Roxy Music – ‘Avalon’ An SACD review by Patrick Cleasby

I’d like to make it perfectly clear that this will not be a particularly objective review of the music that makes up ‘Avalon’. I have already owned this album three times over the last twenty years, firstly as a Compact Cassette, closely followed by a first-generation Compact Disc, which was only recently replaced by the HDCD re-master. From headphone listening in those early Walkman days through to appreciating the attempt to eke as much as possible out of the CD format with HDCD, this has always been a sequence of beautiful, and beautifully recorded tracks to get lost in, and thus the prospect of a surround remix had me slavering in anticipation. It helped that one of the first things I heard about it was from Bob Ludwig, who declared, “I mastered the 5.1 of Avalon a while ago, it’s one of my all-time favorite surround projects now. Bob (Clearmountain) did such an incredible job on it.

Released as a hybrid multi-channel SACD in Europe in the middle of the year, the disc has now been made available on the other side of the pond. This is once again one of those albums where the original producer, in this case long-time Roxy/Ferry cohort Rhett Davies, claims that the surround treatment is what they would have done with the material at the time, had the technology been available. It is an album that arguably represents the absolute zenith of Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry’s song writing and recording career. There have been some fantastic albums both before and after this one, but somehow the consistent and consistently excellent set of musicians used and the dream-like feel of a record which contains such superlative singles as the title track and ‘More Than This’, as well as other songs and instrumentals whose standards are right up there with those classics, made this title a banker to be the first Roxy Music album to gain a high-resolution release. It was accompanied by the release of ‘The Best of Roxy Music’ as a stereo-only hybrid SACD. Although many punters would like to see full multi-channel compilations for favourite artists, the cost and complexity of researching and transferring multi-tracks for an artist’s entire catalogue all at once always tends to mitigate against that possibility.

As the sleeve note makes clear, this is another one of those cases, along with ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, where Sony have “encouraged” the creatives associated with an album from a non-Sony label’s catalogue to rework that title for SACD. It is difficult to knock this as a strategy when it results in the complete team who originated a project stewarding the reissue. Generally those behind an album that has stood the test of time are delighted to be involved again and make sure that their baby gets the best treatment possible. In this case we have original album producer Davies producing the SACD reissue, original mixdown engineer Bob Clearmountain revisiting his mixes in a surround context, and mastering maestro Bob Ludwig ensuring that the end result is as polished as his vinyl and HDCD masters.

Key here is the “possible” in “best treatment possible”. Due to a phenomenon which has blighted many legacy projects such as this, namely the fallible binding agents in the Ampex tape used by so many of the top recording artists of the seventies and eighties, aspects of this (hopefully, and maybe of necessity) final revisiting were not straightforward. A couple of months ago David Price, the editor of UK magazine Hi-Fi World revealed that he had been told by Rhett Davies at a launch event that the sources for this re-release were of 16-bit PCM origin. Alarm was justly sounded among the high-resolution contingent on the audiophile message-boards. Personally I was incredulous, as the disc just sounded too good for that to be true. A lot of digging around for further information ensued!

However, to get the good news out of the way first, the stereo aspect of the new transfer was not an issue – according to Bob Ludwig, quoted here verbatim, because I can’t put this any more succinctly, “…the SACD stereo was made from the original 30ips Ѕ” masters which were in great shape, not a single piece of PCM gear was used so it is “pure” SACD and the magic of SACD clearly comes through, unlike when PCM processing must be used.” While the results are very fine indeed, the multi-channel mix is what really sets this disc apart from the run-of-the-mill.

Over to Bob Clearmountain to describe the constraints he was working with when trying to get the best possible transfers of the multi-track prior to mixing. Again a verbatim quote is required to do the information imparted full justice:

In 1995, after EG Records was sold to Virgin, they decided to make digital safeties of all the Roxy stuff. Unfortunately when they tried to play the analog masters it was found that they wouldn’t play, which is a common problem occurring with Ampex tape manufactured during the late 70’s and early 80’s. I believe this is due to an organic lubricant they used at the time that goes bad after a number of years. The tapes were baked, which allows them to be played once or twice after which they become useless. They were then immediately copied to a modified Sony PCM 3324 digital 24-track tape recorder with Apogee filters. Subsequently the analog tapes were lost, although we probably wouldn’t have been able to play them anyway.

It was unfortunate that all we had to work from was the 16-bit safeties as there is some loss because of the 16-bit conversion, but keep in mind that during multi-track transfers and/or recordings, the signal to noise ratio is usually at its optimum. Each track is recorded to its maximum level, since balance is not an issue yet – that comes in the mix. Therefore the full dynamic range of 16-bits has been utilized. The true subtlety is in the mix. Not every fader is set for full level, so the dynamic range of a mix is much larger then the individual instruments and tracks.

The existence of this problem is being underlined by the fact that every digital mixer has an internal bit depth varying from 24- to 48-bit fixed rate or 32-bit floating point. So capturing a mix properly is a most difficult and delicate procedure and therefore requires the best conversion and storage method.

This statement can be illustrated by looking at the history of music recording and mixing. Capturing of the mix has always been more advanced then the multi-tracking part. Analog 24 multi-track and Ѕ” two track for the mix master, followed by 24 track analog and 16-bit PCM for the mix, which was followed by 16-bit multi-track and 24-bit two track and currently it is very often 24-bit multitrack with 2 channel or 5.1 24-bit at sample rates of 96kHz, 192kHz or DSD (SACD).

A fortunate accident that occurred during the transfer to 16-bit was that, apparently due to the engineer’s apparent unfamiliarity with the Sony Dash machine, the transfers were made with the varispeed control engaged and cranked to its maximum speed of +12%. As the sample rate was set to 48kHz, the increased 12% speed/clock rate gave the transfer an effective sample rate of 53.760kHz, which obviously gave us higher resolution safeties once we duplicated the tape speed “error” upon playback.

During the mix, and before reassigning elements to the surround channels, we had the original Ѕ” analog mix master to refer to so that we could match the arrangement and the many subtleties in the original stereo mixes. We found that once the balances were matched, the new mixes (still in stereo) actually exhibited more depth and width than the originals, which I was truly surprised at. I suppose this was partly due to the fact that my Sony PCM 3348HR 48-track recorder has six ultra-high quality AD 8000SE 24-bit converters attached (replacing its original ones), but mainly because of the generation loss from the original Ѕ” analog tape, which, of course is absent on the SACD. Also, even though both the original and the new versions were mixed on Solid State Logic 4000 consoles, SSL had made many audible improvements between the 4000 E series used on the original and the 4000 G+ version that I’m using now.

Still paying attention at the back? In this instance, because people became concerned about the 16-bit rumours, I feel that such detailed information is useful in order to bring clarity to those who are still worried. As ever, although it is nice to know such background, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and this is a very fine feast indeed!

The sublime ‘More Than This’ leads off the album with a declaration of adventurous surround intent. Toms and guitars are in the rear speakers, and there is much use of the centre for various vocals, percussion parts and bass, ably supported by the subwoofer track. The guitar solo takes over the whole right side of the room.

A similar pattern is used for the subsequent tracks, ‘The Space Between’ and ‘Avalon’, with synth and vocal effects in the surrounds, a great backing vocal which circles the room anti-clockwise in the latter, and a sax solo in the right rear.

The one track, which is compromised in that the multi-track could not be found, (according to Clearmountain, Davies spent months searching for them!), is the short instrumental interstitial ‘India’. Due to its nature a novel approach of taking the stereo image and gradually moving it across each pair of speakers clockwise around the room, for me, works reasonably well and is far preferable to dropping down to stereo, or even “unwrap” type processing.

While My Heart is Still Beating’ has guitars around the room throughout, and a thudding thumped bass part. ‘Take A Chance With Me’ has oboes, roto-tom percussion and drum reverb joining the guitars all around, a fantastically real vocal and a fabulous toppy Alembic-type bass sound driven from the centre. The main percussion part is incredibly tight!

There is only one foot put wrong in the whole of this mix; the only track where the overall character of the mix changes significantly from the original is ‘The Main Thing’, where the formerly diffuse fuzz guitar stabs at the beginning are more raw and prominent than in the original mix and the drum box handclaps seem less prominent. I had presumed that this was a deliberate artistic mix decision, but as Bob Clearmountain humbly confesses, “Not really. I couldn’t figure out how we got the sound on the drum box, so I sampled it off the intro of the original Ѕ” mix master, but it shouldn’t be quieter – I guess I screwed those things up… woops!”. Much worse crimes have been committed in the name off surround mixing, and as the backroom boys have confirmed, Bryan Ferry personally approved the mixes. It would seem possible that sometimes the devoted among us know the material more back to front than the creators!

To Turn You On’ starts with Casio-ish keyboards in the rears, and very lively dampened guitar fills in the right. As elsewhere on the album the centre is used against the rhythm guitar parts elsewhere to foreground the emphatic main guitar solo, and the outro piano dances while standing out from the front soundstage.

True to Life’ has oscillating keyboards and vocals in the rear, faraway guitar in the left rear and a clear toned guitar solo in the front right to very pleasing effect. Original album closer, the instrumental ‘Tara’, sees us away with washes of breathy synth and sea noise from the rear, and a lovely big bass synth sound, while the main oboe moves around gently. This is such a classic album from beginning to end and the surround mix only emphasises its pedigree.

Interestingly, when it is so common for SACD titles to drop the extra tracks found on CD remasters, for once we have an extra – original B Side ‘Always Unknowing’ is presented, bizarrely, as a DSD multi-channel only bonus. No one seems sure why, but if it is to market SACD surround, it just seems a shame from a legacy point of view not to have included the original stereo mix in any form. Still, it is great to hear the same degree of sympathetic surround mixing given to such B side material, a track whose quality is almost up there with the rest of the album. There is a great spacey feel, with percussion all around, and some Ferry vocals that move around the room in the outro.

The quality of the package and reprographics (does anyone else resent the frequently awful quality of CD re-master artwork?) are outstanding, with an informative sleeve note from Rhett Davies. The one slip up is that the sleeve bears an HDCD logo, presumably a hangover from the previous CD re-master, but Bob Ludwig tells me that the CD layer was actually created from the new DSD stereo version of the album using Sony’s Super Bit Mapping Direct process and as such is not HDCD encoded.

A triumph of ingenuity and supreme skill over situational difficulties, (and the ghost of Ampex), this is one of the finest examples of an SACD reissue. Those backroom engineering stars are perfectly aligned, using their expertise to ensure that despite the non-optimal condition of some elements the end result is just a fantastically pleasurable listening experience. I have heard so many reports of people who have been delighted to hear the new mix, indeed our very own editor, Stuart Robinson, described the experience as being one of “sitting with a big stupid grin on my face” and “if you do listen to the multi-channel, be warned, it’s all you’ll ever want from there on in.

We can only hope that this re-release is soon to be followed by more from the same stable. Personally, as my introduction to Roxy Music was working through the incomparable ‘Manifesto’, ‘Flesh + Blood’, ‘Avalon’ triptych, and then pursuing Ferry’s extension of the same sonic and compositional principles through to ‘Boys and Girls’ and ‘Bête Noire’, I would be delighted if they started with those albums, chronologically from each side of this one. However I am sure that there are many who would be just as eager to hear the full seventies catalogue available in pristine DSD stereo transfers, ideally with multi-channel mixes to boot. The whispers are encouraging – Rhett Davies has told me that Bryan Ferry’s people are in discussions with Sony about future releases of Roxy albums in 5.1, including the Bob Clearmountain surround mix of the recent live album which was commissioned by Eagle Rock, although it now seems that they will not be releasing it themselves. It would be a shame if it were never to see the light of day.

The final word has to go to Bob Clearmountain, “I truly hope that people can completely forget all the technology and enjoy this album for the music and hopefully have a wonderful surround experience – the way we wished we could have mixed it in the first place!” ‘Nuff said.