The name Airus may be not be as familiar to music lovers as Mannheim Steamroller, but listeners who count Fresh Aire's album as one of their holiday favorites will likely notice some similarities between it and a newly released recording by an up-and-coming Salt Lake company.

The producers of "An Airus Christmas" realize they're a little late getting it on the market - considering that Christmas orders are sold the spring before - but they have enough confidence in the untraditional treatment of 10 traditional carols to think it will give the new Mannheim Steamroller album some stiff competition by next year.The creators describe the music as "classical new age" - a mix of orchestral elements and a light, relaxing style. The mostly mellow arrangements of such favorites as "Carol of the Bells," "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Coventry Carol," and "Silent Night" are infused with warmth and emotion - exactly what composer/pianist Kurt Bestor had in mind.

And that's why his music features more live musicians and less synthesized sound. "I tried to evoke a lot of emotion with this album," he said. "You lose the human element with synthesizers.

"Every song has my personal feelings about Christ and Christmas in it."

Several top local musicians, including former and present Utah Symphony members, were hired to do the recording in Airus's studios in a renovated church building at 915 W. First South. Bestor played the piano and trumpet and conducted. Producer Bryan Hofheins played the trombone. Many songs feature Mike Dowdle on guitar.

Hofheins believes the live musicians created something no synthesizer can. "Acoustic treatments like this give it that human feeling," he said. "This is an album for people who really like to listen to music. You can listen to it over and over and always hear some different nuance."

The album was actually conceptualized last winter while Nonstop Productions - in the form of 36-year-old Hofheins, Orem, and 32-yearold Randall Thornton, Sandy, along with Bestor, a 30-year-old Provo composer - was doing on-site music production for ABC's coverage of the Winter Olympics in Calgary.

Nonstop has produced a plethora of commercial music for ABC, plus Fox, HBO, Ford, Buick and other major advertisers, and Bestor has composed for a number of TV shows, specials, and movies. But they wanted to do something for the general public, something with substance.

Airus Records was born a year ago, and its first recording was finished last month. Now 10,000 compact discs and 7,000 cassettes are waiting to be discovered in stores throughout the Intermountain West.

While Bestor is the creative force and Hofheins and Thornton the financial force behind the endeavor, Henri Bonan handles marketing.

Bonan, 35, was a guitarist and lead singer in a rock 'n' roll band in California before spending four years as a radio announcer. He enthusiastically tells of letting Nick Nasitch, head of Sound Off Records, hear the Christmas album. "He felt it would be a smash," Bonan said. "And he couldn't believe it had been produced here in Utah!"

Acknowledging that composing and recording is a risky business - especially outside of Los Angeles or

New York - Hofheins said, "We've always felt we could compete." Apparently, a lot of other people outside Utah feel the same way. Adds Bestor, "Clients like to come here. It's a breath of fresh air. We take them skiing - send them home with a tan and a tape!"

Hofheins also said people outside the company are another important factor in the business's success. "We've also had a lot of faith in the talent in this state. And a company is built on people, not on synthesizers."

Hofheins was an instrumentalist with the Osmonds' band for eight years and also played trombone with the Utah Symphony. Although he's doing mostly production now and working with composers on concepts, his musical background makes his suggestions legitimate, said Bestor.

Likewise, Thornton has been a professional studio musician for years, having worked with the Osmonds until he and Hofheins teamed up to form Nonstop in 1982. He produced the string sections of the Christmas album, on which his wife Gwen played viola.

Bonan notes that the tapes were recorded at "real time" speed, rather than high speed (as most commercial tapes are), for improved sound quality. Every tinkle of chimes, every nuance on the piano, oboe, or flute, every stirring sweep of strings can be heard clearly.

Four songs have been picked for play on local radio stations, but listeners will pick their own favorites, for their own reasons. And that idea makes Bestor smile. He is in awe of the process: it starts with an idea in his head being transferred onto paper so musicians can interpret it and add their own feeling through the instrument. Then, through hearing the recording, the music becomes an idea in another person's mind. "Music is an amazing form of communication."

Bestor said he no longer writes what he thinks people will want to listen to. "I just write my emotions and try to portray my feelings toward my children, toward Christ, and I think they get transferred to other people."