High Fidelity Review is going to let you in on a secret. When Capitol Records releases the long-awaited ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ SACD in New York next week, it will become a matter of public knowledge what our world exclusive advance review permits us to verify – it is a sparkling success, defying the gravity of expectations that invariably tug at such a staple of popular music. James Guthrie, the sound engineer responsible for the new 5.1 mix of the album, found a way to succeed where there were ten thousand ways to fail.
Readers of High Fidelity Review have been apprised for months of the gestation of this project, starting with the format choice of SACD instead of DVD-Audio, and that original sound engineer Alan Parsons would have no involvement in the project. At the time it was officially announced in Las Vegas at CES 2003 that ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ was coming to Super Audio CD, High Fidelity Review had confirmed that Guthrie, who has worked with Pink Floyd for many years, was collaborating closely with members of the band to best assure their approval of the process. All of the insider comments published by High Fidelity Review, including those from Roger Waters, suggested that the venture would be a success – all of which could not help but create a healthy dose of scepticism, as we awaited our advance copy. But now we have listened.
Approaching this review suggested the daunting task ahead of Guthrie – not because of the critical or popular acclaim of the work, but the drab familiarity of it all. This is, after all, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ – thirty years old, fifteen years on the U.S. Billboard album chart, a pioneer “concept album” from a band known for avant-garde prowess in, frankly, more naпve times. Millions are familiar with the entire album, having every note replicated in some groove of memory, yet possibly without knowing the name of even one song. How often can we visit ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ in the cultural museum in which it resides, and at the same time pretend it’s interesting?
Yet this is something shining and new. This is ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ in surround, in high resolution, in a manner you’ve never heard it before. As a basis for comparison, I had on hand the venerable Mobile Fidelity Gold Disc CD, which has long been praised as an outstanding incarnation of Red Book CD. I began my ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ SACD review with the suspicion that a lot of the material would lend itself well to surround – the electronic effects, the synthesized music, the random voices that often mingled with the music. What I was not prepared for was the fidelity of this disc, particularly when contrasted to the Mobile Fidelity disc, which sounds so “clean” in comparison to so many CDs. The difference in fidelity was not subtle, making the CD version sound flat and even insipid in contrast. While I was expecting the surround mix to make the biggest difference – and it did – I was pleasantly surprised at how great an advance in sonic fidelity the Super Audio CD version made.
|1||Speak to Me|
|3||On the Run|
|5||The Great Gig in the Sky|
|7||Us and Them|
|8||Any Colour You Like|
|Disc Primary Format:|
|Disc Release Date:|
|CDP 7243 5 82136 2 1-US|
|DSD (SACD) Audio:|
|Channels:||2/0.0 & 3/2.1|
|Linear PCM (CD-DA Layer):|
|SACD Disc Ratings:|
‘Speak To Me’ is the opening cut on this, the first Pink Floyd SACD. It begins with the low thump of a something like a timepiece, or a heartbeat, with clocks ticking, the sound of a rotary dial pay phone, cash clinking in the tiny vault of the pay phone. All of this is now spread out widely, spread out like never before, circulating among the front and surround spread of speakers, giving it a presence not possible in the two channel version, nor even in a synthesized surround version such as Pro Logic II or Logic 7, the propietary surround mode of many a Lexicon. ‘On The Run’, a cut similarly laden with synthesized music and effects that accent the song, can now pan the footsteps and heavy breathing of the song across the spectrum of speakers, and the same sense of space and new dimension gets imparted.
‘Time’, the famous cut which begins with the montage of clock, chimes, bells, is now presented with such a presence – with the sense of space that only sound from all directions permits – that it is, simply, the best surround music I have ever heard. The clocks are followed by single note guitar picks, which have a counterpoint of drums answering each note, then piano accents. Only now the panoply of the instruments is not being dictated from one position in the room, rather it is part of a sonic atmosphere, a circle of which the listener is the center. Although it might seem elementary that one should seem to be in the center of “surround music,” it is in this respect that the surround mix of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ can be best distinguished from other 5.1 mixes – unlike many surround mixes, it is the listening position, as opposed to the position of the center channel, which is the focal point of the mix.
I consider a surround mix to be analogous to the interior design of a room – the same room, with the same furniture, can look very different depending on where things are placed, on the colors that are chosen. One can tastefully arrange the dйcor of a room to suggest symmetry and balance, or one can stack pieces of furniture atop one another. It stands to reason when you read the comments of sound engineers who frankly concede that a two-channel mix is more difficult to pull off than a multi-channel mix, for the simple reason that there are less places to put things. There are certainly examples where the abundance of choice leads to excess, or error, but the basic idea is that multi-channel music, by its nature, gives the engineer more options.
Surround music enthusiasts are particularly fond of center channels. There are many good reasons for this, one of which is that the center channel provides an actual image where there otherwise would be a phantom image. However, surround enthusiasts might also admit to a bias in this respect – I will certainly concede that I usually expect the sound engineer to make distinct use of the discrete center channel, such as isolating vocals there, and that is frequently, though not always, what is done. When it doesn’t get mixed like that, I generally have some disappointment to overcome.
‘Dark Side of the Moon’ might be characterized as the anti-center channel surround mix. In nearly every song (with the notable exception of the saxophone in ‘Us and Them’) the center channel loses its place in the normal surround hierarchy – indeed, in most cuts it is relegated to the unusual duty of bass guitar, and often only bass guitar. This occurs while the vocals are, almost exclusively, radiating from the left and right speakers, with the occasional choice of adding the vocals to the surrounds. The use of the center channel was an issue that I had to consider before forming a judgment.
As I listened to the tracks over and over, I noticed that by taking the center channel “out of the mix” (so to speak) the sonic focus was diverted away from the location in the room where the center channel is placed. Thus, by denying the center channel its position as “anchor,” it caused the center of the soundstage to gravitate to the listener, not to the north of the listening position. This spread the music out spatially, and it occurred to me that this was likely the desired effect. There is no mistaking that this effect is a surround “statement” of sorts.
It was an unexpected choice. As I’ve suggested, much of Pink Floyd’s music is amenable to a 5.1 mix, much like some novels are more amenable to screenplays than others. Indeed, an excellent example of a Pink Floyd 5.1 mix has been around for years in the Alan Parker film adaptation of ‘The Wall’, subsequently captured on DVD-Video, boasting an outstanding Dolby Digital 5.1 track. I listened to and watched this DVD in contrast to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ during the review process. That mix, which was also done by Guthrie, was of an entirely different approach.
Conventional use of the center channels abounded, although less use of the surrounds. As far as I was concerned, ‘The Wall’ DVD should have been the logical precursor to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, but it really wasn’t. A tempting comparison that we alas could not indulge in this first review was the quadraphonic version created by Parsons in 1973, although Parsons had earlier confirmed to High Fidelity Review that the SACD was not based on his quadraphonic mix. But thanks to our friend Jim Fosgate and a cherished copy of the vinyl SQ Quad version, that is something we’ll be featuring very soon, so stay tuned.
For a hint of what a different choice might have sounded like, listen to ‘Us and Them’. After fairly well concluding that I would never hear discrete sound anchored from the center channel, then came the gentle saxophone solo introducing the opening passages of the track. It seemed almost as if Guthrie were reminding me that the option of the center channel was well known to him, but, so long as the material required it, he would be judicious in its use, usually to the point of exclusion. The corresponding result is surround atmosphere achieved not by the sum of all its different parts adding up to an accidental whole, but from a lot of mixing and matching among all different points, emphasizing a unified impression of sound, as opposed to a contemporaneous collection of discrete and different sounds. Indeed, even in the haunting and famous wordless vocal of ‘Great Gig in the Sky’, the Clare Torry solo lurks from all channels but the center.
Another turning point from the Dolby Digital 5.1 track of ‘The Wall’ was aggressive use of surrounds in ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, virtually always. This is most poignantly noted in its contradistinction to the use of the center channel, but also from the unremarkable treatment of surrounds in ‘The Wall’.
I have always had difficulty wth the internal crossover of the low bass in ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ CD discs. Whenever I thought I had my system perfectly time-aligned, and crossovers intelligently set, I would get an extra element of ‘boominess’ that suggested a lack of restraint from the sound engineer, leaving the listener helpless no matter what post-production manipulation might be obtained. Here, however, is a new, radically taut low frequency bass, arguably of the very best sort. You have to search for it, so it won’t find you. What gets revealed upon the search is that the subwoofers are fully and powerfully extending through the disc, but never in a manner to dominate the surround mix. In every prior version of ‘Speak To Me’ that has played in my system, the low bass over-extended, rumbled, caused vibration of a wood frame. Now, the bass is strong as ever, but without the collateral vibrations it introduced.
In short, this is bass that has been measured, cut to perfectly fit the piece. It’s easy to be deceived into thinking it is too light, simply because you have to search for it. Rest assured, however, that it is easily found, and likewise easily reveals a most active and dynamic low bass track.
The low bass is not found merely from the subwoofers. There seems to be an attempt to push the envelop of full range to both the center channel and the surround speakers. Again, the center channel was often just doubling as a full range channel for low bass extension, yet the surrounds were getting pushed as if they were smaller left and right main speakers altogether. I have never played a disc which so requires reference level listening, and which so makes you long for full range speakers across the entire spectrum. This is not a criticism of the disc at all. Guthrie knew precisely how far he could push things.
If I have said that the music on ‘Time’ is the greatest surround music ever heard, then I’ll confess that the disc induces fickleness; the familiar cut ‘Money’ is equally outstanding. All of the possibilities of the Pink Floyd material getting lusciously translated into surround are poured into the concoction. ‘Money’ begins with the clanging of coin, dialing of rotary pay-phones responding to the coins that musically ring upon impact in a stunning presentation of surround sound. Echo-plexed guitars converge into the sound of the coins from the surrounds, and the vocals fire from everywhere and nowhere, unless you’re confirming with a stethoscope their actual location as I did (okay …not with a stethoscope). The effect, like so many of the other effects on this disc, is to crack a thirty year old shell and reveal this music in a new light, and in a light brighter and more lush than has ever been cast about it.
After conceding Guthrie his point – that I was in no position to quibble with his choices of the surround mix – I am nevertheless still in wonder of what yet a second interpretation would do for the disc. This one is so very good that I’m now betting a contrary version would suffer in comparison, but I guess my point is that the ingredients present suggest it could be done differently, and perhaps in a manner that would be enjoyed every bit as much, but differently, from this top-notch Guthrie effort. There had been early talk of a possible DVD-Audio version, and I can think of little downside to a different surround interpretation, in the competing format.
This Super Audio CD is a hybrid disc, meaning it will play on either a SACD player, or a conventional CD player, although you’ll only get the multi-channel and higher resolution from a Super Audio CD player. I took the time to compare them, and found that the disc, when played as a CD, takes the two-channel track to a new level as well. The fidelity of the disc, even from a CD player, was still decidedly better than the Mobile Fidelity disc. The hybrid disc also carries a two-channel DSD track. The two-channel version boasts the same outstanding resolution of the multi-channel layer, but the focus of this review is the 5.1 mix, since that is the truly novel feature of this disc.
The original cover art has been revamped for the occasion. The original, against a background of black, showed a prism with various colors of light refracting from it. The Design Team Hipgnsosis was responsible for that cover, and at least some of that design team has created the new cover, i.e., Strom Thorgerson. The new cover background is a blue violet or purple, with a similar prism refracting multi-colored light from it. There’s possibly some significance to that choice of purple, however, as Storm Thorgerson has been quoted as saying that the Hipgnosis team had purposefully omitted the hue purple from the original design, because it wouldn’t read properly. That said, there certainly appeared to me to be a shade of purple emerging from the prism on the original cover art, but the new cover art is attractive in any event.
So ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ has been re-mixed and re-mastered, and the album can now be experienced in a positive manner never before available. And, while I’ll maintain that it contains some of the best surround music I’ve ever heard, and that the fidelity of the disc is now available in a way never heard, I’ll stop short of crowning it the best multi-channel disc, or even the best Super Audio CD, simply because life is easier in the absence of such absolutes. However, I will say that if someone else wants to bestow those crowns on this disc, they are well deserved in any respect, and I probably could not think of another disc more entitled to the honors. It is likely at least as good as anything that has yet been done in multi-channel.
It is however, in my judgment, the most important multi-channel disc ever made. I make that observation on the basis of its unassailable quality, and its existing status in popular music culture. There are a few works (though just a few) that can make similar claims as to the latter – ‘Sergeant Peppers…’, for example – but we’ve gotten no help from our friends with a 5.1 mix of that album, or any of the other Beatles album. The unfortunately real issue is to create enough popular interest in multi-channel formats that require some amount of investment from music lovers, or the multi-channel libraries simply cannot proliferate. In many respects, the successful metamorphosis of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ is the best advancement to date of that goal.
At the press release in Las Vegas, it was expressed that ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ might prove a real boost to the format. By any standard, those responsible have delivered in a big way.