Honoring the year’s most significant releases in the fledgling multichannel music catalog, the Surround Music Awards were held on December 11, the first night of the Fifth Annual Surround Professional Conference at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. In only its second year, the SMA Program has already emerged as the social centerpiece of the Conference. This year’s Awards ceremony, a thoroughly polished and classy affair produced by the effusive and tireless Lisa Roy, sported celebrity presenters and sophisticated multimedia segments (in multichannel sound, naturally), while still retaining the intimacy and enthusiasm befitting a gathering of lifelong music-lovers. The evening also included a moving tribute to the memory of Surround Pioneer Award winner Frank Zappa.
With the sole exception of the newly-added High Fidelity Review Readers’ Poll Award, this year’s winners were again selected by recording industry professionals and journalists. The peer-driven nature of the event not only confers an important stamp of legitimacy on an emerging music field still struggling for wider recognition, it also provides a collegial shmooze-fest opportunity par excellence, of which everyone in attendance seemed to take full advantage.
Continuing last year’s brilliantly successful format, veteran sound mixers Al Schmitt and Ed Cherney once again undertook co-hosting duties, dissipating stuffy formality with their freewheeling, irreverent banter and putting the crowd instantly at ease. “They didn’t even pay us last year,” confided Schmitt, “but this year they doubled our salary.”
Undeterred from biting the hand that wasn’t feeding them, Schmitt and Cherney took a few good-natured pot shots at the proceedings from time to time. As he introduced the Most Adventurous Mix category, Schmitt paused for some head-scratching. “What the hell does that mean? What would be a misadventurous use of surround?” However you care to define it, though, this year’s Most Adventurous crown went to Insane Clown Posse’s ‘The Wraith: Shangri-La’ (DTS Entertainment). By way of encouragement, Cherney offered co-recipient Nathaniel Kunkel a kindly if amusingly vacuous attaboy: “Remember that thing you did, Nathaniel? That was cool!”
Venturing beyond commercial disc releases into related media impacted by surround technology, a special Surround for Broadcast Landmark Award went to producers John Cossette and Leslie Lewis for the 45th Grammy Awards 5.1/HD Telecast. Presenting the award was Herbie Hancock, an early convert and important promoter of surround music from the artistic community. Commenting on his first experience working with surround professionals, an appreciative Cossette said he learned the key was to “give them the necessary spiritual and financial support and then get out of the way.” Next year’s Grammy Awards will again broadcast in surround and high-definition.
The aspirations of a new generation of creative artists liberated from the constraints of the traditional two-channel delivery medium were given a thoughtful and articulate voice in a special address by musician/composer/producer BT, whose musical score for the upcoming film ‘Monster’ was conceived from the ground up in 5.1. Acknowledging the major problems inherent in today’s recording industry – overall lack of artistic control, cost cutting by the major labels, and rampant piracy – BT pointed to surround as “a shining beacon of hope in an otherwise dark business.” Composing in multichannel, he claimed, allowed him to achieve the quality of “spatiality” he had always admired in his musical heroes, from the likes of Stravinsky to Brian Eno. “Stereo is unnatural… surround is the way I’ve always wanted to create music.”
Dutch band Kane was singled out as surround newcomers with the most potential for their multichannel release of ‘So Glad You Made It’ (BMG-Netherlands), though the vague lyricism of the award category – Surround Horizon Artist of the Year – drew another introductory groan from Schmitt (“Uh-oh, another one of those awards…”) Perhaps a more prosaic title like “Most Promising New Surround Artist” might avoid the wrath of Al next year.
Nods to emerging talent notwithstanding, a proven track record for hits always has its advantages at the SMA Awards, as it does everywhere else in the music and entertainment industry. In the performer-centric Surround Artist of the Year category, rock icons Led Zeppelin literally had no competition, winning an uncontested award early in the evening for the group’s eponymous ‘Led Zeppelin’ DVD. Guitarist Jimmy Page’s gracious acceptance note was read by Zep engineer Kevin “Caveman” Shirley.
It was another veteran rock band, however, that proved to be the 600-pound gorilla at this year’s Awards. Pink Floyd’s 5.1-remastered ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (Capitol Records) signaled a trend early in the evening by nabbing the Best Multichannel Reissue crown. ‘Dark Side…’ also went on to win Best of Show; selected by the SMA judges from among the current year’s winners in all the other categories, this uber-award is intended to celebrate “the highest state of creativity in all facets of production” (in some respects another head scratcher, since as an audio-only release this SACD title has no video facets other than its packaging. Then again, this is certainly one of the most effective surround mixes to date, and a milestone in the all-important mission to capture wider audiences for multichannel music).
On this one the SMA judges were in lock step with the public, who chose ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ in our High Fidelity Review online Reader’s Poll incorporated into this year’s SMA Program as the Listener’s Choice Award. In presenting the award, HFR representative, CEDIA co-founder and longtime evangelist for consumer multichannel audio Buzz Goddard described how visitors to the High Fidelity Review site were allowed to vote only once for their favorite title. “There have literally been thousands of votes, so the award really does represent the choice of serious high-resolution listeners,” Goddard said. For a change of pace, this year’s Best Additional Features award went to yet another incarnation, Eagle Rock Entertainment’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon: Classic Album’ DVD, for its extensive interviews and behind-the-scenes footage surrounding the ubiquitous Pink Floyd title.
Mercifully there is no symphonic content in ‘Dark Side…’ freeing up the Best Orchestral Mix Award for the Gerard Schwartz/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra recording of ‘Alan Hovhaness: Mysterious Mountains’ (Telarc). Best Non-Orchestral Mix was a tie between Queen’s ‘The Game’ (DTS Entertainment) and ‘Alison Krauss+Union Station Live’ (Rounder). The Best Made-For-Surround Title prize went to Steely Dan’s ‘Everything Must Go’ (Warner Bros.). Despite the potential for overlap in these categories (presumably both orchestral and non-orchestral recordings can be made for surround), the emerging surround music field doesn’t yet lend itself easily to cut-and-dried achievement criteria. At this stage there’s a lot more value in recognizing as much quality work as possible than in adhering to strictly logical category distinctions.
A complementary pair of SMA Award categories showcase the two principal technical advances in both the SACD and DVD-Audio delivery formats: improved sound quality and discrete multichannel delivery. In a nod to the 2-channel “audiophile” niche, a Best High Resolution Stereo-only Program Award went to the Ray Brown Trio’s ‘Soular Energy’ (despite its questionable relevance in an awards ceremony and Conference dedicated to music in surround). The flip side of the new format capabilities was reflected in the award for Best Standard Resolution (but still multichannel) Title, which went to ‘An Evening with the Dixie Chicks’ (Sony/Columbia).
The Chicks laid an egg in their other nominated category, Best Concert Video, which went to ‘Deacon John’s Jump Blues: Concert of Music from the Film’ (AIX Records), a release that reminds us that audiophile quality and surround are not mutually exclusive. Ironically, AIX owner and chief engineer Dr. Mark Waldrep told me afterwards that ‘Deacon John’ was one of the few AIX titles recorded in analog rather than high-resolution digital, which only shows that engineering skill and great music are still more important to sound quality than technological sophistication.
Best Menu Design, a category honoring creative graphics and ease of navigation which by definition can only include DVD audio/video titles, was awarded to ‘Surrounded’ by Tipper (5.1 Entertainment/Myutopia Records). 5.1 Entertainment President Bob Michaels accepted the award.
For the evening’s finale, a surprise Trailblazer Award was presented to publisher Marty Porter of United Entertainment Media, which bankrolls the entire Surround Professional Conference. Porter accepted his trophy in the spirit of publishers everywhere, wondering, “Just how much more did I pay for this extra award, anyway?”