AM’s Top 10 Pop/Rock/Folk Surround Discs - SACD, DVD-A, DTS, etc., Part 2

      Date posted: May 20, 2009

I’ve never been much of a believer in Top 10 (or 20, or 100) rankings, and all of our Top 5 to follow could be interchanged with each other in order, all being superb examples of the performing and recording art and technology. That said, here they are:

5) “LOVE”/Beatles, George & Giles Martin  Apple/Capitol 0946 3 79810 2 3  DVD-Audio 5-channel/Dolby + DTS Surround & Stereo CD

The lavish paper-and-plastic four-fold package contains 2 discs, one DVD-Audio surround in several formats, and the other CD, the latter in straight stereo. A booklet with short essays by co-producers George and son Giles Martin is included, full of pictures of the Fab Four at various points and places in their career. The production, originally for a Cirque du Soleil show, was put together from digitized master tapes in Pro Tools, with added sound effects, and very creative juxtapositions of songs and song fragments.

The sound is truly superb, the songs achieving a new life in this setting. The surround treatment is extremely creative, too, making the juxtaposition of songs almost like a new, extended Sgt. Pepper. Beatles purists may hate this project, but I revel in it.

4)  Kind Of Blue/Miles Davis  Columbia/Legacy “360 Sound” CS 64935 SACD Surround/2-channel only

I still find it astonishing that Sony/CBS would issue recordings in SACD only, without a CD layer in the early days of the new high-resolution surround format, but they did. And they also released a second stereo-only SACD of Kind Of Blue (also numbered CS 64935). Curious.

Kind Of Blue, of course, is the best-selling jazz recording of all time, and has been re-released constantly in new editions, first in vinyl, then in CD, and now in SACD; I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a new hybrid edition out there in the stores (real or virtual) at the moment. In fact, checking on Amazon, there’s yet a new “Legacy Edition” CD with extra tracks, studio banter, and out-takes, and the version is available in CD, Audio Cassette, and MP3 download, but not SACD. Sad!. I also found, googling “Miles Davis Kind Of Blue SACD”, that there is a hybrid SACD, but it is the same 2-channel/multichannel SACD reviewed here, not offering a CD layer.
Miles Davis/Kind Of Blue
In its various iterations, Blue  has been certified as quadruple platinum in sales. It’s also had a book written about it, Ashley Khan’s Kind Of Blue - The Making Of The Miles Davis Masterpiece (Da Capo Press, 2000), an absorbing read that gives wonderful insights and background to all the musicians involved and the genesis of the two sessions at the Columbia 30th Street studios that created this musical monster. It also chronicles that chatter of the sessions between takes.

But I digress. The glory of the multichannel SACD, which is still available among the many versions out there, is its natural 3-channel front soundstage, as I’ve noted in a previous review. With Miles and bassist Paul Chambers firmly anchored in the centre channel, we find the sax players at quite far left and right, with piano (Bill Evans, mostly) spread on the left side, and clarity of imaging is much better than in stereo versions in any format. You can really hear into the music, almost to the breathing of the players as they react to each other in amazing improvisation.

So, if you really want to hear what’s going on in Kind Of Blue, look for this multichannel version, though even it requires an SACD-capable player. Avoid the Dual-Disc version, which can cause computer problems, and has generally inferior sound, being only Dolby Digital in multichannel mode. Another identically formatted disc worth mentioning for its musical and historical worth is Time Out  by the Dave Brubeck Quartet (CS 65122), which also brings insight into the performances by offering 3 front channels and derived ambience in the rear. Both of these recordings were made on Columbia’s 3-channel Ampex analog 3-channel recorders at the 30th Street studio in New York.

3) Hourglass/James Taylor  Columbia CS 67912  5-channel/2-channel SACD only

Here’s another disc where the centre channel is used for lead voices and acoustic guitar, but James Taylor’s vocal is quite isolated from the rest of the studio mix, to the extent that when I turn the channel off you can’t really hear him at all. But that’s the only possible flaw in this recording, one of his best collections of original tunes. Both Line ‘Em Up, and Little More Time With You  were radio hits, and there are a few even better songs on the album, such as Gaia and Jump Up behind Me.
James Taylor/Hourglass
The production makes full use of the surround, with harmony voices and percussion coming from all around. Celebrity visits are made by Classical cellist Yo Yo ma, bassist Edgar Meyer, Branford Marsalis on alto sax, and Sting with a background vocal (he gets around, also doing a notable vocal assist on Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing), among others. I find Hourglass a nice way to spend an hour with JT at his down-home best.

2) Dark Side Of The Moon/Pink Floyd  Capitol CDP 7243 5 82136 2 1  5-channel SACD/2-channel CD

One of the best-selling recordings of all time in any genre, if not the best-seller, Dark Side was originally recorded with surround sound in mind, and every LP or CD version I’ve owned decodes very well through SQ quadraphonic systems. It just happens that I started my audio writing career with a column called QuadrAnswers in The FM Guide in late 1972 (”I’ve always been mad…”), and this recording and certain stimulants went well together in those days. These days, the phrase that sticks out for me is, “I’m not afraid of dyin’, really I’m not…” But that’s another story.

Dark Side Of The Moon  has resonated for several generations of music lovers, and is at its best (and original best) in the 5-channel SACD, and respectful of the group’s intentions, with the centre channel devoted mostly to ambience, maintaining the original 4-channel mix. And what a mix it is, when auditioned  in discrete surround sound! I heard things I hadn’t noticed in 30 years of listening to the album in various states of consciousness. Though crude by today’s standards of sound mixing perhaps, Dark Side is still a great reservoir of nuances and subtle sounds.

1) Brothers In Arms, 20th Anniversary Edition/Dire Straits  Vertigo 9871498 5-channel SACD/2-channel CD

You ain’t heard Money For Nothing  until you’ve heard it in 5-channel bedlam! There’s so much going on in the mix that it just picks you up and grabs you by the balls…it’s loud, itDire Straits/Brothers In Arms’s rude, it’s fantastic! And it’s my favourite crank-the-system song! Of course, it’s the full-length version, not the censored short single.

In surround, Brothers In Arms  has a depth of field that is quite mesmerizing, with powerful percussion and guitar effects, as well as very good songs. While Mark Knopfler’s tone is often melancholy, and the subject matter often military (Ride Across The River, The Man’s Too Strong, and the title tune). The surround is truly enveloping, with guitars licks licking the back of your neck, and finding their way into the back of your mind. It’s a truly great recording re-realized and I guess my reason for making it #1 is that the louder I play it, the better it sounds!

Andrew Marshall

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