DVD-Audio 2002: Soundbites, Demonstrations and Strategy

DVD-Audio 2002: “All of us involved in this format are passionate about it.” So said John Kellogg, Dolby Laboratories, the re-mastering engineer responsible for such critically acclaimed DVD-Audio releases as ‘Foreigner 4’ and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery’, Kellogg has emerged as de facto spokesman for the DVD-Audio camp. His enthusiasm puts a welcome human face on an often-amorphous technology coalition. Kellogg’s introductory remarks laid out the value proposition for consumers in DVD-Audio’s wealth of media and content – high-resolution audio, stereo and multi-channel, and video. Describing a hypothetical trip to a retail store, he articulated the consumer’s current dilemma: “Over in this bin I have an audio-only CD; over here, for the same price, I can buy a two-disc ‘Harry Potter’ DVD with video, audio, and a mind-boggling array of extra features. Consumers are seeing DVDs and saying ‘I want more for my $17.’” The multi-media approach of DVD-Audio (in contrast to the audio-only SACD format) is to play to the expectations fostered by DVD-Video.

To demonstrate the creative possibilities of multi-channel music, Kellogg played a striking sequence from Linkin Park’s upcoming ‘Reanimation’ DVD-Audio disc. Liberated by the nature of the material from expectations of anything like a traditional front soundstage presentation, the recording’s immersive sound and ping-ponging effects made a visceral case for the format’s appeal to an entirely new way of experiencing music in the home.

In my follow-up interview, Kellogg elaborated on the multimedia aspects of DVD-Audio as a key differentiator of the format. The goal, he said, is to be as inclusive of as many formats and applications as possible. Rather than living in denial, he even supports the idea of including MP3 mixes on DVD-Audio discs – as an alternative to people collecting and sending songs over the Internet, he said, making MP3 files more conveniently available is a further incentive to buy the disc. The downside to the varied content of DVD-Audio releases, of course, is the production complexity adds to each title, but Kellogg is committed to the principle of added value. “We don’t just stick a DSD-encoding of an existing two-channel release on a disc and ship it out the door,” he said.

Ted Cohen, Vice President of New Media, EMI: “DVD-Audio simply brings you closer to the music than you’ve ever been before.” Addressing the precipitous decline in Compact Disc sales, Cohen believes that DVD-Audio has the potential to rekindle that market by reacquainting people with their favorite music. The appeal, he claims, lies not just in the format’s technology, but in its more elemental power to “…bring an emotional presentation that we’ve never had before.

Craig V. Eggers, Toshiba America: “Multi-channel is what captures the consumer’s imagination.” Speaking as a representative of both Toshiba and the DVD Forum, Eggers offered some insights into the market hot buttons for DVD-Audio. Market research, he maintains, shows it is the surround experience, rather than higher resolution audio quality, that differentiates the new audio format in the minds of consumers. He also discussed the opportunities in automobile-based DVD-Audio players, an obvious setting for the surround experience given the existing use of multiple speakers and the stationary seating positions of passengers. “I believe the car is the sleeper environment for the success or failure of this format,” Eggers proclaimed.

John Trickett, President, 5.1 Entertainment: “Now there’s a reason to go out and buy the Beatles’ White Album again.” Humorous allusion to Tommy Lee Jones’ classic line in ‘Men in Black’ notwithstanding, Trickett’s company is at the forefront of the creation of new works in surround sound. Especially significant, he pointed out, is the eagerness with which recording artists embrace the new medium. “More and more of them are starting to think and create for it from the beginning,” he reports, a trend which transforms surround engineering from an afterthought into an integral part of the creative process. An early convert to the surround experience from his first DVD player purchase, Trickett founded 5.1 Entertainment as a vertical umbrella company for his Silverline, immergent, Electromatrix, and MyUtopia record labels, all devoted to multi-channel music releases.

Robin Hurley, Rhino Records: “There’s a perception out there that DVD-Audio content has to be ‘audiophile.’ That simply isn’t true.” As proof that the format’s mass market potential extends beyond a specialized niche, Hurley pointed out that on DVD-Audio, Metallica has outsold the better-heeled Steely Dan, while Queensrяche’s ‘Empire’ is currently the number one selling release. 5.1 mixes are already standard negotiation items in artist’s contracts, and Hurley emphasized the exciting possibilities and challenges posed by the new multi-channel frontier. “Getting artists to a level of comfort with it pays huge dividends,” he suggested. He also offered a record producer’s perspectives on building trust and gaining artists’ approval, from educating artists about their new creative options to strategies for recouping DVD mastering costs from sales with minimal impact to artists’ royalties. In closing, he illustrated the intricacies of DVD-Audio production with a flowchart of the intricate menu structure for the Grateful Dead’s ‘American Beauty’ release.

Craig Anderson, Warner/Elektra/Atlantic: “Of the 40 watermarked titles I’ve tested, I’ve heard the watermark on exactly 1.5 seconds of one musical passage – that’s 4/1000ths of the material.” A consultant for Warner/Elektra/Atlantic, mastering engineer Anderson spent most of his presentation providing insights into the mechanics of the DVD-Audio authoring process, including the intricacies of navigable menus. Nevertheless, the controversial incorporation of Verance digital watermarking technology continued to dominate questions. Anderson did not attempt to soft-pedal the issue, acknowledging that despite sophisticated techniques for masking the watermark, the added signal can indeed be audible at times, since the whole point of it is to embed a detectable signal for analog as well as digital copyright protection purposes. Like other presenters, he also stressed that watermarking is optional, and the decision to include it is solely at the discretion of the content producer. (Surprisingly, the fact that SACD also has provisions for watermarking was never brought up during the event.)

In a follow-up conversation, Anderson told me that he’s particularly encouraged by a new flexibility on the part of Warner Music Group, the highest-profile source of DVD-Audio releases. In particular, he cited the relaxation of a previous twelve-minute limit on video content per disc originally intended to circumvent video store rentals. “Since then, we’ve come up with a model that makes it more fun – and more creative [to produce DVD-A titles].” Anderson believes that in consumer’s eyes, the distinctions between the DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, and DVD-ROM buckets on a DVD disc will eventually evaporate, and he feels it’s important to pursue creative possibilities on all three fronts.

Jeff Dean, 5.1 Entertainment: “We’ve made some really cool discs – wouldn’t it be great to sell some?” Key to DVD-Audio’s market strategy, Dean said, is inclusion of Dolby Digital and/or DTS mixes to assure compatibility with the 40 million DVD players already in the market, allowing consumers to sample the multi-channel music experience through their existing equipment. Among the challenges facing the format, he cited the need to improve consumer awareness through initiatives like the DVD-Audio kiosks to be deployed in Circuit City stores, and the limited number of software titles, a problem 5.1 Entertainment is doing its best to address with over 80 titles currently available, and over 100 more already scheduled for production. In an implicit distinction from the vertical genres of SACD titles, he emphasized that DVD-Audio content goes well beyond the ‘audiophile’ niches of jazz and classical in pursuit of broad-based consumer appeal. “We’re all over the map,” he said.

Jeff Samuels, Panasonic: “It’s very important that everyone in the food chain understands what’s going on.” Samuels stressed the need for cooperation and commitment from the various DVD-Audio format backers, from player manufacturers to content producers, and commented on the growing momentum in this area. Among the promising recent developments he cited was the decision by Warner Bros. and 5.1 Entertainment to lower DVD-Audio disc prices to $17.98, and release them day-and-date with standard CD versions.

Jeff Skillen, DTS Entertainment: “Kenwood already has 4 DVD-Audio models, including a 400-disc changer – they’re really optimistic about the format!” Although DTS is in some respects a competing format, the provision for including DTS mixes on DVD-Audio discs represents the company’s best hope for marketing its 5.1 audio mixes, since its own audio discs have failed to gain market traction. Covering the proliferation of DVD-Audio capable hardware, Skillen discussed the significance of the ‘wall of players’ on display in the adjoining reception area, ranging from $250 units to $20,000 high end specialty products. The impressively wide list of from manufacturers committed to the format includes Denon, Integra/Onkyo, JVC,
Kenwood, Marantz, Meridian, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Pioneer, Technics,
Toshiba, and Yamaha. The inclusion of Silken, a DTS representative, in a presentation at the rival Dolby Laboratories facility was a symbolic testament to DVD-Audio’s newfound spirit of cooperation among its proponents.
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