Focus On Multi-Channel Music At AES

Multichannel music was addressed by several seminars at this year's AES. On Friday, the Center Channel Challenge convened with a trio of recording engineers moderated by DTS's Jeff Levison.

Levison began by noting that the center channel has long been the audio image anchor for cinema, but has not enjoyed widespread popularity for multichannel audio. "We [the recording industry] resisted using the center channel for music at first, and mixed for a phantom center."

With a few years of multichannel music now under the industry's belt, Levison feels that "now we're seeing more and more of the possibilities." He noted that classical mixes have used a center channel for decades, but "classical music doesn't pay the bills" and focused the rest of the discussion on popular music.

Levison also asserted that it is no longer a valid excuse to say that engineers should not use the center channel because of worries that the customer may not have a compatible center speaker or even a center speaker at all. Widespread adoption of home-theater surround systems, with center speakers included in 5.1 packages, are perceived to have changed that.

Although several audio examples were demonstrated to show that center channel was advantageous from a technical point of view, the panel also defended using center channels simply for "artistic reasons." Several demonstration tracks were presented to illustrate the sound difference between a phantom center and one assigned to a center loudspeaker.

The center-channel issue aside, when will surround become the everyday way to listen to music? This was the topic of a Saturday afternoon panel titled From Stereo to Surround, chaired by recording engineer Nathaniel Kunkel.

After the introduction, the session began with a classical recording engineer from the audience asking why all of the panelists were from the rock/jazz end of the business. She was quickly invited onstage to participate, and she noted that, while multichannel is important, there is a tendency to experiment less with it when it comes to classical music.

Moving on to recording for surround, engineer and manufacturer George Massenburg suggested that panning a mono image around a 5.1 soundstage does not work very well, and says moving people around in real space works better. DTS's Rodney Orpheus added that combining the acoustic space with an artificially created space is frequently the real challenge.

Legendary recording engineer Geoff Emerick stated that remixing old stereo recordings was the audio equivalent of colorizing old black and white films. He emphasized that "we need to record new works in surround" before the format can find its voice.

Warner's Robin Hurley noted that he hoped reviewers would also begin to properly critique surround mixes, and then recording engineers would take notice of what does and doesn't work. Hurley cited the recent Flaming Lips' Yoshima Battles the Pink Robots multichannel DVD-Audio disc as a great example of the potential for creative surround technique.

The panelists spent time discussing public acceptance of surround formats, noting that the surround records that sell in quantity are the same as the stereo records that sell well. George Massenburg commented that SACD sales simply did not happen, and Robin Hurley predicted that surround-sound downloads are just around the corner.

Another of Hurley's brief comments may have particular significance for high-resolution audio supporters: "Stand-alone DVD-Audio discs will disappear." He predicted that DualDisc will succeed where DVD-A failed by appearing in the regular bins along with regular CDs, not in a special section of the store.

Hurley cited an example to suggest that DualDiscs can also easily outsell CD/DVD packages. According to his numbers, the recent Simple Plan release as a single $18.99 DualDisc title is outselling the same content in an $18.99 double CD/DVD package two to one. Hurley added that the Talking Heads catalog will appear as DualDisc titles soon.

Hurley acknowledged that having two high-resolution/surround formats was a problem, but felt that the formats will eventually sort themselves out. He did not say whether or not he thinks that the DVD-Audio format or high-resolution audio will always be part of DualDisc.

Formats aside, the original question posed to the panelists remains: Will the market migrate from stereo to multichannel the way it eventually switched from mono to stereo? Geoff Emerick, the "graybeard" of the group, said yes, and then added that we shouldn't hold our breath, since it may actually take 25 years to do so.