Its been nearly five years since I got my first taste of high-resolution DSD audio, and Ive been hooked ever since. In 1998, we started working here at Airshow Mastering with some of the early (though often flaky) prototype DSD systems. I remember listening to a DSD transfer of a 1950s jazz album and even the tape hiss sounded great!
It wasnt the grainy, ugly sound wed all become used to with 44k/16-bit PCM, but the silky smooth sound of real analog. That listening experience was a breath of fresh air the improved audio quality and the challenge of new technology put a lot of the fun back into the studio.
Several years passed before the workstation technology even approached the user-friendliness we take for granted with tried-and-true PCM and analog gear. And even more time passed before the surround possibilities became a reality. Last year, another bottleneck became apparent when the Rolling Stones SACD reissues tied up a large portion of the worlds hybrid SACD pressing capacity.
That was then.
This year has seen the availability and/or announcement of many of the sorely needed DSD/SACD production tools: editors, authoring software, recorders, and converters. High-res PCM on ProTools|HD is widely used for transferring high-res PCM projects to DSD for SACD release. Despite the objections of DSD purists, high-res PCM has become a popular way to produce SACD releases. Crest National and DADC have installed hybrid SACD pressing lines, with the expected result of lower-cost discs.
From where I sit, it appears the time has come for SACD and DVD-A to trickle down from the original proponents and early adopters to the independent labels and artists who make so much of todays compelling music. More and more, artists and producers are asking the right questions about SACD (and DVD-A, and surround). These are clients who were, until recently, under the radar as far as the new formats are concerned. They are not in the group of early adopters shepherded along by Sony and Philips. Rather, these are the labels and artists that are long-time clients of facilities like mine.
Those not yet taking the plunge cite three reasons: For some, the additional 75 cents to manufacture a SACD disc vs. CD is still too much. For others, the barrier is the additional production costs, and manufacturing lead times still deter some. In the meantime, theyre thinking and learning about it. Those who are making the commitment to SACD seem to have as much fun with this new format as I am. And even if theyre working in stereo now, theyre thinking about the possibilities of surround and planning future projects accordingly.
High-res and surround audio are hardly mainstream as yet. Those studio owners with the foresight to invest early in the new release formats were betting that their investment would help secure their position in a production process that had largely moved to project studios. Ive learned that a surround production infrastucture is one of those things that you have to build right before they will come. Surround work qualifies as one of those, gee, I guess I cant really do that at home revelations. Similar infrastucture requirements apply for SACD and DVD-A mastering and authoring. Producers who want to record, mix, and master in surround for these formats will need to rely on the facilities that have the infrastucture, knowledge, and experience to do the complex work right.
Weve found, as expected, that a well-equipped mastering studio has to make all possibilities available to our clients: analog, PCM, and now DSD recorders, processing, and consoles all must be equipped and interconnected to allow us to handle any and all mix formats and output to any release format.
Were having a great time exploring the latest tools and techniques for high-res and surround recording at Airshow, an experience the readers of this publication can likely relate to. There are still a few production issues left to address more conveniently. (In my dreams, I see the studio production equivalent of the consumers universal disc player, for instance.)
These are exciting times. It finally feels as if all the pieces are in place for the mainstream to embrace high-res and surround as we already have.
This is now.