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Audio

Is surround sound the future, or another Betamax?

More albums are being mixed for 5.1 home theater systems, but some producers say consumers won't bite.

SAUSALITO, Calif.--In a tiny private recording studio on the shore of San Francisco Bay, Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison is systematically giving his old band's work new sonic life.

Newly digitized versions of the band's recordings glow on a pair of computer monitors--a guitar track here; vocals, bass drum and keyboard there. He and a pair of engineers are recreating the original records as closely as possible, and then remixing the albums into surround sound, commonly known as 5.1, designed for a six-speaker home theater setup.

An engineer puts on their new mix of "The Great Curve." Drums beat subtly but insistently from behind the listener, while David Byrne's voice sings directly in front. A guitar solo whips suddenly between the rear corners--all acoustic effects that Harrison says can help revitalize the listening experience.

News.context

What's new:
More albums are increasingly being mixed for 5.1 home theater systems, but some producers say consumers won't bite.

Bottom line:
Backers of this new kind of sound experience hope that it could help drive demand for higher-quality recordings, boosting sales the same way that the switch from vinyl records to CDs did in the 1980s.

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"When I play this for people, I see them getting the same kind of joy they got out of buying a record in the late '60s and '70s," Harrison said. "To me, music seems kind of a commodity today. It's lost a sense of happening at a time and a place."

Harrison's new mix may be an audiophile's project, but it's aimed at equipment that is increasingly a part of ordinary home audio and video systems. Some in the record business hope that this new kind of sound experience could help drive demand for higher-quality recordings, boosting sales the same way that the switch from vinyl records to CDs did in the 1980s.

Record labels have been trying to sell high-definition recordings--the audio equivalent of HDTV (high-definition television)--for several years, but with little success. The market has been hampered by the presence of two incompatible formats: Sony's Super Audio CD (SACD), and DVD audio (DVD-A). Analysts say the conflict has kept many consumers wary of upgrading, fearful of picking a soon-obsolete technology.

"To me, music seems kind of a commodity today. It's lost a sense of happening at a time and a place."
--Jerry Harrison, keyboardist, Talking Heads

Industry sales figures from Nielsen SoundScan show that the top-selling DVD-A album, "The Best of Seal 1991-2004," sold fewer than 500 copies last week. By contrast, it takes at least 6,000 copies a week to make the lowest rung of Billboard Magazine's top 200 list.

"One of the reasons that album sales were supposed to have declined over the past few years was that consumers think music costs too much," said Geoff Mayfield, a senior analyst at Billboard. "I'm not sure that introducing formats that cost even more is necessarily going to help."

However, a saving grace may have come in the new form of DualDiscs, a new format with a traditional CD recording on one side and a DVD on the other. All four major record labels have agreed to release albums in this format, with video and some version of enhanced audio--in many cases 5.1 surround sound--on the DVD side.

Does quality matter?
It's hard to argue that the music-buying masses are demanding higher-quality sound. The last half-decade has seen an explosion in compressed digital music formats like MP3 and in the songs distributed though stores like Apple Computer's iTunes. Most of these are of audibly lower quality than the CD versions.

Indeed, music sales have always been marked by a tug-of-war between higher quality sound and consumer compromises. Even as audiophiles bemoaned the replacement of the vinyl format by CDs in the 1980s, analysts noted that many in the mass market had been purchasing their music on relatively low-quality cassettes anyway.

The steady move toward surround sound has been an important, but rarely decisive part of this upgrade path. The first commercial two-channel stereo record was released in 1958, and stereo had almost wholly replaced the older mono recordings by the early 1960s.

But when a variety of quadraphonic, or four-speaker, sound systems emerged in the 1970s, few consumers bit. Even with the release of a few high-profile records--think "Quadrophenia" by The Who--the technology never caught on, and vanished by the 1980s.

Tricky mixing in 5.1
The latest round of surround sound is based on the home theater 5.1 configuration: three front speakers, two back speakers and a subwoofer.

An album mixed for this can put a listener right in the middle of an illusory "sound stage," with different sounds coming from all around. The problem is that it's even harder than with stereo to find the perfect place to listen.

Perceiving proper stereo sound requires a listener to be in a small area relatively equidistant from the two speakers. A 5.1 setup creates an even smaller "sweet spot" relative to five speakers (the placement of the subwoofer matters less)--barely larger than the size of a human head, in the case of Harrison's own finely tuned mixing studio.

Some audio engineers dismiss the technology for this reason. The average consumer doesn't have the acoustical knowledge to set up a perfect 5.1 system and will typically listen to music in the background in a way that undermines even stereo perception, much less surround sound, they note.

"I have to look at it from a consumer's perspective," said Tony Espinoza, the founder of the San Francisco Soundworks studio. "I don't think that listening to music usually coincides with sitting with a bucket of popcorn in the perfect location."

Others, like longtime Neil Young producer Elliot Mazer, are big fans. Mazer recently helped remix Young's Harvest album in 5.1 surround sound, and helped The Who's Pete Townshend set up a 5.1-equipped personal studio to work on that band's albums.

"I don't think that listening to music usually coincides with sitting with a bucket of popcorn in the perfect location."
--Tony Espinoza, founder, San Francisco Soundworks

"The effect is the same as stereo, but it's a bigger, more exciting way to listen to an album," Mazer said.

Backers point to cars as helping to drive the future of the medium, because the speakers can be set up by professionals, and listeners are rarely moving around. Acura, a division of American Honda Motor, already sells two models with 5.1 speakers, while hi-fi companies are increasingly installing such systems in cars.

"That capability gets people juiced, and they've got to have something to play on those systems," said Silverline Records President Jeff Dean, whose label, a division of the 5.1 Entertainment Group, focuses primarily on surround sound releases. "I think it's rapidly on the road to mass appeal and mass market."

As for Harrison, he said he'd like to continue working this way even when he finishes the Talking Heads catalog later this year.

"We've learned a lot about it, and gotten very good at it," Harrison said. "There are a lot of other people's records I'd love to do this way."