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More Affordable Surround Tools, Please

"Now that CD‑R has finally become affordable, and DAT has settled down as a tolerable — if not exactly ideal — mastering medium, the industry is talking about DVD (Digital Versatile Disc), 24‑bit recording, and possibly 96 or even 192kHz sampling rates. Just as everything was starting to look settled, it seems as though the Tower of Babel is going to be taken up to the next level."

I wrote those words in my October 1997 Leader column, and over the past four‑or‑so years that tower has just continued to grow, albeit with some key bricks still missing. For example, parts of the industry are still pushing 5.1 surround for all they're worth, but it still isn't clear whether DVDA (DVD Audio), SACD (Super Audio CD) or DTS (Digital Theatre Systems) is going to be the audio format of choice. Even if it had been decided, it wouldn't help the project‑studio owner much, as there's little or no authoring/burning software for these formats that's accessible to the typical home‑studio owner, though it looks as though DTS may turn out to be the most project studio‑friendly of the bunch.

Paul White circa 2002.Even the professionals are having problems, as I discovered at a recent mastering seminar in New York, where it was pointed out that because of the highly secretive, proprietary anti‑piracy encryption system used to make SACD discs, studios and mastering houses are unable to provide one‑off listening copies for clients. I don't know about you, but I'd be a little bit nervous about using a system where the first time you hear whether the mastering is right or not is when 10,000 discs come back from the pressing plant!

It's interesting to find out what the manufacturers of outboard equipment feel about surround, because I've spoken to quite a few of them in the quest for an affordable surround monitor control box (effectively a 5.1 volume control). When I asked one leading British company what their customers were asking for by way of surround equipment, I was told "They're not!" Certainly, the record companies don't seem to be falling over themselves to kick‑start the surround audio revolution, as they seem to be archiving most surround mixes, rather than releasing them. Yet at the mastering seminar mentioned earlier, the consensus was that all serious professional studios had to be able to handle all flavours of surround, and one of the panel (who also represented a major loudspeaker manufacturer) implied that the change to 7.1 was imminent, so we might as well gear up for that in the first place!

You may dismiss this as a cynical ploy to sell more speakers, but a more serious concern is that surround mastering takes far longer than stereo CD mastering, and so can be very expensive. For example, a typical surround album project at 24‑bit/96kHz could start out with several tens of Gigabytes of source files, and because surround discs can also include text and multimedia elements, all these need to be available and individually verified before any mastering work can take place.

I guess the point of these observations is that if we are going to get behind surround sound and help drive the industry to its next level, we're going to need the right tools at the right price. So far, everything seems to involve either serious compromise or great expense, and while that might be fine for the relatively few facilities that are still managing to survive in the professional marketplace, it won't cut it at project‑studio level. And if I understand today's market correctly, that's where the majority of the cash is changing hands.

Paul White Editor