A Jewel Of The Pink Floyd Catalog Receives Additional Shine From 5.1 Mix
Acoustic Sounds debuts the Wish You Were Here 5.1 Surround SACD at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest
Over the weekend 14-16 October 2011 the Rocky Mountain Audiofest was held in Colorado and as part of that event Pink Floyd’s iconic Wish You Were Here album received it’s debut in the 5.1 SACD format. AFG correspondent Julie Skaggs went along as a special guest of James Guthrie and here is her story and review………..
Acoustic Sounds, Inc.
James Guthrie and Joel Plante
das boot recording
Gus Skinas – Super Audio Center
Ben Lilly and Richard Newman – ATC Loudspeaker Technology Ltd.
Andreas Koch – Playback Designs
Charlie Bolois – Vertigo Recording Services
I hope we can look forward to more Floyd releases in this format. Their music is perfect for surround sound. They are, after all, pioneers in the three-dimensional audio experience, and have been performing live with quad sound for years. In fact, one of the first quad pan pots, called the “Azimuth Coordinator,” was developed especially for the band. It’s a natural progression to make 5.1 mixes of their work.
(James Guthrie, Hayden Planetarium, March 24th, 2003)
At the top of the wishlist for hi-res audio enthusiasts and Pink Floyd fans alike, the 5.1 Surround mix of the band’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here has been a source of unrequited audiophile desire as rumors first began circulating in 2004 it was going to be the next Super Audio CD released by the organization in observance of the album’s 30th anniversary. Seven years have passed – and the status of the project had thus been characterized as an urban legend – since those initial reports and now, in conjunction with the band’s comprehensive EMI reissue campaign entitled Why Pink Floyd…?, the 35th Anniversary hybrid SACD is finally available thanks to a licensing agreement with independent audiophile distributor Acoustic Sounds, Inc. on their Analogue Productions imprint. The official release date is November 7th, in tandem with the Immersion and Experience box set versions of the album.
The 2003 30th Anniversary release of The Dark Side of the Moon remains the most popular SACD release, and although the hi-res world is ever a hive of contention regarding formats, any fan of multichannel mixes and audiophile-quality recordings is in for a wonderful treat as the classic Floydian combination of spacious adventurous music and enveloping ambient atmosphere is given the benefit of the immersive reference field experience of 5.1 Surround audio.
Therefore what better place to debut such a coveted release than at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest: a yearly event in Colorado which showcases audio recording and playback manufacturers and recorded music distributors from all over the world, audiophile enthusiasts, and professional audio engineering societies in a three-day gathering including exhibitions, seminars, and live musical entertainment. This year’s Audio Fest was held on the weekend of October 14th-16th at the Marriott Denver Tech Center in the Mile High City.
In order to ensure the best listening experience possible, the organizers brought in British professional loudspeaker manufacturer ATC to provide the monitoring system, featuring the same model used to reference the 5.1 mix. So important was this particular detail the presenter stated prior to the event, “I wouldn’t have done it without them.” The inclusion of the presenter made the Friday preview sessions truly one-of-a-kind – as the man who guided this project from beginning to end – award-winning producer/engineer James Guthrie, who has been a Floydian associate for the past 33 years and the last word in sonic quality control in regards to the Pink Floyd catalog, as evidenced by his input and guidance on every release by the band (as well as solo projects by the individual members and live audio engineering and consulting) since 1978. Among those also on hand were Joel Plante, engineer at Guthrie’s studio das boot recording, Gus Skinas of Super Audio Center, who performed the DSD authoring of the SACD (as well as numerous other titles for the format since its inception), and Chad Kassem, owner and founder of Acoustic Sounds, Inc.
Guthrie plays a crucial role in the Why Pink Floyd…? campaign as he and Plante have performed the monumental task of remastering the entire studio catalog, available in the Discovery box set (also for sale as individual discs), and the remastered versions of The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall included in the Immersion and Experience box sets, as well as high-resolution audio versions in those sets. But this project – as with The Dark Side of the Moon SACD it was mixed for 5.1 from the original analog multitracks – was of particular importance to Guthrie as he worked for several years on the mix itself as well as tireless efforts to secure distribution for the SACD. In engineering circles Guthrie is known for both his expertise and enthusiasm for the three-dimensional experience (including work in Holophonics and QSound 3D audio technology) as well as multichannel audio. In collaboration with mastering engineer Doug Sax (a colleague since 1979) he has created twenty 5.1 mixes for release, and one of those projects – Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time for 5.1 DVD-A – was nominated for the Grammy for Best Surround Sound Album in 2005. His multichannel mix of The Dark Side of the Moon won three Surround Awards in 2003, thus fans and audiophiles have been looking forward to another surround sound experience as rendered by his professional acumen and exacting standards.
For logistical reasons this event could not be hosted at the Marriott Denver Tech Center, but instead was held at the Hyatt Regency Tech Center, located within walking distance of the other facility, in their Highlands Amphitheatre venue. During the first playback on Friday afternoon, only a select group of attendees from the professional audio press were invited and so, including myself, were the incredibly fortunate few to hear this long-awaited release for the very first time outside of those entities responsible for its creation and distribution. Guthrie and Plante, along with engineers provided by ATC, had spent many hours on the room treatment to ensure maximum resolution for the playback of the SACD (as directed by Guthrie’s perfectionist tendencies) as well as the other releases from Analogue Productions which were previewed during the course of the weekend. I was also fortunate enough to be allowed to observe the last portion of the setup process and hear parts of the release played for testing before the first official demonstration. The use of the ATC SCM150 monitors and C65 subwoofers in tandem with the Playback Designs MPS-5 SACD/CD player and MPD-5 DAC provided by the manufacturer ensured the demonstration would provide an unforgettable experience…and having listened to so much great music in the Acoustic Sounds room over the course of the Audio Fest has now definitely spoiled me for any other home audio solution (including my own)!
Guthrie’s introduction of the playback made note of the assistance of all those involved in the presentation and he also stated the disc being used as the source material was manufactured at the Sony DADC facility in Anif/Salzburg and therefore would be of identical quality as those being sold on November 7th through Acoustic Sounds, and the experience of hearing it through the same monitors he uses in his studio would provide the most accurate listening experience of all. He expressed his hope that this release represented the possibility of future hi-res audio releases in this format from the Pink Floyd back catalog but concurrently acknowledged the process had been “very political.” He later shared an anecdote regarding playing a version of the 5.1 mix for Richard Wright and receiving a memorable reaction: “It was almost as if his memory had been jogged. The look on his face told me how important his presence had been on the album.“
In my later discussion with Chad Kassem, he expressed his frustration with the delays, making the analogy that having the 5.1 mix exist in commercial limbo was like “having the Mona Lisa in your closet.” Kassem is passionate about audiophile-quality audio and is proud of his part in the release, stating: “We did this for the right reasons, in the right way.” Between the SACD demonstrations (as well as the reception he hosted on Friday evening), Kassem previewed tracks from his vinyl pressing plant/distributor Quality Record Pressings of direct-to-disk recordings created at Blue Heaven Studios, a 1920s-era Gothic-style converted church Kassem owns in Salina, Kansas.
I had the opportunity – thanks to the organizers – to listen to the SACD multiple times during the weekend and am pleased to share my impressions with all interested readers. Overall I will say – given what I know of Guthrie’s standards in regards not only to multichannel audio but to every project he has ever been associated with – that this is nothing less than aural bliss, with the proper focus given to the emotional impact of the work as a whole (and its status as a classic of the Pink Floyd oeuvre) as well as its inherent musicality. The mix enhances all these qualities, reveals details most have never truly heard before (or heard so distinctly), and yet remains entirely respectful to the music itself, which in the end is all that matters.
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
35th Anniversary hybrid SACD
5.1 mixing: James Guthrie
Assistant Engineer: Joel Plante
Mastering: James Guthrie and Joel Plante
DSD authoring: Gus Skinas
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)”
From the very beginning, the clarity and distinction of all the discrete elements is astounding. The wine glass textures especially seem to float in the air directly in front of you. The classic chord sequence is right in the center like a literal diamond in a shining ornate setting. The elements move spatially, with a distinct ebb and flow, and are not only all around you, but above as well. The drums are crisp and dynamic. David’s laugh comes in over your shoulder from the right rear as the first verse begins and is nearly startling in its intimacy. The harmonies are much more distinct and it is easier to appreciate how David’s voice layers under Roger’s in the chorus, with Venetta and Carlina’s vocalizations hovering above in a lovely gospel effect. As the segue begins between this track and the next, Dick Parry’s sax moves into the background and is heard from behind, as if the notes are being blown away in the wind.
“Welcome to the Machine”
This track contains what I would consider the most dramatic use of the reference field in regards to the way the sounds move around the listener, as well as the emphasis on the dynamic nature of the mix itself, moving spatially in all directions (including upward) But the element which I found most thrilling was – finally – Nick’s tympani work is fully revealed in all its power and precision. His fills are positively thunderous! An interesting use of placement is found in the channel separation when the acoustic guitar comes in, moving from right rear to left front and then to the center. The sounds of the machine itself move around in a complete circle at first, then pan back and forth on later reiterations. Rick’s synth textures are also a great deal more discrete and prominent. During the outro ambient section, when the conveyor moves on to the party and the doors open, the sound of the crowd swells out at you as if you’re actually experiencing what the sound effect is meant to remind you of.
“Have A Cigar”
The clarity of all the associated textures makes me appreciate how well this song was put together: from David’s slinky leads to Nick’s tasteful drums to Rick’s funky fills. This mix also demonstrates how dramatic Roy Harper’s vocal is, in regards to the character he’s playing as directed by the lyrics, which further underscores Roger’s strengths as a narrative-based lyricist. To hear it all so clearly brings me back to why I love it, an example of how Pink Floyd could really groove when they wanted to. The blown speaker effect is awesome at the end, as everything goes off the scale and then the “mono” effect is heard in the right rear channel (it caused many listeners to immediately look behind them during the demonstration). In the segue, the sounds of David tuning the radio in his car to pick up a station (so that he can record it) are much clearer.
“Wish You Were Here”
The intimate melancholy of this song is revealed by virtue of the mix, the nuances of David’s vocal are so immediate and lend a greater emotional impact overall; with all the elements benefiting from the added clarity. The opening segue provides a great effect as we hear David playing along with himself: mono (right rear) and stereo (left front) and then as the song begins it all meets up in the middle. David’s scat singing is also much more distinct to my ears, and as this is my very favorite PF song, it’s definitely a revelation. Equally revelatory for me was to hear the tiny bit of Stephane Grappelli’s playing which appears at the end, because I’d never been able to before. This was not augmented: Guthrie confirmed to me that it is only the part which was included in the original mix, but you can hear it now without having to strain or boost the volume to a painful level.
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts VI-IX)”
The interplay of the band on this track is beautifully presented, the dynamic of the movement of each theme from one mood to the next serves to emphasize the overall Floydian philosophy of emotional tribute in regards to the subject of the piece. All of the textures are enjoyable to contemplate in regards to their interaction: the rhythm section is propulsive and David’s slide work is a literal cry from the heart. The emotive power of his playing is wholly evident on this track. Rick’s playing especially is a joy to hear in high resolution, the way in which he created different colorings on synth and keyboards, and the elegiac mood of the final section – solely Rick’s composition – is one of his finest moments in Floyd recording history.
If you have the means (or are planning to acquire them) to experience this release the way it is meant to be heard: in the SACD format with 5.1 Surround audio (however, there is also a 2-channel stereo layer on the disc which can be played on any CD player), then you owe it to yourself as an audio enthusiast and Pink Floyd fan to order this disc from Acoustic Sounds. Beyond the thrill of the immersive experience, a new appreciation for this work will emerge with repeated listenings; all of the textures and interplay and great songwriting and performances of a band who struggled to overcome their own creative and emotional inertia and in doing so created a work for the ages.
In discussion after the playback, in regards to scheduling for future 5.1 projects, Guthrie remarked that The Wall would likely be the next project and the one he most desires, but because the process moves very slowly there is no actual timetable as of now in regards to its completion.
Though there is reason enough to savor this professional victory, Guthrie’s schedule – even after the debut of the Why Pink Floyd…? campaign – is still absolutely packed, including of late: co-production and mixing of the debut album by singer/songwriter James Carrington (entitled The Dreamer’s Machine), mastering of the new Kate Bush album 50 Words For Snow, and work on the audio mix of the upcoming Roger Waters DVD/Blu-ray release of The Wall Live: 30th Anniversary (as six performances were filmed and recorded at Athens’ OAKA Arena for the project with Guthrie and Plante assuming recording engineering duties). With additional Experience and Immersion sets being discussed for next year and beyond, Guthrie’s role in the organization remains sonically essential as Pink Floyd officially reveals the depth and breadth of their legacy for the enjoyment of all fans. For audiophiles, the release of the Wish You Were Here 5.1 Surround SACD is a desired and delightful part of the whole, as the band continues to lead the vanguard in the immersive audio experiences they pioneered.
I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to James Guthrie and Chad Kassem for their kindness in granting me unlimited access to this wonderful event, as well as to all who graciously gave of their time in discussion (with special thanks to Joel Plante, Charlie Bolois, Andreas Koch and Chad Kassem) and a multitude of thanks as always to Col Turner of A Fleeting Glimpse for providing a home for my Floydian journalistic efforts.
The Wish You Were Here SACD is available for pre-order from Acoustic Sounds HERE
AFG wishes to express our appreciation for this wonderful report to Julie Skaggs and to James Guthrie for making this possible.