Surround Sound on the PC

Ditching The Media

I'm really used to playing my stereo CDs through the medium of MP3s stored in a central respository on my computer. However, playback of my DVD-Audio or music DVDs required using the original media. That was further encumbered as a screen is usually required to navigate the interface in order to play them. So, basically two strikes against the new format in terms of awkwardness of use. Plus, of course, the third in that it could be played nowhere else than in my home theatre set-up as that's the only location with a Dolby Digital decoder.

The solution is quite simple:
  1. First, use SmartRipper to pull the VOB file off the DVD onto a harddrive. There's a minor caveat here that you need to play part of the DVD with a legitimate software DVD player in order to unlock the disc before you can rip anything off it. SmartRipper has the option to pull just the audio stream so the unwanted graphics can be left behind. In the case of both DVD-Audio albums tried (Corrs' "In Blue" and Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells 2003") the ripped stream is about 200MB for the former and 150MB for the latter so while large, it's not huge. By comparison a recent MP3 rip from the "Tubular Bells 2003" CD using the LAME encoder set to VBR High resulted in a 75MB set of files. As that's including the four extra tracks, it's an impressive bit of compression.
  2. Trim the tracks using ChopperX. While this doesn't have the most advanced interface, it does make cutting the single stream into chunks much simpler. Play the track through it, select the appropriate point, and then save out a new file with just the play range.
  3. Rename the resulting files from .vob to .ac3, and install the WinAmpAC3 plugin into WinAmp5. Drop the AC3 files into the playlist and go! Depending on whether the PC is plugged into an AC3 decoder (like my home theatre amplifier) or is standalone, there're a few changes to be made to the WinAmpAC3 interface:
    1. For the PC connected to a proper decoder, configuration is easy: just change the output to SPDIF and feed it through untouched.
    2. For a standalone PC playing through stereo speakers, the gain should be cranked up. This is due to the original vobs being mastered at a much lower level than most stereo CDs, so it sounds far quieter when being played back compared to an MP3. The AC3 decoder will automatically reduce the levels on the fly so they don't exceed the clipping levels if required. The downconversion from 5.1 to 2.0 is handled quite well, although the emphasis moving from speaker sometimes sounds a little wierd depending on recording technique.
The software that the WinAmp plugin is based on currently supports conversion on the fly from DTS to AC3. We couldn't get that working yesterday, but I imagine next time the plugin is updated, it'll add support for DTS as well. With the wealth of DTS recordings out there right now, that'll be great.

On the downside, I now no longer have quite as strong an argument when it comes to avoid buying DVD-Audio or music DVD discs...other than price. Darn.
Current Playlist

Music Sources:
A&B Sound
Cob Records
CD Baby
Future Shop

Music Reviews:

Copy Protected CD Rant
Creating CDs on the Amiga

Computer (Wintel):

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