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On Friday the 8th of November 2002, Dolby Labs held a seminar entitled DVD-Audio – Explore the Format which I was lucky enough to be invited to. It lasted several hours and was reasonably well attended by journalists from many different publications and on the whole, was quite informative albeit a little biased towards the marketing side of things as there were many people there who had no idea what DVD-Audio was. Based around several presentations, although it was hosted by Dolby Labs (in Olympic Studios in Hammersmith, London) David Dorn (Senior Vice President of Warner Strategic Marketing) did a lot of the introducing and kept the presentations moving. Before continuing, I would recommend you have a read of my introduction to DVD-Audio if you are a little unsure of what this new audio format can offer you. Click here for that article.

DVD-Audio Seminar
Starting off there was a commercial overview of DVD-Audio and the music industry. Some (in my opinion controversial) graphs were shown of how sales in the music industry have declined of late and mostly blaming music piracy and online file swapping sites. I have seen other graphs saying that there has been little to no change in the amount of music sold over the past year compared to the previous year however pirates are still being blamed for this. I am of the mind that if they cut their prices a lot then maybe more people would buy the music. The music industry does take a hefty cut of the profits and since we know a CD can be made for easily under 50 pence, how can they justify selling it for £15? I won’t go into this anymore but you get the idea. Since the public wants more for their money now, companies (particularly Warner) are adopting the DVD-Audio format for several reasons which I will go into later.

Robert Stuart of Meridian Audio gave a technical presentation on the format which probably went straight over some of the heads in the room but it really was the basics. As I mentioned earlier, some people didn’t even seem to know why they were there let alone what DVD-Audio was. Amongst other things, he mentioned a list of requirements that were made when the DVD-Audio format was first created. The top eight were:

  • Copy Protection Scheme
  • Copyright Identification
  • Anti-Piracy
  • Compatibility
  • Format: Audio, Video, Data
  • conditional Access
  • Sound Quality: Multi-channel and stereo
  • Archive Master Transfer: No Sound quality Loss

It is interesting to see that the most important things for them are piracy related, where as for us it would be optimum sound quality. He talked at length on why the Linear PCM was chosen for this format and mentioned such reasons as it being the only truly transparent coding system. It was also already well established so the knowledge of it was already there. As such, people could instantly maximise their use of it rather than having to learn a new format such as the DSD which SACD uses. Meridian Audio (based in Cambridge, UK) created the Meridian Lossless Packing codec which was adopted for use with DVD-Audio as it is bit-for-bit accurate, enables high rate multi-channel sound, increases the playing time of a DVD-Audio disc and creates space for added value content (such as music videos and interviews). Without this compression, the data rate of a DVD-Audio disc would be 13.8Mb/s which exceeds the 9.6Mb/s limit of a DVD-Player and so to keep the disc compatible with a normal player, MLP is used. The Meridian Audio site has information on the MLP process that DVD-Audio uses. A lot of graphs and data sheets followed showing the playing time for various audio options. One that was interesting said that if the data was encoded at CD quality in mono sound (one speaker) then it would be possible to get about 25 hours of audio on a DVD-A disc.

DVD-Audio Seminar
Compatibility featured highly in the specification of DVD-Audio and this was brought up here. With a huge installed base already, making it compatible with current DVD Players was a must, especially since they already offer surround sound to the punters. As you know, all DVD-Audio discs will play on any DVD Player since they all contain a multi channel and often stereo Dolby Digital soundtrack. Sometimes the extra content such as music videos and interviews will not be available to normal DVD players, however the basic surround sound will always be available. The Dolby Digital soundtrack is always created from the DVD-Audio surround mix and so will make exactly the same use of the surround sound; however you will not get the extra audio clarity that DVD-Audio provides. It is worth noting that all DVD-Audio discs should be region free and so importing them should be no problem.
An interesting point that he brought up was that it should be easy to use. If you wish to listen to a disc, you do not want to have to turn your television on to access the PLAY option on the menu and so the discs are created so that when you put it into the player, hit PLAY instead of CLOSE and the disc should go directly to the play list and start playing rather than just sitting at the menu. This is useful and I hope all manufacturers opt to use this option as it is not written into the specification as mandatory for some unknown reason.

Robin Hurley of Rhino Records stepped up to the plate next to talk about DVD-Audio Production. It takes a minimum of 16 weeks to make a DVD-Audio disc, often longer and this needs to be taken into consideration when starting out. The complexity of the disc versus having a timely release is a major issue when creating a disc. Bonus material used must be compelling as it is this added material which will be one of the reasons a fan of the album would purchase it again if they already own the CD version. From now on, a 5.1 mix of the album is in all new Contract Deliverables for their artists to allow a DVD-Audio disc to be made. There are many things which affect the content which as a user of the format, it is hard to be aware of the extra associated costs. For instance, if the lyrics are printed in the booklet (with permission) and they are wanted for use on the actual disc( perhaps onscreen during each track) then this also needs permission and potentially there is a cost associated with this. These extra costs affect all the bonus material from photos to videos, all of which must be approved by the artist(s). The below is from a slide he presented showing the Budget for making a DVD-Audio (Highs and Lows):

  • Transfers and Baking = $2k - $5k (if needed)
  • Mixing = $20k - $45k
  • Mastering = $5k - $10k
  • Screen Design = $6k - $9k
  • Visual Assets = $3k - $10k
  • Synchronisation Rights = $1k - $5k
  • Authoring = $5k - $10k
  • Total ranges from $42,00 to $94,000
  • Sales to break even = 14,000 to 32,000

Some interesting points for new release titles were that companies are aiming for simultaneous releases with CD and that the 5.1 mix is created immediately after the stereo mix. For this, it is important that the Engineer/Producer have the skills and experience to create 5.1 mixes themselves and then of course, the 5.1 mix has to be approved by the artist. Older catalogue titles are chosen based on a few things. Firstly it must be regarded as a Classic Album (which is based on CD sales and critical acclaim). Secondly the multi track original recording has to exist and be in decent condition. Checking for non-album tracks is important as for instance with the Fleetwood Mac – Rumours album; an extra track was found which was not used at the time as it would not fit on the album (which at the time was vinyl) however it can now fit on the DVD-Audio so it was included. It is worth noting that if a multi track original version is not available then it is not created. The example given was that of a Frank Sinatra album which was to be released only in stereo as that is all that was originally available. I thought this was good as creating surround sound mixes from stereo soundtracks does not always produce a good quality of sound. Some of the extras included should be original and not seen before if possible. The example given in this case was the Electronic Press Kit or EPK which is presented on the REM – Automatic for the People disc (not available commercially at the time of writing this). This would only have been seen by some members of the press originally to promote the album however now it has been included for everyone to see. It is this sort of rare and unique extra feature which will help the sales of such a disc.

DVD-Audio Seminar
Bob Stuart from Meridian Audio then gave a brief presentation about the aspects of the piracy of DVD-Audio. Now at the end of the day, it is possible to pirate any form of digital media even if it means streaming from the analogue output of your soundcard to the analogue input however there are some ways to prevent digital copies of DVD-Audio discs from floating around. Firstly, there is a watermark which affects one bit in 6 million. It can take up to 30 seconds to detect and if not detected the disc simply stops playing and ejects it. There is also an optional CPPM encryption method also available and together it does seem that it is going to be very hard indeed for someone to come up with a way of pirating these discs however it will not stop people making mp3s of the stereo and possibly in the future, surround soundtracks and distributing them on the internet. This kind of defeats the point of having a DVD-Audio machine in the first place as these files will not be compatible with it, and the whole idea of the new format is to create a high resolution audio experience for people who enjoy music. I am wondering if they are hoping that the reason people will buy these discs is because of the audio fidelity you can get from them instead of the low quality mp3s you can get on the internet.  A massive selling point is that this is the first time ever, that a new music format has been released with an existing hardware base in the multi-mullions worldwide. There are 80 million DVD players in the world today, and this is not including all the PS2s, Xboxes and DVD-Rom drives which are DVD-Audio compatible.

As of November 2001 there were 90 DVD-Audio titles. In November 2002 there were over 400 titles, and who can say how many will be available in 2003. One idea which seems excellent is that CDs and DVD-Audio discs will be released at the same time. This is excellent as now if a particular album is coming out then there is a choice to purchase it on a stereo CD or on a (potentially) surround sound DVD-Audio disc. In fact to awaken the public to this, Warner are placing stickers on their CDs to make people aware that it is also available on DVD-Audio. Another smart move from Warner I think.

To increase public knowledge of this format, several methods are being used. Firstly there are special listening booths which have surround sound capabilities. I would imagine these are currently just Japan and possibly the US however we might get them over here once they have finished with them. There are also cross promotional offers on new hardware such as purchasing a certain system entitles the buyer to three free titles. On a price point for Warner at least, DVD-Audio titles are in theory supposed to retail for the same as the upper end of the CD price range. However in places like HMV they are selling for around £17. That seems a little ridiculous however there are other places selling titles at a more reasonable price if you are prepared to shop online (*cough and cough*).

At the end of the show there was a Q&A session where we got to mug the important industry people and lightly grill them. There were a few people who obviously didn’t have a clue about the format and asked some pointless questions however I managed to fire a few reasonable questions off in the hope that the rest of the crowd would pick up on the sensible-question vibe I was sending out.

John Bamford from Pioneer UK was the first I managed to collar. Working for Pioneer gives him a different perspective on DVD-Audio as he is involved with the hardware rather than the software. Sporting a picture of a record player on his t-shirt, he is adamant in his love for high quality music and vinyl’s superiority over CDs. Now Pioneer are releasing their tasty new player, the 757 Ai which has on it believe it or not, an IEEE1394 or Firewire output on it. Currently, to hook up your DVD player to an amplifier, most people use either an optical or coaxial digital cable. However if they player is DVD-Audio compatible you will also need 6 analogue phono connectors because the bit rate for DVD-Audio is too high for optical or coaxial cable to cope with and to lessen the mountain of wires coming out the back of your equipment, here comes Firewire. Now the DVD-Audio spec always included Firewire compatibility however everyone has been arguing about it and so it has only just been properly finalised. Most of this seems to be security issues however these issues are now resolved.

DVD-Audio Seminar
He then goes on to say, and I quote:

“Because you see the next thing that will happen, is that companies like Pioneer, bastards that they are, will start making DVD-Audio recorders. And so that Firewire will come out, and go into your home cinema system or your multi channel music system and it will say, yeah no problem - play. Or it will go into the DVD-Audio recorder and say “Get lost”. And we’ve got a brand new DVD player which just came out this week and it’s the first one in the world with a Firewire output – but we’ve nowhere to stick it in! Actually, HiFi News magazine this month (November) have got a big story all about it explaining how it works.”

DVDActive – So for the sake of argument, if I took that player, and put it to the Firewire in on my Audigy 2 soundcard, I couldn’t record DVD-Audio from it?

JB – No because this standardisation I’ve been talking about (the copy protection) is using Firewire with A and M protocols, Audio and Music, it’s the first time it has been done in the world. So if you’ve got a soundcard with a Firewire in, well yeah, but it wouldn’t know what these protocols are. It will understand DV and it will understand this and it will understand that but Advanced Resolution 24/96 multi channel… You know, it won’t have the protocols in there. But you can bet your bottom dollar that the next generation of cards will.

DVDActive – So even though this card is DVD-Audio compatible, it still won’t recognise the protocols?

JB – Yep. And of course, something called D-T-C erm, Digital Copy Control Transmission or something like that – this has taken years, you know, as it was mentioned in one of the guys presentations every electronics manufacturer has had to agree, it’s taken bloody years. I mean we’ve been making players for three years with no digital output. Only now, literally now – end of September, could we do it. It takes a long time to get everyone together. So it’s done, it’s done – but there’s no where to stick it! We’ve a digital out, but no where to put it! The AX10 Amplifier isn’t out until January.

DVDActive – Thanks very much.

JB – Ahh, a pleasure.

John comes across as one of the good guys. He has a lot of strong opinions and had several good things to say about DVD-Audio, and some less than good things to say about SACD.  

Running round the room a little I latched onto David Dorn, the Vice President of Warner Strategic Marketing. However in my ignorance I asked him a technical question and he quickly palmed me off onto someone else who was more technical than him as obviously he only deals with the marketing/music side.

Bob Stuart was his name, and he works for Meridian Audio who created the MLP (Meridian Lossless Packaging) as I mentioned earlier, so they have had a major hand in the creation of DVD-Audio.

DVDActive – So, the DVD-video spec. evolved from 5.1 to 6.1 featuring a discrete rear channel. Is that something that has been thought about for DVD-Audio at all, or is it something we can expect in the future?

BS – Oh you mean more rear channels? No, I think that’s an inappropriate speaker layout for listening to surround sound music.

Short and to the point, thanks Bob.

Hurtling around again I searched for some other poor sucker to spend time talking to me. Spotting David Dorn again not talking to anyone, I pounced.  Unfortunately I couldn’t record the conversation as we were standing next to a speaker blasting out some music so I’ll just give you an overview of what I asked him. I basically asked him about the region coding of DVD-Audio discs. Even though DVD-Audio doesn’t support region coding, DVD-Video does so it is (in theory) entirely possible that the video portion (and Dolby Digital portion) could be region coded so people purchasing these titles from abroad without multi region equipment could be in trouble. Obviously, he could only answer from Warner’s point of view, but he essentially said that Warner had no future plans to do something like this on their titles. Which is good news as it means we in the UK can still import at least Warner titles with no fear of region problems. One thing I never asked was that all the DVD-Audio titles I have so far have NTSC video on rather than PAL and so if your television cannot play NTSC then it’s possible you might have problems. I am wondering if this could be a problem for future purchasers of DVD-Audio players? It’s not going to affect me, nor many DVD enthusiasts however Mr and Mrs Smith who get sold a DVD-Audio player by a salesman who has as much knowledge in the subject as a paper clip from a high street store could be in for a shock if the picture is black and white for instance (one of the potential problems when playing NTSC through a TV not compatible with NTSC).

DVD-Audio Seminar
Above is a representative of Creative Labs who were to demo their new Audigy 2 soundcard (review here) with the as yet unreleased 5.1 THX speakers. I had a brief chat with both reps there about the set up and inconveniently shaped room they had to use. Throughout the presentation we were allowed to listen to several DVD-Audio discs intermingled with the presentations. This was good however due to the size of the room, I wasn’t convinced that it was set up as well as it could have been for the audio quality I was expecting. One of the demos was Linkin Park’s latest re-mix album which was actually created with a 5.1 mix in mind (which is one of if not the first album to be created this way). I was disappointed though that there was not time to compare a CD and a DVD-Audio for the same album as this is where people really do realise how much better DVD-Audio was. When saying this to David Dorn, he agreed and said it was on the list of things to do, but due to all the presentations over running there just wasn’t time. A wasted opportunity in my opinion as that would have been the best way to help convert some of the journalists in the room.

A fun morning all in all with some nice demos of music and a chance to wander around chatting to industry types. Hopefully you have picked up a few new bits of information, as did I. Unfortunately I did not manage to pick up one of the many lovely looking bits of kit that were on display as there were just too many people around.

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