Surround 2004: News From Around The Show

Surround 2004: While I was attending Surround 2004, I picked up a lot of interesting news around the show. This included some upcoming release information from Telarc and Sony Music, details about the upcoming Dual Disc format and early news about the first “Universal” Car Audio Player which will handle not only CD Audio and DTS 5.1 Music Discs, but also DVD Audio and Super Audio CD discs. So, here are some of the highlights of those news items.

Super Audio CD Release Rate Continues to Move Upward
While at Surround 2004, I had a chance to meet with David Kawakami, Sony’s Super Audio CD Project Director here in the U.S. According to Kawakami, the number of Super Audio CD releases on a worldwide basis continues to steadily increase with a release rate now averaging 80 to 90 SACD discs per month. (A check of the web site that tracks all Super Audio CD releases worldwide confirms that release rate).

Kawakami also noted that of the SACD releases, in an average month we will see around 10 new titles from the Universal Music Group on a worldwide basis and most of the balance of the SACD releases from independent and audiophile labels who he referred to as “the indies”. That mirrors my observations as well.

In recent months, much of the Super Audio CD release activity has been driven by jazz, classical and audiophile SACDs from Universal, the independents and the audiophile labels.

Upcoming SACD Releases from Sony Music
That being said, there has been interest in what is coming from Sony Music in the future in terms of Super Audio CD releases. Checking with the label I was told that

“Sony Music will continue to identify, schedule and release SACD titles. More current SACD releases are coming soon as well as catalog titles from Herbie Hancock, George Benson and Stevie Ray Vaughan.”

While I didn’t get specifics from Sony Music about the catalog title SACDs and the ones coming from the artists mentioned above, earlier SACD catalogs have mentioned still to be released Surround Sound SACDs including Future Shock by Herbie Hancock, Body Talk by George Benson and a Surround Sound SACD edition of Couldn’t Stand The Weather by Stevie Ray Vaughan (the latter title having been released earlier as a Single Layer Stereo SACD by Sony Music).

Upcoming SACDs from Pink Floyd and Norah Jones?
Prior to the start of Surround 2004, rumors abounded that work has begun on 5.1 Surround Sound remixes of the Pink Floyd albums Animals and Wish You Were Here by their producer and engineer James Guthrie. There was also talk that the current Norah Jones album Feels Like Home might also appear in SACD Surround Sound in the coming year. Given that the current Surround Sound SACDs by Pink Floyd (The Dark Side of the Moon) and Norah Jones (Come Away With Me) have racked up strong sales figures certainly gives credibility to the rumors.

At Surround 2004, Ted Cohen, Vice President of New Media at Capitol Records was asked about SACD releases by Pink Floyd and Norah Jones. Unfortunately he didn’t shed any light on the rumors about upcoming SACDs in 2005 by these artists. But he did say that both had their high resolution audio albums released in Super Audio CD rather than the DVD Audio format at the artist’s request and noted that Capitol/EMI listens to their artists in such matters. An interesting bit of information, even though it kept us wondering about the stories of what is to come from these artists in terms of SACDs in 2005.

More Surprises In Store from Telarc
While at the show, I had a chance to chat with Telarc’s Chief Engineer Michael Bishop. Bishop was setting up his 5.1 Surround Sound playback system for a session on microphone techniques for 5.1 recording. Bishop uses a combination of white noise tones and Telarc SACD selections to do his room levels, balancing and speaker distance setting.

In this session, he highlighted the microphone and mixing techniques used for the recent Surround Sound SACD entitled Brain by avant garde Jazz pianist Hiromi. This SACD won the Surround 2004 Horizon Award for New Surround Sound Artist/Performer. If you’ve heard Hiromi’s two SACDs, you know it was an award well deserved by the artist and Michael Bishop who served as both co-producer and engineer on the Brain SACD.

During the session, Bishop also highlighted his set up and challenges in recording Down Home Chrome – a recent Telarc Country Surround Sound SACD by Junior Brown. On it Brown plays a combination guitar and steel guitar known as a guit-steel. The release was a bit of a surprise as Telarc hasn’t issued County Music albums in the past. When asked about the album’s release information noting that it was Brown’s “first Telarc SACD release”, Bishop confirmed that Junior Brown is indeed signed to Telarc for additional SACD releases. He also confirmed some rumors I’ve been hearing that Telarc has “another SACD surprise” in store, but he didn’t spill the beans on what that might be. I’ll keep an ear to the ground for more on that in the weeks ahead.

Plans for a Dual Disc Rollout In The U.S.
In the summer of 2003, John Kellogg of Dolby Labs reported that the DVD Audio group had dropped plans for a Hybrid DVD Audio disc in favor of a “flipper” disc which would have CD Audio on one side and DVD Audio and/or DVD Video on the other side. While the CD/DVD flipper disc now known as Dual Disc didn’t arrive in 2003 as planned, we were told at Surround 2004 that the legal and compatibility hurdles for a U.S. release had been vaulted and the Dual Disc was indeed coming soon.

Readers of High Fidelity Review and the SMR Forums know that there has been some question about the launch of the Dual Disc format due to patents held on a CD/DVD flipper disc called DVD Plus or One Disc by a German based company named DVD Plus as well as a legal agreement between DVD Plus and Warner Music.

From what we learned at Surround 2004, the DVD Plus firm holds a European patent – but not a U.S. patent – on the CD/DVD flipper concept. The result is that the Dual Disc launch will occur in the U.S. but not in Europe. Asked whether the DVD Plus rights cloud a U.S. launch, officials from Warner Music, Capitol/EMI and Universal Music all indicated at Surround 2004 that their lawyers had cleared the U.S. Dual Disc launch from a legal standpoint. So that issue appears to have been resolved.

Turning to Dual Disc’s compatibility with current CD and DVD players, there are still a few questions. A story on the Audio Revolution web site indicated that a study of Dual Disc compatibility commissioned by the major record labels backing the Dual Disc found that 10% of the discs tested could not be played on current car, computer, CD and DVD players.

While the officials from Warner Music, Capitol/EMI and Universal Music at Surround 2004 didn’t offer a specific figure, they did concede that Dual Discs will not play on “some” CD and DVD players now on the market. They also noted that each Dual Disc release will carry a disclaimer that indicates that the disc “may not play on a limited number of models”. Whether this becomes a significant issue or not will be an interesting area to watch when these discs arrive on the market in the near future.

A Clever Move by Silverline
Speaking of the Dual Disc format, we witnessed a clever move by Silverline Records at Surround 2004. During the Surround 2004 Awards Show, Silverline gave the 400 attendees at the show a complimentary copy of the upcoming Dual Disc release by Robert Cray entitled Time Will Tell.

Much has been made about the decision by Philips to not allow the Dual Disc labels to use the CD logo on their packaging because the Dual Disc apparently doesn’t meet the Compact Disc specifications as well as the compatibility questions mentioned earlier. What Silverline has done is packaged Cray’s Dual Disc in a clear plastic Compact Disc jewel box. So while the outside of the package doesn’t include the CD logo, the inside does – using a tray embossed with the Compact Disc logo! Very clever.

Harman Infotainment Plans A Universal SACD/DVD Audio Car Audio Player
High Fidelity Review readers will recall my story from last year’s IFA 2003 event when Harman and Philips announced a partnership to begin work on a Car Audio player that featured Surround Sound SACD. Since that time, rumors from DTS and the DVD Audio camp indicated that DTS and DVD Audio was in Harman’s Car Audio plans as well. This has led to much speculation about what the company is up to – including rumors that they were aiming to be first to market with a Universal SACD/DVD Audio Car Audio Player.

At Surround 2004, Harman Infotainment teamed up with DTS to show off a car equipped with a Surround Sound audio system. The goal was to show off the virtues of Surround Sound to the recording industry professionals at the show. Since DTS was co-sponsoring the demonstration, the material used was DTS 5.1 encoded.

However, in asking Harman Infotainment about their plans, they will be going further than DTS. The Harman Infotainment folks at the show told me that as a supplier to car makers, they are developing players that provide a wide range of functions including Car Stereo, Navigation, GPS and Surround Sound. Their work in Surround Sound started with the Logic7 matrix system developed by sister company Lexicon. In that vein, the licensing and demonstration of DTS 5.1 Music is a logical extension in their eyes.

As to what’s next, the Harman Infotainment rep told me that the car audio player at the show will indeed ship with both DTS 5.1 and DVD Audio playback. Turning to Super Audio CD Surround Sound, he indicated that work continues with Philips on that project with a car audio player featuring DTS, DVD Audio and Super Audio CD “around the next corner”. Now that will be an interesting development to watch for.