Chicago – ‘Chicago’ A DVD-Audio review by Nicholas D. Satullo

August 21, in DVD Audio, Titles

Thinking back to the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, there was not a lot of popular music that was strongly defined by horns and woodwinds. Set among a musical culture that expressed a strong “electric” definition, it was not unusual to point out, if applicable, that some bands were called “horn bands,” simply because they integrated horns and woodwinds into their performances.

The best known of these bands at the time (and still my favorite) was Blood, Sweat & Tears, which, in a too-short meaningful career, and with two separate incarnations (from Al Kooper to David Clayton Thomas), put out some of the snazziest jazz/rock/rhythm and blues that we’d yet seen (or maybe will).

Then there was a band called Chicago, arriving just a tad later on the national scene, but, ultimately, outlasting BS&T, as well as scores of other bands, and generally producing, if only in sheer volume, a body of high quality work that makes that of others pale in comparison. Chicago arrived with a burst, and, largely on the back of hits that emerged from its second album, simply called ‘Chicago’ (the first was CTA, or ‘Chicago Transit Authority’ – but the band took the shorter name from the second album forward).

Several hits, such as ‘Wake Up Sunshine’ and ‘Make Me Smile’ brought an unusual, if not new, kind of rock and roll – one that was integrated with horns, but clearly rock and roll. And if there were any doubt that this was a bona fide rock band that could set fire with any others, one need only have listened to the Terry Kath guitar in the famous ‘25 or 6 to 4’. In doing a bit of research for this review, my specific sense was confirmed by an unusual event – Chicago’s producer, James Guercio, attempted twice to showcase the then-named CTA, first at the Whisky-A-Go-Go in L.A., and then at CBS. Both times, CBS turned Chicago down.

Guercio was then asked to produce the second Blood, Sweat & Tears album, and wanted permission from Chicago. He convinced them on the basis that he had not really recorded a “horn band” before (other than “little parts here or there”), and that he could bring something back to Chicago from the experience. They assented, but, as Chicaco woodwind player Walter Parazaider would state, they were, after all, different bands. As chapter IV of the band’s history from their official web site records; “If you look at the two bands, you would say that they were really a jazz-rock ‘n’ roll band, where we were different . . . we were basically a rock ‘n’ roll band with horns.

When listening to the ‘Chicago’ DVD-Audio disc, (however rock ‘n’ roll the band really is), those horns emerge with a level of fidelity that is remarkable for the age of the recording. The woodwinds retain breath and palpability, the trumpets and trombones clear, emphatic, and near crystalline. The resolution on this disc is of remarkable quality, particularly given its age, and is really not far off from a more youthful vintage, which is demonstrated best by the horns – and what would you expect from a “horn band”?

High Fidelity Review editor Stuart M. Robinson asked John Kellogg how he managed to get such old material to sound so good and enquired about the restoration process. “The source material was sixteen-track analog two-inch 3M tape, recorded at fifteen ips with no noise reduction,” John explained. “The tapes were in remarkably good shape – we did not have to bake them at all. They went right up on the machines and played away like there were made yesterday. This was remarkable but not too surprising because ‘II’ was recorded in ‘68. That means the formulation of the tape pre-dated the analog tape binder problems that happened later in the ‘70s.

Much care and love went into re-mixing this record. Paul and I grew up in Chicago and to a large part with this band so it was important to us.” How did John transfer the audio from the original tapes to DVD-Audio? “We used outboard high end gear – EQ and compressors – for everything instead of the EQ on the console. As always, we printed the mix to fifteen ips analog with Dolby SR (which I think is the best sounding thing known to man) and Steve Hall mastered to 96kHz 24-bit from that analog master – using the highest end mastering stuff there is, Pacific Microsonics HDCD D to A converters (and A to D).

But let’s read the last page of the novel first, so that we know how it ends: The recent release of ‘Chicago’ on DVD-Audio is a fine contribution to the lexicon of high resolution surround music, sometimes simply superlative, and this is true as much because of the often-exquisite resolution, but in what in what producers Kellogg and Klingberg have done with the surround mix.

In many respects ‘Chicago’ can legitimately claim to be a statement of how a surround mix ought to be. I rush to clarify that statement, however, as it should be a point of agreement that there is no “one” way that a surround remix “ought” to be. So perhaps some discussion on that point is first in order.

Multi-channel, high-resolution audio – either DVD-Audio or SACD – is, in reality, a phenomenon in its infancy. Against a backdrop of a century of audio playback, from its most primitive forms to the present, sheer numbers dictate that our judgments and expectations are only now being formed, and that must necessarily include the very people creating surround music. Although I’ve probably listened to well over a hundred multi-channel productions, it’s enough for me to know that there is simply no consensus on how the channels are handled, and, for that matter, it would be counter-productive if there were. Even this technical aspect of the presentation, an art form in its own right, thrives on the same type of experimentation, individuality, and just plain hunches that have characterized the development of all good art.

To return to the subject at hand, we are discussing what we’ve called a “5.1” presentation of music that was originally introduced in a two-channel rendition and at a fidelity of far lower resolution. The challenge and the opportunity to the surround engineer is pretty simple: Can the extra channels, and the higher resolution, make the music sound better? The responses to that that question can better be characterized as body blows than “answers,” for there is a vast abundance of listeners who scoff at the very notion that anything originally “recorded” in two-channel can or should in any way be altered. These can generally be referred to as the “original intent of the artist” crowd, and, without engaging the debate, I’ll only say this: Original intent can often be confused with then-existing technology limitations, and it’s only my guess that many black-and-white movie producers might have opted for color films, had the technology only been available at the time.

But to those who agree that “surround” music can offer advantages over its two-channel ancestors, there lurks debate of equally vigorous proportion. There are those, like me, who prefer (but do not insist) that discrete use of the multi-channels be put to their greatest use. Not to beat around the bush, this often involves the extent to which the center channel and the surrounds are employed. Let’s take the obvious example of lead vocals, or a lead guitar. I have more often enjoyed a multi-channel presentation with either of those coming discretely from the center channel, or predominantly so. I have also enjoyed surround presentations, such as ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (see review), which make little or no use of the center channel. While I admit to a preference for the vigorous use of surrounds – such as in ‘Dark Side…’ – I found them to be almost loathsome in ‘Pet Sounds’ (see review). Bottom line: I guess we can’t make generalizations on how the surround engineer plays his cards, but we can certainly form preferences based on listening experience.

My listening experience of ‘Chicago’, the group’s second album originally issued in 1969 (and sometimes referred to as ‘Chicago II’), tells me that John Kellogg and Paul Klingberg, the surround sound remix producers and engineers, have fashioned an outstanding disc that – it just so happens – comport with my still-evolving idea of what would typically characterize a finely-crafted 5.1 remix of some classic two-channel music.

Let’s talk front soundstage. The idea of “surround” music has never, to me, been that I’m also going to hear up-front sounds from the sides or the rears, in addition to the front. Rather, the idea has been that a wider, more enveloping presentation can emerge in a 5.1 remix, and that only begins with the front soundstage. I have too often heard this pulled off successfully by discrete use of the center channel to disregard the potential of its contribution. This is particularly true when the center channel is full range, or nearly so. I sometimes believe that there is, even among surround enthusiasts, an anti-center-channel bias, because there is a preconception that it is for “dialogue” in movies, or that the piece of equipment itself is of relatively inferior quality when compared to the front left and right speakers; neither of those preconceptions are valid, but I’m of the belief that they contribute to the “second-tier” status of center channel speakers that really is not justified.

Chicago’ in 5.1 makes extensive discrete use of the center channel throughout nearly all of its tracks. Does that make it good? Not in itself it doesn’t, but it happens to account for the always-excellent and sometimes exquisite front soundstage that can be found on this disc. Consistently, lead vocals and lead instrumentations find a focal point in the center channel, and, in my opinion, there is no escaping the fact that the remix benefits from it.

In the thirty-odd years that have passed since its original release, ‘Colour My World’, one of the original hit tracks from that album, has degenerated into the “slow-dance” song that finds its way to the repertoire of nearly every wedding-band and becomes the background for drunks to hug, sob and stroll about the floor as matters wind to their inevitable conclusion. Ah, but ‘Colour My World’ was a lovely tune before it became subjected to such abuse, you need to listen to it now in 5.1 and appreciate what the center channel does for the front soundstage.

The lead vocal emerges from the center and so does the short flute solo. Interestingly, the piano melody that introduces the song does not emerge from the center, but rather the left and right mains, and thereby sets a dynamic context for the lead vocal, and then that flute solo, to emerge discretely and sweetly from the center channel. The tune is really very short (under three minutes), much shorter than those weddings would have had me thinking.

I mentioned earlier that the successful use of center channel as both an anchor and an enhancement to the front soundstage was prominent throughout the disc. One thing I did not realize until this review was that tracks six through twelve – the first of which begins with perhaps the most famous cut, ‘Make Me Smile’, were actually conceived as a more ambitious composition entitled ‘Ballet for a Girl in Buchanan’. It was the idea of then-producer James Guercio to break the components down into six separate titles, ending with the cut ‘Now More Than Ever’ (which contains the lines “make me smile.”)

In each of these six tracks, you will hear a definite statement on the use of the center channel in this 5.1 mix. It doesn’t have to be lead vocals, or even a lead guitar – in the brief instrumental ‘Anxiety’s Moment’ – just one minute long – you’ll hear the drums gets accentuated in the center toward the end of the piece, which follows dynamically from the horns and piano that preceded it. Actually, ‘Anxiety’s Moment’ and ‘West Virginia Fantasies’ are really short lead-ins to ‘Colour My World’.

The low bass is generally very good throughout the disc. At first, I thought there was a bit too much bass directed to the center channel, but, after a few listening sessions, it’s a taste to be acquired. No, you won’t generally find the most dynamic low bass on every cut, but suffice to say it is ample and there won’t be any serious claim that this disc is bass-deprived. Just listen to ‘Make Me Smile’, or ‘Now More Than Ever’, and, although not overpowering, one easily recognizes excellent use of the low bass channel.

The use of the surrounds is fairly interesting. They are aggressive in both the information they provide, as well as the levels at which they are set, but not aggressive in a manner that calls undue attention to them (which is something I believe to be a fault in ‘Pet Sounds’). Rather, because of the way the surrounds blend so well in the overall surround presentation they are no doubt aggressive, but never offensive. Background vocals, and sometimes, even information from the front left and right speakers come from them, but it is at all times balanced. It definitely imparts the “around-you” aspect of the surround presentation that attracts so many of us, but never lets the center of gravity crumble.

I listened extensively to the both the 5.1 and two-channel high-resolution tracks. In every case, I found the two-channel track to be of nearly or equal fidelity to the 5.1 track, but even though it boasts the stellar and underused resolution of 192kHz 24-bit, never found it any better. In all respects, the two-channel track is excellent, but, because of the fine effort put forth by Kellogg and Klingberg, I never “preferred” it to the surround version. In fact, in a section comprised of the last five tracks of the disc, called ‘It Better End Soon’, one can discern a slight loss of clarity in the 3d Movement, with the phrase “everyday just gets a little shorter, don’t you think.” I first listened to it in two-channel, but, perhaps because of the discreteness added by placing the vocal primarily in the center channel, it seemed to notch up a bit in fidelity.

The disc also provides a Dolby Digital 5.1 version for DVD-Video only players. While the 448kb/s Dolby Digital version sounded fine as far as that went, it was a clear cut below either high resolution versions, those that can only be accessed with a DVD-Audio player. In fact, if I had any criticism of the disc, it was that the Dolby Digital bass sounded slightly bloated, but that could well have been the ready comparison to the fine bass in the high resolution versions. There is also a veritable paucity of extras on the disc, which only include some photos that scroll with each cut on the DVD-Audio layer and are accessible via a separate menu on the DVD-Video alternative.

Before concluding this review, it has to be said that while John Kellogg and Paul Klingberg deserve an avalanche of praise, the project would likely have faltered without Jeff Magid, Chicago’s representative and ‘audio’ archivist who is credited as Executive Producer. As John Kellogg explained, “he helped supervise the DVD-Audio project on behalf of the band, was involved in the process, was incredibly helpful to us finding tapes and moving things along and was very passionate about the whole thing. We could not have done the record without him.

Slowly, painstakingly, another fine title has been added to the DVD-Audio catalog. While there are marketing factors which may always relegate high-resolution surround music to a niche market, those who care to see it become more than that need titles like this, just to show off. Thanks to Kellogg, Klingberg and Magid, that number has just increased by one. Highly recommended.

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