A Blu Level
Beyoncé and John Legend have gone blue. So have Andrea Bocelli, Led Zeppelin, Dave Matthews, Roy Orbison, the Pretenders, Rush, and even Mozart.
These artists aren't adding another color to their musical palettes. Rather, they are among the growing number of artists whose music has been released via the high-definition Blu-ray Disc format, either as music videos, live concerts or audio-only. In the process, they are helping give high-definition, audiophile sound another shot at traction in a seemingly download-dominated industry.
Blu-ray became heir to home video king DVD two years ago when DVD sales declined 9 percent and Blu-ray spending went up threefold. Music producers also quickly noticed Blu-ray's possibilities as a music format. The most basic iteration of the format holds 25 GB of information — nearly three times that of a DVD-9 disc and light years more than the mere 700 MBs of the compact disc. Blu-ray intrinsically supports the leading audio lossless formats Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio codecs, and it has a screaming-fast 54 Mbps maximum data transfer rate.
But perhaps best of all, Blu-ray comes with a large and rapidly expanding user base — something previous high-resolution audio formats such as SACD and DVD-Audio didn't enjoy. According to Consumer Electronics Association data, Blu-ray is expected to capture nearly 30 percent of the video player market share and register $18.5 billion in sales in 2010.
Audio professionals seem convinced of Blu-ray's staying power. Robert Margouleff, who won a GRAMMY Award in 1973 for his pioneering synthesizer and engineering work on Stevie Wonder's classic Innervisions album and has been an ardent advocate of multichannel, high-resolution music for decades, calls Blu-ray "the new standard for high-def audio." He says the format's support of 7.1 sound — which adds two sidewall speakers to the left-center-right front array and two rear surround speakers found in most home theater systems — will make music an even more immersive experience. "When sound is panned from front to rear, there's a gap in between these sets of speakers," Margouleff explains. "Blu-ray's 7.1 configuration solves that."
Specialty labels are taking up the cause. Norway-based classical label 2L issues high-resolution 5.1 surround music recordings they call their Pure Audio Blu-ray series — one of which, Flute Mystery, was nominated in the Best Surround Sound Album category at the 52nd Annual GRAMMY Awards.
"The musical advantage of Blu-ray is the high-resolution audio, and the convenience for the [listener is that] one player will handle music, films, DVDs, and traditional CDs," says Morten Lindberg, surround producer and CEO of 2L.
The company uses the esoteric Digital eXtreme Definition recording format, and "extreme" aptly describes the 352.8 kHz sampling rate that DXD uses, more than three times the sampling rate of the 96 kHz sampling rate of typical high-resolution recordings. The recordings are then down-converted to 192 kHz for transfer to Blu-ray. Thanks to the massive amount of digital real estate on Blu-ray, 2L's recordings also hold a 96 kHz stereo (2.0) version of the content.
Two-time GRAMMY Award winner Bill Schnee, who has engineered and mixed artists including Steely Dan, Chicago and Natalie Cole, is in discussions with a leading independent record label to launch a Blu-ray-based imprint in the United States. Schnee believes Blu-ray's potential is significant thanks to the growing base of multichannel home theater sound systems that create a pathway for multichannel music into consumers' homes.
"The kind of resolution and immersion you can achieve on Blu-ray lets the listener get a very real sense of what the artists intended you to hear," says Schnee, who with GRAMMY-winning mastering engineer Doug Sax created the standard-setting Direct-to-Disc LP recordings for Sheffield Lab Records nearly four decades ago. "This is a whole other level where music can go."
One area where music and Blu-ray have been already intersecting with success is live concert releases. While the RIAA's 2009 statistics did not break out how much Blu-ray accounted for out of the $219 million that music video generated in 2008, distributors say it's only growing.
"We've been shooting and recording in HD for several years, and Blu-ray represents the perfect format for music fans to experience live concert recordings," says Pierre Lamoureux, co-owner and director/producer at FoGo Labs in Montreal, which has managed Blu-ray productions for Rush and the Pretenders, among others.
Still, the need for high-definition video content and 5.1 audio limits the number of titles appropriate for Blu-ray, as does demographics. Mike Carden, president of North American operations for Eagle Rock Entertainment, the largest independent distributor of music video, says the titles that do best in the format are high-profile "classic" artists such as Jeff Beck, Queen and ZZ Top. But he also expects that all music video will migrate to Blu-ray eventually, both because of the visual and sonic fidelity and because Blu-ray's capacity allows fans to obtain content they wouldn't receive via downloads. "You can download 5.1 sound and high-definition video but it takes a long time," he says. "With Blu-ray, you have it all and there's plenty of room for bonus content," citing the entire second concert that Eagle Rock includes with the Blu-ray disc of Jeff Beck's Performing This Week...Live At Ronnie Scott's.
Can music on Blu-ray compete in a 99-cent download world? HD music proponents are trying and they seem to think Blu-ray could be a viable format. Acknowledging that listeners today want portability, 2L's Pure Audio technology offers their mShuttle feature, which allows users a Profile 2.0 Blu-ray player capable of Internet connectivity and the capability to transfer tracks via a wireless network to a PC for conversion to MP3, CD-quality or FLAC files.
Schnee believes that the demand for higher-quality sound is there, it just needs to be brought out. "To make this work, we don't need to reinvent the wheel, just rediscover it."
(Dan Daley is a freelance journalist covering the entertainment business industry. He lives in New York and Nashville.)