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New Sounds Formats

By Cro@kie, April 15, 2003 | Music
A few years ago, record companies decided we needed a new sound format. For those curious to know why, here are some details.

When engineers designed the CD in the early 80’s, they decided on a very ‘basic’ format: it would include all sounds within the scientifically-admitted limits of the human ear (20Hz to 20 000 Hz) and filter out all others.

We’ve all heard complaints about digital being ‘cold’ and not up to its analogue counterpart. The reason is simple: those frequencies that we are not supposed to hear (above 20kHz) play an actual role in our perception of a sound. In the same way as you get extra information (about intention, sincerity or urge for instance) when you face the person speaking to you, as opposed to when reading the exact same sentence from paper or even hearing it over the phone.
Imperceptible and unmeasurable parameters like glance, tone of the voice, body movements or breathing will bring you more information then the words objectively delivered.

No matter how well CD’s are mastered, the sound will be ‘reduced’ to comply with the CD specifications. The four recent remasters (Elvis 56, Can’t help falling in love, Heart and soul and Great country Songs) are a good example of this : they were remastered using the latest technology but many complained their sound was only slightly better.
These four releases may have been remastered using 96 kHz 24-bit digital transfer technology from the mastertapes, they still were made 44,1kHz 16-bit in the end, since it’s the only format on a CD.

So the industry came up with higher resolution sound which includes (almost) all the frequencies. For copyrights reasons, there are two competing formats : SACD (Super Audio CD) and DVD-A (DVD Audio). (Elaborate technical details can be found at High Fidelity Review)

Anyone who has listened to ELV1S on DVD-A will know what high-resolution music can bring.

Of course, your CD player will not let you benefit from this high-resolution music. It only plays regular Audio CD’s (mp3 if you’re lucky) and will never play anything more. What you need is a player with the decoding capabilities for any (or both) of the new formats.

Now what are SACD and DVD-A ?

SACD and DVD-Audio co-exist simply because two groups of manufacturers could not agree on one product (remember VHS, V2000 and Beta?). With very little objectivity, each side regularly claims their choice is better. Reality is different: there is no clear choice in quality and these two formats are roughly two different ways of reaching the same result.

And this is where it really gets confusing: just like regular audio CD’s and movie DVD’s, SACD and DVD-Audio both use a 12cm disc. On top of that, most SACD’s are hybrid: they also include a special layer in regular Audio CD format to be played on your regular CD Player, until your decide for a new machine which will read the high-resolution layer. As well, most DVD-A’s (but not all) also include a part that’s compatible with your DVD player (in Dolby Digital) until Santa comes around.

This is good news: already today, you can buy these new products and enjoy them (except the high-resolution part), especially as most of them will have been remastered in the process. Also, the new machines (SACD or DVD-A players) can fully playback your current CD’s. So you can still enjoy your Elvis collection. Last but not least, universal players, which can playback all formats have already started coming out, Pioneer offering the most affordable models.

Even though each record company has made a choice as to which format they will use, they all made it clear that they might not stick to one format only, as the choice for either comes in the very last stage and is only a matter of encoding. BMG apparently opted for DVD-Audio.

Now what do they sound like ?

With ELV1S on DVD-A, you’re coming close to being in the studio with Elvis. You now can hear every breath, every little noise that was caught by the microphones and you feel that extra presence that high resolution brings.

In fact, E1’S is yet another matter. Not only is the disc in high-resolution, but it’s also a multi-channel one which means that the engineer has gone back to the original studio tapes and instead of preparing it for stereo (2 speakers), has spread the instruments over 5 speakers plus one for low sounds (hence the name 5.1). Just like with movie DVD’s. Of course 5.1 helps achieving that live feeling and we have yet to hear what BMG does with the rest of the Elvis catalogue, since it’s very unlikely they will do more than a few multichannel mixes. Most of the catalogue will eventually come out in high-resolution but will probably be in plain stereo, which is not surprising as very little of Elvis’ music is really prone to surround mixing.

But even then, what used to sound like coming out of loudspeakers will have that palpable feel. Acousticians will explain that it’s a matter of harmonics. What you will feel is the music almost going from 2D to 3D with a lot more relief and contrast.

The final quality of a release obviously depends on the care that was put into it. In the past, we were treated with careless mastering from 10th generation tapes. In this manner, DVD-A or a SACD will sound hardly better than a regular CD. Even though it makes absolutely NO sense to produce high-resolution discs from anything else than the original tapes, I still expect a few abuses.

Today, it seems BMG has learned that Elvis can still sell if the product is good and advertising is well organized. If you check your local or online store, you will find that more and more of these releases are coming out : Rolling Stones, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, The Police…. Let’s hope that Elvis fans will be as well-treated in the near future as the experience is really worthwhile.

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