Surround 2004: The Story Behind Ultimate Mancini and the Ray Charles SACD

Surround 2004: During last week’s Surround 2004 Conference in Hollywood, several recent and upcoming Surround Sound albums were highlighted. In a session led by Concord Records executive, producer and drummer Gregg Field and veteran record producer, recording engineer and surround sound remix engineer Al Schmitt, attendees were given a behind the scenes look at the label’s recent Ultimate Mancini Super Audio CD as well as the upcoming Surround Sound edition of Genius Loves Company by the legendary Ray Charles. Here are some highlights from this session at Surround 2004.

The Story Behind Ultimate Mancini
Gregg Field started off the session by telling the audience about the Ultimate Mancini project. It all started 2 years ago when the U.S. Postal Service announced they would be honoring the late Henry Mancini’s memory with a commemorative stamp this year in honor of what would have been his 80th birthday. This began an effort to develop a series of events to celebrate Mancini’s life and music, including the production of a tribute album entitled Ultimate Mancini.

According to Field, the ingredients for the tribute album included assembling a 65 piece orchestra which featured many top musicians who knew and played with Mancini when the original songs were recorded. Next, he lined up Capitol Records Studios A & B and recording engineer Al Schmitt who had recorded many of Mancini’s original compositions in the early days of his career. The album also featured a number of well known musicians as well as mastering experts Doug Sax and James Guthrie who Field referred to in the talk as “the dream team”.

The Pink Panther Theme
The first selection Field played for the conference was Mancini’s Pink Panther Theme. For the new album, it featured Mancini’s original arrangement except for an Organ Solo by Joey DeFrancesco and a Vibes Solo by Gary Burton which appear on the SACD edition of the record as a “special extended edition” of the song.

A treat on this selection was the guest sax player, Plas Johnson. Johnson, who is now 76 years old, played on the original Pink Panther recording and returned specially for this recording. When a young assistant engineer at Capitol Studios said “he sounds like the original guy”, Field reported told him, “he IS the original guy.”

Moon River with Stevie Wonder
Field next told the attendees about recording Moon River in a new arrangement. The idea was to bring something new to the song by bringing in the premiere harmonica player today (Stevie Wonder) and a wonderful group of singers (Take 6). Apparently both were fans of Mancini’s work and readily agreed to be part of the project. In fact, Wonder enjoyed his part of the effort so much that he stayed after his harmonica solo was completed to listen to the orchestra and other soloists in the studio for several hours.

A Subtle Approach to Surround Sound
Next up, the attendees heard Two for The Road (referred to as Mancini’s favorite composition) and the famous Theme From Peter Gunn featuring Tom Scott on an alto sax solo. After these two selections, Field and Schmitt talked about their approach to the 5.1 Surround Sound mix of the album for release on Super Audio CD.

Field said he asked Schmitt to keep the focus on the music in the front channels with subtle sounds and accents in the surround channels for the most part. According to Schmitt, he did this by using echo chambers at the Capitol Studios for the orchestra and a bit on the vocals. In terms of the Center Channel, Schmitt used it a bit with the vocals to keep them centered as well as placing some of the snare and kick drum in the center channel as well.

In terms of the album, Schmitt said most of the album did use a subtle approach to Surround Sound, with some selections like Two for the Road getting more of a enveloping mix than others. Schmitt indicated that he keeps the wishes of the record producer in mind when doing a 5.1 Surround Sound mix such as this one.

Music On The Way
Turning to track 17 on the SACD edition and the final selection on the CD version of Ultimate Mancini, Field talked about the song “Music On The Way”. Here the goal was to use a simple orchestration of strings, a harp, the vocals of Monica Mancini and some echo to focus attention on the vocalist and the musicians as they performed the tune live in the studio. Field described the effect as listening to the performance in the best seat in the theater.

Why Do 5.1 Surround Sound and SACD Releases
An audience member asked why Concord Records has chosen to release some of their key catalog and new releases (like Ultimate Mancini) in 5.1 Surround Sound and on Super Audio CDs. Field said Concord is doing this because they want to appeal to the real “music lover” who is looking for sound quality beyond what is possible today with Compact Disc.

Turning to Super Audio CD, Field said

“I really fell in love with SACD. It really sounds incredible. So close, so good. It lets one really hear the music.”

A Preview of the Ray Charles Surround Sound SACD
Closing out the session, Field snuck in a couple of Surround Sound mixes from the upcoming Ray Charles album entitled Genius Loves Company. The CD Audio version of the album was released on August 31st with the Surround Sound SACD due out on September 14th.

According to Field, this project started out with a promotion between Starbucks and Concord Jazz. Starbucks asked if the label could “get Ray Charles” and it turned out he was unsigned to a label at the time. Concord signed Charles and he performed on two tracks on the Poncho Sanchez album “Out of Sight” which was released as a Single Inventory Surround Sound SACD (Concord Records SACD-1031) last September.

When it came to Genius Loves Company, the concept was to have Charles sing duets with a host of guest singers. Once word of the project spread, the label had no trouble signing up a host of guest artists including Norah Jones, James Taylor, Diana Krall, Elton John, Natalie Cole, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Michael McDonald, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Johnny Mathis and Van Morrison.

We were treated to a selection titled “One More Time” where Charles sings a sad love song with Norah Jones. It’s a nice performance that is spiced up by organ player Billy Preston who is called upon to do a solo in the middle of the song when Charles asks “Mr. Preston” to play a bit. He certainly does, responding with a tasty solo.

Closing out the session was the 5.1 Surround Sound version of “Fever” which featured Ray Charles and Natalie Cole. In Surround Sound, the duet was punctuated with crisp finger snaps and nice instrumentation. The Surround Sound mix on the SACD was also done by Al Schmitt, although he described this one as having “more separation” in the Surround Channels at the request of the producers of the Charles album.

From what we heard at the session, the Ray Charles SACD should prove to be a popular one. I was told that the label was impressed by the percentage of pre-order copies of Genius Loves Company that were made up by the SACD edition. They indicated this will make it likely for more Concord Records albums to be issued in 5.1 SACD Surround in the future. Let’s hope that proves to be the case, if this one is an indication of what is to come.