SunnComm Buys DarkNoise

SunnComm and others have been trying for years to find ways to prevent consumers from copying music discs. While their success in preventing digital copies has been mixed, lurking in the background was a problem many felt could never be solved.

This fundamental obstacle to effective copy restriction is typically known as the "Analog Hole." Once the audio signal is streamed into memory, or converted to analog output, the original analog music track can then be resampled to another digital recording device, captured by software in memory, or recorded from the speakers/pre-amp output and reconverted back to a digital format for copying.

This past week, however, SunnComm announced that its marketing and sales arm, QuietTiger, has set in motion the purchase of DarkNoise Technologies, a company that claims to have developed a method to plug the Analog Hole. QuietTiger says it has signed a binding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to purchase DarkNoise Technologies of the United Kingdom including all proprietary intellectual property and technology currently under development by the British company. DarkNoise will continue to operate out of its West London office, acting as QuietTiger's European sales and R&D satellite branch.

DarkNoise's Winston Keech explains, "The technology, called 'Q-Spoiler', works by encoding the original digital audio file with a unique hidden signal. The signal is embedded in the audio master and becomes an indelible part of the actual audio file in addition to aiding in subsequent origin identification. Should the original CD be copied, so, too, is the hidden signal and identification 'tag.' Unless [it is] illegally invoked, the listener is unaware of the hidden signal's presence. Attempts to illegally copy the protected audio using analog recording devices, analog-to-digital converters, or psychoacoustic compression codes, such as MP3, will invoke the hidden signal which transforms to become audible within the range of human hearing, thus ruining the unauthorized copy."

Will Q-Spoiler work as advertised? Stereophile's Kal Rubinson comments, "There's no doubt that embedding certain analog signals in the analog program (after it is decoded from a digital source) can prevent the effective re-recording of those signals with either analog or digital recorders. Such embedded signals can be designed to interact with the sampling mechanisms of A/D converters used for digital recording and with the modulators used for analog magnetic recording. The result would be a substantially corrupted copy and one grossly unsuitable for listening."

However, Rubinson is quick to note that the materials on the DarkNoise website do not explain to his satisfaction how inaudible the Q-Spoiler process may be to the critical listener. "The major concern here, as with all copy-restriction schemes, is the transparency of the system for legal users of the original, purchased copy of the program. The website has a description of the technology and permits the download of a 'white paper' describing the approach. However, neither the site nor the paper offer any evidence of psychoacoustic tests to support their contention that the effect is inaudible to listeners to the original program."

Rubinson continues, "They do state that 'the embedded Q-Spoiler frequencies are balanced during playback, canceling each other out.' Judging from their figures, the changes in the signal include the reduction in amplitude of certain frequencies (footnote 1) and the addition of pulses at other frequencies (footnote 2). These, though symmetrical as stated, are of the sort that will be detectable by careful listeners in A/B comparison, if they are of sufficient magnitude. If not, can they be effective in their intended task?"

DarkNoise also states, "The embedded Q-Spoiler frequencies are placed according to The Psychoacoustic Model, ie beyond the audible response of the human ear." Rubinson responds, "The 'Psychoacoustic Model' mentioned is not defined or referred to in the partly-documented references appended to the white paper. If the signals are implemented using perceptual models, as was ATRAC processing for data compression, it would certainly reduce their audibility, but no reference to such is included. In fact, the signals are described as a code that is 'inserted at random, with 1 billion combinations that can be changed every second.' In addition, there is no test data to support the contention of transparency nor are there any scales (amplitude, frequency, time) on any of the graphic illustrations. In other words, this may be an attempt to prevent a process that already results in sub-optimum copies (analog transfer of digital programs) by changing and corrupting the original legal product that the customer has paid for."

According to DarkNoise, the Q-Spoiler process is intended for use with music released on CD-Audio, MP3 (for DAB Broadcast, paid downloads, etc), DVD-Audio, and Minidisc. Other unknowns about the new process involve compatibility with audio products such as digital preamps, processors, and amplifiers that resample the analog output from a CD player, DVD-Audio player, etc. Preservation of consumers' fair use rights for copying is not mentioned either.

SunnComm's Eric Vandewater says the company has already begun integrating itsexisting MediaMax M4 technology with the DarkNoise product, with the help of its inventor, Winston Keech. According to Vandewater, "The DarkNoise intellectual property is extremely well documented and will help us to revolutionize copy management in today's digital age. We expect to have beta [test] versions in the hands of our major record company customers within 60 days."

DarkNoise's Chris McKee suggests that the new process will offer something "that major labels should want to roll out as quickly as possible." McKee also notes that unlike other copy management and protection technologies, "the CD replicators will not be required to implement expensive hardware add-ons because all the protection and enhancement technology is included within the DDP file set from which CD replicators' glass masters are made. Thus, the rollout of MediaMax worldwide will be speedier than with competing technologies."

SunnComm's MediaMax technology is currently utilized by music giant BMG, in addition to many independent record companies, and is found on a number of audio CDs released in the United States.

Footnote 1: "Packets - Randomly placed symmetrical packets of sound that distort with 'lossy' compression, or Automatic Level Control (ALC) processing. The packets also serve to amplify the effects of the Harmonics."

Footnote 2: "Harmonics - Infrasonic and Sonic, 'Psychoacoustically' placed frequencies designed to cause Beating and Aliasing if a copy attempt is made."