Eric Johnson – ‘Ah Via Musicom’ A DVD-Audio review by Stuart M. Robinson

This, the latest addition to HFR, should be sub-titled ‘The Review that Never Was’. Here’s why…

Thumbing through a list of recent DVD-Audio releases, one title caught my attention, ‘Ah Via Musicom’, Eric Johnson’s acclaimed 1989 album was being reissued as a DVD-Audio disc by Capitol Records. Johnson’s vocal talents may not be to everyone’s liking – I personally think his unusual style has unique merits – but one thing is for certain, he can play the guitar like a demon possessed.

Ah Via Musicom’ was immediately added to the “must review” list and a copy duly obtained.

Without going into too much detail, I was extremely disappointed by what I heard. The original two-channel version of ‘Ah Via Musicom’ took years (literally) to record, mix and master, to the extent that the amount of care and attention lavished on the piece is clearly evident even to casual listeners. But that’s not the case here; someone had taken the album, turned it upside-down, inside-out and produced what amounts to be one of the worst DVD-Audio discs heard to date.

The multi-channel content appears to have been largely derived using a simple ‘DSP’ matrix, but the surround channels are far too loud in the mix (by at least 10dB) and out-of-phase, which results in a strange, ‘floating in space’ quality to the music and throws the soundstage unnaturally out into the room.

In terms of fidelity, the disc is also woefully unbalanced; there’s oodles of raucous, grating and unstable high-frequency energy which makes cymbals sound just as bad as from the worst SACD discs, and surprisingly little bass, although some tracks do convey a certain sense of midrange ‘punch’.

This version boasts no less than four different audio tracks; 448kb/s Dolby Digital, 1,509.75kb/s DTS (not indicated on the packaging) and 96kHz MLP in 3/2.1, plus a two-channel 96kHz PCM track, accessible by both DVD-Audio and DVD-Video players, given suitable output capabilities. However, although preferred to the multi-channel mix as its strange soundstage foibles aren’t an issue, even the two-channel tracks are horrendously HF-heavy.

The disc is so bad – such a butchering of the original material – that I feel like naming and shaming those involved: Executive producer Tom Cartwright, DVD project manager Kenny Nemes, surround re-mix engineer Steve Genewick and DVD-Audio mastering engineer Robert Vosgien.

So there you have it, a terrible disc whose only redeeming feature is the music itself, but just as I was about to pen a complete (and damning) review, a statement by the man himself, Eric Johnson, perfectionist, came to my attention. It explains a lot, so I’m reproducing it here in its entirety:

Very recently, I was informed by a third party that ‘Ah Via Musicom’ was coming out on 5.1 DVD. Much to my surprise, I was told it had already been completely remixed, mastered, mass-produced and shipment was ready for a release date of February 12, 2002. This release date was approximately three weeks away from the time I found out about this!

“At any rate, they sent us an advance copy to listen to and I must convey what I found upon review. This remix is very disappointing. Instead of the intended main guitar tracks, there are “scratch” tracks in some places. On ‘Desert Rose’ and ‘Trademark’, there are sections where the lead guitar is not in the mix; it is completely absent. A “rough sketch” bass track was used on ‘Cliffs Of Dover’ that isn’t even Kyle Brock playing it, yet Kyle’s name is still on the credits! They used some guitar tracks that weren’t quite in tune and more importantly, were never meant to be used. There are doubled guitar parts that weren’t supposed to be doubled. They did not edit together the intro ‘Ah Via Musicom’ into ‘Cliffs of Dover’ as it was written to be with respect towards a movement of music. This same mistake is true for ‘Trademark’ into ‘Nothing Can Keep Me From You’. The ‘House Burning Down’ flange effect on ‘High Landrons’ was not done correctly. In addition, the guitar tones and mix in general do not reflect what Richard Mullen and I would be happy with, excited about or comfortable with.

“All of this was done without communication to the artist, producer, engineer or artists’ manager. We were, in other words, left in the dark concerning the quality and content of this release.

“Fortunately, Capitol Records has since agreed to allow us to remix the ‘Ah Via Musicom’ 5.1 DVD in a manner that we feel would be befitting to it. Unfortunately, approximately 2,500 copies have gone out into the stores with the unapproved mix. Capitol Records has agreed to let anyone who buys this current DVD to trade it back in when the new version is released. I apologize for the quality of this release.

“I do not condone, authorize or approve of it and I will try to get this situation rectified as soon as possible.

“Thank you for reading this and allowing me the vehicle to express something that is important to me. All best wishes to all of you. – Eric Johnson

I’ve one thing to add to Eric’s text, concerning the run-on tracks ‘Ah Via Musicom’ and ‘Cliffs of Dover’ – their separation (or at least the pause between the two) appears to be a disc mastering issue, not a mixing problem, if that means anything at this stage…

At least the news from Capitol is good, if you’ve already purchased a copy of the disc hang on to it until Eric’s approved version surfaces, then make the exchange. Note that the ‘Music’ score of this review has been downgraded to reflect the incorrect mix and content.

It remains to be seen whether the disc extras, menus etc., will remain the same on the re-issue, but they form part of this review in the interests of thoroughness.

Fingers crossed that we’ll soon be able to enjoy (and review) ‘Ah Via Musicom’ as intended, without the flash-bang opening logo please guys, and let’s hope Capitol have learnt their lesson. Record companies should not use the growing acceptance of multi-channel music just as an excuse to hastily and carelessly re-hash the work of artists, engineers and producers as a means to cash in on their back-catalogues. Original works must be treated with respect and wherever possible the artists/producers involved, regardless of delivery format.