The Business of High Res

We live in interesting times. Just when you think you have a trend figured out, a new twist comes along. Such is the case with DVD-Audio, a format that has had a slow start, but is now getting a kick start in yet another surprising way thanks to David Swartz’s Hi-Res Music. What makes the Hi-Res approach different is the fact that all of their DVD-A discs are stereo only, albeit at 96/24. And what’s even more surprising ù especially to those of us who live in the surround world ù there’s plenty of customers out there gobbling up the product. I recently spoke to David, who outlined the genesis of this format variation.

SP: How did Hi-Res Music come about?
DAVID SWARTZ: I had gotten into the audiophile world as an extension of my own personal interest in high-end audio, and wanted to experiment with something other than vinyl on the one side or Red Book CD stuff on the other. I noticed that Classic Records, who were a reissue vinyl company, tried to create a format called DAD (digital audio disc) where they used the video zone of a regular DVD-video disc for stereo 96/24. The trouble was they had gotten themselves out just ahead of the curve. They tried to start the format right before DVD-A came out, and it didn’t really catch on with anyone outside the audiophile community.

When DVD-Audio came about, we started to talk about the possibility of a licensing/reissue deal where we just went back and remastered, preferably from analog masters, straight to 96/24, and didn’t worry about remixing in multichannel. We wanted to stick to a 2-channel sensibility without pushing all the buttons that were available on the DVD-A platform.

Why did you choose DVD-A rather than DAD?
I think what Classic tried was really a cool thing, but what it comes down to is just marketing. DAD is really close to what we’re doing, it’s just packaged in a different wrapper. We offer a DVD-A audio authoring scheme along with a DVD-V audio authoring scheme so that we can take advantage of the 40 million+ players out there that can play the disc.

Did you ever consider SACD?
The tools just aren’t easily available to do SACD. Also, it just seemed like an uphill battle because you have a huge body of software with no available hardware to drive the format. It’s the other way around with DVD-A. There’s a critical mass penetration of hardware with very little software. I wanted to bring something to market where we’d have the opportunity to actually build on the hardware that was already available.

Who’s your market?
Right now, it’s the audiophile community and the people that “get” high-resolution digital music. Our market is the people that understand and hear the difference, and right now that tends to be the audiophile who’s passionate hobby is listening to music. And that is the big issue right now. Does the market really want high-res music or does it want low-res music? I believe the reason why this format doesn’t exist on a mass level yet is because the majors are so concerned with subscription music, low-res music, and music off the Internet.

Unlike most DVDs, your discs aren’t really graphics heavy. Why is that?
The audiophile community doesn’t feel the need for all the features that the DVD format can provide, one of them being the graphics side of things. According to the research that we’ve done, the audiophile wants to just listen to music and is not necessarily even connected to a monitor or home theater-type of environment. Many audiophiles use a DVD player just as a transport for CD because of the better DACs. With that in mind, we wanted to use graphics sparingly. If you have a monitor connected, you will see album art and song lists and some things about our catalog and company, but I wanted these things to be transparent to the user. If you don’t have a monitor, the DVD player reads the disc for 5 to 7 seconds to determine what kind of disc it is, then just plays it like a CD. That’s really what our customer is asking for. Keep in mind that the disc doesn’t really offer much besides 2-channel 96/24 music, so there’s really no reason for extensive menus anyway.

Why stereo and not 5.1?
I think that remixing “legacy” stereo music is the same as colorizing black and white films. There’s an artistic place for remixed music and there’s probably a place for colorized black and white films. I just feel that, as an artistic statement, there’s a lot of music that is 2-channel that should stay 2-channel.

5.1 is really great and compelling stuff, and I think that there’s certainly a place for it. Personally, I can’t wait to hear music composed with the sole artistic intention of using the format. But there’s also certainly a place for stereo music presented in a high-quality, state-of-the-art format. Obviously there’s a huge body of work, generations worth of music, that’s only in stereo. We just want to present it in the best light it can be presented in.

How many titles do you have out?
We have 12 out now (such as Leon Russell’s brilliant “Leon Russell,” Freddie King’s “Texas Cannonball,” and a number of jazz great Herb Ellis favorites) with a half-dozen in the can and number of others in varying stages of production. By the end of the year we should have about 30 titles out all told.

Where do you get your titles?
We’re involved with a number of labels, including Concord Jazz, Capitol, Shelter, EMI, and a number of small indies. We’re not interested in breaking new acts, but we are signing acts that have deals that we feel have something that our audience would like. How long does it take you to produce a title?

Not all that long. There’s the transfer time of the title, which is only a little more than real time, depending on the condition of the tape. Authoring takes a few days. Graphics takes about a day or two, and package graphics take a couple of days. All told we can put a title together in about two to three weeks.

We get pre-EQ masters, which is pretty much the tape that left the studio when the project was finished. For the most part, we’ve been trying to use the same mastering engineers that originally mastered the project as well.

How are your titles sold?
The original model was to target the audiophile community via magazines and online. We have a sophisticated Web site ( that has a secure e-commerce page on it, and we also have online distributors like Acoustic Sounds and DVD Empire. We’re trying to stay away from traditional retail because they really don’t know what to do with this format yet, although that will eventually change.

It’s more than just trying to sell product for us though. There’s a love and passion for high-quality music. It’s important for us to carry the torch and hand it off to the next generation. Hopefully, Hi-Res Music will help in doing that.

Surround Professional Magazine