July 23, 2008

Code Word: Success

Musician, songwriter and producer T-Bone Burnett along with a team of engineers have come up with what they call "a proprietary audio technology." Called (Greek for "Code"), it is said to create "high-definition audio that is virtually indistinguishable from the original master tapes, but does not require any new or special equipment to play it." Any standard DVD player, whether standalone or built into a computer, can play Code-recorded discs. "Additionally, the DVD contains files that can be copied into most computer music software, including iTunes, and downloaded into personal music player, such as the iPod" as WAV files. Oh, and for all of you who don’t give a whit about high-resolution audio, any /Code-encoded disc will have MP3 and ACC 256 files too, though if you use those you probably aren’t going to be reading this article on SoundStage! Plus, /Code contains no DRM (digital rights management)!

But is this really a new playback technology? Not really. Basically it’s nothing more than 24-bit/96kHz stereo Linear PCM -- a format that’s been around for nigh on 25 years. But where Burnett adds a big twist is that he records uncompressed. In today's world of lossy, processed digitization, downsampling, and overly compressed music, this recalls the way music was recorded for decades, and why so many older recordings are revered by audiophiles.

The initial /Code recording is John Mellencamp’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom [Hear Music HRM-30822-00]. Both Burnett and Mellencamp are delighted with the results: "We are very happy that people are going to be able to experience this album in a way that’s true to our original intent." Life, Death, Love and Freedom also comes with a plain-Jane CD for playing in the car or a CD-only player. Musically, this album sounds like the work of a man who’s no longer the wild-eyed, optimistic rocker of his younger days. Mellencamp has mellowed mightily over the years -- much in the same manner that Bruce Springsteen has. The songs here reflect a more mature understanding of the events that make up the life most people lead, not some idealized version of it.

Sonically, the CD sounds like any pop album produced today but with better dynamics. But the /Code-encoded DVD is another matter entirely. The sound is richer and fuller, with a roundness to the instruments and vocals that is far more convincing than we’re used to hearing from a major-artist release. Yes, the sound is dark, but so are the songs themselves. While this isn't the most dynamic of albums on the macro level, the differences between soft and loud in the micro department are easy to hear. The sonic differences between the /Code DVD and the CD are not subtle. "Night and day" about covers it.

The real success here is that because this has Burnett’s backing and input, other recording engineers and producers may begin to take notice and start using the system, thereby giving all music lovers (and not just audiophiles) much better sound both at home and on the road. Life, Death, Love and Freedom reminds us of the beauty of uncompressed digital audio, and it's a way of telling the major labels that even in the days of MP3 many of us think that sound quality really does matter.

...JohnCrossett
johnc@soundstage.com

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