Emmylou Harris – ‘Producer’s Cut’ A DVD-Audio review by Stuart M. Robinson

Producer’s Cut’ is exclusive to DVD-Audio, a compilation of Emmylou Harris songs from seven of her first eight Warner Reprise albums released between 1975 and 1981 that were specifically chosen by producer, arranger and original recording engineer Brian Ahern due to their suitability for a surround presentation. The disc has a dedicated two-channel track, but the multi-channel mix was the driving force behind this release from Warner Bros.

Unless you’ve been living on Mars for the last thirty years, you won’t need me to say that Emmylou’s music is traditional country – guitars, banjos, strings, bass, piano, drums and vocal harmonies – delivered with feeling. The songs in this collection are all strong, including those that are lesser known and the album also features some famous names in support, Waylon Jennings, Sharon and Cheryl White, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Johnny Cash, featured on a previously unreleased track, being the most prominent co-contributors.

In the disc’s documentary (more on that later), Ahern tells us that the tracks were chosen on the basis of their “surroundability”, which he judged by playing the CD versions through a generic ‘DSP’ mode on an old Technics receiver in his workshop, hooked up to four loudspeakers. Purists, or those of you with expensive TriField or Logic 7 equipped hardware look away now…

Ahern explains that the Technics mode separates out the ambient material from the “boring” central material, and “throws” that (the ambience) onto the “back” speakers, which in turn gave him a sense of what was possible if a particular song was mixed in surround.

The disc credits a Yamaha DM2000 console and Lexicon 980L digital effects system (of course, there’s no such thing, it’s a 960L), and the set-up is also featured within the documentary, including a console upon which lies a spoon in a puddle of melted ice cream.

For all that, the surround mix produced by Brian Ahern, Donivan Cowart and their collection of sticky modern gadgetry is considered and gimmick-free, in fact little use is made of the surrounds, with the exception of the track ‘Sorrow in the Wind’, other than to carry ambience largely generated from the remainder of the mix. Likewise the centre, which once again becomes the forgotten channel, serving no other purpose than a subtle left/right ‘fill’. Perhaps this stems from the apparent lack of a centre channel as part of Ahern’s Technics-based evaluation system and that when speaking of surround, he always does so in terms of four, not five or six, loudspeakers.

Such is the surround presentation’s measured approach that it’s actually an unremarkable experience, neither offensive nor groundbreaking, with the exception of the aforementioned track, which places the backing vocalists into the rears. That may be overly harsh-sounding, and I certainly don’t want to give the impression of a negative experience as the mix is never distracting and is particularly well suited to the material, adapting from track-to-track, but the general impression is that one could be equally served by passing the disc’s dedicated stereo track through a Logic 7 or Pro Logic II matrix, both of which would provide a hard centre, if that’s what you prefer.

My only concern upon listening to the 96kHz 24-bit multi-channel mix was the distinct impression that Emmylou’s lead vocals were off-centre to the right, sometimes deliberately so – during ‘Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight’ for example – but also where there was no apparent reason. The reliance on a phantom left/right image doesn’t help, but oddly enough listening to the same tracks from the dedicated two-channel mix didn’t suffer the same ‘flaw’.

Even the oldest tracks, which date back to the mid 1970’s, have stood the test of time remarkably well, background noise is practically non-existent – listen to the slow instrument decay of ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ for example – and vocals surprisingly clear. I did detect a hint of modulation on the occasional multi-tracked passage and some minor compression during a couple of the tracks recorded in 1974-5, ‘Too Far Gone’ in particular, but both foibles are minor and the only nits to pick in what are otherwise remarkable restorations, in fact many contemporary recordings pale in comparison.

When the original recording date progresses to 1978 with the advent of ‘Leaving Louisiana’, any possible fidelity reservations vanish, Emmylou’s voice is a little less immediate and not as warm, but it’s also cleaner, while the accompanying instruments have a tad more presence than that afforded by the oldest tracks. The fidelity continues to improve, subtly, as the recordings move into the 1980’s, the acoustic and electric guitars have a crisp edge, percussion is noise-free and there’s a decent amount of bass weight, most of it reliant on the content of the front left/right channels, rather than the LFE.

The two-channel mix is of equal fidelity, not unsurprising given the strong role played by the front two channels in the multi-channel version. It does appear rather dull in comparison, but that’s not a technical shortcoming, it’s simply the lack of the modest, but important contributions otherwise made by the surround channels. Even if multi-channel is usually my presentation of choice (with exceptions), I’m still a strong advocate of discs containing a dedicated two-channel track, it takes any questionable player downmix behaviour out of the equation for traditional stereo or headphone listeners. Well-done Warner Bros., and Rhino, but how about making the two-channel 192kHz next time?

Dolby Digital and DTS are options for DVD-Video players (neither can be selected on a DVD-Audio player without first forcing it into DVD-Video mode), and it’s interesting to see Warner Bros., now bowing to market pressures and including the latter, if for no other reason than its ‘perceived’ rather than ‘real’ performance advantages. Both lossy schemes fair well, but fall just short of the loss-less MLP alternative when trying to convey some of the more delicate musical phrases on the disc.

Supplementary material initially appears sparse, being limited to a set of disc credits, a photo gallery, lyrics and an interview with Emmylou Harris and Brian Ahern, but the latter, running almost thirty minutes should not be missed as it adds greatly to the value of the disc. The interview is full of production and recording insights, including difficult isolated elements such as the harp/strings track of ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ that are of interest to hardened fans and casual listeners alike – the perfect accompaniment to the music itself and the kind of thing SACD titles are sorely lacking. There’s also an excellent inlay card essay by Parke Puterbaugh that shouldn’t be overlooked, just watch out for the two methods of accessing the disc’s photo gallery and lyrics, they differ between DVD-Audio and DVD-Video machines.

The disc was authored to the latest DVD-Audio specifications, so does not require a monitor for basic navigation – the different audio options being accessible simply by toggling the ‘Audio’ button on your remote control. The first track plays the moment the disc is inserted and the artwork contains Warner’s information grid, which details its content according to player compatibility.

Producer’s Cut’, released on 25th February in the U.S. and March 24th in the U.K., is a clear winner; the fidelity is excellent – especially considering the vintage of the original material, the surround mix is fitting, although it won’t set your world alight, and the disc extras are invaluable. The entire exercise also demonstrates the importance of getting the original producer/engineer involved in the re-mix and re-mastering process, rather than just handing over a box of master tapes to a ‘big name’, in-fashion engineer. The ‘sprit’ of the piece is retained, and in this case enhanced, so congratulations are due to everyone involved, Ahern in particular.