Surround sound was supposed to deliver an incomparable experience. It was supposed to get more people excited about music. It was supposed to bring new life to cherished classic recordings. And it was supposed to counteract the trend toward illegal downloads.
None of that happened. DVD-Audio, one of the two formats created to deliver music in surround sound, is all but dead. SACD, the other format, survives primarily as a stereo medium. But Bob Belden—one of jazz’s most accomplished arrangers and composers, and former head of A&R for Blue Note Records—thinks it deserves a second chance. Indeed, he feels it’s an essential technology for moving jazz into the future. “Everybody’s stuck making 20th-century recordings,” Belden comments during a phone interview from his Manhattan apartment. “Many of the jazz recordings made today sound essentially the same: piano left, sax right, everything else in the middle. You’re painting over a gray house with gray paint.
“If you listen to live music, you’re hearing surround sound,” he continues. “If you’re in a concert hall, you’re hearing surround sound. If the police are chasing you, the sirens coming from behind you are in surround sound.”
The promoters of DVD-Audio and SACD made similar statements when they rolled their technologies out in the early ’00s. Belden feels the product they were selling in those days didn’t live up to its promise. And as a Grammy-winning arranger/composer, the guiding light behind 2008’s critically acclaimed Miles From India, and producer of numerous surround-sound releases, the man knows of what he speaks. “Some of the people pushing SACD and DVD-Audio were selling stereo records remixed for surround,” he says. “Surround as a unique environment was never discussed.” According to Belden, the labels sometimes focused on getting big back-catalog titles out rather than doing the best possible surround mixes: “In 1999, when I was working with Sony on SACD, Darcy Proper mixed and I produced a 5.1 version of Miles’ In a Silent Way. But they sat on it and instead had us do a fake surround mix of Kind of Blue [which was originally recorded on three tracks].”
Belden’s passion for surround sound began years ago, ignited by a chance occurrence in an unlikely location: a hotel in Atlantic City. “As I wandered into Bally’s, I decided to try to find the sweet spot in the casino where the counterpoint of the sounds from the various slot machines would merge,” he recalls. “I found a little dome in the middle of the casino. My sensitivities were elevated—I’ll put it that way. Over two hours, as the intensity of the gambling increased, more slot machines were being used and I heard this looping, Philip Glass effect—this incredible psychoacoustic symphony. Yet I could pick out each source of sound. Eventually a security guy came to see what I was doing. I made him listen and he was blown away. That’s when I realized I should compose in surround.”
A NEW VISION FOR SOUND
Asked for examples of surround-sound practitioners who truly exploit the technology’s potential, Belden cited bassist/producer Bill Laswell and his engineer Robert Musso, keyboardist/producer Scott Kinsey, film composer/trumpeter Mark Isham and engineer/producers Robert Friedrich and Michael Bishop at Telarc. He also praised the work of Richard King, who mixed Belden’s Black Dahlia SACD in 5.0 surround sound.
Belden feels that the approach most producers take to surround sound is fatally flawed. “Right now, surround sound is for the most part in the hands of the engineers, but it’s really a composer’s tool,” he says. “It’s another color you can choose, like muting a trumpet or adding reverb. You can pinpoint sound in a wider field than stereo as well as bring focus to certain instruments if you want.
“Another advantage is that you can automate the pan movements to correlate to any effects you add to the mix. You can even make the drums move around the room, or have them join in the middle then ‘poof’ out. With some compositions—especially those that are purely digital—I’m not concerned with creating realistic ambience. I want the sonic presentation to be like a movie, a sound painting.”
Throughout our discussion, Belden continually suggested the idea of making jazz recordings more cinematic and less like re-creations of a jazz club or concert hall presentation. “A few years ago there was a massive blizzard in New York City, and I went out and filmed it,” he says. “I got this incredible whiteout image, and I wrote music to fit it. By experimenting with the surround mix, I got an effect as if you were looking out a window, with all the sound coming from in front of you, then expanded it so it wrapped around you as it would if you went outside.”
A trio of surround-sound demo DVDs Belden sent me provided further examples. The mixes were far more aggressive-and more compelling-than most of the other music surround mixes I’ve heard. Belden isn’t afraid to have a solo trumpet wandering around the room, to isolate an entire band in the left channel then suddenly blow it out into all channels, or to mix all the instruments into a “stew” in the middle of the room. Few engineers doing surround-sound music mixes would be so bold.
There’s just one problem: The installed base of SACD or DVD-Audio players is fairly small. So even if Belden can persuade other jazz musicians—and their record labels—to produce music in surround sound, how can they distribute it to fans?
Belden isn’t daunted by this issue. “They should eliminate disc-based formats and distribute surround-sound mixes over the Internet,” he suggests. “It’s not like kids are going to steal this stuff.” After downloading, the surround-sound mixes can be heard through a computer equipped with a 5.1-channel soundcard, or they can be burned onto a DVD and played through a home theater system. A few companies, such as ambient/new age label Jhana Music Group, are already experimenting with this type of distribution. “There’s no doubt it can work,” Belden says. “You just have to integrate the right hardware with the right software.”
Whether or not any record label would want to take (another) chance on surround sound remains a big question. “First of all, there are not that many record companies you can shop your wares to,” Belden explains, “so I have not tried my luck. It would be a sales pitch that has no sale. I can do it myself, though, synthetically. I prefer to record these things with real musicians, but, of course, I have to pay them.”
Even jazz musicians themselves are often resistant to the idea of surround sound, Belden says. “Nobody wants to experiment,” he laments, “until they hear it. Suddenly the eyes open up and they start asking questions and in the end it comes down to the simple question of ‘Who will buy this?’ Then the curiosity ends for them.
“But, you know, there was a time when they all bitched about the Fender Rhodes,” he adds. “Now they complain because they can’t find one anymore.”
KEEPING SOUND SIMPLE
Many surround-sound aficionados (this correspondent included) savor the thrill of giant speakers, subwoofers and audio technologies that let them go beyond 5.1 channels to 7.1 or even 11.1. But Belden doesn’t consider conspicuously expensive gear essential for a compelling surround-sound experience. “You could fund a record label for what some audiophiles spend on their equipment,” he muses. For a while he didn’t even have a surround-sound system. “Before I got my five speakers, I used to burn mixes onto discs then run down to the Bang & Olufsen store and play the discs on their $80,000 system,” he says.
Belden’s surround-sound rig is a hybrid of a pro monitoring system and a home theater. Its core components include five Genelec 8030A powered monitor speakers, a Harman Kardon AVR384 audio/video receiver, an Apple Macintosh and various M-Audio recording interface devices. Why no subwoofer? “I don’t need one,” he says. “I live in a building made in 1900, with 3-foot-thick walls. There’s no issue with bass there.” Many music aficionados are spending more time listening to portable products like iPods and less time listening to music on their home systems. But Belden dismisses the whole portable trend, at least for serious listening. “People who watch Avatar on an iPhone are morons,” he opines. “You can’t sell anything with real intellectual value to those people.” He does use Apple’s iTunes software to store his music, though, and has added third-party software that allows him to store and play surround-sound music files through iTunes. Right now, a 2-terabyte external drive and dual backup drives store his collection of 111,000 tunes.
A setup like Belden’s isn’t exactly living-room-friendly, but he scoffs at the notion that people resist surround sound because they don’t want extra speakers. “Speakers are not an issue—it’s just a matter of design,” he says. “Where are you going to put the speakers? Well, where are you going to put anything?”
Even with his storied reputation, impressive discography and more than 50 surround-sound compositions under his belt, Belden feels he has a long way to go to convince his fellow jazz musicians (for a second time, in some cases) that surround sound is the way to go. “Right now, I feel like I’m in another world,” he concludes, “but with something creative that lets me look forward and not have my personal future defined by other people’s work, or by jazz history.” Originally Published