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BUILDING ON A BUSTED IDEA

HOLLYWOOD — Along with CB radios, eight-track cartridges and Betamax, quadraphonic sound was one of those 1970s technologies that burst onto the scene with much fanfare, only to quickly be consigned to the garage sale of history.

But while a number of technical and marketing obstacles kept the four-speaker systems from catching on with consumers, the idea of surrounding a listener with music is enjoying a resurgence in the digital age.

A small but growing group of artists, record producers and equipment manufacturers are creating music CDs designed to be played on the millions of existing surround-sound home theater systems.

Artists as diverse as Luciano Pavarotti, Boyz II Men and Alan Parsons, already have released or soon will release versions of their stereo CDs in the multichannel format, which utilizes three front speakers, two rear ones and a subwoofer for very low frequencies.

The technology has a number of zealous supporters who are passionate about multichannel’s superiority to stereo.

“I don’t care if I never mix in stereo again,” said record producer Robert Margouleff, whose 25-year career has included projects for Stevie Wonder, David Sanborn and Devo. “It notches up the emotion of the listening experience.”

Margouleff and audio engineer partner Brant Biles already have done multichannel remixes of a number of titles, including Boyz II Men’s “II” and the recently released “Pavarotti and Friends for War Child.” The pair currently are remixing 10 Marvin Gaye songs for a multichannel “Greatest Hits” release.

These are among the first pop records to be recorded in multichannel. Over the past few years, a handful of classical and soundtrack releases have been released in Dolby Surround format by labels including RCA Victor and Delos.

Meanwhile, nonprofit industry group the Intl. Alliance for Multichannel Music has been formed to promote the technology. “The film business is already in the multichannel world, the music world still is in the two-channel world,” said IAMM board member Tom Holman, former corporate technical director for Lucasfilm.

The new CDs are specially encoded using a technique developed by Digital Theater Systems that provides five discreet channels of extremely high-fidelity sound in addition to a subwoofer channel. A number of audiophile equipment manufacturers, including ADA, Carver and Krell now offer receivers capable of decoding the CDs, or stand-alone decoders that attach to existing surround-sound receivers.

Not a cheap date

So far, the systems don’t come cheap: Most receivers range from $2,000 to $6,000, with stand-alone units running $1,200 or more. However, MSB will announce at CES a new $699 stand-alone decoder that will interface with almost any surround-sound system equipped with Dolby’s Pro-Logic.

DTS also is working with the Big Three automakers to create multichannel-compatible CD players for cars.

So far, there are only two mail-order sources for the discs, which cost around $25: DTS’ new software label, DTS Entertainment and High Definition Sound of Incline Village, Nev.

DTS VP and general manager Bill Neighbors expects that by early next year the discs will begin to appear in high-end audio-video stores that sell surround-sound systems.

Long-range however, many observers believe the future of multichannel lies in DVD. The high-density CDs, which originally were intended for video, would offer plenty of storage for multichannel music.

Multichannel music’s boosters bristle at comparisons with quad, insisting that multichannel is a quantum leap more akin to the move from mono to stereo.

Beating the drawbacks

The digital medium overcomes a number of the technical problems faced by quad, including getting four discreet channels of music onto a vinyl record.

Supporters also note that, unlike quad, multichannel music will benefit from a large installed base of surround-sound systems currently in use for laserdisc and video viewing. As of the end of 1995, there reportedly were 10.8 million surround-sound systems in the U.S., although it’s not known how many of those are equipped with the requisite six speakers.

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