Although I recently exchanged e-mails with Dr. Mark Waldrep, founder and director of AIX Media Group, AIX Records, and iTrax.com, I was already well aware of his thoughts about high-definition, surround-sound recordings. His postings at Real HD-Audio and his long essays on the AIX Records site reveal a clear vision of what he thinks can be achieved with high-definition sound, and how it can advance recorded sound.
“I’m unabashedly a fan of surround sound,” Waldrep wrote in a recent posting on Real HD-Audio. His enthusiasm is so complete that he bought his 2004 Acura TL “because it has a DVD-Audio head unit in it and a reasonably good set of speakers . . . 5.1 of them.” Waldrep is working on a book, High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback, that will state his philosophy of recording and explain how listeners can get the best sound from their systems.
Waldrep’s long commitment to good sound grew out of his background as a musician and recording engineer. “I’m fortunate to have had both musical and technical training . . . the left and right halves of my brain work pretty well together,” he told me in an e-mail. “I completed my university education with degrees in music (including an M.F.A., Ph.D.), computer science (M.S.), and 3D dimensional art (B.A.).”
Waldrep grew up in a suburb of Detroit. His dad was a pilot and his mom a homemaker, and while the family wasn’t musical, hi-fi was part of their home. “My dad had a monophonic hi-fi setup in the late ’50s that I used to enjoy,” he wrote when I asked for some biographical information. “The family got a stereo system for Christmas in 1964 and the start of my quest for great sound began.”
Like many kids in the ’60s, Waldrep took up the guitar and played in bands, but even at a young age he showed an affinity for the technical aspects of music-making. “I had an interest in electronics throughout junior and high school because my dad was a ham radio operator and built his own equipment. I built lots of kits during that time, including a receiver, test equipment, a guitar amplifier, and even an electric guitar!”
Waldrep went to college for two years before moving to California to pursue a career in music. He continued to study guitar, and took courses in audio engineering. “That was my first peek inside a professional studio. I knew right away what I wanted to do professionally.” He returned to college, and while accumulating his impressive list of academic credentials he continued to sharpen his skills in the recording studio. “I worked as a freelance audio engineer recording bands and recitals. Upon graduation, I was hired by a local 16-track audio studio [Mama Jo’s, in North Hollywood] and became a second engineer for a year.”
During his stint at Mama Jo’s, Waldrep worked with engineers Billy Taylor and Joe Bellamy. Waldrep gives full credit to them and to other teachers who helped him along the way. “I was especially fortunate to be a close friend and mentee of Mike Denecke (aka ‘Father Time’), a great soundman, electrical engineer, and inventor of the time-code slate, amongst other sound gadgets. In fact, I purchased my first studio from him, which included a 3M-56 16-track 2” multitrack machine, a Yamaha PM 1000, a great patch bay, and a bunch of outboard gear. I did production sound with Mike on a series of films and commercials and learned a lot.”
The things Waldrep learned led to very broad experiences in music. “I’ve done remote recordings of voodoo music in Haiti, recorded the sounds of the rainforest in Costa Rica, and classical orchestras in various cities around the world, including Bucharest, Romania.” His credits over the years as producer, remastering engineer, and digital editor include releases by artists as diverse as Leon Russell, jazz guitarists Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and numerous classical artists.
After years of recording and listening, Waldrep feels confident about his ability to create and recognize good recordings. “I know what a live performance sounds like without amplification, and I’ve been to clubs/venues of all sizes, too. My experience with audio recordings produced over the past 50 years is pretty good as well. I know the sound of vinyl LPs, analog tape, CD, MP3s, and HD-Audio as a producer and a consumer.
“When it was time to start my own label and create my own particular sound, I chose to use a hybrid approach,” he continued. “I wanted to combine engineering and production techniques that I appreciated in the work of others. I loved the intimacy, clarity, and detail of Windham Hill CDs. Michael Hedges and Will Ackerman pioneered very close miking, so that became a component of the AIX sound . . . although I did it with ORTF stereo pairs rather than mono mikes.”
In 1989, Waldrep started Pacific Coast Sound Works, with the purchase of Sound Tools and a Sonic Solutions CD Premastering System. “Because I could read music and had extensive experience with contemporary music, I edited and mastered hundreds of classical projects as well as commercial releases.” Pacific Coast Sound Works led to AIX Entertainment and ultimately to the AIX Media Group, which includes AIX Studios, AIX Records, and iTrax, all based in California.
I wanted to hear Waldrep’s recordings through the best possible equipment, so I visited my friend Rad Bennett, who is also the SoundStage! Network Entertainment Editor. Rad has a nice setup: Oppo universal player, Outlaw five-channel amplifier, and MartinLogan speakers. We listened to and watched several AIX DVD and Blu-ray Discs, beginning with an early release, Nitty Gritty Surround, by John McEuen and Jimmy Ibbotson (AIX 80008). The disc is an AIX DVD-AV Premium, with an audio-only program on one side and a video presentation of the program on the other. The sound is in lossless, full 24-bit/96kHz resolution in both the surround and two-channel options.
Waldrep doesn’t just listen as a musician, he sees as one. He knows where to place cameras and how to edit video. The viewer sees musicians playing as a group, but the camera will also capture a key moment, such as a fill by a mandolin player or a solo by a guitarist or pianist. You can also choose to see an alternate shot as you view. For this DVD, the musicians were gathered in a circle onstage. The view alternates between long shots in which you can see the group working together and close-ups of individual players.
On AIX releases you can choose among a 5.1-channel stage mix, a 5.1 audience mix, or a two-channel mix, all in high resolution. Listening to the stage mix is like sitting among the musicians. The instruments surround you; for example, the sound of a mandolin or guitar might come from over your right shoulder. The audience mix is closer to the experience of sitting in a good seat at a concert hall -- the rear speakers convey the ambience of the recording space, with some sounds reflected off the walls. The two-channel option sounds like 24/96 PCM.
The stage mix on Nitty Gritty Surround sounds natural, not at all like a gimmick. I wondered briefly if that was because I was also seeing the musicians, arranged in a circle. But as I concentrated on the sound alone, the mix didn’t distract; instead it gave me a natural sense of sitting amid the players. The audience mix was also enjoyable, and so subtle that it was only when we switched to two-channel that I realized how much fuller and better the audience mix was.
Rad and I viewed the Blu-ray of Albert Lee’s Tearing It Up (AIX 85054; also available on DVD, AIX 83054), in which the musicians are arrayed in a semicircle -- the stage mix is somewhat less aggressive than on Nitty Gritty Surround, although the perspective is still close and onstage. The experience is immersive and exciting, and the audience mix is always an option for those who want to hear something that’s an improvement on two-channel but closer to their usual listening experience.
Ernest Ranglin’s Order of Distinction (BD, AIX 85047; DVD, AIX 83047) and John Gorka’s The Gypsy Life (BD, AIX 85053; DVD, AIX 83053) also presents the musicians in a semicircle, and, as with the Albert Lee disc, the music pulled me in. I was never thrown by anything that seemed unreal or forced in any of the mixes, and with all three discs, it was a pleasure to watch great musicians up close. I enjoyed the stage mixes on all the discs I watched, and believe I would almost always choose that option when viewing or listening to an AIX DVD or BD.
The accuracy of Waldrep’s recordings is immediately apparent: Guitars have more roundness of tone and ring out more realistically than in most recordings I’ve heard, even other surround recordings. I can pick out each string in a chord as it sustains. Pianos are three-dimensional, drums sound more as they do live, and bass is full but not overpowering. Vocal textures are more apparent. The tones of electric-guitar amps are so clean and defined that guitar players can pick out which amp a guitarist is using.
I think Waldrep’s greatest asset is that he clearly has great affection for musicians, and lets them play with little interference. One of my favorites of the titles Rad and I watched and listened to was Brand New Opry’s Here and There. The musicians include some of the players from Nitty Gritty Surround, such as guitarist Jonathan McEuen and fiddler Phil Salazar, in a program that includes everything from traditional country with Jimmy Adams to sophisticated pop with Julie Christensen. Each player gets to show his or her versatility and skill, and despite the variety of styles represented, the tunes flow together seamlessly. Record labels rarely give musicians the kind of freedom Waldrep does, let alone record them so well.
So strong is Waldrep’s commitment to hi-def sound as the future of recorded music that he’s spoken out against the occasional misleading or inaccurate marketing of HD. “I think we do a huge disservice to the emerging world of high-definition audio when everything ever recorded qualifies as HD and is sold as such,” he told me. “Great recordings have been made and delivered on lacquer, vinyl, tape, polycarbonate, and using ones and zeros. But they are not all equivalent to each other.
“There is the concept of provenance, or the steps that a particular recording has gone through during its production,” he continued. “I associated the term with music some years ago, and am a strong advocate for all digital download sites to adopt a policy that identifies not only the specs of the final delivery container (say, 96 or 192kHz/24-bit), but also lets consumer know that a particular track was recorded on analog tape or originated as a standard-definition 44.1kHz/16-bit PCM recording. Having that information will inform potential customers and let them know what to expect.”
Waldrep’s own recordings, along with hi-rez recordings on other labels, are available for download at iTrax at the full resolutions in which they were created. As the site’s help page notes, “Only tracks that have actually been recorded and delivered in HD, rather than tracks that have been upsampled or transferred from older ‘standard definition’ sources [as most so-called HD music offerings are], will be available through iTrax.”
I asked Waldrep if he might convince people who are used to MP3s to be interested in better, higher-definition music. “The continuing improvement in the network speeds, codecs, and artist demands (think Neil Young) will eventually trump the compromises of today. It’s coming,” he answered. “To convince someone that it’s worth moving from MP3 to HD-Audio is as simple as playing a real HD-Audio file for them of the music they enjoy. With the demise of physical discs, personalized music delivery is becoming the new model for music listening.
“Music is not about delivery technologies or formats any more than it is about the kind of microphone that the engineer used during the original session. If you feel your body moving in time with the rhythm of a track, or you can’t sleep because some memorable hook is locked into your head, or if your brain gets revved up because of the majesty of a piece of music, then everything is right.”
. . . Joseph Taylor