Peter Frampton knows a thing or two about sound. That may not be the most obvious factoid in his biography, but its as accurate as him having a solid run as the worlds most popular rock star and being the reigning teen idol in the wake of the mega-success of 1976s Frampton Comes Alive (over eight million copies sold, 10 weeks atop the pop chart). The transplanted Britons career has spanned the analog and digital eras, and through all that hes taken an active interest in the aural specifics of his recordings. In fact, this curiosity dates back to his childhood audio experiments when he effectively reconfigured the bathroom in his familys home as a live chamber for recording vocals onto a second-hand 3-3/4 IPS reel-to-reel recorder set up in another room. He was all of 12 years old at that time, but only two years later his band The Preachers was in a real studio in London, being produced by the Rolling Stones Bill Wyman (I could barely talk around him), with Glyn Johns at the engineers post.
So when he waxes eloquent on the potential of 5.1 surround mixes, attention must be paid. For one, hes been producing his own recordings for the better part of his career, and his focus on sonic detail didnt hurt the enduring appeal of Frampton Comes Alive, which had a fairly robust soundscape even before 5.1 (although it took 5.1 to bring out the cry of a fevered concertgoer who enlivened the performance of Show Me the Way with a shout of I want to have sex with an Arabian chipmunk!). For another, his transformation into a 5.1 devotee was not immediate, but rather the result of, say, an epiphany as to the formats ideal application.
I listened to a few studio recordings that were remixed into 5.1, and I wasnt too impressed at the very beginning of it, he recalled during a recent interview from Nashville. It sort of reminded me at the beginning of Quad, with things flying around the room and all that stuff. In the stereo picture Im used to hearing the singers up front, and when the sax player plays a solo, he might come from the left, he might come from the right, but everyones in that two-dimensional thing, you know. To hear, all of a sudden, the backing singers coming from behind me was a bit offputting. I found it a bit much.
Like it was too real an audio experience?
No, it was unreal to me, he said. If you think about it, real is coming out of two speakers. Thats real. And all of a sudden its coming out from all over the place.
But then I thought: In a live setting [5.1] is perfect. And being that I made my career [here he paused to laugh] pretty much as the live guy, I thought, This could be phenomenal, because you could pick your row where you want to mix. Where do you want the audience to be? You want them to be at the mix console? Alright. Theyll be at the front of house mix console. And then youve got audience in front of you, youve got audience to the side of you, youve got audience all the way around. Plus sound is going through you. Its coming off the stage, but its echoing behind you — its that whole concept.
His theory proved out on the 5.1 mix of the Live In Detroit DVD and CD release, mixed by the estimable Chuck Ainlay, with Frampton working at the masters side. When I sat with Chuck, when we first started listening to [Live In Detroit], if something was on the right, hed put a little bit of reverb on the opposite left, behind me. All of a sudden I realized I was right: this is the perfect thing for 5.1. (Ainlay followed Live In Detroit with a celebrated 5.1 mix of Frampton Comes Alive.)
Now Frampton is in the midst of writing an all-instrumental album as his first project under a new contract with his glory days label, A&M, and getting antsy about digging into 5.1 on a studio project, the better to see if he might revise his theory about it being most applicable to the live setting.
I just cant wait for the possibility of doing a studio record in 5.1 now, because I think Ill be much more subtle in my approach to it, he explained, just to enhance the sound so its coming from all around, but its not necessarily one guys in this corner, one guys in that corner. I think Im going to be a little bit more frugal with my placement. Im gonna experiment. Ive yet to do a studio album in 5.1. and I dont know which way Im gonna go on that.
It will be, he advised, a major journey.