summary: Lowbudget Records will no longer offer surround-sound DVDs.
Our DVDs will be in 24-bit high-resolution stereo and our Blu Ray discs will be in 24-bit high-resolution surround.
Details follow.

I've been a stickler for surround-sound since I bought my first piece of serious audio equipment - the Marantz Model 1040 Integrated Amplifier, which I purchased sometime around 1979. It had two sets of speaker outputs labeled "A" and "B". You could either have two sets of speakers in two different rooms, or you could put the "B" speakers behind you, switch the speakers to "ambience" in the rear of the unit, and hear psuedo-surround music (the "B" speakers would be out-of-phase to each other and the sound would "spread out" around you). It wasn't really discrete surround-sound, but it was an engrossing experience.

The "B" speakers are labeled "REMOTE / AMBIENCE".
There's a switch in the rear that lets you choose between the two.
"AMBIENCE" puts the two "B" speakers out-of-phase.

Right about at the same time, Dolby Labs, which had been successful with their universally-used noise-reduction system for cassette tapes, began developing schemes for encoding surround-sound audio into theaterical films and, by extension, the nascent home video market. Dolby Pro Logic, their first attempt, was a 2-channel phasing trick similar to the Marantz amplifier.

A few years later, Dolby came out with Dolby Digital AC3, which was touted as a breakthrough because it was a digital signal that had 6 channels of discrete audio encoded in it, a huge leap forward.

The Dolby Digital AC3 encoding is actually poor in hindsight. It results in an anemic signal that always seems too quiet. It also only has the audio quality of a run-of-the-mill MP3. Unfortunately, most DVD and BluRay consumer authoring programs are only licensed for Dolby Digital, so if you're making your own discs, you're stuck with Dolby.

Soon DTS came out with their own system for encoding surround sound audio, and it sounded really full and punchy. I bought the software for around $150 back in the early 2000s. I found that the resulting files could be used in DVD Studio Pro. Since most DVD and Blu Ray players can play back DTS discs, all of our DVDs have incorporated DTS surround sound instead of Dolby Digital, since sound quality is the most important thing for us.

So imagine my horror when the DTS encoding software recently stopped working on my old iMac running OS 10.6. I have no idea why it happened; the iMac hasn't been connected to the internet in years and I've never updated any of its software. I tried everything on three different computers running 10.6, but could not get the error message to go away. The software company that created the application is long gone, and no one supports it today.

Keep in mind that these two surround formats (Dolby Digital and DTS) have been replaced in cinemas by Dolby Atmos and DTS True HD (or something like that) - both being extremely high-end audiophile encoding systems. However, they're not available to us mere mortals - at least from what I can locate on the web. It takes a well-heeled corporation to license these products.

So what can we do to continue providing our videos with high-quality sound? Well, standard DVDs can play back 24-bit stereo PCM files - the same masters that we create in the studio. Our DVD's stereo soundtracks have used these high-quality stereo files for years now. And standard Blu Ray discs can play back 24-bit surround PCM files - again the same masters that we create in the studio. They sound glorious.

So, from here on in, our DVDs will be stereo-only utilizing high-quality 24-bit 48kHz PCM masters. Our Blu Rays will be surround-only, again using high-quality 24-bit 48kHz PCM masters. If you play the surround Blu Rays on a stereo-only system, your system will automatically send the rear speaker information to the front speakers, so you don't have to wonder if you're missing anything. We're also taking a big leap here and guessing that if you have a surround-system in your home theater, your disc player can probably play blu rays. If not, and you're stuck with DVDs, we unfortunately no longer have the option of authoring surround-sound DVDs. I tried using Dolby Digital on our new "Red Woods" ambient video DVD. The piece contains the most beautiful surround-sound recording of birds in the outdoors that I've ever heard in my life. Dolby Digital made these beautiful birds of paradise sound like angry cyborg gnats from Mars on a three-day bender. I never want to hear an AC3 file again, if at all possible.

For those of you who have servers playing back your music, we're also offering all of our releases in downloadable surround-sound FLACs. They sound wonderful.

So from here on in, our Blu Rays will be in surround and our DVDs will be in stereo. Our downloadable videos will be in surround (!), which we recently figured out how to pull off. Check out our free videos of the Ambient pieces we've been releasing - they're in surround!

- Tim Casey
Grand Wazoo and Chief PooBah,
Lowbudget Records


get in touch