5.1 mixes

21 08 2011

The Prog Desk here at Out There has a terrific audio sweet spot. It’s equipped with enough firepower to deliver the knockout punch for hard charging music and the deft reach to clarify the details of something more quiet. The fundamentals of good sound are in happy alignment: A couple front right and left satellites and a subwoofer surrounding the iMac get the job done.

CD’s rule, along with streaming of radio stations and specialty sites like the Deadpod.

More isn’t always better, but two rear satellites over the right and left shoulders would add depth to the sound field. The goal is getting the most out of the extra speakers, beyond a generic surround sound that is basically just re-filtering stereo. Re-filtering it nicely, sure, but that doesn’t squeeze the most juice from the grape. The ideal would be running 5.1 through the iMac. This level of streaming is rare — Netflix delivers with 1080p video and Dolby Digital Plus sound, but there’s not much else out there.

Most workstations, like the Prog Desk’s, aren’t designed with this kind of sound in mind. The iMac also doesn’t have the ports necessary to get 5.1 out of DVD or Blu-ray players. Out There‘s Viewing Room, at the other end of the house from the Prog Desk, has a terrific 5.1 sound field with an easy chair smack dab in the middle of the sweet spot. This is where lots of listening is done to something prog does very well — 5.1 remixes of classic performances.

The best of these mixes take the gimmick out of the mix. It’s tough to convince folks that 5.1 is an inexpensive step forward from previous failed attempts to upgrade sound, like quadraphonic.

Steve Wilson of Porcupine Tree is the highest profile of these classic prog remixers. He’s entrusted by Robert Fripp with the King Crimson studio catalogue and come through wonderfully. The mixes of In the Court of the Crimson King, Islands, Red, In the Wake of Poseidon and Lizard flesh out the essence and spirit of the original recordings, many done with relatively primitive equipment in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The original clarity was lost with the bouncing down of tracks during overdubbing, when at least one generation of clean sound was sacrificed for the sake of multitrack recording.

It was a necessary evil at the time. But with the aid of the original master tapes of these sessions, Wilson takes first-generation recordings un-dulled by bouncing and lays them neatly out in the sound field, producing crystal clear remixes of great music marred by the original, wooden production. The results have all been revelations. His mix of Thrak should be out this fall. Watch for it to roll out on Fripp’s excellent DGM site and watch his diary for hints too.

All the King Crimson mixes are 5.1 DVD, but Wilson’s thinking beyond this format.

“There’s no question Blu-ray is the best way to release my material,” Wilson told Sound  & Vision magazine. “For better or worse, I have this reputation as being someone who’s on the cutting edge of audio excellence, or whatever you want to call it. Some people are complaining that we’re abandoning DVD-Audio, but come on — you can get a Blu-ray player for 75 bucks.”

The 5.1 mixes of  Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge, and Ommadawn are compelling. Video complements the wide and instrument-specific reengineering of these marvelous recordings. These were terrific when originally issued in the ’70s and these mixes make them sound even better.

Genesis has two boxes worth the investment: studio and live sets spanning the majority of the group’s career and nearly documenting the entirety of the early classic lineups. Foxtrot and Nursery Cryme suffered the most. Great songs and performances framed by wooden, lifeless sound. Like the King Crimson remasters, these recordings from the early to mid ’70s have the audio veil ripped away to reveal crisp sonics, rescued from the grave of analog murk. Remarkable. These sound so good, especially Selling England by the Pound, that’s it’s sometimes tough to believe they actually exist. But they do and should be heard by everyone.

Is anyone talking about 7.1 streaming? Inevitably, yes, they are. That means Steve Wilson’s on the right road — the one leading to Blu-ray.

When done right, 5.1 mixes like these are miracles. The step to 7.1 brings out the conservative here at Out There: Five is plenty. Let’s enjoy what we have instead of overreaching.