If you’re like me and have become addicted to high definition, surround music you might think the current state of affairs with regards to optical formats and physical delivery for HD Audio might look pretty grim. The venerable CD turns 25 years old this year and is still the predominant carrier of music to consumers around the world. It’s true that they’ve lost some ground thanks to digital download services like itunes and that lots of illegal copies find their way onto iPods, but the halcyon days of the compact disc are behind us. And remember CDs can’t deliver high definition music in stereo or surround! Those of us that applauded the arrival of DVD-Audio, and it’s non-multimedia friendly competitor SA-CD, thought there was a chance to move the fidelity bar up and give music fans the opportunity to listen to music from more than two speakers. Sadly, many if not most of the content released on those formats was taken from standard definition sources when what the format needed was lots of compelling new recordings that showed off the real potential of 96 kHz and 24-bits! Customers that bought into one of the two new HD music formats were usually disappointed when they hit the play button of their new hardware. Never mind that there was a format war between a couple of huge consumer electronics and their aligned groups of labels. So what’s next?
iMuse Music Servers
Maybe HD-DVD or Blu-Ray will be the next music delivery platform? They certainly have the capability to deliver real HD surround music and they can do it without the compromises of standard Dolby Digital or DTS. Both companies have new codecs in the new HD video format war. Dolby has rolled out Dolby TrueHD and DTS has DTS HD Master Audio. For the first time, consumers will have the ability to play 8 channels of losslessly encoded audio from a blue laser disc through their HDMI 1.3 equipped A/V receiver.
It’s true that there’s not a lot of software titles available that take advantage of the new codecs but they’re coming at least in support of movies in HD. Music only HD-DVDs or Blu-Ray discs are being considered but I don’t really see it happening. The major labels are not willing to invest in yet another format when they remember what happened with DVD-Audio and SA-CD.
As for the audiophile labels, the costs associated with mixing, authoring, replicating and distributing in either one of the new formats is too high. There must be some other alternative.
Enter the media server. For those unfamiliar with the term, let me share my experience in getting behind the concept of computer based systems becoming my media [and maybe your] portal. Three years ago, I received a phone call from an intern at Intel inquiring about our CEA “Demmy” award winning track “Mosaic” from Laurence Juber’s Guitar Noir DVD-Audio/Video release. The track in question had beat out Diana Krall, Sting, Wynton Marsalis and The Grateful Dead in the “Best High Resolution, 5.1 Surround Music Track” category. It’s a great track but I was really surprised to learn that our track made it to the finals and amazed that we actually took the top prize.
Anyway, it seems the folks at Intel wanted to use the track in connection with their effort to market media servers to the guys that do custom home theater installations. Intel doesn’t create the systems themselves but the machines that do the heavy lifting have lots of Intel chips on them. Niveus Media, Sonos, Inteset and others have developed “consumer electronics type” products that look and feel like stereo components but are actually computers running Microsoft’s Media Center Edition software.
In the past, I’ve dismissed the whole computer in my media room concept because of reliability issues, lack of an easy to use interface, poor sound quality and the frequent occurrence of the blue screen of death associated with PCs. Who wants to “boot up” their stereo system or their television?
Well, I do or I’ll leave the machine on all the time and revel in the knowledge that my media server can deliver HD Video AND lossless surround music at the same time without the need to purchase a new HD Video player!
When I’ve demonstrated some of my HD Audio/Video tracks at various trade shows, I refer to the Niveus Media box [they make a really high end machine called the k2] sitting on the table next to me as my “high definition video iPod.” Maybe it’s not portable like its low-resolution namesake but it works pretty much the same way. Files are brought down from the web and accessed through the MCE [Media Center Edition] software. You can play audio, video or look at photos through the same interface into your media room where the plasma screen and surround sound speakers live. And with the Media Center Extender boxes and Slim Devices Transporter, you can even leave the computer in the study and still enjoy your favorite movies or music in the media room in HD quality.
So as a label owner and fanatic for high definition, surround sound, I had an epiphany. While the rest of the audiophile community struggles to get the last bit of fidelity out of their vinyl or compact disc collection, those of us that have discovered the benefits of new recordings done in HD can abandon optical discs altogether. Why not create a new digital download site that allows true music aficionados the opportunity to acquire music at better than vinyl or CD quality? Thus was born the iTrax.com website. I think of it as “iTunes” for adults. All of the tracks available through the site are REAL HD recordings nothing has been upsampled or pulled from an analog master. For those that still want to hold something physical in their hands, AIX Records still produces DVD-Audio/Video discs but the time of the media server is at hand.