Music: Ludacris in Surround

May 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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Ludacris' <i>Theater of the Mind</i> was given the surround treatment in addition to its original release format.

Ludacris' Theater of the Mind was given the surround treatment in addition to its original release format.

Like a lot of people in this industry, when I first heard The Eagles' “Seven Bridges Road” remixed in 5.1 surround at an AES show in what now feels like a lifetime ago, I was convinced that surround had arrived! With home-theater systems flying off the store shelves, high-profile mixers suddenly landing surround assignments left and right, conferences exploring the topic and even a slick magazine dedicated to the art form, it seemed like a can't-miss trend.

But it didn't catch on. As is often the case with developing technologies, there were format wars (SACD vs. DVD-A), confusion about player compatibility (will it play on my DVD-V player or do I need new hardware?) and, even after a few years, disappointment with the paucity of titles available. Quietly, the trumpet fanfares died away with the formats themselves, and the studios that had put in 5.1 mix rooms looked for film and videogame work to use their full capabilities.

But now there are stirrings again in several quarters. Various specialty labels are quietly putting out surround discs or offering surround downloads, and the momentum seems to be building anew. One perhaps unlikely player in this brave new world of surround is a company better known as a hardware manufacturer than a record company. Monster Cable, which began 30 years ago as a maker of high-end audio cables, has diversified to include everything from loudspeakers to computer, videogame, and portable audio and video accessories. In 2005, it introduced Monster Music, a record label dedicated to releasing 96kHz surround products. Under the stewardship of company founder Noel Lee, who is also an engineer and musician, Monster Music put out a handful of releases in its first three years, including the Grammy-winning George Benson/Al Jarreau disc Givin' It Up, a live album from 3 Doors Down called Away From the Sun and 5.1 remixes of a couple of classic discs, one old and one recent — the Vince Guaraldi Trio's A Charlie Brown Christmas and Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company. And now comes the release Lee hopes will take Monster Music from its boutique audiophile status to a more commercial level: David Rideau's remix of last fall's Ludacris hit album, Theater of the Mind.

Of course, having a record label that specializes in surround releases benefits Monster in a couple of ways — after all, a good 5.1 system needs lots of quality cable, right? (Lee even admits that the format wars and special players required by the first-gen surround releases “was great for our company — but not for many other people.”) But beyond that, Lee genuinely seems to want to exploit the surround medium because “it's amazing! Anyone who hears it agrees. And now, a lot of the technical barriers are diminished — not gone, because you still have to have the speakers around the room. But you can get a standard DVD player to play the format. All the releases we've had so far have been DTS and Dolby Digital, so you can choose the audio quality you want. There's already been good acceptance of surround with films and games; our goal is to bring music along, too.”

As for the decision to partner with Ludacris, Lee notes, “We needed a relevant performer who would connect with today's mass audience and also be a spokesperson for the format. We spoke to many different people, but it was Luda who said, ‘I want to be the first artist in the hip-hop genre to break into 5.1 HDS surround. [HDS is the Monster format's trade name.] So we talked to him for a long time when he was planning his Theater of the Mind album, and he was really enthusiastic — ‘Yeah, let's do it!’ And after he heard the mixes, his mind was totally blown.” An added bonus is that Theater of the Mind was released both as an HDS DVD and in 7.1 Blu-ray with added HD video footage.

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