Originally created 01/14/02

DVD surround sound the latest thing



The Doors' "Riders on the Storm" plays with the sound of rain all around you as thunder rumbles from behind. The instruments and Jim Morrison's voice are in front of you. Behind you, mixed in with the rain, are Morrison's eerily whispered backing vocals.

In Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain, "Mick Fleetwood's kick drums thump hard front and center, as Lindsey Buckingham's and Stevie Nicks' vocals swirl all around the room as they angrily call-and-respond to each other "If you don't love me now / you will never love me again."

The Eagles' "Hotel California" starts with the acoustic guitars in front and the electrics behind, then they swap places. On "Life in the Fast Lane," the signature guitars roar out of the rear speakers, almost giving the feeling of being on that metaphorical road.

The Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil" is a down-home jam, with acoustic guitars and mandolins arranged in a circle around you, vocals coming from all around as well, giving the illusion that you're sitting in the middle of the studio as the Dead plays.

Movie-goers and home-theater enthusiasts have long known the feeling of getting swept up in a film when the sound comes from all around.

But with the advent of 5.1 surround sound and new high-quality music formats, music lovers are finding a whole new way to listen to music - one that puts them squarely in the middle of the studio, with music unfolding all around them.

Baby boomers may flash back to Quad, a short-lived experiment to freak out potheads in the '70s. Records and eight-track tapes would break out the music into four speakers sometimes actually remixed, sometimes just doctored with echo and effects. The sound was generally horrible, the listening generally difficult.

With Quad, "if you moved two or three inches out of the dead center, you could cancel half your record out," said producer Bill Szymczyk, who has worked with everyone from B.B. King to The Eagles. "That was ugly compared to what this is."

With Quad, "they really went for the ping-pong effect," said Phil Murray, marketing manager for Listen Up, a specialty audio/video store in Denver, Colo. "Here's a new toy - how much can we do here?"

This is a quantum leap ahead. The "5" in 5.1 refers to the five speakers - two front, two rear, one center. The "1" refers to the subwoofer, which makes a total of six separate sound sources.

"A 5.1 mix is a far more compelling listening experience," said Denver DVD producer Mike Drumm, who has done work for everyone from the Indigo Girls to Sting. "The surround audio does something neurologically, when it's well done, to suck you into it. It totally goes beyond stereo."

He recently was involved in the production of Ringo Starr's concert DVD and instructed the sound people to give it an expansive 5.1 mix to make it sound like the band is around the listener.

At first, Starr nixed the notion.

"I don't want it to be that radical," he told Drumm. Eventually, Drumm was able to talk him into it, and Starr was blown away by the results.

"If the audio is done right, it's far more compelling to witness a live show this way than going to the real thing," Drumm said.

Remixing concert DVDs for 5.1 audio makes sense; listeners have the audience behind them and the band in front of them. Bruce Springsteen's new "Live in New York City" is particularly well done, re-creating the feel of the concert.

But remixing studio albums, especially ones that listeners have known for years, can create amazing sounds. Szymczyk's 5.1 remix of the Eagles' "Hotel California" was just released a month ago.

"I've played it for people at my house and they're blown away. Everybody that hears it goes, 'I want one,"' Szymczyk said.

The development of Dolby Digital three years ago made it possible to do six distinct channels, "the first real step in high-quality surround sound," Murray said.

While a special player is required to get the full effects of DVD Audio, most listeners can hear a version of the 5.1 surround sound mix if they've got a basic home theater setup.

"If they have a surround sound system with a receiver from the past three or four years, they have most of the equipment to play this stuff," Murray said.

A good DVD Audio player starts at $700 to $800 (and they're getting ready to introduce DVD Audio systems for your car). While only a few thousand DVD Audio players have been sold, millions of people have purchased plain DVD players and home-theater systems.

And nearly all DVD Audio albums remixed for 5.1 sound can be played on a regular DVD player as well. You don't get the ultra-perfect sound quality, but you do get the 5.1 mix. And since that mix is made off the original master multitracks, you get better sound than you did from the ordinary CD.

And like the Beta vs. VHS decision that early VCR owners had to tackle in the '80s, you've also got to decide what format to go with. DVD Audio is being pushed by the Warners Music Group, while Sony and Universal are pushing the equally high-quality Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD). Both formats produce great sound and 5.1 surround sound mixes. However, both are completely incompatible with the other. To further complicate things, some discs are being released in both formats.

(Contact Mark Brown of the Rocky Mountain News at http://www.rockymountainnews.com.)