AIX Records gets Multichannel Excellence Award

Sometimes, wonderful things go unnoticed. Thus did Stereophile miss that, in June 2007, at its 31st annual conference, in London, UK, the International Audio Engineering Society issued two Awards of Excellence in the category of Professional Engineering. One, which we learned about from a Minnetonka Audio press release, went to Dorian Records (see the May 2008 issue of Stereophile, pp.14–15). The other went to AIX Records of Southern California. The award is for John Gorka's The Gypsy Life, one of more than 50 high-resolution recordings available from AIX in DVD-Audio/Video surround sound and on two-channel CD. Most interesting is that both AES awards were for DVD-Audio projects.

How did Stereophile miss this? As far as I can tell, the AES never issued a press release. Dr. Mark Waldrep, AIX's founder and chief engineer, himself learned only belatedly of the award. He attended the London conference, but his schedule dictated that he leave before the award was announced, and no one at AES had told him of it. Save for John Atkinson, those British audio engineers must be a pretty buttoned-up lot.

"This is great news for high-resolution recordings and surround sound in a world that has come to accept the compromises of compact discs and MP3 sound files," says Waldrep. "I've been a strong supporter of high-resolution (24-bit/96kHz) PCM since the DVD-Audio format was first proposed back in 1997. The improvement in clarity, high-frequency detail, and overall sonic accuracy over standard CDs makes HD audio the next logical step in the evolution of music reproduction."

Waldrep also hosts www.itrax.com, a site devoted to downloads of AIX's hi-rez recordings. He believes that iTrax.com, which he launched last November, remains the only exclusively hi-rez, hi-def download site on the Net. Happily, iTunes supports playback of AIX's 24/96 two-channel downloads, which comprise 70 –80% of the downloads available from iTrax.com.

Prominently featured on Itrax.com are Gorka's The Gypsy Life, Cheryl Bentyne's Among Friends, and Chamber Music Palisades' recent release of music by Shostakovich, Debussy, and Brockman. For those who prefer physical product, AIX offers two discs in a single package. The first disc, which is two-sided, includes on one side several DVD-V mixes in "Stage" 5.1-channel DTS, "Audience" 5.1 Dolby, and 24/96 PCM stereo. Side 2, playable only in DVD-A machines, includes 24/96 audio in a "Stage" mix encoded with MLP. The second disc is a 16-bit/44.1kHz two-channel CD mixed down from 24/96.

Waldrep acknowledges that the futures of SACD and DVD-A are "very dim," but cites several reasons for his embrace of DVD-A over SACD: "From a technical perspective, it made more sense seven years ago to embrace a PCM format that I already had. There was no DSD-capable system available at the time that could record more than eight channels —there is now —and my philosophy is to record with many microphones. I use mikes in stereo pairs extensively, but I use many pairs, not single pairs. Providing alternate mixes in the two different 5.1 mixes and the stereo mixes, and having the option of postproduction flexibility, calls for lots of mike pairs."

According to Waldrep, sticking with hi-rez PCM allows engineers to include in the datastream supersonic frequencies well in excess of 20kHz. Keith Howard, who wrote an article on the spectral content of hi-rez recordings in the April 2004 Stereophile, discovered that AIX recordings retain frequencies into the 30–35kHz range. Waldrep believes that these frequencies, although far beyond the range of human hearing, nonetheless affect how we perceive music. He also asserts that while DSD has the potential to extend the recorded frequency range, it's not uncommon for engineers to roll off DSD above 20kHz in order to successfully encode discs and diminish the artifacts that result from DSD shaping.

As for Blu-ray, Waldrep says that the pressing costs are too high for small runs of discs. Thus, even though the Blu-ray format can carry hi-rez, multichannel sound, it's not viable for a small company such as his.

"At the end of the day," he says, "I prefer not to get into arguments of which encoding and schemes are better. What concerns me the most is use of the term high-resolution for recordings that aren't high-resolution. I will ascribe HD only to new recordings made with high-definition equipment and issued in formats that convey high definition. To put it simply, you can go from high definition to standard definition, but you can't go the other way."

Besides managing AIX Records and iTrax.com, Waldrep is a professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where he directs the Recording Arts section of the Digital Media department. He also runs the multimedia audio and video company that, 11 years ago, was responsible for issuing the very first DVDs manufactured in the US. He is a member of the Consumer Electronics Association's Audio Board (formerly the High Performance Audio Board), whose other members include Thiel Audio's Kathy Gornick, Conrad-Johnson's Lew Johnson, Kimber Kable's Ray Kimber, Parasound's Richard Schram, and Axiom Audio's Tom Cumberland. Waldrep's love of music is of long standing; he earned a PhD in Composition from UCLA.

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