In the Studio with AIX Records by Felix Martinez
Webster's Dictionary defines a Renaissance Man as a "person who has varied interests and is an expert in several areas."
For nearly 30 years, Mark Waldrep, Ph.D. has worked with musicians, singers, and record labels as a producer and audio engineer who has embraced (in some cases developed) cutting-edge technology and ideas. In 1989, Waldrep purchased one of the first Sonic Solutions CD PreMastering systems and founded Pacific Coast Sound Works (PCSW), which in 1994 became AIX Media Group (AIX). By the close of the 20th Century, AIX had helped develop series of innovations: the first enhanced CD, the first DVD-Video titles releases in the U.S., the first DVDs to use motion graphic menus, the first DVD-Audio/DVD-Video (DVD-14) bonded together, the first DVD-Audio disc with MLP, and the first music label dedicated exclusively to the production of new, high-resolution 5.1 channel surround audio releases.
Waldrep is a rarity in today's music world: he's a traditionalist and a technical rebel, whose unorthodox creativity has helped revolutionize and industry. He juggles with an enviable ability - roles as president and CEO of AIX Media Group, founder and chief engineer of AIX Records, professor in the Division of Performing and Digital Media Arts the California State University at Dominguez Hills and, most importantly, musician.
To be fair, Waldrep has also surround himself with talented professional who contribute to the well-oiled machine that is AIX.
This past summer, I met with Waldrep at his state-of-the-art studio in Los Angeles to discuss his passion about high-resolution, multi-channel audio.
DVD ETC.: When was AIX Records formed, and what inspired you to pursue a label dedicated to hi-res, multi-channel audio?
MARK WALDREP: AIX Records was formed in the Spring of 2000 in response to the introduction of the DVD-Audio format and the opportunities it represented. AIX Media Group has produced thousands of DVDs for clients from Zomba Records (Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys) to Sanctuary Records (Bad Company, Government Mule and the Bonnaroo Festival). The arrival of a full-featured audiophile format gave us the opportunity enter a new, specialized market with a completely new set of recordings - not merely remixed, upsampled, older catalog masters. Our goal was to be first, best, and more innovative than any of our competitors.
DVD ETC.: Who is your target market, and how do you market your releases?
MW: There is a very dedicated and substantial pool of music fans (audiophiles) that appreciate very high quality recordings, annotational extras and exquisite performances. They deserve to have access to recordings that attempt to maximize the expressive qualities of music, the intimacy of beautiful sound and the impact of unrestrained dynamics - all qualities that are deliberately engineered out of most commercial tracks. These folks, along with the fans of our artists, are our customers.
We market our releases mostly through the audiophile press, both in print and online. The reviews and comments that we get back from most writers and purchasers have created a small buzz among serious listeners, and they seek us out. We also attend several shows every. The CES and Home Entertainment shows have allowed us to pitch our catalog.
DVD ETC.: As an engineer, first and foremost, you've been trained to work in the analog and digital domains. What are your views of the different recording technology, and what format do you prefer to work in, and why?
MW: Without reservation, the single most important improvement in audio quality sonic impact has been the arrival of high-resolution, 5.1 channel surround sound. Other engineers have commented that the new high-resolution formats "approach the quality of analog," as if this is somehow the real goal of new technologies, I believe that making new recording with state-of-the-art, high-resolution digital equipment and mixing that sound into a properly aligned 5.1 channel surround setup provides an experience far beyond the limitations of analog equipment. No longer do we have to worry about speed fluctuations, limited dynamic range, and restrictions on frequency response. I am a major fan of digital recording over analog, but always couple with appropriate engineering technique.
DVD ETC.: How does the way you record, mix and master your discs differ from those release other music labels?
MW: I received a Ph.D. in music from UCLA in1986. One of the topics of my research was binaural sound and acoustics. When I make a new recording, I employ lots of stereo pairs of microphones instead of the usual mono ones. Humans have two ears for a reason, and my recording technique attempts to model the way we hear - not as a single sound source panned to some location in the stereo or 5.1 speaker sound field (and smothered in artificial reverb), but as a gentle emanation of tones within a localized region.
We record in a large chamber music auditorium that has real reverberation. Musicians love to play for each other in this room and the technology captures both the close sound of the instruments and the room's ambience.
As for post production, the AIX philosophy focuses on "less is more." All that's required a quality mix is to reveal the sonics that were captured on hard drives during the recording date. Placement of the stereo pairs and finding that real life balance of tonalities through level changes is basically all we do. As for mastering, there really isn't any required. We leave the dynamics and fidelity intact.
DVD ETC.: Your decision not to use any EQ or other dynamics or effect processing during recording, mixing, and mastering is certainly unique in an industry where "louder is better." Haven't you been tempted to tweak a knob here or there? What are the benefits of approaching recorded music in this way?
MW: Oh sure, I've been tempted to ride a fader or boost a bass element here and there. But the result modifies the majesty of the actual sound that was produced by the wonderful musicians and singers that we've recorded. We've worked very hard to get a consistent sound to our tracks and, believe it or not, it can be done without applying harsh EQ or dynamic processing. It results in records that are much quieter than the vast majority of commercial release (in order to allow the loudest drum or vocal crescendo to exist naturally).
The benefits are self-evident if you've had a chance to A-B one of our recordings to the stuff coming from the majors. Our recordings' dynamics and fidelity are almost "hyper real." Cymbals and metal percussion pierce the air, the warmth of an acoustic guitar or cello resonates as if you were actually holding it, and the indescribable magic that is transferred from musicians to musician during a performance envelopes you as never before.
DVD ETC.: You certainly push the envelope with value-added content on your discs. What is your view of the multi-media capability of the DVD-Audio format?
MW: Our inclusion of interactive elements, chord changes subtitles, interviews, multiple cameras angle video, lesson, behind-the-scene footage, still, and historical information contributes to the purchase attraction of our products. The DVD format is unique in its ability of deliver the finest audio quality ever imagined, alongside a complete multimedia experience. Given the choice between a simple audio-only product and one that shows me the entire experience in audio and video is no contest - and that's why AIX is committed to the DVD-Audio/Video format and not interested in SACD.
DVD ETC.: Your Nitty Gritty Surround title was quite an achievement, winning Best of Show and Best Additional Features at the 2002 First Annual Surround Music Awards, as well as Best DVD-Audio Discus Award from eMedia Magazine. How in the world are you going to top that? What do you have in the works?
MW: John McEuen, the artist behind the Nitty Gritty project, and I were quite happily surprised that we garnered the most nominations and walked away with two awards including the top award.
I don't produce new titles with awards and prizes in mind, although they obviously help in bringing our work to a wide audience. Today, the new Laurence Juber project (Guitar Noir) arrives from the replicator. In terms of audio quality, musical content, video production values, and extras, it rivals the Nitty Gritty disc. I'm a guitar player myself and, therefore packed this project with bonus things that will appeal to players. You can print out the music and TAB of a tune that is taught by Juber in a four-camera, multiple camera angle section. He introduces and demonstrates the history of acoustic guitar at California Vintage Guitar, a store in the San Fernando Valley. There is an extensive biography section complete with dozens of photos of his career and loads of video of rehearsal and behind-the-scenes stuff. Beyond all that is the most pristine, intimate recording presented in three mixes: stage, audience, and stereo. This is just about as perfect a set of tracks, as I know how to produce.
This weekend, we are doing our biggest production with Jennifer Warnes and friends. Dean Parks, Vinnie Colaiuta, Abe Laboriel, and Rich Cunha (and others) are getting together for two afternoons to create musical magic - new songs, expressed by one of the truly great voices of our time, in high-resolution, multi-channel audio. This will be very special.
DVD ETC.: What are your views on the future of the DVD-Audio format?
MW: The DVD-Audio format is growing rapidly and gaining widespread acceptance among audiophile and music consumers. When presented with quality recordings and multimedia extras, people purchase these machines and the system to take full advantage of them The announcement by BMG, Capitol EMI, MCA, and WB Records make DVD-Audio the logical choice to replace the venerable CD. It is particularly exciting to see the installation of DVD-Audio system in automobiles and in computers. I have no doubt that the DVD format is the choice of consumers as far as 12 cam discs go. If my own business is any indicator, things will continue to grow quite aggressively in the next couple of years.
DVD ETC.: Do you view the success of hi-res, multi-channel audio linked to hardware or software availability?
MW: Obviously, there have to be machines and software to drive people to a new format. There certainly is no problem with the hardware side of the DVD format - there are over 75 million machines in the country capable of playing the 96 kHz/24-bit stereo tracks that we place on all of our discs. These same machine scan handle the playback of the Dolby and DTS tracks and all of the DVD-Video materials on that side of the discs. The MLP DVD-Audio specific side is available to over 1.4 million people and growing daily. Panasonic told that almost 80% of their new DVD players have the hybrid capability (both DVD-Audio and Video). My market segment is interested in value for their dollar and superb audio quality. We try to give them both.
DVD ETC.: What's next for AIX Records? Where do you want to take your company?
MW: My goal is to continue to record and produce new multimedia-rich recordings that capture the essence of music making and the creative process. Right now we have the largest catalog of real high-resolution recording in the world. In the next 12 months, we will add another 40-50 titles, which will be defined by great music making, technology, and features. I'm content to be a small, dedicated label. The feedback has been amazing?