Surround 2004: While it wasn’t on the show program, one of the highlights of the recent Surround 2004 Conference in Hollywood was a sneak preview of the upcoming Surround Sound Super Audio CDs by Elton John.
The sneak preview was offered by producer and engineer Greg Penny who is heading up the remixing and remastering of the singer’s classic catalog albums into 5.1 Surround Sound.
Penny was the producer and engineer of last year’s 5.1 Surround Sound edition of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road which won two Surround 2004 Conference Awards, so it seemed only fitting that he would be retained to continue the series for Elton John and Universal/Rocket Records.
Honky Cat in 5.1 Surround Sound
To kick off his session with a lively start, Penny cued up the new 5.1 Surround Sound remix of Honky Cat from the album Honky Chateau. Session attendees were treated to an exciting new 5.1 mix of the song which featured extensive use of all 5 channels. With Honky Cat, Elton John’s vocals are in the Center Channel with the Front Channels being used for the band and Right and Left Surround used for the horns and instrumental accents in the song.
Penny explained that his approach to mixing Elton John in Surround Sound is to duplicate the sound and feel of the original recording, make sure the song “rocks”, highlight the singer’s vocals and piano (he said “with Elton’s songs it’s all about the vocals and the piano”) and involve the music fan with the song making extensive use of both the front and surround channels.
To my ears, he certainly accomplished all of the above with the new 5.1 edition of Honky Cat. But I would caution SACD fans that if you’re looking for a subtle and ambient edition of Elton’s songs, you’d best stick to the SACD Stereo track on this one.
Getting The Assignment
One of the more interesting stories Penny told was how he came to get the assignment to produce and engineer the Elton John 5.1 Surround Sound reissue series. Penny has been a big fan of Elton John and first met the singer at age 17 when he sat in on the original recording sessions in France of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Over the years, Penny became a recording engineer and producer working with artists including k.d. Lang and of course Elton John with his Made in England album.
According to Penny, he pitched Elton John and his band on the idea of mixing Made in England in 5.1 Surround Sound by creating a 5.1 mix of one of the songs from that album. Penny said that when he played the sample Surround Sound cut for Elton and the band, they said it was great. Then Elton told him he’d like Penny to do a Surround Sound remix of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album. Penny said “I was stunned and almost fell off my chair. But I quickly recovered and agreed on the spot.” And that was the start of Penny’s work on the Elton John Surround Sound remixes.
Exploring The Vaults & Remixing
Greg Penny told us he remains a big fan of Elton John and he was thrilled to have a chance to go through the vaults as part of the project. It turns out that the Elton John master tapes are kept in a vault in a subway tunnel in London. The early albums are recorded on 4 or 8 tracks and then gradually show an increase in track usage over time – with Honky Chateau being the first album recorded in 16 track and Caribou being the first in 24 track.
Sometimes it can be a challenge to find all of the needed tracks. In the case of Benny & the Jets, the crowd applause was initially missing. The missing applause was found three weeks later on an “extras” master tape. Interestingly, the applause was taken from two actual rock concerts – one featured Elton John, and the other starred Jimi Hendrix!
Penny says that his approach is to do the Surround Sound remixes “in layers”. He starts by transferring the master tapes to DLT tape, then he works to take out the pops and cracks. Once this has been done, he starts by focusing on the drums, piano and vocals, followed by the backing instruments and then adding reverbs to complete the process.
Greg Penny also talked about transferring his finished Surround Sound mixes to the Sonoma DSD Workstation for mastering and authoring work. He mentioned working on this phase of the project with Gus Skinas of the new Super Audio Center in Boulder, Colorado. He said “Gus is all about the music” and really cares about the finished product. He also noted that Skinas was unable to attend the Surround 2004 event in September because he was “back in the studio finishing up the SACDs” of the 5 Elton John albums.
Isolating The Vocals & Bonus Tracks
To emphasize an earlier point, Penny played the 5.1 Surround Sound versions of Madman Across The Water and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. Both featured Elton John’s vocals in the Center channel. Penny’s view is that he likes “soloing” Elton’s vocals on the Surround Sound track of each reissue so that the fans can listen to the vocals only, if they choose. He also said that Elton John himself enjoys this approach to the remixes, saying listening to them is “like looking in the mirror”.
Turning to Madman Across The Water, Penny played us the 5.1 remix of the original version of the song, It features guitar in Left Front, vocals in the Center and the “thunder clap” sound effects and string section of the song in the surround channels. He also told us that one of the upcoming Surround Sound albums would feature a “more stripped down, alternate version” of the song. Much as he did with the two versions of Candle In The Wind on the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Penny says he likes finding “extras” in his search through the master tapes and thinks music fans will appreciate these extra tracks. I’d agree with him there – the time spent finding and including the extra tracks is appreciated.
Rocket Man and Philadelphia Freedom
On Rocket Man, Penny explained that he wanted to use the Surround Channels to “involve the listener”. To do this, he places the band and Elton in the front channels, uses the surround channels for the background vocals and then uses panned sound effects to finish it off. Very nicely done.
Turning to another favorite, Philadelphia Freedom, Penny noted that the original master tape was recorded at a much louder level than other tracks. For the 5.1 Surround Sound mix, he had to “back off” the volume a bit with “all channels going” to make the song sound correct. The final Surround Sound mix didn’t sound softer to me at all – it was lively, made extensive use of all 5 channels and definitely “rocked” to use Penny’s expression.
Peachtree Road in Surround Sound
Sitting in on the presentation was Matt Still, the recording engineer for Elton John’s upcoming album Peachtree Road. Still told us that he mixed the album in both Stereo and Surround Sound from the start at Elton John’s request. His approach is to do a rough mix of each cut, audition it for the singer and then “tweak it a bit” based on Elton’s comments.
During Still’s presentation, we heard two tracks in Surround Sound from Peachtree Road – Answer In The Sky and Too Many Tears. Answer In The Sky is slated to be the first single from the album while Too Many Tears is Still’s favorite from a Surround Sound perspective. Answer In The Sky features Elton John’s vocals in the Center Channel, the piano in the front channels with strings and background singers in the surround channels. Too Many Tears is a more aggressive Surround Sound mix with some panning and effects in the Surround channels.
What’s Next ?
Penny says that his work on the Elton John series has involved 6 albums in total and 82 Elton John songs remixed into 5.1 Surround Sound. As to what’s next, Penny is already at work pulling master tapes for the next 5 albums. Surround Sound remixing is governed by what master tapes are available. At this point, Penny says four of Elton’s early album
s – Caribou, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, Rock Of The Westies and Blue Moves – are likely to be in the next group of 5 Surround Sound remasters. I suspect we’ll see if they are indeed in the line up in the months ahead.