5.1 Entertainment often come under fire from multi-channel music fans for their pseudo-surround productions, those titles where the rear and centre channels are created artificially, with varying degrees of success, by TC Unwrap. However, within the rapidly expanding Silverline catalogue one can sometimes find hidden gems; discs that afford true, discrete surround mixes, more often than not from contemporary artists that are signed to one of their labels.
One such title is ‘Surrounded’, by the English artist Dave Tipper, released recently on the 5.1 Entertainment sibling label MyUtopia Recordings.
If Tipper is a new name to you, then a little background detail is in order, thanks to 5.1 Entertainment’s publicity department. At the age of sixteen, Tipper co-founded London’s Fuel Recordings, created his first twelve-inch ‘Bassgunner’ in 1996 and was then signed to Sony for his breakthrough album, ‘The Critical Path’. This and ‘Holding Pattern’, are said to be “benchmark backbeat releases”.
‘Surrounded’ is something of a departure from the style of both the aforementioned discs; it’s decidedly down-tempo and understated in comparison, more of a “chill out” experience than the dance mixes Tipper has previously been noted for. But having said that, the music has become more melodic, considered, and in many ways increasingly complex with this release. The tracks on ‘Surrounded’ showcase Tipper’s writing skills, rather than just an ability to mix thumping club beats for the likes of Grooverider or BT – you’ll hear obvious connections, the syncopation of tracks from Leftfield, ‘Dusted’ for example, but in a gentler vein.
If one were to categorise the style of ‘Surrounded’, then it would be part Groove Armada, part Tangerine Dream, part Tomita and part Hans Zimmer, for the album contains one track that would be at home accompanying scenes from a futuristic science fiction movie…
The music for ‘Surrounded’ was conceived on the road as Tipper journeyed with fellow DJs across America during their ‘Sound Off’ tour. Each destination proved the inspiration for a given track’s mood or style; for example, the Nevada desert spawned ‘Over the Coals’ whilst a stopover in a North Carolina car park was the trigger for the melancholic ‘Adrift for Days’. “I did the whole album in different places. There’s no logic, no formula,” Tipper says. “I guess I feel like I have to make some music for some reason or another, and that’s what comes out.” Personally, I don’t entirely agree with Tipper’s comments, rather than an eclectic and disjointed series of tracks which is the impression he gives, ‘Surrounded’ has greater form and structure as a whole.
‘Middle of Nowhere’ opens the album and it’s and eerie start with slightly distorted chords flooding the room. Following on is ‘California Rolls’, a jovial piece with an acoustic guitar lead by Ken Low and a subtle hook that reminded me a little of Orbital’s ‘The Box’.
‘The Glasshouse’ was what made me think of Tomita, it’s a deceptively complex piece largely driven by a synthesized glockenspiel and gurgling water, however some listeners will undoubtedly find the album in its entirety rather dull, tracks such as ‘In the Mist’ and ‘Adrift for Days’ are decidedly nondescript and I felt ‘Surrounded’ does get a little boring as it progresses. Greater variety and less “chill out” certainly wouldn’t have hurt, especially when the more experimental tracks ‘Forty Winks’ and ‘Rotundus Maximus’ really do stand out from the remainder.
The former has a decidedly summery flavour – imagine you needed some music to accompany a montage of Ibiza sunrise images – then this would be the track for you. An accentuated backbeat and relaxed tones make this the ideal mood music for those walking along the shoreline after a hard night’s clubbing.
‘Rotundus Maximus’ couldn’t be more different and, perhaps as a result, is the artistic standout on the album. Co-written with Tom Morse, who was responsible for the string section and choir, the composition is hip-hop meets large-scale melancholic choral tome. The piece seems ideally suited for film, something futuristic yet emotive. The plucked string interlude is particularly effective, especially when set against Tipper’s percussive surround-enhanced accompaniment.
The audiophiles amongst our readers might be shocked to hear that ‘Surrounded’ was composed almost entirely on an iBook laptop, but in reality many modern sound recordings begin on or have involved the humble home computer at some stage in their development. The big question is, does the fidelity of the disc suffer? Thankfully, in this case the answer is “no”, in fact the recording quality is remarkably good throughout the disc and at no time is one alerted to a sample or element of the mix that is obviously of a lower fidelity – as is the case with Groove Armada’s ‘Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub)’ (on SACD) for example. It’s difficult to definitively asses the presentation of most instruments, given that they’re obviously artificial in nature, but cymbals and percussion in general have an ‘edge’ yet no apparent signs of undue processing harshness, while low frequencies are copious but never overpowering. One feels that the LFE channel has been used with restraint, especially when, given the material, it could so easily have been overpowering and juiced-up just for ‘effect’. Tracks seven, nine and eleven present the deepest frequencies, with ‘No Dice’ being decidedly bass-led, to such an extent that one needs a tuneful, tight subwoofer to carry the deep melody line that is used to underpin the high-frequency components. ‘No Dice’ is one of the better cuts on the album, although with its repetitive drum machine rhythm is perhaps one of the most conventional.
“Stereo is just never the same again after you go 5.1,” Tipper says. “I wanted to mix ‘Critical Path’ in surround way back when, but because it was so new, it was such a matter of finance it couldn’t be done.” ‘Surrounded’ on the other hand, was conceived as a surround project from the get-go (the title is a give-away), but what was intended to be a fairly concentrated studio post-production session over the course of just two weeks turned into turned into a mammoth exercise in re-mixing that lasted almost two months. This is yet another illustration of Tipper’s attention to detail, ‘Surrounded’ is not just a point-n-click disc put together on a laptop whilst touring, but a serious composition, even though within the genre that might be seen as heresy.
The mixing convention used by James Stone throughout the disc is to flood the room with sound and accentuate the melodic passages with pinpoint, staccato surround events that pan and alternate between channels. The centre is used to enhance some effects, but is never used to take control of the front soundstage, lead instruments and the primary melody are conveyed largely as a phantom image using the front left and right pair of loudspeakers. The opportunity for more use of the centre was certainly there given the experimental, electronic nature of the music, but as is so often the case with 5.1 Entertainment productions, an obvious reluctance to use all three front channels to their maximum potential is once again present.
In terms of mixing highlights, listen out for the rapid percussive click, much like the wings of an insect, that darts from channel to channel, both front and rear during ‘California Rolls’ and the subtle high frequency elements of ‘Tear Strips Off’ that jump from one loudspeaker to the next. There are more staccato percussive rhythms flipping from one side of the room to the other during ‘Over the Coals’. ‘The Glasshouse’ is another favourite mix, gurgling sounds of water put the surrounds to full use and demonstrate the ‘all encompassing’ opportunities multi-channel gives to an artist.
Aside from 96kHz 24-bit MLP surround, the disc also has a dedicated stereo track, something of a rarity for 5.1 Entertainment, but oddly it is presented as 2/0.0 (two-channel) Dolby Digital at 448kb/s. Some, myself included, will question the need to use a lossy CODEC in such cases when 48kHz PCM would afford greater fidelity, although perhaps the decision was made to conserve valuable disc space. Of course there is also a standard multi-channel Dolby Digital alternative for DVD-Video players, and delivered at 448kb/s it copes commendably, largely because the material isn’t too demanding. I only noticed one track upon which differences between the high-resolution MLP and Dolby Digital were apparent in the form of a slight ‘softening’ of the low-level background noises during ‘Forty Winks’. The disc is also available as a two-channel Compact Disc, which somewhat defeats the purpose…
Supplementary material includes some standard 5.1 Entertainment fare, there’s a brief essay that describes the DVD-Audio format and a surround set-up menu, yet even these elements are wrapped up in beautifully designed but deceptively simple animated menus. The entire ‘disc credits’ menu is animated (although the screens change too quickly for one to read), as are the track lists and opening preamble. Completing the package are full-length videos for no less than seven of the tracks (see sidebar for listing). They’re accessible via a separate menu on the DVD-Audio layer but play along with the music if one selects the DVD-Video alternative. Low budget they may be, ranging from simple stop motion to out-of-focus macro photography and wire-frame computer graphics, but all extras are good extras, and the MyUtopia production team have to be commended for going that extra mile.
‘Surrounded’ is undoubtedly one of 5.1 Entertainment’s better titles. Leaving aside arguments over its musical merits, which surely will come down to personal taste, both the fidelity of the disc and its surround mix are worthy of any DVD-Audio collection.