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Surround Sound: A Conspiracy?

Paul White circa 2002.We received a surprising amount of response to my January 2002 leader column, in which I suggested that it would be an extremely bad thing for the musician if software piracy was allowed to reach the point where the companies involved no longer found it viable to continue. Some people interpreted this as me suggesting that the software companies were the "musicians' friend", and then went on to challenge this view on the basis that these companies were friends only of their shareholders. Well, I wasn't suggesting that music software companies existed entirely for the benefit of the musician, though I think you'll find that most were started by people with strong musical interests who simply wanted to provide a better way of doing something, and who can blame them if they want to make a living along the way? Also, anyone who has the least understanding of business will know that their incentive to give us what we want is competition. If a competing product does the same job better for the same money, which one do you think will sell best? But if you like conspiracy theories, how about this?

Some sectors of the industry are pushing the concept of surround sound for music by telling us that DVD is the best-selling new technology of all time. The truth of the matter is that very few people seem to have surround speakers connected to their DVD systems, and most of those who have simply use the hideous speakers that came with their TV set. Nobody I know has bought any form of music-only media for surround listening, and relatively few seem to agree that surround adds anything of value to music. Even when watching films, it's unarguably the case that having powerful low-distortion speakers and a sub-bass unit adds far more to the listening experience than the addition of two rear speakers, so good stereo will always sound better than bad surround. So why are we being told that we must buy surround mixing and monitoring systems, or 24/96kHz converters, when the vast majority of the listening public is more than happy with the quality available from CD, and a disturbing number don't seem to be able to tell the difference between CD and MP3?

If you want a conspiracy answer, perhaps it's all a plot to 'take the means of production away from the workers'? It was more than a decade after the launch of CD that making your own in small quantities became affordable, and now that we have the means to produce and sell our own music in whatever quantities we like, the big record companies would like to switch to a new format (such as DVD Audio), which we won't be able to mass produce at home on anything like an economical scale for a long time to come. In other words, they want to regain control over the distribution media, which also enables them to sell their back-catalogue in a new format for more money than the old (regardless of the fact that much of the material is fudged from original stereo mixes and a similar 'upmixing' process could easily be built into consumer surround systems for enhancing existing stereo CDs).

CDs now cost far less to manufacture than cassette tape, yet we still pay more for our CDs — DVDs cost little more than VHS tapes to produce (especially when you consider the number of 'faulty' return tapes that have been eaten by players), but we still get charged considerably more for the DVD, often justified by totally spurious and worthless 'additional content'. A new surround format is bound to be the same — you'll pay more for the same material with tougher copy protection to stop you making copies of the material you've already paid for, and if you should be foolish enough to release your own independent record in this format, you'll have to pay hugely increased mastering and manufacturing costs. As to the argument that more bits and bandwidth automatically equals better audio quality, I'll only believe that when more people manage to make the best of the 16-bit CDs we already have. Is it any wonder then, that the main proponents of surround audio are the consumer hardware manufacturers (who own some of the big record labels), major studios with surround-mastering and mixing capabilities, and, of course, speaker manufacturers? Your comments please!

Paul White Editor