1613 words as of 8 october 2002

Minnetonka

DISKWELDER STEEL REVIEW

DVD-A Authoring Software

ã 2002 Eddie Ciletti

Authoring a DVD-A has never been more accessible than Minnetonka’s Discwelder STEEL ($495 MSRP, reviewed here) or CHROME ($2495 MSRP). Both are as easy to use as your favorite CD burning software. Simply drag and drop any combination of Stereo or Surround files into their respective folders, the name of which is automatically integrated into an on-screen menu.

NOTE: DVD-A is an audio-specific format that supports multi-channel audio resolutions from stereo to surround, up to 192kHz / 24-bit. Check out the Sidebar: CHOMPING THE BITS for some basic info and a rant. Visit www.discwelder.com for white papers, tips and links.

CHE SAPORE GELATO?

Whatever is not addressed in this review can likely be answered by saying, "STEEL is the plain vanilla authoring tool and CHROME is tutti frutti!" The primary purpose of STEEL is to make hi-res stereo and multi-channel audio discs that are playable on consumer equipment. It is also possible (though not tested for this review) to create a Master DVD-A disc from STEEL for replication purposes.

STEEL accepts PCM .wav and .aiff files. There are no imaging options except for the title page and its default background. CHROME has more Aesthetic and Technical finesse, including the ability to import Meridian Loss-less Packing (MLP) encoded files. I think both tools will go a long way toward making DVD-A a convenient and respectable archiving format. FYI, Minnetonka Audio Software — www.minnetonkaaudio.com — is also the source for stand alone Dolby AC-3 and DTS software encoders.

A LITTLE TRAVELLING MUSIC

My journey began by installing a Pioneer A-04 DVD burner (about $400 street and as recommended by Minnetonka) and the STEEL software to a Dual Celeron PC running Windows 2000. Easy! Discwelder STEEL opens quickly, ready to do business. A Jazz Trio recording I made last summer was chosen as the source material. The session was recorded Multitrack to proTools, mixed on the fly via Yamaha DM-2000 to a pair of tracks on a Fostex DV-40 at 88.2kHz / 24-bit. An Audio Technica Stereo Shotgun mic (in MS mode) was placed at the 2nd floor balcony and connected to the DV-40’s analog inputs (3 and 4) via Great River MP-2X transformer-less preamp for the rear channels.

File transfer from DV-40 to my aged PII-450 workstation was via ethernet. Cool Edit Pro (V2) opened and slowly extracted four ".wav" files from a single 1.2GB embedded file that contained three songs, five-minutes each. The raw 88.2kHz tracks were labeled and saved but playback was not an option because the converters attached to Mixtreme (the soundcard) do not support sample rates above 48kHz. (See "Wish List.") Initially, copies of the files were down-converted to 44.1kHz. The "balcony" tracks were decoded from M/S to stereo using a TC Reverb plug-in (for Soundscape) to add a 10mS pre-delay and reverb.

So excited was I to burn a DVD-A that the manual was never opened. After the first test was successful, I then created a disc with two versions of the three songs in hi-res 88.2kHz stereo and the 4-channel versions at 44.1kHz. In addition, I also transferred a DTRS Test Tape created for 5.1 system calibration. Burn on!

HUNK OF BURNING LOVE

DVD Burning is not real time let alone faster than same. It’s a good excuse to take a break and make a Latte, as I often do. On playback the JVC XV-SA70 had no problem with the hi-res tracks — that is, no dropouts or stuttering — although there were problems with the 4-channel 44.1-khz mixes that seemed to be player issues. On closer listen, I noticed a little "zing" in the top end on all tracks that turned out to be the JVC’s converters. I confirmed this by playing two copies of a CD, one through the DVD player and the other through a Technics CD player feeding a reference converter (an early version of Crane Song’s HEDD). The difference was Day and Night, which proves that the ability to translate a high-resolution file does not simultaneously imply a high standard of reproduction. The XV-SA70 lists for $435.

WISH LIST

STEEL is easier to navigate than a DVD Player, whatever code magic was required to make that happen is transparent to the user and much appreciated. My wish list is simple and yet relies on hardware outside of the realm of Minnetonka’s responsibility. Keep in mind that these programs were just released in Fall’02 and so some catch up is naturally required.

My first request is for a standalone DVD-A software player to confirm that the disc is playable and functional via video Menu. This requires a sound card that supports sample rates up to 192kHz. Such hardware is already available at www.lynxstudio.com and www.egosys.net. Creative Labs Audigy-2 card and software that includes a soft DVD-A player should be available by the time this review appears. The second wish is for error rate reporting to confirm the media is not half-baked. (STEEL will verify the data after burning if this option is selected.) Minnetonka tells me that the next generation of DVD burners should allow them to hook into that area of the DVD playback hardware.

HEAT SHRINK

Suffice to say I couldn’t be happier with STEEL as it now allows me to create playable archives of high-resolution recordings. And while the DVD-A format requires a compatible player, the prices are reasonable and the functionality of the new hardware is quite sexy. The JVC player, for example, can play Region-2 (PAL) discs as NTSC video.

My first experience with DVD and surround was in 1998. The mixes were disappointing enough that I was inspired to set up a system and take a whack at it. This led to an industrial mix for Price Waterhouse Coopers and a visit to an authoring facility. When asked what it might cost to burn a few rough mixes to DVD, their response was a mere $15k obstacle in my path to sonic nirvana, using Dolby AC-3 (a lossy compression algorithm). A lot has happened since then. Minnetonka’s Discwelder STEEL allows you to burn a no compromise DVD-A with no compression, on Media that is less than one-tenth the cost is was four years ago. Yippee! No I gotta get all my friends hip to DVD-A.

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SIDEBAR: Chomping The Bits

The obstacles to DVD-A authoring are learning curve related, not for the software — Discwelder STEEL is as intuitive as it gets — but knowing what the format and the players will and won’t do. The limitations of all DVD formats are related to the speed at which players can transfer and translate the data from the disc, the maximum rate being 9.6Mbits / sec. At 96kHz / 24-bits, Stereo audio has a bit rate of 4.6Mbits / sec — four channels would push the limits to 9.2Mbits / sec, 11.52Mbits / sec for five-channel surround. Combinations of high-resolution and / or -channel count can exceed the speed limit, hence the use of Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP).

The term "DVD" implies all of the things we have come to associate with the format, especially moving images and 5.1 surround. The primary difference between DVD-V and DVD-A is the emphasis shift from video to audio quality. While video must always be compressed on a DVD-V, a stereo 192kHz recording is just .4Mbits below the 9.6Mbits / sec limit, uncompressed on a DVD-A. Think of DVD-A as a next generation CD. As such, DVD-A players will exist as hardware for the home and the car (where imaging is unnecessary) as well as "soft players" most recently supported by Creative Labs Audigy-2 hardware and software. Within five years a CD only player will be rare, backward compatibility being built into all DVD players.

DVD RANT

Most important to audio professional are the two high-resolution audio options — DVD-A and SACD. Like Betamax and VHS videotape, these two formats are battling in the consumer arena for recognition as well as acceptance. It is not fair to pit the two against each other, since both offer more resolution and more channels than the original Compact Disc. The issue for consumers is compatibility.

Since the introduction of the DVD, playback hardware has been rendered obsolete several times over. Manufacturers would be wise to create products with the flexibility to accommodate all formats current and future. Both Manufacturers and content providers must both agree to accept the notion of the "universal player" ASAP, otherwise all of the work we do will be for naught. The last thing content providers want is for consumers to inadvertently purchase a disc that is not compatible with their player. Stereo records created the very same issues back in the late fifties all the way through the sixties. Who can afford the hassle of returns?

Most professionals already have high-bit depth and multi-channel capability but keeping up with the high sample rate race is not quite as easy. Obsolescence affects everyone. On the bright side, digital converters from Wolfson Microelectronics ( www.wolfsonmicro.com ) are compatible with all formats — DSD / SACD / 2.8224MHz to PCM formats from 16- to 24-bits up to the 192kHz sample rate.

COMPATIBILITY

The "other" compatibility issue concerns the combined effect recordable media can have in burners and players. Consider just DVD-R and DVD-RW. First the media must be compatible with the burner. Even so, the same two discs may not both be compatible on the same player. It has to do with the spectra of the record and playback lasers as well as the media itself, in the same way the BIAS is applied to, and is different for, different types of analog tape. For a thorough report on media, players and burners visit

www.dv.com (digital video magazine, by Ralph LaBarge) and www.vpsia.com (Video Production Services of Iowa).