Super and Surrounded

How do you commemorate the 30-year anniversary of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon? The album has been remastered and re-released several times already, has racked up over 35 million copies worldwide to date, spent a staggering 741 weeks on the Billboard Album Chart, and is surely owned by everybody who wants it by now. The answer, of course, is music to the ears of both audiophiles and to those who have long enjoyed one of the greatest rock albums of all time in an, uhm, enhanced state, is to remix it in 5.1 format.

The difficult task of remixing an album whose stereo mix is indelibly etched in the minds of even the most casual listener fell to producer and engineer James Guthrie. A close collaborator with the band over the last 20 years, Guthrie reportedly approached the mix of this all-too-familiar classic with a degree of trepidation.

“We’ve had 30 years to live with it, and some people don’t want that image to be altered,” comments Guthrie, who also worked on the 20th anniversary reissue. “The issues with a 5.1 remix all come down to one question — have you retained the emotional impact of the songs? All this technology is meaningless if you’ve turned the album into a video game.

Eschewing the template offered by original album engineer Alan Parson’s “unapproved” 1973 surround mix, which dispensed with a subwoofer and utilized a quad layout, Guthrie’s avowed intention was to instead remain as true to the original stereo presentation, albeit with a larger and all-encompassing soundfield. The next question, however, was on which medium to release it.

The decision was made to release the album on dual-layer hybrid SACD, allowing playback of a Red Book layer on standard CD equipment, as well as reproduction on compatible players of an ultra-high-res layer containing both a stereo and a multichannel mix. The reissue by ABKCO of the Rolling Stones’ early catalog on hybrid SACD in August 2002 had already demonstrated a consumer thirst for better quality audio, even in just two channels.

Additionally, Guthrie reportedly feels that there is some confusion in the marketplace regarding the compatibility of DVD-V and DVD-A discs on most players, that the MLP encoding scheme compromises the quality of DVD-A, and that what may be the ultimate analog album deserves what he believes to be the most analog-friendly digital delivery medium. But remaining true to the original analog masters produced a major headache.

Like the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd made use of two multitrack analog tape machines in the recording of Dark Side of the Moon. Once all 16 tracks were filled, elements would be combined and pre-mixed to stereo, then bounced to a second Dolby “A” reel where more tracks were added. By the end of the recording process, the final master contained tracks that were a combination of first, second, and even third generations.

That hasn’t bothered countless millions of listeners to date, but with a sampling frequency 64 times that of CD, the Direct Stream Digital (DSD) process would show up the shortcomings of the stereo masters. Remixing from the original build reels, assuming they could even be found, was further complicated by the fact that there was no timecode in 1973 and, in any case, it had never been intended to sync the reels together.

Thankfully, Abbey Road achivists was able to locate the original tapes. Safety copies were made and the originals were dispatched to Guthrie’s Lake Tahoe studio, named das boot.

With no alignment tones on the tapes (Abbey Road apparently never thought they would leave the studio) and synchronization issues to painstakingly resolve, Guthrie had his work cut out for him, but with the technical matters out of the way, he set to mixing.

The monitors of choice for the mix were five ATC SCM150ASL’s and two SCM0.1-15 subwoofers. “The speakers are the most important pieces of equipment in my studio,” observes Guthrie. “ATC speakers are simply fantastic. The imaging is unlike anything I’ve experienced. The dispersion characteristic is exceptional, and the speakers always remain phase coherent.”

The mix was performed without the band present. “As this is a conceptual work, we agreed that I should mix the entire album and then play it to the individual band members for their input,” explains Guthrie. “That way they could experience everything in context.” To ensure that the band members experienced the 5.1 mixes exactly as he had created them at das boot, Guthrie played back the remastered tracks through the exact same loudspeakers.

The Dark Side of the Moon SACD was previewed on March 24 at the Hayden Planetarium in New York at a special event hosted by Capitol Records and Sony Electronics, once more using the identical ATC setup. EMI Records released the disc, complete with new packaging by original sleeve artist Storm Thorgerson, on March 30.

Dark Side Of The Moon: Editor’s ReviewsFrank Wells, Executive Editor  

If you’ve had the pleasure of attending a ‘Floyd concert, you’ve likely had a live surround experience. In my case, that was long before any other surround experience was typically available outside of a movie theater. Thus, a multichannel release of Dark Side Of The Moon is as appropriate as any reissue imaginable.

James Guthrie approached the task with an obvious respect for the original release, a pioneering work, with innovative engineering work that has stood the test of time. With primitive tools, Alan Parsons and the original engineering team literally created the techniques and sounds that are trademarks of DSOTM — sounds still emulated today by legions of digital processors.

This album could lure one towards an over-the-top treatment, but Gutherie uses the surround platform to full advantage, without resorting to gimmickry. All the emotion and enthrallment that DSOTM evokes are here in spades (On my first listening session with this disc, I had to listen to “The Great Gig in the Sky” three times through, and with eyes closed I may have even levitated out of my chair on the last pass). The recording breathes (pun intended) as never before, with the wings fully spread on the instrumentation.

This is the 30th anniversary edition of DSOTM, an anniversary commemorated in part with a lengthy piece on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” A report that, appallingly, did not even mention this SACD-surround version of the recording. I found my copy in the regular CD bins at a local store that likely didn’t even know there was a multichannel layer on the disc (I double checked the fine print to make sure I got the right version — it was priced identically to a standard CD version!). On one hand, this shows multichannel audio moving into the mainstream, albeit in stealth mode. On the other, this most excellent project is worthy of some hoopla and fanfare.

Anthony Savona, Editor

DSOTM is one of the most familiar recordings available today. It has been issued and re-issued and re-re-issued and…well…you get the idea. The challenge fell to James Guthrie to take the 2-channel mixes that everyone knows so well and turn them into 5.1-channel mixes that still sound like we know them, only better. Sounds like a tough task. Fortunately, after listening to the disc, I can say that Guthrie was up to it.

The tunes lend themselves well to surround sound — which shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who has listened to the stereo version at a decent (or louder) level. And the things you expect to happen, happen — the cash register draws swirl around you at the beginning of “Money”; the clocks tick and chime all about as “Time” commences. But neither of these effects seem cheesy — they seem right where they are supposed to be. Then both songs build with instruments in the front and rears, and the vocals begin in the front channels. You feel fully enveloped.

The great thing about these tunes — which is made greater through surround sound — is how they build from simple sounds into ornate pieces. In “Breathe,” by the time they reach the chorus containing the title of the album, you are fully surrounded by the music and, more blatantly, the backing vocals behind you joining in with the band members.

The instrumental tracks really stand out in this version, too. Particularly “On the Run” and “Any Colour You Like.”

So if you think you know DSOTM, think again. You’ll be surprised.

Surround Professional Magazine