In 2003, High Fidelity Review trumpeted one of surround music’s best moments, the release of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon‘ as a 5.1 SACD. While by all accounts the disc enjoyed enormous popularity among surround music enthusiasts, there were two immediate questions presented: What would it have sounded like if released as a DVD-Audio disc? And what about the original quadraphonic mix by sound engineer Alan Parsons? The debate over the two competing surround formats was fresher then, and there was a thirty year allegiance to the 4.0 quadraphonic mix of original surround engineer Alan Parsons, a mix that was never endorsed by the group itself, but which had itself become a cult classic since the release of this giant work in 1973.
Now, from the anonymous environs of “Obsolete Productions” (read: Bootleg Land) we are greeted with a response of sorts to those questions, the DVD-Audio release “from the original [q]uadraphonic master tapes” of a 96/24 DVD-Audio disc, purporting to be the original Alan Parsons quadraphonic mix, except with a low frequency track added. Thus, while the Parsons quad mix was 4.0, this particular rendition is 4.1. The mystery engineer, who advises High Fidelity Review of a professional background in sound engineering, has privately verified what the bootleg label reads, i.e., that this disc is from the original quad master tapes. In addition to an MLP 4.1 track, the disc also can be played from conventional DVD players in either DTS or Dolby Digital, each boasting the same 4.1 mix, albeit in the lower 48kHz resolution. Alas, the particular disc I had on hand could only play the first 1:11 opening sequence of ‘Dark Side of the Moon‘ in either DTS or Dolby Digital, so it is really only the higher resolution version on which I can comment.
From a standpoint of fidelity, it would be difficult to argue against the quality of this production. After several side-by-side listening comparisons of the 4.1 MLP version against the Guthrie SACD, it’s generally a toss-up as to overall sound quality, although I’d give the edge on the LFE track to the SACD, though that observation could simply be a function of what I perceived to be a more robust bass on the SACD. Judging from earlier bootleg DTS versions of the Parsons mix, the sonic quality of this release was in a different league, and on par with the shining clean rendition of the SACD – that alone bestows high praise on it. While the attendant claims of being based on the original quadraphonic tapes cannot be verified, listening to the disc inspires belief. Since I was limited to only tiny snippets of the DTS or Dolby Digital mix, the most I can say of the differences between the high resolution version and either of the other versions were at best subtle, if at all audible.
But by putting the Parsons mix on a level sonic playing field with the Guthrie SACD, the inevitable point of inquiry is to compare the surround mixes. In that respect, some general observations are in order.
There is little question that the Parsons mix is gutsier, more discrete than the Guthrie mix. As Parsons has explained,
“I tend to work on the outsides when I mix for surround. A lot of people choose to go into the room, but that’s asking for clarity problems–it clouds things up. In my quad mix of Dark Side, I liked the idea of action happening in all four channels.”¹
Notwithstanding the additional sense of discrete material, several side by side listenings kept driving home another general point: Both mixes still permit the great music to dominate the experience without drawing undue attention to the surround mix itself – the comparisons between the mixes was often an analysis of subtleties, not bright-line distinctions. To no small degree, angels and pinheads come to mind.
Despite a reserved center channel use in the SACD, the absence of center channel information in the Parsons mix contributes to one of the largest differences between the mixes. Four stereo soundfields might avoid “a stereo experience with ambience” (Parsons’ reference to the Guthrie mix), but the sense of ambience that even a reserved center channel creates is something that, in the contrast between the surround mixes, often caused me to prefer the SACD. The more discrete mix certainly “grabs” the listener more readily, but several listening sessions can induce an appreciation for the wider and fuller soundstage that gets presented, even when the center channel plays a subtle role (and for those interested in surround-sound easter eggs, I noticed for the first time that the opening clink of the cash register in ‘Money’ on the SACD comes from the center channel – but only once).
The difference in the mixes plays tricks on the ears. After convincing myself that the output levels were a notch lower on the DVD-Audio, I tested this with an SPL meter. The result was that, if anything, the output levels were a hair better than the SACD. Perhaps that suggests that the wide soundfield of the SACD actually is a bit muddier, and therefore only seems louder, but I still can’t detect a bit of mud in the Guthrie mix. While the DVD-Audio perhaps matches its fidelity, I certainly can’t say that it betters it, except in certain places.
But the more discrete quadraphonic mix caused me to prefer it in several passages. ‘On the Run’ is a good example of how the more discrete mix permitted a much crisper sense from the drums. Likewise, in both ‘Time’ and ‘Money’ the more discrete bass seemed plucked more succinctly, though this may just as well be a function of the outstanding fidelity of the DVD-Audio version. In ‘Us and Them’, the more discrete vocals from the front mains also gave it clarity that seemed a notch better than the mix on the SACD. While the LFE channel on the DVD-Audio is authoritative and emphatic, I thought the bass on the SACD more robust. Nonetheless, the bass that is not deferred to a subwoofer is generally more discrete from the main speakers on the DVD-Audio. Incidentally, the LFE on the DVD-A version is just filtered bass from the remaining channels.
The SACD remains wider, fuller, gentler, but more lush. In cuts like ‘Speak to Me’, or ‘Any Colour You Like’, the wide soundfield fills the room and envelops the listener, much more than anything on the DVD-Audio. The gentle saxophone solo on ‘Us and Them’, one of the only truly discrete uses of the center channel on the SACD, offers an experience that seemed to me distinctly preferable to the use of the front mains on the DVD-Audio.
For the purist who wants to listen to the quadraphonic mix without the LFE channel that’s been engrafted on it, one can simply turn off the subwoofers. That particular experiment seemed to me to assault the notion that one should stick to the “original intent” of the artist, because the LFE channel added so much in the contrast between the two. Our mystery sound engineer explained the preference for the additional channel with the highly technical explanation that “it sounds better.” I happily agree.
Putting these mixes side by side invites confusion. While even the most subtle differences are notable, it’s easy to change one’s mind over which mix gets preferred, even from passage to passage within certain songs. It’s likewise easy, when listening to the mixes repeatedly, to engage in abundant flip-flopping on which is preferable. That the band members rejected the Parsons mix – then and now – is certainly capable of adequate response by those who prefer the quad mix, but it’s a formidable fact in the analysis. As Guthrie pointed out shortly after the release of the SACD,
“the band asked for some changes, but thankfully none of them were major. And there was very little in terms of the placement of instruments. It’s crucial for fans to understand that this mix has the band’s input and endorsement.”¹
An easy retort to those who prefer the Parsons mix is the one given by Guthrie:
“The band listened to that quad mix and elected not to use it.” ¹
The release of the Guthrie SACD remains the high moment in high-resolution surround music, and the real reason for that has always been one thing: the music of ‘Dark Side of the Moon‘. The sheer strength of that music makes even this bootleg release something significant, although boasting significance in the realm of high-resolution multichannel audio has unfortunately become an exercise of the dearest modesty. Replete even with one feature that the Guthrie SACD can’t match – a video slideshow corresponding to each song — surround enthusiasts have a mystery guest to thank for a most pleasant charitable donation. The disc is unavailable to anyone else in the whole world, unless they are one of the few who have access to the internet.
¹Tales from the Dark Side, Sound And Vision Magazine, May 2003