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A sound that just might quiet the fury

With many artists critical of digital music, T Bone Burnett says he can greatly improve sound quality.

August 30, 2008|David Greenwald | Special to The Times

Artists including Neil Young and Bob Dylan have made no secret of their distaste for digital sound. But Grammy-winning producer T Bone Burnett believes he's found a way to affordably give listeners an experience akin to hearing studio master tapes.

Since last fall, Burnett, the mastermind behind such roots-oriented releases as the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, has been working with a team of engineers on a high-fidelity audio system called Code.

He's invested his own money -- he won't say how much -- to develop the new technology and has recruited industry veterans, including John Mellencamp and , to his cause.

"We've come up with a solution to produce, manufacture and distribute music which is vastly superior to the format we've been using for the last 20 years," Burnett said.

Unlike previous high-definition formats, such as Super-Audio CDs or HDCDs, a Code disc doesn't require any special equipment -- just a DVD player or a DVD-ROM drive -- and the discs also include iPod-ready digital downloads in a variety of file sizes and formats.

Code made its debut on Mellencamp's critically acclaimed "Life Death Love and Freedom" in July. The album came packaged with both a regular CD and a Code-carrying DVD disc at no extra cost. Costello's next album, due from Hear Music in 2009, will be released the same way.

Previous formats "originated from record companies, and record companies have alienated customers and the artists," Burnett said. "This is completely an artist-driven initiative. Our aim is to democratize high-fidelity."

It doesn't take an audiophile to notice that recorded sound has lost some of its analog luster in the Digital Age, and Burnett blames increasingly lax industry standards. Not only are many CDs produced from second- and third-generation copies rather than original master recordings, but that problem is exacerbated by the "loudness war," a common production practice that sacrifices dynamic range to allow for higher volume levels. The result is music that sounds flat and thin.

"We were sending records out to the pressing plants and the record companies, and they were coming back sounding nothing like what we had sent them," Burnett said.

In terms of digital media, MP3s and the iTunes store's AAC files work by compression, shrinking sound files to a manageable size -- typically a few megabytes -- but sonic data are lost in the process. Songs encoded at 128 kilobits per second, the default setting in iTunes, are typically muddy and distorted compared with CD audio.

"That was the trade-off that was put into place at a time when storage was much [less] capacious than it is now," said Jim Willcox, an associate editor at Consumer Reports. "There's a generation who doesn't aspire to better because they haven't been exposed to it."

Although smaller, lower quality files are more economical, they may no longer be necessary given increasing Internet bandwidth and cheaper, larger hard drives and players that can accommodate high-resolution audio files like Code.

"I think pretty much anybody can hear the difference," Mellencamp said. "It's just so much more open. The high end is not so annoying and scratchy."

Mellencamp said utilizing Code is no more expensive than any other recording method. "It should be the standard," he said. "If a guy is interested in his record sounding like [it] did in the studio where they made it, they should be interested in doing this."

But a number of high-definition formats have come and gone, and the jury is out on whether a generation already inured to low-fidelity files will care enough to make the switch -- and whether older demographics will be able to adapt to the new technology.

"I've had people call me up who I know and say the CD doesn't work, and I have to say, 'Do you have the DVD in the CD player?' " Mellencamp said. "I don't know how we could make it any easier."

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