getting through either high-quality or additional material or previously unheard tracks or other extras is something that can bring the physical market back to life, as it were. So, the shift is not a grave concern as long as we continue to put out high-quality product.
Serinus: Are three concomitant vinyl releases of some of these titles?
Phillips: Not necessarily at the same time. There will be some that overlap.
In the same vein, we saw a real resurgence in the popularity of vinyl over the last few years because, as downloads increase, people also appreciate holding a high quality product in their hands. Vinyl is brilliant for that.
Robert-Murphy: Some people are into comparing vinyl and Blu-ray releases of the same material. I don't see the point of doing so. They're different ways of consuming music. Vinyl is selling more than it was 10 years, and not just because of the quality.
For further information on UMG's world-wide High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-ray initiative, please see this short video story from Korea's Arirang.
Footnote 1: My UK release of John Lennon's Imagine, which Josh sent me from his UK office, has a sticker on the cover that says, "Ultra High Quality Audio Includes a Voucher to Download this Album Blu-ray Disc High Fidelity Pure Audio." When I went to the site, however, I discovered that the downloads Olivier refers to seem to be available only in 320kbps MP3 format. To get the 24/96 file, you'll have to either rip the Blu-ray, if you can, or pay for the file anew when it becomes available at HDTracks and/or other sites.Jason Victor Serinus