The first time I was exposed to AIX records was courtesy of the Oppo DBP-83 Blu-ray player. The Oppo included the AIX Sampler Blu-Ray Disc, which contained a sampling of high resolution audio. You could play the hi-res audio in multichannel or two channel as well as play test tones to calibrate your system. While the included samples were not my every day listening, there was something intangible, addictive about that disc.
As time went on, I began to come across AIX’s founder, Dr. Mark Waldrep in a number of different places. From his daily blog to his stints on the Home Theater Geeks Podcast and everything in-between, I quickly became a fan of Mark’s work and his strong advocacy of hi-res music. I’ve frequently quoted or referenced Mark’s work at AIX and his perspectives in a variety of contexts.
A few months ago, I reached out to Mark and asked him if he’d be willing to sit down for an interview to talk about his work at AIX, his passion for hi-res audio and his new Kickstarter venture that he was launching.If you’re not familiar with Dr. Mark Waldrep, then all you need to know is that his academic background and degrees read like a scroll. Mark has four different musical degrees, a Master of Science where he developed a CAI application for the study of memory intensive subjects and its extensibility through the use of audio recording and playback and a PhD. Throw in some 4.0 GPAs and summa cum laude recognitions and you start to get a picture about Mark.
Mark’s academics are only part of the picture. I asked Mark to elaborate on his background in recording, mastering, and producing. “I came to California in 1975 as a musician,” he said. “I took engineering classes at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College under Brian Ingoldsby and later at his Sound Master Recording School. I took a class at CSUN with Dale Manquen (the designer of the 3M 56 multitrack machine) in 1978, which led to my first job as a second engineer at Mama Jo’s in North Hollywood. I was also in charge of recording at CSUN’s Music Department and ran an independent recording service for students. In 1989, I purchase one of the first Sound Tools digital audio workstations and a Sonic Solutions DAW for pre-mastering CDs. I founded Pacific Coast Sound Works in 1989 and AIX Records 11 years later. PCSW was a mastering and recording company. AIX Records is my label for high-resolution audio recordings.”
During Mark’s career, he’s had the pleasure or working with a number of well known artists. “I’ve worked with Willie Nelson, Tool, The Rolling Stones, Albert Lee, Ernest Ranglin, Britney Spears, Paul Williams, Jennifer Warnes, The Back Street Boys, Kiss, Widespread Panic, 311,” Mark says matter of factly, “and dozens of other artists on audio, DVD, and Blu-ray titles.”
As with so many music-lovers, Mark’s passion for music in the professional world was influenced early on in his life. “Music and audio have dominated my life ever since I was a young boy,” Mark said. “When I was 6 years old, I refused to leave Mrs. Gurie’s kindergarten classroom for recess because I was transfixed by the tunes and sound of Burl Ives’ voice and guitar coming from a small monaural record player. I begged my parents to buy that album for me. They did and more than 55 years later I still have it.”
Such musical experiences are often formative. Growing up, Mark was also influenced by one of the most iconic bands and enduring bands of the 20th Century, The Beatles. “When Beatle mania swept across the country, I was one of thousands that took up the guitar, joined a band,” said Mark. “Appropriately we called ourselves The Paupers…and sought fame and fortune as a rock star.”
Needless to say, Mark’s aspirations didn’t pan out exactly as he had planned. “My future didn’t put me in front of a microphone.” Mark said, “I found my place on the other side of the studio glass…I turned my love and knowledge of music and audio recording into a career.”
But music wasn’t the only think in the realm of Mark’s experience. There was also a techie side to Mark that was influenced by his father. “My father was a HAM radio operator.” Mark related. “After watching him nibble openings in shiny aluminum boxes, mount vacuum tubes and other components inside them when he built his own transceiver, I was hooked. Every dollar I earned from my paper route or loops carrying golf clubs around the Pine Lake Country Club course went to another HeathKit project. I built my first audio receiver, a couple of bright red electric guitars, an amplifier and a bunch of test equipment. To this day, the only kind of smoke I can tolerate comes from the tip of a soldering iron.”
Mark’s love of music and his inquisitiveness are essential traits that he readily admits. “I’m also an education junkie. For two years, I studied architecture at the University of Michigan before dropping out and heading west to California. I followed my heart to see if music and audio could support me. Thankfully, with a lot of hard work and a fair amount of luck, they have.”
That journey led Mark to the found the AIX Media Group in 1989 and start the eponymous record label in 2000 Starting the AIX record label coincided with the advancement of certain technological advancements—specifically, high resolution, multichannel audio formats—that forever shaped his views and the direction of his companies. As Mark readily pointed out, “The arrival of the high-resolution audio formats in 2000 (SACD and DVD-Audio) made me think about making new recordings with high-resolution equipment. The major labels and artists were reissuing 5.1 surround mixes of old albums but they weren’t high-resolution because they were recorded on analog tape. I needed to make new recordings that exceeded the fidelity of CDs.”
Mark wasted no time in in leveraging the new formats. “My production company AIX Media Group was responsible for the first DVD-Video titles released in the United States back in March of 1997 and the first DVD-Audio title three years later. In the subsequent few years, AIX grew to over 50 employees churning out DVDs for the likes of New Line Cinema, CBS, Morgan Creek, and a whole bunch of record companies. We did projects for The Rolling Stones, Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, Kiss, Tool, The Allman Brothers, and hundreds of others.”
Both the advent and Mark’s adoption of those new formats had another, unintended consequence for Mark. As he put it, “The arrival of the new high-res formats got me interested in using the new technology to produce better sounding records.” All it took for Mark, to make a commitment to hi-res music was to take a simple listen. The differences were that stark. “All you have to do is compare a typical commercial recording, which has been traditionally recorded and mastered, with a non-compromise, native 96 kHz/24-bit PCM recording in 5.1 surround and there’s no going back,” Mark said. What Mark can’t understand is why the industry as a whole hasn’t understood that same thing. “We have the technology now to enhance the fidelity of music. We should be doing it, but most releases sound terrible.”
Once Mark was hooked on the benefits of hi-res music and the ability to deliver it with new hi-res audio formats, came e Mark’s increasing investment in high resolution equipment. For Mark, he began to envision an uninterrupted hi-res chain from recording to mastering. “It wasn’t until the launch of the DVD-Audio format in 2000 that I decided to invest in producing new high-resolution recordings. Fifteen years later, the AIX Records catalog is one of the largest collections of native high-resolution music on the planet…albums that were actually recorded using high-res equipment.”
Mark’s investments in producing hi-res audio quickly bore him critical acclaim. In fact, it’s one of the things Mark told me he’s most proud of. “We won a great deal of recognition from reviewers and customers as having some of the best sounding recordings. Numerous awards have come our way over the years: Demmy 2002 from the CEA, Surround Music Awards and more. I’ve been encouraged by the awards, positive reviews, and continued sales of our catalog of DVD-Audio/Video discs, Blu-rays, and high-res music downloads. Andrew Quint, one of the senior editors of The Absolute Sound Magazine, wrote, ‘…the multichannel audio, emanating from five B&W 801 loudspeakers, is quite simply the most realistic and involving instance of recorded sound I can recall, from any source format’. I’m proud that we’ve been about to raise the bar for audio fidelity.”
Because Mark envisioned hi-res audio as an end to end chain, he adopted a workflow to the traditional recording and mastering process that he felt would convey all the benefits of hi-res music. “I record every [performance] at the same time in a large, acoustically rich auditorium.” Mark noted. “No overdubs, no artificial reverb, no equalization, and no compression or dynamics processing. Not mastering either. I use a lot of stereo microphones and have everyone listen without headphones. I use 96 kHz/24-bit PCM audio and mix in stereo and surround.”
As Mark produced recording after recording in full fidelity, he also became a sobered, evangelistic voice for hi-res music. Based from his experience, I asked Mark how he defined hi-res music. “Real high-res music must have been recorded using high-resolution capable equipment. That rules out any analog recordings and any albums made using less than 24-bits (the first one appeared in 1996). It means that the fidelity is equal or exceeds that of the human ear…we can do that for the first time now.”
For those familiar with the current state of audio, it’s evident that Mark’s definition and the way that the industry has chosen to define hi-res music aren’t the same. In fact, Mark disagrees with the way that some companies have positioned hi-res music to the point where it’s confused the consumer. “High-resolution music has become a marketing term,” Mark lamented. “It’s lost it’s meaning thanks to various people and organizations that want every recording ever made to be under the hi-res music umbrella. The only recordings that qualify are those that were recorded at the time the musicians were present with high-resolution audio equipment…meaning 96 kHz/24-bit PCM. Just like you can’t take an 8mm film from the 1950s and telecine it to UHD video, you can’t elevate an old analog tape or lacquer disc to high-res audio status. The source or original fidelity stays the same when you place the original and place it in a larger “hi-res” bit bucket.”
I asked Mark point blank about what he thought the music industry was doing right and wrong or need to be better at as far as Hi-Res music goes. Mark was straightforward in his response. “They need to be accurate and honest about what is and what isn’t high-resolution audio/music instead of shoveling marketing spin at us. They are doing nothing right yet. They’re marketing guides and logos only confuse the issue and alienate potential customers.”
I appreciated Mark’s outspoken position. That then begged the question about how well he thought the industry was doing with Hi-Res Audio (quality of equipment to playback)? Could average music lover can get affordable gear to get the benefits of Hi-Res music? “There are two sides to the Hi-Res Audio/Music initiative,” Mark responded. “The Sony derived Hi-Res Audio logo refers to hardware and they’ve done a pretty good job establishing requirements to earn the logo (96 kHz/24-bits). The Hi-Res Music side of the coin is dead in the water. The people and labels behind this myth are painting everything with the high-res music logo with a watered down definition and false marketing. The masses don’t need and can’t get high-res music.”
If that’s the case, I then asked Mark what he thinks is the best way to introduce music lovers to hi-res music. “The only way that consumers and even audiophiles can be convinced that ‘hi-res’ music has merit is to actually play hi-res music in a hi-res capable system. This is very hard to do…and it certainly can’t be done with ripped CDs or older analog tapes converted at 192 kHz/24-bits.”
I asked Mark how he defined a hi-res audio-capable system. “You need gear that can exceed the fidelity of a compact disc,” he said. For Mark, the entire chain, not just a single component needs to have a capability of 130 dB and more of dynamic range (DACs, amps, and speakers) and frequency response to 48 kHz (because they is musical sound up there). Sadly, Mark points out, “Most home gear and certainly portable gear can’t get there.”
To test out Mark’s conjecture that to hear the hi-res difference you need an equally capable system, Mark teamed up with Scott Wilkinson from AVS Forum to conduct an informal experiment and see if members of the AVS community could tell the difference between high res and CD-quality files. I asked Mark how the idea came about and if he was happy with the results. “We thought it would be interesting to try a very unscientific test with real high-resolution content,” Mark said, “It showed that people equipped with the right gear could tell the difference. I was pleased with the results.”
Because getting the most out of high resolution requires a serious investment, I then asked Mark if hi-res music was for everyone. “Are McLaren P2 cars for everyone?” he asked “No. High-resolution audio tracks are rare and the equipment needed to play them back expensive (and forget about portable “hi-res” players there is no way they can deliver the level of fidelity necessary). This is for the truly dedicated. The masses are already happy with CDs and MP3s.”
Mark has taken his evangelistic message to the blogosphere. In April 2013, Mark started his hi-res blog. “I’ve been blogging every day for over 1100 days,” he says. But what inspired him to take his message online and in this format? “Honestly, I was inspired by Paul McGown from PS Audio…and by the numerous sites out there that seem to be buying into the myth of high-resolution and the nonsense audiophile tweaks that sell for ridiculous amounts of money. It seemed to me that audiophiles would benefit from hearing from a professional audio engineer, a record producer, musician, and university professor. Readership has grown from 40 to over 4000 every day.”
All of this finally inspired Mark to launch his own Kickstarter campaign to take his hi-res evangelism to the next level. I asked Mark if he could elaborate a bit on the project and why he felt now was the time to undertake such a project. “With all of the misinformation out on the web, it seemed to me an appropriate time to write a book and produce a Blu-ray disc that would properly inform and demonstrate the latest in high-end audio. I noticed that others had also raised some funding, so I thought I would create a campaign and see how it goes.”
It didn’t take long at all to see. Mark’s Kickstarter campaign went live on Monday, September 21, 2015 at 8 am and in just a matter of days Mark met his initial goal of $25,000 and shortly thereafter, the first stretch goal of $50,000 was reached. You can check out Mark’s Kickstarter campaign at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1856656547/music-and-audio-a-user-guide-to-better-sound. There is a pre-launch landing page at http://musicandaudioguide.com/ where you can get a lot of information and watch the pitch video.
Even though Mark reached his initial goals, I asked him why someone should consider supporting his project. “People should support the Kickstarter campaign if they want a resource written and produced by a professional audio engineer and record producer—not a reviewer or journalist,” he said. “I’ll be providing information gathered from a lifetime in the business and 15 years as a strong advocate for high-resolution audio/music. It’s a great value with a comprehensive Blu-ray (demo tracks, comparisons, and complete test tones) and 300-400 page book full of information, interviews, illustrations, and discussions about the latest trends. I write about what I know. And I have no allegiances to any consumer electronics companies, cable manufacturers, or accessory vendors that might skew an objective reporting on their products.”
Closing out our time together, I asked Mark—quite bluntly—if he thought hi-res music could succeed. “No,” he said in a forlorn manner, “There is too much money and opportunity in play to make it real. The artists, engineers, producers, and labels don’t feel it’s important so why should any one else.”
No matter what the future holds for Mark and AIX, one thing’s for sure, the path he’s pioneered with hi-res audio is one we’re all indebted to.
First of all, I want to thank you for the most memorable musical experience that I have ever heard at the recent Axpona show. To enjoy and appreciate your superb recordings, in the proper room, with extraordinary speakers and components, (which can do them justice) was beyond my expectations. If you aren’t mentioned as the best or one of the best sound rooms at the show then there is something wrong with the major audio publications.
I know you met so many people at the show that it would be impossible to remember everyone but I was the two channel tube diehard who could never envision myself with a multichannel system before going to your demonstration. Well…..hearing is believing!!! Nothing in my 50+ years in audio reproduction has impacted me the way your recordings did. For the first time ever, I felt like I was in the CENTER of the performance. Perhaps this is what a performer experiences!
In summary, I just wanted to express my appreciation for all the time, talent and energy that you put into your recordings. You have the rare ability to truly bring us into the recording venue and let us feel the music.
With grateful thanks,