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Wednesday, September 26, 2001
Universal Backs SACD

In a surprise move, Universal Music Group (UMG) has thrown its support behind Super Audio CD (SACD), the high-resolution format championed by Sony and Philips.

The Aug. 25 announcement that UMG plans to issue on SACD new releases and catalog titles is a set-back to proponents of the competing DVD-Audio format, whose main major label backer to date has been the Warner Music Group. UMG has been known to be preparing DVD-Audio titles for over a year, and reportedly the delays to market had been relating to concerns over the robustness of the copy protection guarding the content of the disc and intense negotiations over royalties.

UMG did not provide a timetable or specifics of which titles it will release on SACD. Nor did it did state that its support for SACD had any bearing on its DVD-Audio support. A source with knowledge of what's going on behind-the-scenes said: "We really want to see SACD happen here as soon as possible. Corporate will not allow this to turn into another DVD-A 'forever-on-hold' scenario."

The universe for SACD is expected to grow as the result of new, relatively inexpensive DVD-Video/SACD combination players. In a statement, UMG International chairman and CEO Jorgen Larsen cited "the increasing penetration of Super Audio CD players in the marketplace...By making titles available on Super Audio CD, UMG intends to help drive the growth of this high-quality, secure music format, with its many benefits for consumers and recording artists. The objective is to make Super Audio CD a standard for the industry." Larry Kenswil, president of UMG eLabs, added: "UMG looks forward to providing consumers with a compelling musical experience. Super Audio CD provides extraordinary resolution and sound quality, which truly brings the music 'to life.'"

A major label R&D executive, who declined to be identified, pointed out to Medialine "an announcement is a long way from a release-there's still a ton of high-level logistics to be worked out before production issues are even addressed. There are evidently some execs who just want to 'dip their toe in the water,' and some who want to go full bore into new releases...and they're still arguing over whether or not to use a Red Book layer, how to handle surround, etc."

As to UMG's intentions regarding DVD-Audio, the source believes the company, as of mid-August, was still pursuing it as a release format. The remaining issues in the DVD-Audio negotiations are not limited to copy protection, he said, but involve the seemingly endless variety of corporations who own pieces of the underlying technologies, how those technologies are to be used, and who gets what piece of the licensing pie.

David Glasser, a premastering engineer who has been involved with about 60 SACD projects at the Boulder, CO facility Airshow Mastering, commented to Medialine that it appeared Universal "had dropped the ball on DVD-Audio." As of Sept. 14 Glasser hadn't heard of any new orders from UMG, but he wouldn't be surprised "if they bring in a whole lot more SACD work." He noted that UMG recently installed a Sony DSD Sonoma system, which is used to produce SACD masters, "so they'll be able to do productions in-house." Other independent facilities like Airshow are also equipped to author SACD. On the other hand, Glasser said he thinks there might be "a bottleneck in pressing." The only U.S. facility to press SACD is Sony, and it only manufactures the single layer "high-density" version, not the so-called hybrid discs that also contain a Red Book CD layer.

In May, Sony Digital Audio Disc Corp. (DADC) Austria AG announced that it has started manufacturing SACD discs at its European headquarters at Anif near Salzburg, complementing Sony's existing SACD production in Japan and North America. Production started on May 1, 2001 with an initial capacity of 500,000 discs per month.

In addition, Sonopress launched last year an SACD hybrid disc production line in its G?tersloh, Germany plant.

Following the successful release of Mike Oldfield's classic album Tubular Bells on multichannel SACD (premastered by Glasser) in November of last year, Virgin Records announced in late May that it has begun actively planning its next SACD releases, including the Human League's Dare, Tangerine Dream's Rubycon and Roxy Music's The Best Of.... "We're in the process of pulling tapes and evaluating what we've got in the vaults," said Paul Bromby, Virgin Records UK commercial sales manager and head of catalog marketing.

There are currently an additional six Virgin titles lined up for SACD release in 2001.

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