As the founder/composer behind the Grammy Award winning Mannheim Steamroller, Chip Davis has always been an innovator. From starting his own American Gramaphone record label to utilizing the latest technologies onstage and in the studio, Davis is never content with the status quo. Its no surprise then that he has fully embraced the world of surround sound, taking on the medium with a truly fresh approach. Recently, he shared some unique experiences and insights with Surround Professional.
SP: Your Fresh Aire 8 release is quite unlike any other DVD package Ive seen yet!
Chip Davis: This project actually took four years to do, from research to completion. Its on eight topics of infinity, and I refer to it as the art of DVD, because I think DVD is not only a great medium for movies, but its an artistic medium that, until now, we have not been able to address as composers. One of the things we have done is to put DVD-Video on one side with a green ring and on the other side of the disc put DVD-Audio with a red ring. This allows you to play this disc in any kind of player; if you put it in a DVD-Audio player with the DVD-Video side up, a prompt will come on to tell you youve got the wrong side. Then we labeled it on the front of the package, which says something like, This DVD will play in any DVD player.
We have also put a CD on top of the DVD, so its a two-disc set; something we are doing with virtually all of our titles. We feel that, if you buy this and you dont have a DVD player, you still get the CD to play and you have a DVD to play when you do get the player. In all of our literature, we have put what I call a legend of terms, and we have gone through and written one or two sentence descriptions of what DTS means, what is Dolby Digital, whats DVD Audio, etc. Weve even included the logos to try to help educate the public.
What have been your experiences with multichannel at retail?
Weve been out in retail slugging it out; its been difficult to get the current ear of the retailer because of all the confusion over DVD. Weve come up with a lot of things that we think are decent solutions to some of the retailing problems. Retail has changed so radically and they are so Top 40 driven that there are only certain retailers that some of this can apply to. Some labels have put out DVD-Audio discs, the people buy them, take them home and they dont play on their players. I dont think the industry has done a great job in educating them.
What started you in surround?
We were doing DVDs years ago, because our first live concert was remixed for surround. The way I got to know surround is I created a home theater demo. That allowed me to learn surround and figure out what kind of stuff to put in what speaker, and I was able to draw some pretty good conclusions as to what really works. I chose to put mono, stereo, and surround back-to-back on the disc to prove a difference. That gave me my foundation. When I started American Gramaphone, it was as an audiophile company in stereo. When DVD and the 5.1 surround format became available, I saw that as the opportunity to bring into peoples living rooms what we had been doing in our concerts for years. When we built the first 5.1 room here, everyone on our staff just went wild for it. Now we have three 5.1 rooms, and my composing studio is also 5.1
How do you compose in surround?
All my equipment for composing is set up around a full set of Meyer HD-1s with a sub. I can route any of my outboard equipment to any of those speakers. If Im writing a piece for one of my ambience records, the melody may start off in the front with a soft piano, and I may want to echo and answer it in the surrounds with a guitar patch. It is easier to tell that the guitar with higher transients is coming from behind you.
Ill do certain string patches in the rear versus the front. Everything is set up to make it routable, and it also depends on the overall approach to the piece of music. I leave holes for front to rear activity as well. I have also used a Yamaha 02R with an architectural program we installed that allows you to take the rotary wheel and choose a trajectory for a channel, such as a figure 8. Whatever speed you turn that knob, the sound will follow that trajectory. I try to take advantage of the space, and it changes your thinking and the way you compose.
I understand you actually have microphones set up outside on your farm for ambiance?
There are actually two sets of four channels each. The first set has two mics deep in a forest and the other two are at the edge of a rise, because there are different critters that come out of that, plus when rain hits tree leaves it does a certain thing versus when it doesnt.
You get a different variance of natural sounds from the front to the rear. I have another set of four over and around a pond for getting things like spring frogs and other different sounds. They are condenser mics inside of a custom-built windscreen configuration that our engineers designed here, and they have been up for four years. We have had to replace a few of them from time to time.
They are wired underground, 1000 feet from my house. The first time we did it, we ran shielded cable, but the gophers ate through it, so we dug it up and re-ran it in PVC. It took almost a year and a half until it was totally predictable, now it works great all the time.
Youre also using multichannel music as a new type of therapy?
We just installed two surround systems at the Childrens Cancer Research Hospital in Minneapolis. The purpose of that is for distraction therapy. These are bone-marrow transplant kids that are totally isolated from everyone, including their family. This is a way of putting them in a spring forest or a summer thunderstorm. One of the things it does it help cover up the beeps and sounds of the pumps and things that are less than pleasant. Its the idea behind ambiance therapy. We gave the kids the ambient beds of nature, with an auto repeat at the end of the disc so it just goes back to the top. We are also going to try to get this into the Mayo clinic and start this same program for some pain distraction.
If any Surround Professional readers would like to donate any relevant DVDs to the Childrens Cancer Research Center, please send them to: Surround Professional/American Gramaphone, 9130 Mormon Bridge Rd., Omaha, NE 68152. Attention: Dan Wieberg.