Peter Frampton: Sound Advice on 5.1

Peter Frampton knows a thing or two about sound. That may not be the most obvious factoid in his biography, but it’s as accurate as him having a solid run as the world’s most popular rock star and being the reigning teen idol in the wake of the mega-success of 1976’s Frampton Comes Alive (over eight million copies sold, 10 weeks atop the pop chart). The transplanted Briton’s career has spanned the analog and digital eras, and through all that he’s 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 family’s 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 engineer’s post.

So when he waxes eloquent on the potential of 5.1 surround mixes, attention must be paid. For one, he’s been producing his own recordings for the better part of his career, and his focus on sonic detail didn’t 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 format’s ideal application.

“I listened to a few studio recordings that were remixed into 5.1, and I wasn’t 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 I’m 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 everyone’s 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. That’s real. And all of a sudden it’s 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. They’ll be at the front of house mix console. And then you’ve got audience in front of you, you’ve got audience to the side of you, you’ve got audience all the way around. Plus sound is going through you. It’s coming off the stage, but it’s echoing behind you — it’s 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 master’s side. “When I sat with Chuck, when we first started listening to [Live In Detroit], if something was on the right, he’d 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 can’t wait for the possibility of doing a studio record in 5.1 now, because I think I’ll be much more subtle in my approach to it,” he explained, “just to enhance the sound so it’s coming from all around, but it’s not necessarily one guy’s in this corner, one guy’s in that corner. I think I’m going to be a little bit more frugal with my placement. I’m gonna experiment. I’ve yet to do a studio album in 5.1. and I don’t know which way I’m gonna go on that.

“It will be,” he advised, “a major journey.”

Surround Professional Magazine