There's a new release coming on CD -- only it's one you shouldn't be able to hear. It's the centerpiece of the recording industry's attempt to offer secure downloads and sales of digital music on its own terms -- the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) -- has been a scheme to embed non-audible "watermarks" in new audio CDs. The idea is that new software would be able to spot them, then check to see whether the digital copy of the song was pirated.
The first such watermarked CDs are hitting the market. But one respected audio engineer has decried this technique, saying that it -- at least as presented to him -- degraded the music. Other musicians say the watermarking they have used in their music can't be noticed; consumers will get to make up their own minds as more such CDs arrive in stores.
A lot's at stake. SDMI hasn't amounted to much so far, but it may affect digital music profoundly in the future. Most important, it will encourage major record labels to offer more songs online as digital downloads -- either for sale or free -- thanks to its promised ability to deter unauthorized distribution of music.
MP3 advocates, however, believe that SDMI's upcoming "Phase 2" will also prevent listeners from using legitimate, legal copies of their own music. So far, the few devices on the market using "Phase 1" SDMI technology -- for instance, Sony's Memory Stick Walkman and S3's Rio 600 -- merely detect whether a song has been watermarked. But under Phase 2 -- almost a year behind schedule -- these devices will refuse to play what they determine to be unauthorized copies of tunes. They will, however, continue to play MP3s "ripped" from old CDs.
CD producers are not required to use these watermarks or any of these restrictions, but the major labels are expected to adopt the standard.
At the moment, though, concerns over sound quality are the bigger worry in the music industry. Since the watermark is in the music itself, some audio enthusiasts worry whether it will hurt the sound quality -- and recent tests in London seem to indicate that these fears are legitimate.
The evaluation was not of CDs, but of the new DVD-audio format, a higher-fidelity, higher-capacity technology based on the discs used in DVD movies. The results weren't music to one tester's ears.
"I heard a high-frequency buzzing in the music," said Tony Faulkner, a London-based producer of classical music. "During complicated parts of the music, the sound became muddled." He was able to detect the watermarked songs six out of eight times in the London test.
Faulkner's comments are important because he is a member of the technical committee of the Audio Engineering Society, made up of the very professionals who would be expected to implement the new technology.
Proponents of SDMI take Faulkner's comments seriously but say his observations don't disprove the watermarking's capabilities. "The results of one listener's test alone are not statistically significant," said Paul Jessop, the director of testing for SDMI. "You need a lot of data to draw a conclusion rigorously."
Other musicians who have used a similar watermark gave it high marks. Wendy Carlos, the composer who made synthesizers famous in the 1960s with such records as "Switched-On Bach," said she could not detect the watermark in her tests of a watermarked audio CD.
"I was very skeptical at first," Carlos said. But as hard as she tried, she couldn't hear anything odd. "I'm satisfied as a composer," she said. "I hope they do not change the watermarking and make it noticable."
Carlos is using the watermarking on remastered rereleases of her earlier chart-busting experiments in electronic music to help prevent piracy of her work. A few other musicians, such as Larry Fast of the New York/New Jersey-based synthesier band Synergy, have also added watermarks to their latest releases.
When we listened to a Carlos CD, there were no perceptible distortions in the music. The tones were clear, and the different instruments and human voices were easy to distinquish.
The company developing the watermark technology, San Diego-based Verance Corp., declined to provide precise details of how it operates, saying that would compromise its security features. But in principle, the watermarking hides information in parts of the music that are covered up by other parts of the music.
It has to work this way in order to work with techniques that compress digital files of songs -- for example, the MP3 format, which aims to remove elements of musical sound that are inaudible. Verance's watermarks are attached to those elements not affected by MP3 compression.
Computer chips, with their high rates of processing speed, can discern what the human ear cannot, picking up the watermark and whatever info the record label has chosen to embed in it -- a tracking number individual to each song (but not each copy), and possibly rules for permitted copying. The watermarking would be free to those labels who simply want to track their music. For those wanting to control digital copies of their releases, the basic fee would be $50 per track, said Verance Chairman David Leibowitz. He said the company would offer this service for a flat fee of $400,000 to big record companies, with unspecified discounts available to smaller bands and labels.
It's up to each label to decide whether to include a logo or note telling that a CD is watermarked. The Carlos and Synergy CDs carry no such indication.
The emergence of watermarked CDs and DVD-audio will begin to give consumers a chance to judge for themselves. "At the end of the day, there are only two sets of ears that matter," said Pam Horovitz, director of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, the trade group representing record retailers. "Those of the musicians who recorded the album and those of the person who bought the CD."
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