Technology Spotlight: Microsoft Windows Media Audio 9

May 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Tom Kenny

Multichannel Codec Options for Pro Production, Mass Distribution


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Two years ago at NAB, Microsoft had a relatively small booth tucked into the very last row of the newly opened South Hall, sharing space with Steinberg, M-Audio and a couple of video companies. There wasn't a lot of foot traffic, but there was considerable buzz throughout the convention center about a Microsoft codec that would deliver high-resolution 5.1 audio, code-named “Corona.”

Last year, Microsoft moved up in the South Hall and filled out a much larger booth, again with partner companies, and considerably more traffic. Corona was re-christened Windows Media 9 Series, and broadcasters and audio types alike filtered through to figure out how this technology might fit into their operations.

This year, Microsoft has quite simply leaped into the forefront of technology development for new-media production and distribution.

It should come as no surprise that Microsoft would enter the professional video and audio industries. The company has always focused its technologies high and low, from enterprise solutions in the server rooms of Fortune 500 companies to the giveaway players found on millions of desktops worldwide. In our world, this means providing the means for producing and encoding high-resolution audio and video content, along with mass distribution on physical media or over the Internet.

Most consumers and professionals at this point are familiar with the download and streaming capabilities of the cross-platform Windows Media Player. Far fewer, however, are familiar with the range of capabilities inherent in the Windows Media 9 Series of codecs. And it is here, in our tiny industry, that Microsoft is making its push.

Actually, the company began its push in video a couple of years ago, concentrating on digital cinema, digital dailies and high-def video production. At the recent Sundance Film Festival, five films were projected in the Windows Media Video format. And film studios, recognizing the surge in LCD and plasma displays for home theater, have piggy-backed WMV HD discs, which can deliver up to six times the resolution of conventional MPEG-2-encoded DVDs, onto more than 16 dual-disc DVD titles (including Terminator 2 and Standing in the Shadows of Motown).

Despite the hype surrounding the brave new world of digital delivery, Microsoft still sees value in physical media. The DVD Forum recently named VC-9, the underlying video compression technology used in the WMV-9 codec, as a mandatory format on the next-generation HD-DVD devices. And at the 2003 IBC show, Microsoft made its video compression technology available as an open international standard. Last month at NAB, the company announced that SMPTE has elevated VC-9 to Committee Draft status.

“We've found that the benefits Windows Media 9 Series brings to pro video can be even greater than for pro audio, simply because with HD video production, the demands on the PC are so much higher than they are with stereo or multichannel audio production,” says Steve Sklepowich, director of pro marketing, digital media division, at Microsoft. “Clients can review HD-quality video with 5.1 audio using WMA9 Pro without having to purchase a $75k HD tape deck. Then, producers have the ability to deliver high-def secure dailies, whether over a network or via physical media, and expand their reach to DVD, Web, digital signage or digital projection. Video post-production houses and broadcasters spend millions of dollars today shuttling VHS tapes around for client review. Windows Media 9 Series can bring immediate and significant cost savings to the production process.”

Cost savings, speed, efficient workflow — these are the mantras in today's production chain, whether for video or audio. Files are shared on networks, shuttled to FTP sites and reviewed in New York for drive-time delivery in L.A. FedEx is no longer fast enough. Clients don't have time to leave the office and approve the mix. And a producer is working on three projects simultaneously. This is where Microsoft sees opportunity. And as audio follows video, the same rules apply.

The Windows Media 9 Series audio codecs run the range of encoding options, from WMA9 Voice for playback at 20 Kilobits per second to WMA9 Lossless for archival purposes, approaching 3:1 compression. Most audio professionals would likely be working with WMA Pro, which provides 5.1 or 7.1 capability, 24-bit/96kHz sampling, and download or streaming delivery at anywhere from 128 to 768 Kbps. It also supports one-or two-pass constant bit-rate (CBR) and variable bit-rate (VBR) encoding.

“For archival purposes, our Lossless codec makes the most sense,” Sklepowich explains. “128 Kbps is intended for the most constrained network delivery; 192 Kbps is well-suited for streaming at decent quality or for proxy review; 384 Kbps becomes suitable for review or high-fidelity delivery such as home theater or D-Cinema; and 768 Kbps is for high-fidelity delivery and archival purposes. But these are generalizations, and it's going to vary according to the material and encoding parameters, such as VBR/CBR, single-pass or two-pass and sampling rates. It's really up to the audio engineer to be the judge.”

Because security is a major concern, whether for client approval or consumer delivery, the WMA Series includes extensive built-in digital rights management — royalty-free.

One of the geniuses in Microsoft's development efforts, whether for consumer or professional applications, is that they make things easy on users. The WMA encoder is already built into Steinberg Nuendo, Digidesign Pro Tools and Adobe Audition. M-Audio Delta 1010 and Echo Layla 24 cards include drivers for capturing live or sourced audio. Many more manufacturers are certain to follow.

“Hopefully, software vendors will see the value in this themselves,” Sklepowich says. “There is no cost associated with licensing the Windows Media Encoder or the Windows Format SDKs [software development kits], so anyone is free to download and implement them within their product. And the Windows Media 9 Series licensing is built into the cost of Windows, so when you buy an application like Pro Tools or Nuendo based on Windows, Digidesign and Steinberg do not pay use fees. When producers deliver their Windows Media content to PCs, again there are no additional fees. And our licensing is flexible for non-Windows platforms, as well.” (There have been hints of third-party development for Linux and Mac OS. Details for licensing are on the Microsoft Website.)

There have been numerous efforts in remote delivery and approval applications during the past decade. EDnet burst onto the scene in the early '90s with dedicated, secure lines. But that proved prohibitively expensive for all but top-end studio projects. Liquid Audio and Rocket Network are two companies that surfaced with relatively short-lived efforts at remote collaboration and delivery. And, of course, countless producers have worked out their own means for mix approval and file exchange. But nobody has yet put together as comprehensive and far-reaching a scheme as Microsoft.

“We see great opportunity in two main areas,” Sklepowich concludes. “First, for the pro audio world, in addition to the client review and collaboration applications, WMA9 has become pervasive in the music service arena. WMA9 and WMA9 Pro can be used today to market traditional new or existing CD audio releases on the Web. We see tremendous growth here.

“Secondly, we think there is a real opportunity in delivering multichannel audio using WMA Pro on DVD-ROM to complement the great HD video that we can get with WMV HD. We've done a lot to advance the HD experience today for consumers on PCs. For example, WMV HD offers up to six times the resolution of DVDs today with up to 7.1 surround sound with WMA Pro.”

During the past couple of decades, for a variety of reasons, Microsoft has become the company that everyone loves to hate. But that shouldn't diminish the company's recent efforts in media production technologies.

While the company has been primarily concentrating on mass delivery for D-Cinema, broadcast and home-theater applications, it only takes a bit of imagination to see the possibilities in production. For post, sound designers in various cities can shuttle elements for approval by a supervisor in L.A. In the commercial world, the account exec can approve a finished spot from an office in Chicago or Minneapolis for national delivery that day. Broadcasters and Webcasters can move large files around a network without hogging space and then deliver worldwide. In music, it's already happening among high-end producers for mix approval, probably more than Microsoft even knows. And in the trenches, in the project studios and home-based facilities across the country, you can bet Windows Media 9 Series is being used in creative and interesting ways.

Tom Kenny is the editor of Mix.

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