American Gramaphone’s ‘Home Theater Demo’ is not your average multi-channel showcase, but a collection of five distinct pieces of music, presented in 3/2.1 or 2/2.1 surround.
Founded in 1975 by musician and composer Chip Davis of Mannheim Steamroller fame, the American Gramaphone label has been pushing the boundaries of ‘new age’ music ever since and as a result the company has sold well over twenty-eight million records, subsequently branching out into the fields of audio and video production, publishing and live concert events. It should therefore come as no surprise that Chip Davis has been drawn to the possibilities afforded by multi-channel reproduction.
At the end of January, American Gramaphone announced the availability of their first DVD-Audio titles, all of which we will be reviewing in the coming weeks. They are ‘Christmas Extraordinaire’, ‘Fresh Aire 8’, the latest in a long line of best sellers and from the Ambience Series, ‘Bird Song’ and ‘Summer Song’
‘Home Theater Demo’ is the final member of the initial American Gramaphone DVD-Audio line-up and as is the case with all of the above, it presents MLP DVD-Audio on one side of the disc and DVD-Video compatible content on the other, complete with Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks.
‘Moonlight at Cove Castle’ performed by Mannheim Steamroller is the first track. It was inspired by a moonlight evening Chip Davis and his daughter experienced while on vacation in Anguilla, British West Indies. The 2/2.1 (no centre channel) piece starts slowly with a gentle piano solo positioned in the front half of the soundstage, and then builds into what could be described as room-filling ‘symphonic rock’. The fidelity of the piano and orchestral elements is commendable, but percussion and cymbals have a decidedly brittle, edgy quality. On the DVD-Audio layer along with the music one can either view a static title slide or in this case a series of rather basic Photoshop composites, complete with lens flare filter.
The second piece is the menuetto allegro from Mozart’s Quintet in C Major (K465) performed by the Smithsonian Chamber Players – another 2/2.1 presentation. The track was recorded in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery – a single microphone was placed close to each performer and the resulting individual signals have been routed to each corner of the listening room – the violins are front left/right while the viola is surround left and the cello surround right. Four additional microphones were placed approximately twenty-five feet behind each instrumentalist and these captured the acoustics of the gallery, the signal being conveyed equally by all channels in use. Davis’ intention was to place us, the listeners, in the midst of the performers while also capturing the qualities of the venue.
The result is certainly entertaining and strangely enough isn’t as gimmicky as it may appear on paper or screen, as the case may be. There is a sense of space and depth within the recording, although due to the cardinal instrument positioning soundstage authenticity is loudspeaker placement critical. The fidelity of the track is outstanding, beautifully conveying the tonality of the matching set of Stradivarius instruments from National Museum of American History used by the four musicians.
The next piece is ‘Waterfall’, another Chip Davis composition and performed by Mannheim Steamroller with the London Symphony Orchestra. An excerpt from ‘Fresh Aire 8’, it was inspired by the 1961 perspective lithograph by M.C. Escher, which also forms the visual backdrop on the DVD-Audio layer. The piece opens with the sounds of flowing water and delicate panning noises spread throughout the room, then evolves into a powerful work involving full orchestra and Steamroller electronic instruments. The fidelity of this piece is superior to that of ‘Moonlight at Cove Castle’ since the percussive instruments are presented with greater precision and clarity. There is some fairly aggressive use of the surrounds with a snare drum call-and-answer motif that makes use of both front and rear soundstages.
‘Night Party’ also hails from ‘Fresh Aire 8’ and it is the only track on the entire disc to make use of all six channels. The piece has strong Greek influences, which is not entirely surprising given the composition’s concept of Plato’s Academy in 5th Century Ancient Greece. The opening sequence is odd, to say the least. Its purpose is to symbolise how an idea can evolve or be misinterpreted as it passes from person to person, but the use of trite American 20th century dialogue is totally out of place. I doubt a member of any Greek Academy would be discussing types of ‘candy’ (sweets, or chocolate bars, for non-American readers).
But what the piece lacks in historical authenticity is more than compensated for by the music itself. ‘Night Party’ is a mixture of Latin and Greek flavours, castanets clatter in all directions and there is a throbbing, deep bass-line to keep your subwoofer and any nearby neighbours entertained. The fidelity is excellent – listen out for the quiet ‘tings’ of a triangle – as is the artistic use of the surround channels.
The final track is an unusual re-working of the Christmas carol ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ from ‘Mannheim Steamroller Christmas Live’ performed using a mixture of traditional minstrel and electronic instruments. The melody itself is kept fairly simple with a modest use of the surrounds, but throughout the track there are thunderous whooshing sounds that pan from front right to surround akin to a volcano erupting, only not quite so subtle. The piece opens with an English courtier asking Chip for something he can dance to, so one is left wondering if his partner is a dragon with heartburn…
Which is where the DVD-Video layer comes into play. Here, each track is accompanied by a moving video element, precluded by the DVD-Audio specifications. In the case of ‘Midnight at Cove Castle’, the Mozart piece and ‘Waterfall’, the video takes the form of a ‘real time meter display’. This divides the screen into six elements, each showing a combination frequency/event analyser for the applicable channel. The system, which bears similarities to the visualisations available for Winamp, a popular Windows MP3 player, provides an entertaining way to evaluate how much each channel contributes to the surround experience as a whole.
Both ‘Night Party’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ benefit from full motion video clips. The latter was originally designed to be projected in synchronisation with the music at a Mannheim Steamroller concert while the former is part of the extensive video component of ‘Fresh Aire 8’. Both are entertaining in their own right, especially as the ‘Night Party’ sequence contains numerous, half-naked belly-dancers while the ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ clip enables the listener to attribute those mysterious whooshing noises to an accomplished fire eater. The dragon guess was close, but no cigar…
The Dolby Digital and DTS audio on the DVD-Video layer is of a high standard, but both sound rather bloated in comparison to their MLP counterpart. Dolby’s CODEC has fewer problems with the unstable cymbals of ‘Moonlight at Cove Castle’ than its lossy competition, but it’s a close call.
Arguably the worst aspect of the entire production is the Title Menu on the DVD-Video layer – each of the main selections is a different colour and that makes it really difficult to know which is selected – but once into the submenus things improve greatly. Here you’ll find no end of supplementary materials; they include sections describing the various forms of DVD and sound formats used, this DVD specifically, a ‘How to Use’ sequence (which strikes me as somewhat ironic since you already have to be able to use the disc to find it), the story of American Gramaphone, contact details, a brief trailer for the label’s DVD titles and an animated Mannheim Steamroller sequence that bears more than a passing resemblance to Dolby Digital’s ‘Train’ trailer in terms of sound design.
Also on the disc is a system set-up sequence of circling calibration noise and in a similar vein, ‘Chip’s Comet’, a computer generated sequence that cleverly allows each channel to be identified and its frequency response subjectively evaluated. Best of all is a series of ‘liner notes’; they provide a brief insight into each track and more often than not feature video appearances by the man himself, Chip Davis.
The five audio segments may be short, but ‘Home Theater Demo’ is an impressive DVD-Audio debut from American Gramaphone. It also provides a taste of the Mannheim Steamroller catalogue and a chance to learn about Davis’ production philosophies. The surround mix is both authentic and experimental, depending on the track selection, and it can certainly lay claim to being of a ‘demonstration’ standard.
‘Home Theater Demo’ is available now from the American Gramaphone web site, priced at $20. It will also go on limited release via selected audio/video stores later in the year.