DVD-Audio Promises Unprecedented Realism

On October 1 and 2, engineers, marketing executives, and journalists filled the Hyatt Regency conference center near the San Francisco airport for the DVD-Audio Forum. A long afternoon of technical lectures left us numb. "Therapy for insomniacs" is the only way to describe the seemingly endless Power Point presentations. Microsoft's Power Point seems to be the standard format at all large gatherings, and it's as soporific as hearing a professor read from a textbook.

Technical descriptions of the new format, while dry, do offer some insight into its potential---one intriguing aspect of which is that DVD-Audio makes available six channels of full-bandwidth, high-bit-rate audio, which musicians, producers, and recording engineers are free to use however they wish. No one is obligated to adhere to DVD-Video's 5.1 system (three front channels, two surrounds, plus subwoofer), although that will likely become the default standard. DVD-Audio recordings can be in ultra-high-resolution two-, four-, or six-channel formats. The system is scaleable---the front channels, for example, can run full-out at 24 bits/96kHz, and the ambient channels can operate at the less processor-intensive rate of 16/44.1---an arrangement that seems to work very well, based on demonstrations heard at this conference.

Ed Outwater, vice president of technical and engineering services for the Warner Music Group, told the assembled digital faithful about experiments he and Al MacPherson conducted converting some 24-track Capitol analog masters to multichannel digital at various sampling frequencies and bit rates. The 2", 30ips Dolby SR masters were converted to six-channel digital masters using a studio-grade analog console, dCS A/D converters, and a SonicSolutions workstation. Much of the material they experimented with has been previously released on Capitol's Jazz at the Movies CD series.

The master tapes were dubbed at 16/44.1, 20/48, 24/88.2, and 24/96. The engineers conducted extensive comparisons between the various versions, and offered conference attendees the opportunity to hear some of the results, as well as recordings from other companies.

"We had a lot of trouble with this room," Outwater explained, echoing the sentiments of exhibitors at high-end hi-fi shows, "but we did the best we could on short notice. It's good enough to hear the differences between the recordings." Hotel rooms and conference centers are notorious for their poor acoustics, but Outwater and crew had done a creditable job. The room wasn't laboratory-perfect, but we could hear everything the demonstration was designed to let us hear.

Outwater played an assortment of recordings at various sampling frequencies, bit rates, and channel allocations that proved just how versatile DVD-Audio can be. There were two-channel recordings at Red Book CD standard, and four-channel recordings at 24/88.2. The inherent grain and listening perspective were preserved from the originals, and therefore we could not make any judgment regarding the absolute potential of the lower sampling and bit rates---although it was obvious that audio delivered through fewer than six channels and at less than ultimate levels of resolution can still offer a "compelling experience," as today's most over-used buzzphrase has it.

There were some "interactive" demos to show what "added-value" video will mean to DVD-Audio discs once they become commercially viable. Country/pop star Chely Wright's "Shut Up and Drive" was accompanied by some still video pictures of her driving a convertible, and there was a bonus recording of her gushing disingenuously about how great it is to be an MCA recording artist. Additional material like this---pictures, text, and performer bio---will be accessible with higher-end players, while cheaper ones (such as portables) will play only the music. It's easy to see how the graphics might assist in-store playing of an artist's performances, but it's difficult to see what value they might have for music lovers at home.

Goosebump Territory: The ultimate potential of six-channel DVD-Audio was made abundantly clear when Outwater played his own recording of Strauss waltzes and polkas by the Berlin Philharmonic. Mixed down to six full-bandwidth, high-resolution channels from a 24-microphone array and played back directly from hard disk, Outwater's Strauss was as close to real as I have heard outside Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco---detail, dynamics, and spatial location were exceptional. Even the applause sounded believable---something that usually shatters the illusion of realism. Teldec made a two-channel recording of the same performance, and when DVD-Audio gets rolling, listeners may be able to compare the two.

Six-channel DVD-Audio offers the option of "folding down" the six channels into two high-rez channels for traditional stereo. Not all listeners will be inclined to expand their two-channel systems, and DVD-Audio will accommodate them, as well as those who wish to go all the way into full multichannel.

Converting diehard two-channel fans with propaganda alone will be no easy task. (Ask Stereophile's founder J. Gordon Holt---he keeps trying.) The proof is in the listening, even for the most reluctant. As Outwater said of the many artists, engineers, and producers he works with: "It's hard to convince them of the new format's value. But once you've dragged them into the studio and shown them what's possible, they never want to go back." The more traditional among them tend to favor a stage-front/ambient-rear approach, he noted, while the more adventurous see the potential of multichannel sound in less constrained ways.

"Multichannel is a tool to be used any way you want to use it," Outwater noted. "What's 'right' is simply what works for the people who are using it." DVD-Audio, it appears, will bring sonic diversity into studios and listening rooms everywhere.