5.1 Entertainment President and CEO John Trickett, Producer Bob Michaels and Audio Engineer Gary Lux joined SMR Group reporters for a chat about their vision and business model. "Our company goal is to bring surround sound right to the consumer," declared Trickett, and currently follows several parallel paths to achieve that end.
5.1 Entertainment is actually an umbrella for multiple divisions. As a multichannel audio production company resource for other content producers, 5.1 Production Services has engineered multichannel popular music releases (such as the DVD-Audio release of Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours') and film soundtracks (including 'Moulin Rouge').
5.1 Entertainment also records and distributes its own multichannel music content through its two subsidiary labels, Silverline and Immergent Records. "We started out focusing on the technology but we realized early on we would inevitably move into producing original content," said Lux. In September, 2000, 5.1 Entertainment released the first commercially available title in the new DVD-Audio format, 'Swingin' for the Fences' by the Big Phat Band. With 52 multichannel titles in current release, the company plans to add 120 more within a yearall in the DVD-Audio format.
Lux was an early convert to the music-enhancing possibilities of surround. "Although I mixed movies for years, I'm a music person, first and foremost," he said, adding his firm belief that a little subtlety goes a long way. "With music, you don't need a big, splashy effect to draw the listener inthe immersion is immediate."
Lux also pointed out that surround offers the listener more insight into the music itself. "Harmonies and counterpoints that would be muddled or subordinate in a two-channel mix can become truly co-equal with lead instruments, just by virtue of their placement."
In his engineering philosophy, Lux said he tries to emphasize the experience, not the format. "With our strategies for microphone placement and surround mixing, we always try to match to the medium. If it's a concert, we try for the 'best seat in the house' approach. If it's for music only, I try for a more 'immersive' experience."
He also admitted he enjoys pushing the envelope with respect to the capabilities of home playback systems. "I'm not a defensive mixer. Rear speakers are not just for effects any more--we use them for full range discrete."
"We are about complete immersion," Michaels agreed, "But we still have no etiquette for this format. Wherever we can, we try to assist the consumer through this transition--for example, we include a self-contained speaker setup on each of our discs& It's a lot like when music went to stereopeople had to get used to it."
5.1 Entertainment's commitment to the DVD-Audio format is based on pragmatic rather than technical considerations. "From a production standpoint we're platform agnostic," said Michaels, "but our label is DVD-Audio." Trickett pointed out that a DVD-Audio disc's backward compatibility with standard DVD-Video players (via the inclusion of Dolby Digital or DTS 5.1 mixes) means that "DVD-A titles have an existing market of 30 million players, compared to the minimal number of SACD players. A consumer can hear the multichannel experience right now, and get the higher-resolution quality if and when they choose to implement DVD-Audio capability in their system."
In addition, Trickett pointed out, "SACD doesn't support the visual assets" a distinction that is not without controversy, since the DVD-Audio requirement for playback with a video display currently precludes playback in audio-only systems. Nevertheless, Lux maintained his belief that "Consumers have come to expect that added value."
When it comes to marketing philosophy, 5.1 Entertainment is firmly on the side of the DVD-Audio approach, which has targeted broad appeal rather than the initial pitch to high-end audiophiles favored by Sony for SACD. "Surround is not an audiophile format," Lux declared emphatically. "It's a mass market."
Lux's beliefs about consumer priorities were supported in a later Conference session in which analyst Joe Bates presented the results of an eBrain Market Research study commissioned by the Consumer Electronics Association. Using a combination of nationwide 1999 and 2001 telephone surveys (with 1,000 respondents each), as well as comparison testing with small focus groups, the study reported the following findings.
Focus Group comparisons between standard CD and 2-channel High Resolution didn't produce much enthusiasm for high resolution, whereas in comparisons between 2-channel and 5.1 multichannel, the differences were dramatic. 71% of respondents preferred the multichannel, compared to a 22% preference for 2-channel (8% were undecided). Interestingly, comparisons between standard 5.1 digital surround vs. 5.1 high resolution failed to yield dramatic perceived differences. Although limited focus group sizes and use of mid-fi equipment (a Denon receiver and Atlantic Technology speakers) may have been contributing factors, the study results suggest that multichannel sound, rather than sound quality, will be the biggest inducement to lure consumers to the new formats.
In the survey data, overall interest in new music formats with improved sound quality broke down with 40% Interested, 39% Not Interested, and 21% Neutral. Although interest in purchasing a DVD-Audio player was split roughly along the same lines (44% Interested; 40% Not Interested; 16% Neutral), when the requirement was added to purchase a new surround receiver in addition to a DVD-Audio player, the Not Interested percentage climbed to 59%, with only 28% Interested and 13% Undecided.
Clearly, the folks at 5.1 Entertainment and other surround content producers have their work cut out for them in convincing the mass market to embrace the new formats.