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February 2003

Multichannel Music and the Artist: Aaron Neville Interviewed

The conversations that take place that define the future of the music business, and more specifically multichannel high-resolution music, typically revolve around financial viability, marketing prowess, product positioning, and the like. Your friends would have thought you a nerd in high school had they heard you ramble on about these subjects. OK, maybe you were a nerd, but now you’re considered an intelligent, progressive, music-loving audiophile interested in the business that shapes your hobby. And being a consumer -- and we all are, to varying degrees -- you’re in a perfect position to help define the industry that you support with your disposable income. People should listen to folks like you and me; we know why we buy, why we don’t buy, and what we would do to convince ourselves to buy.

Yet any discussion that bats back and forth between the buyers and the sellers is leaving out one very important ingredient of the equation: the makers. The artists really are the folks who should be discussing all this business. I can give you several good reasons why, but the main one is simple: Their creativity is what we’re buying in the first place. It’s their creative vision that eventually stamps itself on the discs that we spin. Therefore, getting the artists themselves onboard with the new formats, and multichannel music in general, is imperative if the end result is to be representative of their vision.

It doesn’t take vast technical knowledge to convince someone of the benefits of multichannel music. Recording engineers work with the artists to create a shared vision, and that hopefully becomes the end result we buy in the music stores. Since the recording engineers are the ones who have to demonstrate their technical capabilities, it’s important that they be willing to share this new recording technology with the people who will actually be recorded. From this union, good multichannel recordings can be spawned.

Below is a conversation I recently had with four-time Grammy-winner Aaron Neville on his embracing DVD-Audio and the multichannel experience.

Jeff Fritz: What was your first experience with multichannel music and the DVD-Audio format?

Aaron Neville: My first experience was with Devotion. Mark Mazzetti had worked with me on To Make Me Who I Am. He was at 5.1 Entertainment Group and brought the idea to me.

JF: Why did you choose to release your work on DVD-Audio?

AN: It’s the new sound for the times: 360-degree sound. Once I heard the presentation for Devotion, I was hooked.

JF: I thought Devotion was groundbreaking in many ways because it successfully transferred your vocal-rich style into a multichannel experience. What challenges did you face when mixing it for the DVD-Audio release?

AN: Gary Lux, Mark Mazzetti, and Ken Ramos are the people responsible for the mixing. I sat in with these guys a couple of times, but they are the experts. I leave it up to them.

JF: Which tracks on Devotion did you think transferred best to multichannel audio?

AN: The whole album. It’s a complete experience.

JF: When making Believe, did you consciously think about how it would sound in multichannel, or was that aspect addressed once the two-channel tracks were completed?

AN: I just try to make the (overall) recording sound good. The mixing is really left to the 5.1 Entertainment Group guys, who did both the stereo and 5.1 mixes.

JF: When you listen to both the CD version of Believe and the multichannel DVD-Audio version, how do you think they differ in communicating your musical message?

AN: Both were mixed by 5.1 Entertainment Group. So they both do great jobs of communicating the message.

JF: I can’t wait to hear your rendition of "Ave Maria." I know the multichannel experience of that one will be one to remember. What are your favorite tracks on Believe, and why?

AN: "I Believe," because of its message; "If I Had Hammer," which is this universal message of unity; and "What A Friend We Have In Jesus."

JF: You’ve tackled multichannel audio before many of your counterparts. How do you see the music industry changing to accommodate this new format?

AN: A lot of people have DVD players. I think when more people hear DVD-Audio it will catch on. It’s a great experience and a lot of people already own the technology to play the format.

JF: Do you have a multichannel audio setup in your home? What type of playback system do you listen to?

AN: I have a 5.1 system from the people at 5.1 Entertainment Group.

OK, let’s not mince words: 5.1 Entertainment Group has a vested interest in the future of multichannel music. They sell it via their consortium of record labels (Electromatrix, Silverline, and Immergent). So I’m not going to wax on about their devotion to the art of music. Although I’m sure these folks love music just like we do. What they have done -- and it needs to be done more often -- is taken a technology and demonstrated it for, in this case, Aaron Neville, the guy who matters the most when recording his music. Their first release out of the chute with Mr. Neville, Devotion, was outstanding.

I’m guessing that Neville's latest release, Believe (released in January, 2003), will be excellent as well. The production crew has grown more accustomed to the format; they’ve no doubt listened to some of the feedback garnered from their work on Devotion, and Mr. Neville himself has no doubt been vocal about what he feels his message needs to be. I have high expectations for that release. There’s a learning curve at work here, and I think we’re nearing the time when we’re going to see the real fruits of those early releases.

Here’s the kicker: If the artists don’t think multichannel music works for their material, then we should just close up shop here at "Surrounded" and move on. After all, it’s their music that’s being (re)produced.

But I don’t think that will happen. Call me optimistic, but I think musicians will embrace high-resolution multichannel music -- not because of the technical superiority, but because it gives them another outlet for their creative talent. And that’s exactly what I want to hear. How ‘bout you?

Spinning in surround

I often get asked what I’m listening to at the moment, and these days, with the advent of the universal audio/video player, it’s increasingly about what music I’m listening to. The very latest release to get extended playing time in my living room is Faith Hill’s DVD-A, Cry [Warner Brothers DVD-Audio 48001-9]. This disc has some unique features, especially considering it is a mainstream release. Of course the requisite 5.1 DVD-A track is present along with the Dolby Digital track. What’s surprising is what’s on it for all you died-in-the-wool two-channels guys: a dedicated 96kHz/24-bit stereo track. And if you like seeing Faith Hill sing -- and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t -- a video of her hit title track is included too. I don’t know about you guys, but that sounds like something worth owning.

Here we are in February of 2003 and I’m still listening to new multichannel music. Although it hasn’t taken the world by storm the way DVD-Video has, there’s still progress being made in the SACD and DVD-A camps. Sure, I’ve been critical at times, and I’m sure this will continue. We audiophiles are hard to please, after all. But with artists such as Aaron Neville and Faith Hill releasing good multichannel music, I think there are some bright spots on the horizon.

...Jeff Fritz


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