Visiting 5.1 Entertainment, West Los Angeles

High Fidelity Review was recently given an opportunity to tour the facilities of 5.1 Entertainment as well as meet some of the company’s principals, including: John Trickett, chairman and chief executive officer; Jeff Dean, president of Silverline Records; Gary Lux, vice president of Audio Production; Chris Haynes, chief engineer; and Jacqui Chazen, director of publicity. Located in West Los Angeles, the almost unnoticeable building houses 5.1 Entertainment’s four music labels: Silverline, immergent, Electromatrix and Myutopia Recordings.

Also at the same location is the other half of the company, 5.1 Production Services, which includes two fully digital THX certified studios in a dedicated 10,000-foot production facility. “We’re a one stop shop for music production, start to finish” said John Trickett. Indeed, services offered by the company include: sound recording, music production, audio mixing (both traditional stereo and 5.1), audio mastering, graphic design, video and audio editing, DVD-Video and DVD-Audio authoring, SACD mastering, visual production, digital audio encoding and archiving. “Though we concentrate on CD and DVD-Audio, especially for our labels, we’re actually format agnostic. Our stereo and 5.1 mixes can be delivered in any format that our clients may want.”

The mixes and sonics of DVD-Audio titles from 5.1 Entertainment’s labels have varied quite a bit, primarily due to source material.

“I’m somewhat loathe to do multi-channel mixes in situations where we don’t have access to original multi-track sources”

admitted Trickett

“but when we were first starting out we had to deal with a lot of material that, well, wasn’t the best.”

Gary Lux explained

“when we don’t have a multi-track source, we use a variety of techniques and tools, like TC Unwrap, to create a surround mix. Still, as often as possible we always try to find a multi-track source to work from.”

Lux, who recently mixed Aaron Neville’s ‘Believe’ DVD-A and was finishing up a multi-channel mix of the Andy Gibbs classic ‘I Just Want To Be Your Everything’ for the new Charlie’s Angels sequel ‘Full Throttle’, elaborated on his mixes. “I’m not a four-corner mixer and I don’t put all the vocals in the centre channel” he said, separating his style from the old quad method as well as film soundtrack mixing techniques. “Yes, surround is a film format but we mix for a different focus. I don’t think lead vocals sound good through only the centre; it just doesn’t sound musical to me.” Lux demonstrated his work by playing cuts from titles he’d recently mixed. (Interestingly, his assistant, Ken Ramos cued up individual tracks and navigated the various DVD-As using only the front panel display of a standard consumer player. So much for the myth that a television display is always needed.)

We listened in Studio A, switching between full range speakers and a sub/sat combo. The latter gave a better idea of the sound more likely to be heard in consumer homes. “I don’t mix defensively” said Lux, clarifying that he doesn’t restrict his mixes based on fears that the end consumer might have inadequate speakers at certain locations, like the surrounds or centre. The mixes themselves were very dynamic, with content moving from speaker to speaker. There was nothing fixed or predictable about the mix, the soundscape often changed from song to song. “Each song is different” Lux confirmed, “I approach each one emotionally, with music dictating the mix.”

“The music definitely dictates the mix!” echoed Chris Haynes; a mantra repeated to me even by CEO Trickett. Haynes was finishing a 5.1 re-mix of Queensrÿche frontman Geoff Tate’s self titled solo album that was released last year, which Haynes called “a perfect record for surround.” He was also excited about an upcoming Emerson, Lake and Palmer “live” DVD-A that will include two distinct mixes: a new 5.1 re-mix as well as the original quad mix reproduced in four discrete channels. Haynes also elaborated on situations where the source material was less than ideal, especially about trying to create a 5.1 mix when the only thing available is a stereo or mono (ack!) original master. “It’s tough” he admitted “Unwrap is a starting point; once I have stuff spread out into the other channels, I can then move things around and really start creating a surround mix.” Like Lux, Haynes’ use of the centre channel depends on the particular song. “I tried a hard centre with the guitars on a Motorhead song, but it never sounded right through one speaker.”

Haynes and Lux also cited technical reasons for splitting certain instruments and vocals over multiple channels, such as the greater dynamic range and higher volume that can be achieved by using two or three speakers instead of one. “One driver doesn’t have to do everything” said Haynes. John Trickett summed up the centre channel issue as well as their mixing philosophy in general “we’re mixing an album, not making a movie!” Which came through clearly, even in the few songs that I sampled at the studio.

Aside from multi-channel mixes, 5.1 Production Services is also responsible for many two-channel mixes; both for outside clients as well as for CDs issued by 5.1 Entertainment’s various labels. Readers may be wondering then why only some of 5.1 Entertainment’s DVD-A titles include a high resolution two-channel mix. “That’s simply a rights issue” said Gary Lux, explaining “we often partner with another record label, where they’ll have released the CD and we’ll be doing the DVD-A. They usually don’t want us to release a higher resolution version of their product, which is understandable, so we’ll get the rights to only the 5.1 re-mix.” Naturally, the rights issue is not a problem when it comes to artists signed to one of 5.1 Entertainment’s music labels, allowing those DVD-As to include a dedicated two-channel mix as well as often allowing them to be released day-and-date with their CD counterparts. “If we can include a stereo track, we always try to do so” added Jacqui Chazen, “we like to pack in as much as we can on our DVD-A titles.”

Indeed, some of their titles have extensive bonus sections. For example, Ziroq’s self-titled DVD-A includes enough bonus tracks to constitute a second album. “We love doing that” said Trickett “and we want to do even more!” In their attempt to discover more material to include on their releases, Trickett and company have come up with some interesting ideas. Jeff Dean mentioned a recent example: “We’ve been giving small camcorders to our bands when they go on tour. Since we have in-house video production services we can edit the tapes and include some of that footage on our DVD-As. This way, their fans can see what it’s like to be on the road, through the band’s eyes.” Trickett added another idea they’ve been interested in “I want to try a commentary track, like on DVD movies, where the artist can explain all sorts of interesting things about the songs and the album.” Both men made it clear that this wasn’t just a case of adding filler to a release. “We originate most of that stuff and work very hard on it” said Trickett. Dean summed it up “whether it’s audio or video bonus material, the most important thing is that it has to be compelling content!”

While their production services remain “format agnostic”, their music labels are clearly in the DVD-Audio camp. “Bonus material is the way we’re going in the future and that’s the big advantage of DVD-Audio: there’s room for all that extra stuff. We want to give the customer as much extra content as possible, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible.” Trickett explained further that “bonus material is the reason why we don’t do SACDs, even though we have the SACD rights to many of our titles. It comes down to value. We music labels have to give customers a reason for buying the same music again, and higher resolution isn’t enough. These decisions aren’t made in a vacuum; we went DVD-A with the knowledge that every industry focus group had found that consumers were interest mostly in multi-channel mixes and bonus material, with higher resolution coming in a really distant third. We’ve done our homework about what the public wants.” Citing the large and rapidly growing installed base of DVD-Video players, Tricket added “The best part is that the disc upgrades with the player. You can listen to the 5.1[Dolby Digital] track on any DVD player, and it’s important that consumers have access to the multi-channel mix right now. Later, when you get a DVD-A player, you can enjoy the better sonic quality of the MLP track plus all the bonus features.”

One of the features no longer present on 5.1 Entertaimnent’s DVD-Audio titles is a DTS track. “We didn’t feel the need to keep including DTS because we already had the AC-3 track, which sounded good enough that the DTS track was really not necessary” explained Trickett. Ever the diplomat, he quickly added “However, I think their technology is great and I’m a big fan of some of the stuff on their music label: the new Queen releases, for example, are fantastic.” Dean added another reason “Including a DTS track would sometimes mean the difference between releasing a DVD-5 versus a DVD-9. At the time, the cost difference between the two wasn’t as small as it is today.” Both men also grudgingly admitted that they were somewhat uncomfortable with DTS’s sudden decision to market all their music discs (DVD-A or not) in the same super-jewel cases that had now become familiar to DVD-Audio buyers. As expected, Dean was polite about it: “As a music label, they have to make a decision about how best to market their products. Obviously we weren’t pleased, because we think it will unnecessarily confuse the customer, since we had already committed to the super-jewel case as a way for consumers to easily recognize DVD-Audio titles.”

Another feature that 5.1 Entertainment has been keeping an eye on is the long-promised hybrid CD/DVD-A discs. Tests on dual-layer hybrids haven’t been very encouraging, and the few dual-sided hybrid have been released ended up being problematic. “We’re waiting for the technology to become more stable” said Trickett, “dual-sided seems to be the more likely of the two to emerge in the near future, though I’d prefer dual-layer so that it wouldn’t be a flipper and we could still have artwork on the disc. Actually, they’re working on a way to have artwork in-between layers, so that it could work with dual-sided discs; but that gets even more complicated.” One example of an already released hybrid title is ‘Book of Shadows: Blair Witch II’ which had the DVD movie on one side and the CD soundtrack on the other. “The ‘Blair Witch’ disc didn’t work well because it was too thick” explained Dean, “the problem was usually with slot-loaded players: the disc would go in but it wouldn’t come out! We’re hoping they get the technology, especially the thickness issue, ironed out because that’ll be really attractive for in-car playback.”

In-car DVD-Audio players, especially the new Alpine/Clarion 5.1-channel in-dash model, were a source of genuine excitement for everyone I spoke with at 5.1 Entertainment. “At the recent NARM show, the best DVD-A demos were happening in a pair of cars they had parked on the show floor. Everyone who sat inside really liked what they heard” said Dean. “What’s not to like?” added Haynes, explaining “cars already come with multiple speakers, they’ve got the big bass to take advantage of the .1 channel and, best of all, a fixed listener position. It’s a great fit. In the future, people are going to be listening to a lot of our stuff in their cars.”

The current state and future of the DVD-Audio format was something both Trickett and Dean wanted to address. As expected, they remain positive about it, though without losing touch with the reality of the situation up to this point. “We labels have done a poor job of educating the consumer” admitted Trickett “and that’s something we all really have to work on.” To that end, 5.1 Entertainment has put together a DVD-A sampler disc containing songs from a variety of genres. Included is a track that explains the advantages and features of the DVD-Audio format, as well as demonstrations comparing two-channel CD resolution against 5.1-channel DVD-A quality. “We’ve given away 100,000 of those samplers, to be packed in with DVD-A players, so that buyers will have something to play right away” said Dean, adding that neither the expense nor logistics were insignificant for his company: “Do you know what it’s like to get eight record companies to agree on something?” Still, Trickett continues to point out the positive signs “Best Buy is converting prime real estate for DVD-A; they used to be in some dark corner but now they’re up front, near the CD singles section. It’s a step in the right direction and sales are going up.” Dean attributed some of those positive sales figures to their sampler as well as to fourth-quarter sales of hardware, especially as DVD-A playback becomes a more common feature of lower priced DVD players. “Now that SoundScan has a DVD-A section, we’ve been able to track sales better and do some comparisons to other media. After Christmas, CD sales experienced the normal decline; DVD-A didn’t!”

While the DVD-A format’s penetration into the marketplace isn’t as exciting as Trickett and Dean would like, they were more enthusiastic about what was coming up for 5.1 Entertainment and 5.1 Production Services. “Alan Parsons has just signed with the MyUtopia label” said Trickett, “plus we’ve signed on a bunch of new artists like Yellownote, Pop, tipper, Josh One, Gus Black and Ils. We’re also re-launching ‘Awaken’ with new re-mixes and added content.” Dean added to the list of new titles coming soon “We’ve got new Dishwala and UFO “live” albums in the works, as well as a couple of titles from the two VanZant Brothers. And we’re continuing with our massive, forty-title series ‘From the Front Row… Live’, which features Pat Benetar, Elvin Bishop, Teddy Pendergrass, BTO and Marshall Crenshaw, amongst many others.” I reminded Dean that using source material from the ‘70s and ‘80s may give critics another invitation to complain about the sonic quality of some of their DVD-A titles. “Sure, new recordings would have had better fidelity, but this is an opportunity to experience these artists at the peak of their talent. The emotions in these performances outweigh the technical limitations of the material” said Dean, quickly adding “of course we’re going to work from the highest quality, original multi-track master we can find.”

Trickett also shared his plans for the future of his company. “We’re expanding” he said with a big smile, “and it will happen roughly in four phases.” The first phase will see their current Los Angeles facilities spread out as the administrative and record label offices are moved into their own building. This will free up enough space in their current building to add a second mastering room and two to three more studios including, possibly, an analog one. “I want to bring in even more cutting-edge gear and triple our current output.” Phase 2 involves opening a studio in

New York, one that will be about the size of the current Los Angeles facilities. Phase 3 does the same in London and Phase 4 hopefully Nashville. “They’re all going to be one-stop-shops, from graphic design and artwork to complete audio-video production to complete encoding and mastering in any format. Of course the emphasis will be on multi-channel music.”

While it’s impossible to predict whether any particular music carrier format will succeed in the marketplace, multi-channel music seems to be guaranteed a future as long as companies like 5.1 Entertainment continue to support it. And where is multi-channel music headed? I’ll let Chris Haynes provide the coda: “Some of the best and most interesting multi-channel mixes are going to come from the next generation of mixers. They will have grown up in this environment, where all they’ll have known is movies and music in surround. They won’t have the two-channel versus multi-channel baggage we grew up with and their approach to mixing music will be reflected by an experience we never had: five-point-one from day-one!”

Finally, a very special thanks to Jacqui Chazen for her tireless efforts to coordinate the tour and all the interviews.