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Warner gears up to release high-resolution music

The Warner Music Group--Atlantic Records, Elektra, Nonesuch, Rhino and other labels--will be releasing new music in high-resolution audio formats in 2012.

Steve Guttenberg

This past Thursday I attended an informal "summit" hosted by Craig Kallman, Atlantic Records' CEO and Chairman, to learn more about the label's plans to start releasing high-resolution music. Kallman is passionate about improving the sound of music, and I was impressed by his candor about the industry's appalling track record and declining sound quality standards.

I think the widespread overuse of dynamic range compression is far more musically destructive than the low sampling rates used in formats like MP3. I fear that if the new formats are just higher-resolution versions of the dynamically compressed MP3 and CD releases, there might not be enough of a sonic improvement to sway buyers seeking a better experience. Perhaps the new high-resolution releases should include mixes with less compression and processing. Kallman was open to the idea, so we'll see if wider quiet-to-loud dynamic range is incorporated in Warner's high-resolution formats. Consumers already enjoy DVD and Blu-ray movies with extremely wide dynamic range; it would be great to also have that same life-like dynamic impact with music.

I was also impressed by Kallman's determination not to repeat the mistakes of the DVD-A and SACD campaigns of a decade ago. A lot of the business details are still being worked out, so specifics about the new high-resolution releases were in short supply. Kallman did promise that Warner's commitment to high-resolution will be "active and aggressive," and the formal announcement will take place at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2012. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, hoping that all of the major and indie record labels get serious about releasing better-sounding music next year. We'll see.

What about Apple? Will it ever get on board and sell high-resolution iTunes? I don't see that happening in the near future; the initiative will have to come directly from the labels.