What could be better than a free DVD-Audio disc to start off your collection? AIX records have put together a sampler disc to showcase their catalogue of multi-channel titles and it’s available from their web site for the price of shipping and handling ($6.95).
The brainchild behind the project is Mark Waldrep, Ph.D., a man with over twenty years experience as a designer, musician and recording engineer. Waldrep founded AIX Entertainment in 1994 and has since led the multi-media authoring field; releasing the first commercial DVD-Video titles (outside of Japan) in 1997, the first DVD-Video/ROM hybrid disc, the first disc with animated menus, the first with multiple camera angles… and the impressive list goes on.
All the tracks on this sampler are original recent recordings, specifically created for high-resolution 96/24 multi-channel playback by AIX Records. They’re all recorded, mixed and mastered at 96kHz 24-bit.
Rather than a stripped-down copy of the original, which is often the case with sampler discs, AIX have really gone to town in order to showcase their multi-channel catalogue. The two-sided disc has 96kHz 24-bit multi-channel MLP tracks on one side and on the other, DVD-Video compatible Dolby Digital and DTS versions. On the DVD-Audio side of the disc one is presented with a straightforward (if there is such a thing) multi-channel 3/2.1 mix, whereas over on the DVD-Video side there are a huge number of extras, soundtrack and even video options.
The disc labelling and track listings are somewhat misleading however, as is the information on the AIX web site because, instead of the eleven titles listed on the cardboard sleeve, there are actually fourteen tracks to choose from on the DVD-Audio side of the disc and twelve on the DVD-Video side. See the information to the right for a complete running order.
On the DVD-Video side of the disc, in many cases there are two mixes of each track; sometimes they’re both Dolby Digital, other times one will be Dolby Digital and the alternative DTS. The idea behind this is to give the listener a choice of surround presentation, you can either be a member of the ‘Audience’ or up on ‘Stage’ amongst the performers. The differences between the two depend on the track you’re listening to, but the mix can vary from the detached to the intimate, where performers are positioned all around you.
Whilst listening to the DVD-Audio MLP versions, one is presented with a still version of the disc artwork and brief performer credits. On the DVD-Video side one also has the option to watch video of the recording session by using the angle button of your player. The camera work is a little amateurish at times, but the video gives a unique insight into each performance. One can count the number of microphones used, their position and even the physical positioning of instrumentalists and/or vocalists. For example, the penultimate track on the DVD-Audio side is ‘The Lark at Heaven’s Gate Sings’ performed in the round by the Zephyr Voices Unbound a cappella ensemble. By comparing the multi-channel sonic mix to the visual content, one can place individual vocalists and directly relate one to the other.
There are also all manner of other useful and interesting goodies; they include a detailed disc information section (how to use the camera angles, select the audio presentation etc.), explanations of multi-channel audio and the different formats involved, comprehensive AIX records background information and best of all, system set-up assistance. This section includes wiring suggestions, loudspeaker placement, bass-management advice and channel calibration noise. If you’re new to multi-channel music, then this section alone makes the disc worthwhile.
But it’s the music itself we’re most interested in, and quite a diverse selection it is too. The disc opens with a rip-roaring track by The Fabulous Thunderbirds, moves through polished jazz, solo piano and guitar, bluegrass, classical and ends with an unusual example of Haitian world music.
As you would expect from any compilation, the fidelity does vary ever so slightly from track to track, but on the whole, the AIX sampler provides an excellent opportunity to experience DVD-Audio at its best. If I were to criticise, then I’d say the opening track is a tad bright (although the LFE kick more than makes up for this) and that the Beethoven excerpt is disappointingly lack-lustre for such a recent recording (the strings have no bite or edge), but those two tracks aside, all the presentations have a remarkable sense of atmosphere. A review of the full Beethoven disc is also available at High Fidelity Review.
The stand-outs to my ear are the recordings of Bach’s ‘Cello Suite No.1’, which is remarkably rich and full-bodied, together with the Latin Jazz Trio’s rendition of ‘Luissongo’ – listen out for the percussion opening – and the gentle bluegrass of ‘It’s Morning’ performed by John McEuen, Jimmy Ibbotson and the String Wizards (with Jennifer Warnes providing backing vocals).
Throughout the disc, the mixes on offer are generally of the non-aggressive nature, only the last two tracks making particularly obvious use of the surrounds with vocalists positioned hard rear left and right. Some performances are strangely recorded however, with microphone placements that don’t necessarily suit a multi-channel presentation. The most obvious example of this is Peppino D’Agostino’s ‘Close to Heaven’ which has a strange ‘all around you’ feel; something akin to what it must be like if you were sitting inside the guitar itself. On occasion, AIX engineers have commendably placed solo vocalists discretely in the centre channel, so this disc scores points from me not only for the fidelity of many tracks, but also for the progressive use of all six channels. I’d like to hear more productions where the centre is used to convey soloists, rather than the current trend of spreading lead vocalists across the front three channels, a practice that unnecessarily re-introduces all the comb filtering and phase problems associated with a phantom stereo centre image.
Comparing the different audio formats on the AIX sampler is a tricky affair, largely because they’re deliberately intended to sound different from one another. While the DTS and Dolby Digital mixes are of a high standard, one does notice that they’re slightly lacking when judged against the uncompressed MLP. Subtleties are often missing, such as the rustle of score sheets partway through ‘The Lark at Heaven’s Gate Sings’, which one has to concentrate to hear via Dolby Digital but are patently obvious when listening to the MLP alternative. Whether this difference is intentional or down to the nature of the three compression schemes is open to question, but whatever the reason it doesn’t make much sense to listen to anything other than the MLP, since its fidelity and that of the original material are undeniably of the finest order.
So it’s an impressive debut DVD-Audio sampler from AIX, they’ve obviously gone to great lengths not only to provide an exciting audio experience but also to give the listener great insight into the recording itself and the methods used. I’m certainly looking forward to hearing more from AIX and experiencing one of their commercial releases.
Order your free AIX Records sampler on-line at: http://www.aixrecords.com/