AIX Records to Release on Blu-ray: An Interview with Founder Mark Waldrep
Back in the long, drawn out days of the heated optical disc format war (no, not THAT format war, the other one between SACD and DVD-Audio) one of the few audiophile record labels that fell into the DVD-A camp was AIX. Founded in 2001 by audio engineer Dr. Mark Waldrep, AIX Records' mission was to bring high-resolution multi-channel audio recordings of uncompromising clarity to market and mate them with the added value of quality video performances that the DVD format could offer.
Even amongst those staunch supporters of DSD and SACD, AIX's DVD-Audio releases are often prized and praised for their sound quality. Coming in flipper discs with DVD-Audio on one side offering a 96/24 5.1 "audience" mix and 2.0 mix and DVD-Video on the other with a capture of the live performance and a 5.1 "stage" mix, the AIX releases make for strong arguments about the capabilities of 96kHz/24-bit PCM.
Today, AIX is still pushing the boundaries of audiophile music. Fighting back against the surge of low-quality lossy download services such as iTunes, AIX has even launched their own download service, iTrax.com. iTrax makes available HD audio downloads, in 96kHz/24-bit stereo lossless formats as well as DTS 5.1 "stage" mixes sourced from the original high-resolution recordings at the highest DTS bitrate available, 1.5Mbps. The service also offers standard and high definition video downloads of the musical performances where availalble.
But, AIX's founder Mark Waldrep is not satisfied with stopping there. So, shortly the label will be entering the HD optical disc market with their first slate of Blu-ray Disc releases. I've had the opportunity to check out one of AIX's forthcoming BD releases, AIX Sampler IV, which contains 21 selections -- just a taste of things to come from AIX on Blu-ray -- and I can say that music lovers and audiophiles will be pleased.
From the Alt-Country of John Gorka's "Mercy of the Wheels" to the intimate Classical Chamber Music of the Chamber Music Palisades performing Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola & Harp -- "Interlude," both the 96kHz/24-bit Dolby TrueHD 7.1 "stage" mix and 96kHz/24-bit 2.0 mix on the release sound superb, with excellent 1080i/60 video to match. Upon release, the label hopes to have not just a 7.1 TrueHD "stage" mix, but a 96/24 7.1 TrueHD "audience" mix as well, for those who like their surround music a little less discrete.
Mark Waldrep, AIX's founder, was gracious enough to take the time to talk with Big Picture Big Sound about his label's upcoming Blu-ray releases and more. What follows is that interview with Mark:
Big Picture Big Sound: [So, Mark], tell me a little bit about the upcoming Blu-ray releases from AIX.
Mark Waldrep: We've prepared a new sampler in the Blu-Ray format that will be part of our next set of AIX Records samplers and will be distributed through Dolby Laboratories. Naturally, it will be have HD Video and multiple audio streams encoded using Dolby TrueHD. We're also in production on a second sampler that will be bundled with a major CE BD player manufacturer starting in February.
Of the standard DVD projects that we've done over the past couple of years, we'll be re-releasing several of them in the BD format. AIX Records has been recording new projects with HD Video and HD Audio over the past 4 years. It's perfect for us to engage with this new format; finally great looking video and HD music in surround without any compromises.
The first titles will be John Gorka - A Gypsy Life, Chamber Music Palisades - Shostakovich, Debussy and Brockman and Ernest Ranglin - Order of Distinction.
BPBS: What resolution will you be recording or releasing these Blu-rays at? Will they be 96/24, 192/24, or something else?
MW: All of the recordings that we've captured have been done at 96 kHz/24-bits. They will [be] released in PCM stereo and Dolby TrueHD.
BPBS: Why did you settle on TrueHD for your Blu-ray releases over DTS-HD Master Audio?
MW: There is no benefit. Dolby TrueHD is the next generation codec originally known as MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing). The guys at Meridian Audio in the UK developed the format for use on DVD-Audio. It is lossless and even better than straight PCM because the bits are actually verified to match the source. With Blu-ray the number of tracks is extended to 8 and the sample rate moves to 192 kHz. It's a great technology and it works. DTS-HD Master Audio works fine too -- as long as you get all of your music back, the choice is based on tools and compatibility. For me Dolby TrueHD is the best choice.
BPBS: A lot of audiophiles have a concern about the DialNorm feature in TrueHD -- will you be using this on any AIX releases?
MW: Don't need it; It's not required. I turn off all of the pre-processing and simply encode the files.
BPBS: I'm sure audiophiles around the world will be rejoicing at that news.
Do you have any plans in the future to capture recordings at anything higher than 96/24?
MW: No not really. In my opinion, there is no benefit from using anything higher than 96 kHz. Having looked at a number of so-called "high definition" releases on a spectral analysis program, they all have no information above 22 kHz. Some of the recordings that were originally recorded using DSD or DXD technology have only high frequency "hash" in the ultra-sonic region. This is the result of the noise-shaping that is required by that format. A clean 96kHz/24-bit track from our catalog has frequencies in the 35kHz - 40kHz range. This is more than enough to deliver a time/frequency accurate digital recording.
BPBS: On that subject, I know you mentioned to me that you prefer PCM to DSD so it must be feel like a bit of a vindication that Blu-ray is emerging as a candidate to be the next high-resolution audio format.
MW: It was never a competition between formats as far as I'm concerned. My studio is based around high-resolution PCM equipment and I believe strongly in the added value of video, multiple mixes, interviews, etc. as a part of a physical release. SACD couldn't do that, but DVD-Audio could. They can both sound wonderful and both qualify as "HD Music" as long as the recordings were made directly to these formats and not upconverted from something of lower fidelity such as analogue tape, vinyl or standard resolution digital. PCM at high sample rates and longer word lengths AND delivered in surround sound is as good as audio reproduction can get.
BPBS: You may upset some ardent defenders of analogue recording technology with that last statement. Are you prepared for the fallout?
MW: I've used analogue recording equipment for decades. I still have my Nagra IV-S machine sitting in my office here. But specifications speak for themselves. The best an analogue recorder can do in capturing a first generation recording (without noise reduction) is about 72-75 dB (signal to noise ratio). Compare that with the 24-bit world of HD PCM digital [and] we're well over 110 - 120 dB. I record all of my tracks without dynamics compression of any kind. I don't like hearing hiss or the distortion, which comes along with analogue recordings. Using analogue tape is done for the quality of sound that it produces not for its ability to accurately capture music. It's like film rather than HD Video. They have different looks. Producers and engineers can choose what they or their clients prefer.
But, for me, analogue hiss, crosstalk, speed variations, distortion and bandwidth limitations are not worth it. The tracks that AIX Records produces represent the musical experience more closely than analogue. And, yes, I recognize that others regard analogue tape and/or vinyl as the Holy Grail of audio, but I don't.
BPBS: I tend to agree. Analogue has a sound that doesn't have much to do with the true performance whereas digital is more transparent, particularly when we are talking about high resolution digital starting at 96/24.
MW: True, CD's don't cut [it] for me; partly because of the compromised sound quality and the fact that they are limited to stereo. Audio engineers have access to a wide variety of tools and they choose to use them as the want. I made a conscious choice when I started my label to accept no compromise in the signal path. We use the best mics, the best pre-amps, the best converters etc. And we don't alter the signal at all. No EQ, no artificial reverberation -- the sessions are held in a large chamber music auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. All I do is balance the levels between individual microphones and place them in the surround or stereo field.
I recently had a manufacturer of very high-end cables come by the studio and listen to some of our best tracks. His comment was somewhat telling. He thought that the sound was "too clear and transparent". Obviously, this is a guy that likes the "warmth" of vinyl. That's fine with me. Each person has their own likes and dislikes. But when a vendor says that PCM digital audio sounds "stressed" compared to vinyl or analogue, I have to strenuously disagree.
BPBS: I think people tend to forget that vinyl is a compromised medium that was intended for consumers. Even analogue reel tape like that of the multitracks and original 2-track masters is capable of much higher resolution and cleaner sound than vinyl. Do you think perhaps it is a combination of people being conditioned to that particular sound and the horrendous mastering on CDs today pushing people away from digital?
MW: You hit the nail right on the head. The demands of the music industry have pushed dynamics out of recorded/released music. The louder the track the better because it will "punch" through on the radio. I know my recordings will not work on the poor fidelity of FM radio or the so-called HD-Radio, which is anything but High Definition! People get conditioned to a particular sound. The commercial sound of most releases runs counter to what music actually delivers in a live setting. I was a mastering engineer for over ten years. The quest was always to make the tracks louder.
I had a Bad Company project that had to be done three times because the client wanted the tracks to be smashed dynamically. The original sounded the best and Paul Rogers agreed. But we had to change it over and over because of commercial concerns. Now with HD digital downloads like our own iTrax.com site, I don't have to depend on the commercial distribution channels. Blu-ray and DVD-Audio are terrific physical formats for getting HD surround music to people that [love] sound and to those that have yet to hear how great a real HD track sounds.
BPBS: Indeed. And to backtrack a bit, you mentioned the added value on the AIX DVD-Audio releases. Blu-ray is certainly capable of that and more. In addition to the high-resolution sound and HD video, does AIX have any plans to use Blu-ray's BonusView and BD-Live capabilities on any of their releases?
MW: Our Blu-ray titles will be fairly straightforward. We're finding it difficult enough to author a title that makes use of the TrueHD audio in multiple streams. I like BonusView and may incorporate it into later releases but I have no interest and cannot understand the fascination with BD-Live. Our listeners/viewers should be sitting back with a glass of wine in their hand not a keyboard! Music in HD surround can transport a person into that special place beyond time and space; BD-Live just yanks them back to the here and now.
BPBS: Well, there is the possibility of offering downloadable bonus tracks and perhaps subtitle tracks that aren't available on the disc itself, but I do agree that so far none of the studios have found a compelling use for the BD-Live capability.
MW: We may take another look if we're successful with the current plans, but just getting our first disc finished has proven difficult.
BPBS: What sorts of problems have you run into, if you don't mind saying?
MW: The sampler disc that we're producing is all authored and ready to go except it won't pass the Sony verifier for some reason. Something about buffer overruns, but we've established that the bandwidth is well within the normal range. There has been a suggestion that the Sony verifier might be showing an error when there isn't one. But because AIX Records is a small fish in a much bigger pool, we don't rank very high on the investigatory scale as far as Sony is concerned.
Maybe you know of a disc out there that uses 96 kHz/24-bit Dolby TrueHD 7.1 audio and 96 kHz/24-bit PCM stereo audio in conjunction with HD Video, but I think this is the first time and the verifier is choking.
BPBS: I honestly can't think of any. I know the Lindberg Lyd disc does 192/24 TrueHD, DTS-HD MA and PCM in 5.1 and 2.0, but there's no HD video on it.
MW: Right, that's why they don't have buffer problems. The streams don't run simultaneously.
BPBS: Anyway, Mark, thanks for your time and I wish you all the best with your endeavors. I can't wait to get my hands on the new Blu-ray releases from AIX.
MW: And thanks to you!
I'd like to thank Mark on behalf of the staff of Big Big Picture Big Sound for taking the time to talk with us and wish him and AIX well on their venture into the HD market.