Graham Nash - Songs for Survivors

Graham Nash – ‘Songs for Survivors’ A DVD-Audio review by Stuart M. Robinson

Who could doubt Graham Nash’s popular music pedigree; as member of the Hollies and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, his singer/song writing talents are amongst the most recognised of all male vocalists.

For ‘Songs for Survivors’ his fifth solo project and his first since 1986, Nash moves back towards his English musical roots, although the album’s strongest influences are undoubtedly country and rock. The disc, released by DTS Entertainment is upbeat, quite unlike the mournful ‘Wild Tales’ or the tree-hugging ‘Earth Sky’, and is full of Nash trademark vocals, always up-front and always emotive. It is also almost completely devoid of obvious synthesised elements, Nash has obviously learnt his lesson with the critical and commercial disaster that was ‘Innocent Eyes’. Having not enjoyed the most revered solo career, it’s therefore apt that the title of this album should be influenced by his first go-it-alone work, Nash is no longer a ‘beginner’, now he is a ‘survivor’.

Some have said that they miss David Crosby’s vocal harmonies, but he does contribute and in my opinion, since this is a Nash solo album it’s actually a good thing that Crosby is not to the fore, a move that would soften the focus on Nash’s own talents. Even after all this time – Nash is only a few years away from drawing a retirement pension – his voice retains much of its original breathy and at times husky character. Other disc collaborators include a number of venerable Californian instrumentalists, including Russell Kunkel (drums, percussion), Dan Dugmore (pedal steel, acoustic and electric guitars, banjo), Matt Rollings (keyboards), Steve Farris (acoustic and electric guitars), Lenny Castro (percussion) and Victor Krauss (acoustic and electric bass).

Songs for Survivors’ was recorded in October 2000, which makes me wonder why it was almost eighteen months before it saw the light of day in any format, especially when this is the strongest Nash disc in recent memory. The song writing is back on form and all the musical performances are first rate. Both on the disc and within the accompanying inlay card DTS go to great pains to describe the recording techniques and hardware used, right down to a list detailing which microphone was used to capture a particular instrument. “The album was recorded directly to hard disc using dB Technologies analog to digital converters. All signals were recorded through class A discreet analog circuitry and always bypassed as many stages of amplification as possible.” Aside from the “discreet” circuitry (far preferable to injudicious circuits in my experience), the recording “…also employed Cello and Wireworld high resolution audio cables…”, quite unlike most recordings that use low resolution wire?

This DVD-Audio title offers an unusual selection of audio formats from which to choose. There’s a loss-less 3/2.1 Meridian Lossless Packing track at 48kHz 24-bit, a 1,509.75kb/s lossy DTS 3/2.1 mix (something DTS still erroneously describe as “master quality” in the face of MLP) and a dedicated 48kHz two-channel PCM mix. For those playing the disc in a PC or MAC computer, there is also an MPEG-Audio option, which to me, only serves to illustrate the extraordinary measures DTS Entertainment will take in order to avoid the use of any obvious Dolby technologies on one of their discs.

The album begins with ‘Dirty Little Secret’, an up-beat rhythmic track, and it’s instantly apparent that DTS have pulled out all the stops in order to produce a disc of outstanding fidelity and one with an artistic, lively and engaging surround mix. Nash’s lead vocals are reproduced by a hard centre component, while the overdubbed vocals of the chorus are spread around to the sides of the room. The surrounds convey a number of obvious panning effects although generally they’re not aggressive enough to be distracting, while the LFE channel delivers a goodly amount of bass grunt.

The opening song sets the tone for the mixing convention used during the remainder of the album, the recurring theme being Nash hard centre, backing vocals along the sides of the room and the musicians spread naturally throughout a deep and expansive soundstage. A number of tracks, ‘Blizzard of Lies’ for example, have obvious country music influences where harmonica – played by Nash – sits alongside steel and acoustic guitars, a mixture of instrument textures that would pose quite a challenge for any recording engineer, yet this disc delivers all elements flawlessly. Percussion and drums are uncannily lifelike and without any raw edges, while each guitar retains its own sense of individuality and space regardless of the complexity of the mix.

The Chelsea Hotel’ opens with a beautifully sharp, acoustic guitar completely free of any fingering noise and that same guitar can be discerned throughout the track, even with a fair number of additional instruments all playing along. The only downside to this particular cut is a strong, processed electric guitar positioned towards the rear of the room that can become a little disconcerting at times. But as is the case with the entire MLP layer, the bass of this track really catches the ear; it is never overpowering but possesses real weight and a bite with almost tactile qualities.

The only other distracting elements are the toms of ‘I’ll Be There For You’ which also suffers a little from a loud vocal presence in the surround channels, but your mileage may vary, especially as I’m really struggling to be critical of any particular aspect of the DVD-Audio layer.

I’ll Be There For You’ is actually a really strong composition with engaging lyrics, but the best is still to come. Move past the gentler ‘Nothing in the World’ and the jazz/blues ‘Where Love Lies Tonight’ and up pops ‘Pavanne’, a song that really does paint a picture with words. It’s all about an elegant but icy female assassin who never misses her target, whether he is in a casino or presidential palace. The lyrics might be a metaphor for some man-eating woman Nash has encountered and if so, the cold-hearted femme fatal inspiration is matched by forward, sharp acoustic guitars accompanying the smoky vocals.

A short song entitled ‘Come With Me’ closes the disc, it’s a simple, rather childlike work but once again with an outstanding mixture of piercing harmonica and grumbling bass countered by harmonised lyrics, yet the real standout track is ‘Liar’s Nightmare’, all eight minutes of it. The lyrics have a repetitive stop/start rhymed theme but are accompanied by complex and intricate guitar passages, deep menacing bass and forceful, punchy dynamic segments, each one ramming home a particular line or phrase. There’s some debate about the inspiration for the words, but it seems Nash is reminiscing about mistakes, lies and misunderstandings that have gone before. “I said everything’s shaking, including myself, I keep all my feelings high up on a shelf. And I can’t seem to reach them but I know they were there, I’m trapped in this vacuum and I’m gasping for air… I gotta tell you the truth about the sadness I find, I have opened my heart to you, and I hope you don’t mind.” Not at all Graham.

The surround mix is so good and the MLP fidelity so vibrant that it’s criminal to listen to the two-channel alternative, but if you really must then it just shades out the CD version by a gnat’s whisker, there is a tad more dynamic range. Yet to really enjoy this album it has to be replayed in one of the 3/2.1 formats.

Comparing the lossless MLP track to the lossy DTS is fraught with dangers from both subjective and technical standpoints, but judged on as even a playing field as possible, I felt that the DTS presentation wasn’t as balanced, either tonally or in terms of instrument positioning within the soundstage as the MLP alternative. I also felt that the DTS track suffered from a fair amount of bass bloat and the LFE was a good deal louder (uh-oh). Time to break out a few analysis tools…

The first thing to do was find a DVD-Audio player with an internal DTS decoder, then make sure that all the integral bass management was defeated (ie. all channels run full-range without crossovers for both formats), that all output levels were set to unity gain (ie. 0dB) and that all channels had equal time alignment values, in my case 0ms. The analogue outputs of the player were then fed into a high-end 24-bit 96kHz A/D converter and sent to a Windows PC via S/P-DIF. The track I chose to analyse was ‘Dirty Little Secret’, largely because there’s so much going on and all channels are active throughout.

I then set about capturing four instances of the entire track; one each for the MLP LFE channel, MLP centre channel, MLP front left channel and MLP rear left channel. The whole exercise was then repeated using the DTS track, so what I ended up with was eight individual files. This enabled me to compare relative levels – the rear left to the front left and centre to LFE for example – and the same channel across formats.

To cut a long story short, the experiment highlighted a number of fundamental differences between the DTS and MLP 3/2.1 mixes on the disc. Perhaps the most important is that, by using the centre channel as a control and compensating for the inherent differences in dynamic range, it is apparent the average level of the DTS LFE channel is far higher than that of the MLP LFE channel, the actual figure being somewhere in the region of 9dB. Take a look at the histogram average level comparison.

That explains why the DTS version sounds bloated and booming in comparison to the MLP alternative. Also, when one takes into account the increased level and compares the LFE frequency responses, there are additional discrepancies, most notably the sharper upper roll-off of DTS, a recognisable encoder trait, which helps contribute to the perception of ‘deeper’ bass. The volume and frequency response of the centre, front, and rear channels of both systems are, however, remarkably similar, although the DTS rears are just a tad louder than those of MLP. Plots for the LFE and centre channels are here, front and rear relative levels here, and frequency response plots for the front left and rear left channels here.

At the time of writing, I don’t know why the MLP and DTS LFE tracks on ‘Songs for Survivors’ differ so much, or whether it is terribly important in the scheme of things, unless that is, the two are used for casual A/B comparisons. To my ear, the loss-less MLP clearly outperforms DTS in all areas and is obviously the format of choice for a discerning DVD-Audio audience. However, if you prefer how the DTS version sounds, perhaps because of a system or room limitation, then so be it.

Songs for Survivors’ offers a selection of supplementary material; each track can be accompanied by a choice of either the song lyrics (which advance automatically with the music) or a selection of black and white photographs. All are outstanding images but I found that they pulled my attention away from the music. It’s therefore best to listen without a display or stick with the song lyrics and then enjoy the photography divorced from the remainder of the disc, especially as each of the sixty-nine images is accessible via a dedicated gallery menu and are also part of the DVD-ROM content.

There’s more good news for those without video displays – the disc advances and plays the first track without user intervention or unnecessary menu preambles the moment it’s loaded. For those with a DVD-ROM drive there are further enhancements, including web links to the Graham Nash and DTS web sites, an improved playlist and interactive gallery. Comprehensive biographies for all performers and all those technical details are available across all playback platforms.

Songs for Survivors’ is an excellent disc; you’ll hear an interesting, lively surround mix, a band and singer on top form and top-notch fidelity from the DVD-Audio MLP track despite it ‘only’ being 48kHz. This is certainly a title worthy of adding to your collection, provided you take the exaggerated DTS LFE levels with a pinch of salt…

DVD-Audio Disc Technical Notes

Centre/LFE Frequency Response Plots

Frequency response plots generated from the LFE and centre channels of both the Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP) and DTS tracks upon the DTS Entertainment DVD-Audio disc ‘Songs for Survivors’. The entire length of the first track was captured and then analysed using a Blackmann-Harris profile with 65536 FFT size, a 120dB range in relation to a -25dB reference point for both centre channel plots, -30dB for the MLP LFE plot and -21dB for the DTS LFE plot.

Note: The DTS LFE track upon this disc is 9dB louder than the MLP LFE track, therefore to produce LFE frequency response plots that can be easily compared as if both tracks were replayed at the same level, the reference point for the DTS LFE track was lowered by 9dB.

As is clear from the plots, the centre channel frequency reponses of MLP and DTS are remarkably similar, and yet the LFE response differs considerably.

Centre/LFE Level Comparison

Histogram average level plots generated from the LFE and centre channels of both the Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP) and DTS tracks upon the DTS Entertainment DVD-Audio disc ‘Songs for Survivors’. The entire length of the first track was captured and then analysed.

Note: As is clear, the DTS LFE track upon this disc is 9dB louder than the MLP LFE track.

Front/Surround Frequency Response Plots

Frequency response plots generated from the rear left and front left channels of both the Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP) and DTS tracks upon the DTS Entertainment DVD-Audio disc ‘Songs for Survivors’. The entire length of the first track was captured and then analysed using a Blackmann-Harris profile with 65536 FFT size, a 120dB range in relation to a -25dB reference point.

Front/Surround Level Comparison

Histogram average level plots generated from the front left and rear left channels of both the Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP) and DTS tracks upon the DTS Entertainment DVD-Audio disc ‘Songs for Survivors’. The entire length of the first track was captured and then analysed.

Note: Unlike the relative levels of the centre and LFE channels, the front and rear channels of both MLP and DTS tracks are quite similar, there’s little more than 1dB between them.