Chesky Covers All the Bases with Planned Music Releases

With new audio formats such as SACD and DVD-Audio hitting the market, audiophiles will soon have more choices than ever for playing back music. But along with all of these options comes the hard part: choosing which path to take and hoping not to be dead-ended, as Beta video owners were years back. For consumers, the promised universal audio players (expected to play DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, CD, and SACD) will reduce the risk significantly.

But for the record labels that supply us with music, the choices get complicated fast. Should they release discs in SACD or DVD-A format? Should they still release everything on CD, and for how long? How many channels should they support (2, 4, 5, or 6?), and if they support multichannel, which version of surround should it be (and should there be a separate subwoofer feed)? And finally, should a label add a controversial watermark to its music?

Chesky Records is getting ready to release five new stereo hybrid (able to play on both SACD and conventional CD players) SACDs next month, as well as a DVD-A multichannel sampler "a little later," and multichannel SACDs early next year. The five SACD titles are Carla Lother's Ephemera, Paquito D'Rivera's Tropicana Nights, Rebecca Pidgeon's The Raven, McCoy Tyner's New York Reunion, and a sampler, An Introduction to SACD. Chesky says that additional SACD titles will follow, including albums by David Johansen, Livingston Taylor, Clark Terry, Jon Faddis, The Conga Kings, and more.

Clearly, Chesky is going to cover the options, but have made some specific choices as well. The label's David Chesky explains that "I am excited by the possibilities of both DVD-Audio and SACD, but I am sorry to say I do not think 5.1 [three channels up front, a subwoofer channel, and two surround channels] is a viable answer for music reproduction. We are not supporting 5.1 but 6.0 [explained below], which is based on concert-hall acoustics. We have experimented with every speaker possibility here and I feel that 6.0 is a great step forward in re-creating a concert hall. I am convinced, once you hear surround sound correctly set up, that you will agree it is a giant step forward in the re-creation of recorded music."

Chesky argues that 5.1, already in use for most video surround, is not preferable for audio, pointing out that "If the major record companies truly believe the public wants to hear music in 5.1, why haven't they released 5.1 music titles to the installed base of millions of DVD players? Do they think DVD-A's or SACD's improved sound quality will really make that much of a difference over the average system? Transposing the preexisting home-theater 5.1 speaker setup to pure-music formats like DVD-A or SACD doesn't make any sense. DVD-A and SACD are new and exciting formats, and I feel we should get the most out of them. DVD-Audio and SACD both have the ability to deliver six full-bandwith channels. I feel the channels and speaker assignments can be better arranged to serve the needs of music."

On the subject of using a center-channel speaker for audio-only playback, Chesky believes that "while a center channel may be good for video, most audiophiles get a pretty good phantom center. Also, most serious listening in the real world is usually done alone so the listener can sit in the sweet spot. I think [the center channel] can be put to better uses."

And the subwoofer channel used on most DVD-Video 5.1 releases? According to Chesky, "most audiophile speakers are full-range and I do not see the point of allocating another data channel [the .1 channel] for this. Furthermore, audiophiles, who are concerned about bass response, can easily employ a subwoofer, as many do already."

What Chesky plans to do with the six channels of audio is add four carefully placed surround speakers to the two primary stereo speakers up front. As Chesky explains it, "we are now left with a four-speaker surround array: two toward the front and two rearward. The two extra surround channels can be used for what I feel is a better application: i.e., side surround channels at 55° [from the front/center] to give you those first enveloping early concert-hall reflections. SACD and DVD-Audio would still offer four channels, two for the stereo pair and two rear surrounds, for those who do not want to add the front surrounds. These discs would still be 5.1-compatible but with no center or subwoofer output. Those who wanted the ultimate in music surround would simply turn on the bonus surround tracks.

"If left with no choice or forced by the industry, we will come out with 5.1 discs, but I can assure you that six full channels is the way to go, given the existing media, until something else comes along in the future that is better. If we want to get people off the Net and back to listening to music, whether it be at home or in the concert halls, we need to deliver a great new format that is exciting and fun. Six full-range channels can deliver this now. I am just a musician and I do not make the rules, but it seems to me that movies and concert halls are two different things, and if we are going to have audio-only SACD and DVD-Audio, they should be designed for music."

Chesky plans to deliver six channels by assigning what would normally be the center channel (Channel 5) to the left 55° speaker and the subwoofer LFE Channel (Channel 6, or the ".1" channel) to the right 55° speaker. As Chesky explains it, "In a concert hall, proscenium reflections dominate hall ambience, and when you take advantage of our 6.0 surround, the 55° speakers will re-create those spatial cues in your listening room. We also suggest that the rear speakers be placed 135–145° in the rear, since most real-world listening rooms cannot fit the 110° rear placement suggested for 5.1."

For the best results with his six-channel discs, Chesky suggests that all speakers be equidistant from the sweet spot and that listeners experiment with raising the side 55° speakers to a height of 3 to 7 feet. For the rear channels, he recommends placing the speakers at 135–145°, but adds that 110–145° will offer acceptable results. "This is obviously room-dependent, and remember to keep all the speakers an equal distance from the listener."

Chesky feels that compatibility of his six-channel recordings with other configurations, including a 5.1 surround system and even traditional two-channel stereo, is still possible. "If you wish to play this recording on a 5.1 system, you can disconnect the Center Channel (Channel 5) and Subwoofer Channel (Channel 6). This will result in a 4.0 system that will still sound very good. You can also play the recording in 5.1 mode without disconnecting Channel 5 and 6 and still the sound will be acceptable. Lastly, you can play this recording in two-channel stereo by simply playing it in the stereo mode."

Aside from how to handle multichannel, the most controversial topic that comes up any time audiophiles discuss the new formats is the use of the watermarks, or ID codes, that have been proposed for voluntary inclusion throughout a high-resolution disc. Preliminary tests have shown that the watermark may indeed be audible, once a listener has learned what it sounds like (see previous report).

David Chesky suggests that the ID not be used thoughout some discs, but at carefully planned intervals. He would like to see "an ID after the music and maybe one or two short wild ones in the music for a few seconds. This will not degrade the music and will give the composers the royalties they deserve. We need watermarks, but not all the way through the music. For pop music and MP3, watermarks are cool the whole time the program is playing because they have pirating issues. But classical and jazz do not have that problem, we only need to identify the tracks. So we can use a limited watermark. This way, there is no sonic degradation of the signal, and composers can collect royalties."