Commercial singles and albums are incorporating ever‑more‑sophisticated interactive audio and visual content, often using the Enhanced CD format. Janet Harniman‑Cook starts this two‑part feature with a look at how the format is being used by record companies, and the possibilities that are open to independent musicians. This is the first article in a two‑part series.
Many major UK record companies are releasing a growing proportion of their new catalogue material in the interactive Enhanced Audio CD (ECD) format. Also known as CD Plus, ECD is a user‑friendly, mixed‑mode format that uses the Blue Book CD Extra standard recently developed by Philips and Sony in conjunction with other companies including Microsoft and Apple. This format makes it possible to combine, on a single CD, both audio tracks and CD‑ROM‑style multimedia data tracks.
Audio tracks on an ECD can be played just like a conventional audio‑only CD, on normal CD players, and the data tracks can be read by computer CD‑ROM drives, complementing the audio tracks of the disc and increasing its entertainment and information value. A wide range of interactive multimedia content is offered, including video footage, song lyrics, picture galleries, graphics, biographies, trivia, and automated links to the worldwide web.
The most common form of ECD is the ECD audio single, which usually contains two or three audio tracks, plus a promo video of the top track and occasionally an extra item, such as a recent band interview taken from the record company's electronic press kit. As there is rarely a price premium on the retail cost of enhanced CDs, the format has proved to be attractive to the CD‑buying customer. Duncan Scott of Polydor Records agrees that ECD brings advantages not only for the PC‑owning fan but also for the record producer: "In February 1999, four out of the six singles released by Polydor were enhanced. Whenever we can, we include the promo video on the CD, and this gives the record company a slight point‑of‑sale edge, as well as going some way to compensate for the limited opportunities for getting the video seen on TV."
Danny van Emden, Creative and Multimedia director at Virgin Records, has recently completed an ECD album and website project with the band Skunk Anansie. I asked her what her artists felt about the new creative possibilities presented by the ECD format: "Skunk Anansie were very pro‑active on their new enhanced album; they're very computer literate. On the new album you'll be able to see a video of the single with trackable lyrics (so that as the music plays the lyrics light up), a large gallery of the band's personal pictures, video interviews of the band talking about each album track, and an exclusive track that you can hear via a link on the disc to the Skunk Anansie web site. I find that artists really love the idea of being able to offer theifans the video and something extra that's personal as well — ECD gives them another area where they can express themselves."
The technology is certainly catching on: all but one of All Saints's CD singles have featured high‑quality interactive multimedia presentations of the related promo video, and it was All Saints who had the distinction of making record industry history in the spring of 1998, when their single 'Never Ever' became the first ECD to reach the top of the UK charts. Not to be outdone by their rivals, the Spice Girls also include interactive multimedia components on their singles. The 'Viva Forever' ECD single, in addition to three audio mixes of the title track, contains an ambitious multimedia programme. Its main page features stunning animated figures of the band, and there are scrolling synchronised lyrics, photographs and cartoons of each band member, an animated magic wand cursor that triggers a tinkly fairy audio sample, and an excellent movie that uses cutting‑edge digital video collage techniques.
The extent and type of multimedia content on commercial ECDs is influenced by the availability of the source graphics, video and text files needed by an ECD authoring team. Much forward planning is required to co‑ordinate the making of an ECD — and traditionally a band's video and artwork is not given final approval until the very last minute, to accommodate any late changes, which doesn't fit in well with the long lead times needed for ECD production. Consequently, many of the available ECD albums are remastering projects, which are much easier to work on because the bulk of the necessary artwork already exists.
The most common form of ECD is the ECD audio single, which usually contains two or three audio tracks, plus a promo video of the top track and occasionally an extra item, such as a recent band interview taken from the record company's electronic press kit.
Record company budgets also determine the degree of multimedia enhancement on a disc. The commercial cost of authoring an ECD is typically between £1000 and £2000 for a basic package consisting of a main page background design incorporating a promo shot of the artist, video transport control and navigation icons design, and the conversion of the promo film to QuickTime video clips (the industry‑standard format for multimedia moving images). Of course, the more you pay, the more you get: greater sophistication, such as multiple videos, scrolling lyrics that synchronise to video, picture galleries and slide shows, web links and video interviews can take the cost to £40,000‑plus, and even this may not cover the cost of animation sequences or the expense of the film shoot in the Seychelles!
Samantha Harvey has one of the most informed perspectives on ECD in the business. She is Creative Director of Abbey Road Interactive (ARI), part of the EMI Abbey Road studio complex, which waestablished three years ago to provide authoring and replication services for ECD, DVD, digital video and web sites (see 'Come Together' box). I asked Sam about the scope of the multimedia enhancements her clients requested:
"Most clients want very little — usually just the video — but we recently did two classical ones, La Boheme and Romeo And Juliet, which had quite elaborate content. The first had a scrolling libretto that stayed in time with the singing, and you could see the words in the original language, which was Italian, or switch to a translation in English, French or German. We've also recently done some nice work for a Decca classical disc of the Michael Kamen Guitar Concerto. This has two audio tracks, one with the guitar on it and one without, plus a scrolling score so that you can play along with it, like Karaoke!"
Another factor that decides the extent of the multimedia content on an ECD disc is the set of eligibility guidelines that all ECD singles must comply with if their sales are to be included in the UK singles chart. The CIN (Chart Information Network) is the London‑based organisation that regulates and compiles the UK music sales charts. Its guidelines are formulated by a Chart Supervisory Committee, made up of personnel from the UK record and broadcasting industries, and are strict (see 'When Is A Single Not A Single?' box). CIN guidelines prohibit links to web sites on ECD singles, which is an ongoing cause of frustration to many leading producers, as the ability to include a web link is very useful. A web site can publicise tour dates, be a very effective method of advertising new merchandise, and can also be a good market‑research tool, functioning as a conduit for customer feedback via on‑line fan chat forums and gig clubs.
However, few companies are prepared to release ECD singles not complying with the CIN guidelines. The exceptions are large record companies with top 10 artists (who are confident that the promotional value of the ECD will outweigh the few thousand units diverted from the chart‑eligible sales of the standard audio CD), or low‑volume small labels (whose CD product is probably not going to chart anyway). Fortunately the CIN guidelines don't apply to ECD albums, but as the bulk of many record companies' promotional budgets is aimed at the still very important singles market, the chart eligibility guidelines do restrict the potential of the ECD medium.
As touched upon above, the ECD format can be a very effective promotional medium; independent artists and bands can give their demo CD something special that will help them stand out by using the ECformat to provide an electronic press kit (EPK) for concert promoters and booking agents. This could contain artist/band profiles, promo photographs, clip‑art logos, gig poster design kits, video clips of a stage show, archives of press reviews of concerts and record releases, plus audio clips from albums and singles, and links to a web site.
A good example of the promotional ECD is the 'Head' EPK authored by Abbey Road Interactive for the V2 Records trio Tin Star. This features four tracks from their album, The Thrill Kisser, in CD‑audio format, together with stylish graphics, videos of two other album tracks, the short film Wonderful World, which features a soundtrack by Tin Star, a band history and downloadable band photo gallery, plus a Tin Star screensaver.
Independent artists and bands can give their demo CD something special by using the ECD format to provide an electronic press kit for concert promoters and booking agents.
The acknowledged godfathers of the interactive CD, Matt Black and Jonathan More — otherwise known as Coldcut — have been at the cutting edge of multimedia CD production since way back in 1992, when they released their first experimental mixed‑mode album, Global Chaos. This contained a collection of ambient and rave tracks for ordinary CD players, along with CD‑ROM data tracks, including a game called Top Banana and a rave visuals generator for the short‑lived Commodore CD‑TV platform. As a result of this project, Coldcut were asked by Philips to create CD‑I titles. Subsequent Coldcut CD releases, fuelled by improvements in computer technology, featured multimedia elements of increasing sophistication, culminating in the release of their landmark Let Us Play. This double‑CD set consisted of the CD‑audio album and an exciting companion ECD packed full of wholesome multimedia goodies — innovative music tools, a selection of excellent video movies, pictures, and information archives (see full feature in SOS October 1997).
The latest venture from Coldcut is Let Us Replay, a two‑disc set comprising an audio CD album and a CD‑ROM containing video clips and movies. The latter can be mixed and manipulated with the supplied demo of Coldcut's excellent new VJamm PC video mixing software, co‑developed with CamART. This innovative application enables video clips to be triggered from the PC or via MIDI and is identical to the version used by Coldcut, both in the studio and in their live shows. (We will be looking at VJamm again in part two of this series.)
I asked Matt Black where he thought it was all going: "A big question mark hangs over CD, but I can see it being useful until fast pipes [very fast Internet data‑transfer systems capable of quickly distributing high‑resolution digital data] come along. I remember as a kid thinking that in the future music would be provided on 8‑track tapes and we'd all mix our own version. I can see a Coldcut album coming out that will be a huge collection of samples and various sample engines in software, so that people can mix it up themselves. My perception is that there are more people making music now because the tools of production have become more available — people are slowly turning on to the scope that is there. They're realising that they don't have to be on MTV or have a hundred‑grand budget to make a video, thanks to camcorders and desktop editing equipment, toys like VJamm, and all the wonderful filters, such as [Adobe] After Effects."
The commercial cost of authoring an ECD is typically between £1000 and £2000 for a basic package.
Inevitably, there are some pundits who see the commercial endorsement of the ECD format as merely the latest hi‑tech marketing gimmick designed to boost sales for an increasingly sterile and cynical record industry. But the name of the game is entertainment, and if ECD gives better value for the customer, while at the same time offering the artist new avenues of self‑expression, surely everyone benefits.
Now that we've looked at the creative and commercial opportunities the ECD format has to offer the contemporary recording musician, the concluding part of this series will be a hands‑on guide to what's involved in every stage of making your own ECD. See you next time!
There are now over 20 different types of CD that use the familiar 12cm optical discs, and the format of each type is defined by the international industry standards known as the 'Books'. These describe the properties of the disc layout, the data format that can be stored on the disc, and the performance parameters that the playback hardware must achieve. The CD Extra Blue Book standard used for ECD requires that the disc contains two separate sessions: the first session can have up to 98 digital audio tracks in the CD‑DA audio format, followed by a second session with data tracks in the CD‑ROM XA (mode 2) format.
The CD Extra format was introduced to meet the shortcomings of the old mixed‑mode format, which has the data session as track 1 followed on subsequent tracks by its digital audio. This type of mixed‑mode CD is often found on magazine cover discs and is accompanied by the 'skip track 1' hi‑fi health notice, for although some newer CD players can detect the data track and either skip or mute it, most older players will attempt to play the data track. This results in severe distortion that can easily damage speaker systems.
The CD Extra specification takes into account that audio CD players are single‑session devices and can only play the first session of a disc; as the data tracks are assigned to the second session they are consequently invisible to audio CD players. The current generation of CD‑ROM drives are multi‑session and include CD Extra‑compatible firmware that enables the drive to see the data session as well as the audio session. However, it should be noted that some older CD‑ROM drives are single‑session, and for this reason they will be able to play only the audio track on CD‑Extra discs.
Abbey Road Interactive was set up in February 1996 to provide state‑of‑the‑art interactive multimedia authoring. It functions autonomously within the world‑famous EMI Abbey Road studio complex and operates in conjunction with the Abbey Road mastering and recording facilities. Through their links with EMI group, ARI can offer CD and DVD replication from one of the largest CD manufacturers in Europe, with a capacity to produce over 360 million CDs a year.
ARI manufactured the first commercial DVD in the UK, Queen's Greatest Fix 1, have produced over 50 enhanced titles, and won the 1997 BIMA Award for the Best Advertising and Product Promotion. Samantha Harvey, ARI's Creative Director, says of ECD: "It's got a long and complicated history and there were problems at the start, but the standard we're now using [Blue Book CD Extra] is pretty stable and works on 99 percent of all audio players. Enhanced CD is really growing as a format and we're now doing about one a week."
Unless you're running a state‑of‑the‑art computer it's always a good idea to quit any active applications before booting an ECD. If you experience sluggish redraws, try running the video at a smaller size. It's worth bearing in mind that some ECDs can take a minute or longer to boot, and not all of them provide reassuring 'now loading' messages to allay your panic during this time, when mouse and keyboard control are lost and your computer appears to have crashed!
Difficulty when running ECDs may also be caused by one or both of two types of CD‑ROM incompatibility: firstly, the onboard firmware of many older drives lacks the flexibility to accommodate the different layout characteristics of the CD‑Extra format; and secondly, you may be running old CD‑ROM drivers that do not provide the CD‑Extra extensions. However, sometimes it's possible to update both CD‑ROM drivers and firmware. Consult your supplier for details or check out the web site of the CD‑ROM drive manufacturer.
The answer, according to the CIN (the Chart Information Network) is "when it's a multimedia marketing device". To be eligible for inclusion in the UK music singles sales chart, ECDs must comply with the multimedia guidelines laid down by the CIN, which define the type and quantity of multimedia content enhanced CDs may contain. The CD single must not contain more than: one video; one interactive element, usually video or an interview or EPK; three audio tracks with a total playing time of no longer than 20 minutes; eight still images or 10 product trailers. Information about web links can be included, but web links themselves are not allowed. Nor can the disc contain downloadable software, such as graphics and audio editing applications, as they are considered by CIN to be unfair inducements constituting free gifts.
Special thanks to: Samantha Harvey, Abbey Road Interactive; Mal Thomas, London Records; Danny van Emden, Virgin Records; Matt Black, Coldcut; Duncan Scott, Polydor Records; James Gillespie, CIN; Ian Shurmer, AMX Studios; Tracey Storey, Ninja Tune.
- All Saints 'Under the Bridge' and 'War of Nerves' ECD screenshots reproduced by kind permission of London Records.
- Spice Girls 'Viva Forever' ECD screenshots reproduced by kind permission of Virgin Records.