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Special - ATRAC Developer's Interview

Strict Sound Testing at SME (Sony Music Entertainment)

-And I understand that the results of this tuning are then evaluated by Sony Music (SME)?

Suzuki : Our work with SME started when they wanted to know whether or not they could use our codec for distributing music electronically. We asked them to assess our encoder and found them to be incredibly tough critics! (laughter)

Toyama : SME distributes music electronically and whatever codec they use, they're responsible for delivering the end result to paying customers. Obviously it's no good if the sound quality doesn't satisfy SME. That's why we've worked hard to tune the codec to win SME's approval.

-The codec used in SME's online music distribution is ATRAC3?

Suzuki : That's right. The sound we created around 2000 is still being distributed today. But there were times when the development team and SME didn't agree. Developers tend to emphasize details, but SME values an overall balanced sound. We use sound sources they give us for tuning, after which recording staff at the SME studio test the codec rigorously for things like sound localization and coherence.

Toyama : The sound sources from SME are their own special mix. They know it front to back, exactly what sounds are where. So if something is even slightly off, they know immediately.

Suzuki : Because you're compressing sound, it can't be helped if the result doesn't sound the same as the original. But it's not acceptable if the compressed sound changes the impression of the original, so balance is especially important.

Toyama : That's right. We look closely at how the compressed result sounds. Even with compression, people want the music to sound good, if not great.

Suzuki : To be precise, while admitting ATRAC3 compressed sound is not the same as the original, we've arrived at the point where the way in which the sound has changed, is good ? good enough for the ears of the recording staff at SME.

-What about ATRAC3plus?

Tsuji : SME has yet to evaluate ATRAC3plus. Originally we targeted our development for compact media such as flash memory. So we focused on high compression ratios and worked hard to craft good sound quality, even for bit rates as low as 48kbps and 64kbps.

Suzuki : If the bit rate is high enough, there's enough data to cover any shortcoming even if the encoder doesn't work exactly as hoped. But the lower the bit rate, the more likely it will be affected should the encoder performance be just a little wanting - it would appear as noise or otherwise sound poor. That's why we spent a lot of time enhancing the 48kbps and 64kbps encoders. We're confident that they sound better than any competing codec. In the future, with the cooperation of SME, we want to make audio quality even better.

The Future: Hopes and Desires

-Recently, the rising popularity of personal audio players equipped with hard disks has increased the interest in codecs. As codec developers what would you like to see in ATRAC compliant products?

Inoue : For our part, we will continue to work hard on codec development, and we'd like product developers to continue to focus on crafting the quality of the sound at the point where it is converted from digital to analogue.

Suzuki : Of course, product developers are concerned with the whole player, but I think it's an advantage for audio manufacturers like us if we can optimize each of the components that make up a player. As a user myself, that's what I expect.

-As ATRAC developers, do you have a message for the readers?

Tsuji : Some people seem to have the bias that "compressed sound is bad", which I think is a bit of a shame. Maybe it just comes from familiarity with linear PCM compact discs - their very presence helps create this impression of inferiority. I really hope that people put aside any prejudice they may have and listen to compressed music with an open mind.

Toyama : I once worked in an SME mastering studio for a month as part of my production training, and was surprised to find the vast number of sounds in a CD recording. If you compare compressed music to that, of course it isn't the same, but it does create new ways to enjoy music, such as online music, and lets you store a lot more songs on recording media. Whether we're talking about a natural shift in sound quality, or being able to enjoy music for hours without getting tired, what we do, we do for music - after all, we love music. And we'll keep on developing to expand the possibilities of sound.

Suzuki : When we created the ATRAC algorithm we put a lot of emphasis on high quality sound. So I would ask the readers to experience it first-hand, and at different bit rates.

Inoue : Yes, our ultimate goal as developers is to have listeners appreciate just how good the music sounds without noticing the bit rates. We will continue to work hard to craft the kind of sounds that allow people to enjoy music naturally and with the greatest pleasure.