Two of the major problems with high-resolution audio formats are the relative cost of entry and ease of use. Anyone who has gone through the process of creating a DVD-Audio title knows that the authoring stage (where the interactivity, graphics, and audio are stitched together) is a long and expensive process. A full-blown DVD-A authoring job (after production is completed) usually takes from two to three days and costs in the neighborhood of $10,000. This is because the current DVD-Audio authoring packages are closer to C+ programming than the slick, graphically oriented user interface now available in even the cheapest DVD-Video authoring application. And the high cost of the workstation ($30 to $50K) along with the steep learning curve has kept many facilities, as well as would-be DVD-A producers, effectively on the sidelines waiting to get in the game. Add to this the fact that the costs dont change much even to make a few ref discs, and you can see why the format is languishing.
But all of that may soon change thanks to the introduction of Minnetonkas discWelder Steel DVD-Audio authoring software, the first in a line of products inexpensive enough to bring the format to the masses. Steel is designed not so much to author discs for replication (although that is possible) as it is to make quick high-resolution check discs. The software is easy to install and easier yet to use, with a full disc authored in less than 15 minutes or so.
DiscWelder Steel comes on a CD that includes a pretty painless self-installer, with both a printed quick-start manual and a more complete online PDF manual. The program is pretty tolerant of the operating system as long as its a modern Windows OS. It will run on Windows 98, 2000, or NT, and needs 128 MB of RAM and 10 GB of hard disk space. In order to burn discs, a supported DVD-R/RW drive like the Pioneer DVR-A04 is required. Once upon a time in the not too distant past (like about 18 months ago), a DVD-R drive cost about $5000 and discs were $50 each. That price has dropped considerably, with burners now available for as little as $250 and discs fast approaching $1 each.
For purposes of the review, I used a dual Pentium III with 256 MB of RAM and an older FireWire Pioneer A103. The system worked like a charm. Steel works with Linear PCM audio and is able to import either WAV or AIFF files. Its possible to adjust the time spread in between songs and the single available menu graphic can be configured for NTSC and PAL if required.
Although the actual programming of a disc can be pretty speedy, Steel needs up to 15 minutes of finishing time while it writes a directory. This is similar to other available programs.
Im a Mac guy through and through, and I quake at the thought of using a PC, mostly because Ive spent so little time with Windows that my level of expertise is only a little higher than novice. That being said, I was able to install Steel and author my first short three-song disc in about ten minutes – ten minutes!! After I got good at it (literally the third time through), I was able to have a disc ready to burn in five minutes or so. This program is one of the most intuitive Ive ever come across on any platform. Its dead easy, and the online help instantly answered the few initial questions that I did have.
What It Doesnt Have
Just so you dont get the idea that Steel will turn out a complete hybrid DVD-A similar to whats commercially available, there are some limitations. First of all, theres no built-in MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing – the encoding scheme that lets the air out of the digital word, so to speak) encoder, and Steel cannot import MLP files. What this means is that its not possible to have six 96k tracks playing at the same time because that would exceed the 9.6 Mbps bandwidth limitation of the format. You can have two 96k files, but you cant mix file types or sample rates. Also you audiophiles should also be aware that its possible to burn two channels of 192k audio, although some DVD-Audio players may not have converters able to play back at that sample rate.
Another limitation is in the graphics area, although this might not be a concern for many users. Steel provides a generic menu graphic complete with the album and song titles. While its possible to alter the typeface, size, and color, you cant change the placement on the screen (theyre all centered), and you cant add additional graphics when the song is playing. However, the resulting DVDs operate just like a normal Red Book CD, so a menu graphic isnt even needed.
All that being said, these limitations are somewhat by design. At a price of $495, Minnetonka chose to provide just enough features for the average studio to burn a ref disc without breaking the bank. A more advanced version, called discWelder Chrome ($2495), is due out by the time you read this that will provide more graphics and slideshow capabilities along with the ability to import both MLP and a Video TS folder from a DVD-V authoring workstation. This means that you will then be able to make a hybrid DVD-A/V disc on par with whats currently commercially available. A full MLP encoder (also $2495, the least expensive MLP encoder price to date), the last piece of the puzzle, is due out by the end of the year.
DiscWelder Steel is a great piece of software. Its inexpensive, extremely easy to use, and really fills a current need. Now theres no excuse not to be involved in high-resolution audio production. For more information, go to www.discwelder.com