Friday, December 07, 2007

You're Surrounded!

I've been enjoying the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas DVD-Audio Celebration for the past couple of days; composer/producer Chip Davis has a masterful ear for surround sound placement and separation, and the result is one of the most delightful aural experiences I've found on any DVD-Audio. The instruments are remarkably clear and meticulously balanced so that the sound is rich, full, and robust; he uses musical textures as guides for placement, so that sounds in counterpoint play from opposing speakers, while accentual sounds play from complementary speakers. The result is a very encompassing musical experience that is far removed from the all-too-common "primary instruments in the front, secondary instruments or backing strings/voices in the back" approach that many producers use for surround.

And it left me ruminating on the failure of Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD-Audio (DVD-A) as formats. Why did two of the most superlative sound reproduction methods fail to catch on with the public? Why, after a strong initial rollout, are both formats almost non-existent today, with previously released titles no longer available and new releases scuttled?

The answer bodes ill for the current HD-DVD and Blu-Ray formats. The intransigent refusal of the manufacturers to settle on a single means of high-def music reproduction fragmented a fledgling industry to the point that both formats failed... and I suspect that the same intransigence is going to lead to the failure of both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray as the preferred format for high-def video.

There's no doubt that both formats--and DVD-A in particular--take music to a level that no CD can approach. The clarity of each instrument is so intense that it's as if a blanket has been taken off the speakers--there's a presence that just doesn't exist on even the best CD. In comparing the two (and I can do comparisons because I have a few releases, like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Tommy, on both DVD-A and SACD), I can detect a greater fidelity on DVD-A than on SACD... there's something slightly less distinct and less intense about the sound from even the best SACD. Oh, it's better than CD, to be sure, and it's better than HDCD (an enhanced CD reproduction format), but it simply can't match the verisimilitude of DVD-A.

Anyone who thinks that this is all too subtle to make any real difference has but to listen to three or four songs from Celebration to realize what they can't hear on the CD. What sounds like an amalgam of sound in the CD is identifiable, distinct instruments in the DVD-A; bells and triangles resonate for seconds as their sounds fade away, while the sonic roll-off is much more abrupt and much less vibrant on the CD. And the encompassing sensation created by a well-mixed surround-sound is something that no CD (even with Dolby Digital Sound Processing) can rival.

Good doesn't always win, though. Look at the failure of Beta over VHS in the 1980s, and the later failure of LaserDiscs in the 1990s... in both cases, the superior format failed. (Okay, let's be fair--the superior format of LaserDiscs did win out over the inferior RCA Selectavision disc-based video-reproduction format, but the battle between the two impeded mass acceptance enough that the laserdisc never overcame the public impression that it was a failed format.)

There are still a few artists producing material on DVD-A, and there are still some foreign labels producing SACD surround mixes... but now, I see more labels moving towards two-channel ("enhanced stereo") DVD-A and SACD releases, which is an absolute waste of a medium.

I've picked up what music I can find on DVD-A and SACD, and will continue to do so in order that I might enjoy music the way it should be heard... but I only wish that more of my favorites were available in either format!

1 comment:

Doug said...

I think the failure of these formats to catch on with the middle-of-the-road consumer is that few people actually sit down and listen to music with no other distractions. You can't play DVD-A or SACD in most cars for commutes and it's not on an iPod-type device, so Joe Six Pack isn't going to jump on board.

Plus, SACD's split-channel audio requires specific players and receivers, which hurt that format, as well. Both are wonderful, though - 'Dark Side of the Moon' in SACD is spectacular.