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Indianapolis Star: Mellencamp's High-Def Album Is First Of Its Kind
07.15.2008 -

Mellencamp's high-def album is first of its kind
by David Lindquist E-mail Share
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John Mellencamp's new album is titled, "Life, Death, Love and Freedom."
Thirty-two years into his recording career, John Mellencamp finds himself on the cutting edge.

The Hoosier rock star's new album, which arrives in stores today, boasts a high-definition audio format never available on any previous recording. A DVD player is all that's required to hear the technological feat.

"Life, Death, Love and Freedom" will give listeners twice the sonic detail heard on most CDs, thanks to CODE, a process developed by the album's producer, T-Bone Burnett.

The final result is comparable to sitting in on the original, in-studio performance, says Mike Wanchic, who's played guitar in Mellencamp's band for more than three decades.

"The idea is to bring listeners into the room with us, as opposed to just giving them something to listen to," Wanchic says. "Let them participate on a firsthand level with what we do as art."

The "Life, Death, Love and Freedom" package includes a conventional CD plus a DVD where the high-definition audio tracks are found. The suggested retail price is $18.98, but the album is discounted at Amazon.com for $9.99.

"Anybody with a DVD player can experience the better sound," says Jonathan Bender, senior vice president of operations and digital media for Concord Music Group.

Concord is the parent company of Hear Music, the Starbucks-affiliated label that added Mellencamp, 56, to its roster earlier this year. "Life, Death, Love and Freedom" will be sold at Starbucks outlets as well as stores such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy.

As the first artist to offer Burnett's CODE format, Mellencamp doesn't need to hope for a revolution in the consumer electronics market. Few listeners would have to purchase new equipment to hear the high-definition format, as more than 98 million U.S. households owned DVD players in 2007, according to Nielsen Media Research.

In contrast, Neil Young recently announced that his eight-disc "The Archives Vol. 1, 1963-1972" will be available only on Blu-ray DVD. By the end of 2008, 14.4 million U.S. households are expected to own Blu-ray players.

Burnett's format has the edge on CDs and MP3s because it features a higher bit rate, or amount of information conveyed per second. It also has a higher sampling rate of the source material. The standard CD specifications are 16 bit, 44.1 kilohertz. CODE's specifications are 24 bit, 96 kilohertz.

The sound is reminiscent of analog recordings of yesteryear, with a less constricted or "suffocated" sound when compared with CDs or MP3 files. Loud and soft dynamics are more apparent, and there's greater representation of high and low tones.

A generation of listeners, meanwhile, has become accustomed to hearing songs compressed for iPods and miniature "earbud" headphones.

"There's a ton of people out there who listen to MP3s that have no idea that they're not as good as a CD, and they have no idea that most CDs aren't as good as a vinyl LP," says Mark Kauffman, an expert in cinema sound for Indianapolis-based Klipsch Audio Technologies.

In addition to the CD and DVD, the "Life, Death, Love and Freedom" package includes MP3 and WAV files prepared for downloading.

Burnett and his assistants tailored these files for better sound than a computer's ripping software typically delivers.

"Ripping software just cuts off the top end, cuts off the low end and you're done," says Concord executive Bender.

Listeners interested in moving the WAV files into an iPod or similar device should be prepared for their size. At 1,600 megabytes, the WAV files are roughly 15 times larger than the equivalent MP3s.

Music buyers who prefer to purchase digital files from online retailers may buy "Life, Death, Love and Freedom" via iTunes Plus, a segment of the iTunes store reserved for high bit-rate recordings. These files are compressed, though, and lack the fidelity of the DVD's WAV files.

Will the prospect of a pure listening experience translate into increased album sales for Mellencamp, who entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March?

Jonathan Cohen, an Indiana University graduate and senior editor for Billboard magazine, isn't so sure.

"I doubt that the 45-year-old dad in Bloomington is going to rush out to buy this just because there's some cool new format on the DVD," Cohen says.

Nevertheless, Cohen predicts the album will land in the Top 10 of his magazine's Top 200 chart, and he credits Burnett's participation for heightened interest.

The winner of six Grammy Awards including 2001's Album of the Year prize for the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, Burnett is on tour this summer playing guitar in the backing band for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

Burnett produced "Raising Sand," the 2007 Plant-Krauss project that sold more than 1 million copies and won a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.

"I think a lot of people look to (Burnett) to nudge veteran artists out of their comfort zones a little bit," Cohen says. "That's never been more evident than on ('Raising Sand'), which has been an absolute runaway success."

Burnett has mentioned Elvis Costello as another musician expected to work in CODE on future recordings.

Yet part of CODE's future resides in the past.

It's possible to revisit analog tapes and prepare high-definition digital files, Bender says, and that's what Concord and Burnett will tackle with 40-year-old recordings by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

"The old records were fantastic," guitarist Wanchic says. "They sounded unbelievable."

Read a review of "Life, Death, Love and Freedom" here.
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