Thursday, November 12, 2009

Surrounded By Prog - Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon 5.1 SACD

I believe I'm right in saying that this is the highest selling SACD of all time. This is hardly surprising considering it's Dark Side of the Moon, the gateway of so many into the ambitious and aurally dense world of Progressive Rock. It also happens to be the most overplayed album on FM radio to this very day. Seriously, just try tuning into your local Classic Rock station and odds are you are going to hear tracks like Time, Money and Us and Them over and over and over... Well let me tell you now that listening to this classic album on the radio is really the wrong way to go about it. In fact, listening to it on Vinyl or CD may even be considered a second-rate way of enjoying this classic. The fact of the matter is this: Dark Side of the Moon was made to be heard in surround sound.

Firstly, this album was mixed in Quadraphonic sound (that is the four channel surround system that failed to gain any traction in the 70s) by Alan Parsons. This release is considered by many to be the definite version of the album. Although never released on any digital format, if you are clever enough you can find a bootleged DVD-Audio version online that sounds simply amazing and can be listened to on any DVD player with a surround sound setup. In 2003, Dark Side of the Moon was released on the then new format SACD. Instead of releasing the original Quad mix, the band elected to do a brand new 5.1 mix. This is the version I will be focusing on now.

The fact that this SACD sold as well as it did may come down to the fact that it was released as a hybrid SACD/CD. This meant that it could be played on any regular old fashioned CD player. There is a slim chance that you have this SACD and don't even know it! All you need to do is get a multichannel SACD player to be able to enjoy the surround sound layer of the disc. Sound complicated? Well, this confusion was probably something that doomed the format in the end.

Before I start up the disc and describe some of the surround effects, I want to start out by saying that this is one of the finest sounding music releases I've ever heard in my life. The sonic quality is just "melt-into-yourself" quality. All those analog purist who claim that digital recordings will never have the depth or warmth of vinyl have clearly never listened to this SACD. It is pure sonic bliss. Alright, let us begin.

Speak To Me: The heartbeat begins in the front, clocks begin to tick all around the room. Voices from all corners of the room! You immediately get the feeling that all these layers of sounds and voices were really meant to surround you in this fashion. The screaming lady sound from behind/overhead brings us into...

Breathe: The bulk of the music appears to be coming from the front left and right. Those who heard the much more aggressively mixed Quad mix may be disappointing here. Gilmour's vocals really sound amazing and the real charm of this track is revealed with the clarity of the SACD.

On The Run: Ok, now the real fun begins. The whirling sounds circle the room. The low synth bass runs shake the room with amazing presence. The running man actually runs right around the room! The various helicopter-like sounds shoot over your head in an exciting and startling manner. The synth sounds sound soooo warm and lush you would be surprised to know they were recorded almost 40 years ago. Again, the sound effect work on tracks like this were completely cheated in plain old stereo. The manic laughter from behind sends shivers down the spine. A loud boom at the end and the running man takes another lap around behind your head... Uh oh, suddenly you are in a room filled with ticking clocks!

Time: All the alarm clocks go off at once from all directions! The loud angry chords surround the room and Nick Mason's drum fills are just as enveloping as they dance around the sound field. When the singing starts you get a "being in the room with Floyd" sensation with some of Rick's keyboards coming from just behind. The choral backup singers are given way more room in this presentation. Once again, the real shining element here is the outrageously good sound quality of it all. Roger's bass is not at all overpowering and very distinct. The mix in Breathe reprise is again focused in the front with Rick's organ bringing the song to a conclusion from the right rear.

Great Gig In The Sky: I adore the way Rick's piano sounds in this song. I feel that the mix, however, is a bit cheated from not enough use of the rear channels. In comparison to Alan Parson's Quad mix, this is a tame beast. At the very least, the sound has been really opened up and the "you are there" factor is really high with the reverb in the rears giving you a sense of space. The female vocals sound so lifelike that you might think this was recorded yesterday. "I never said I was frightened of dying" chimes in from the rear left channel (it caused my dog to jump!).

Money: The first cash register sound is anchored in the centre channel. The remaining ones emerge from all four corners. one at a time. Roger's bass takes over the centre channel and sounds simply amazing. The guitar chords emerge from the rear. The sax solo is featured right in the centre of the sound field while those clangy guitar chords hammer out behind you. This section is real audio 3D. The time signature change into the guitar solo brings a little more 'oomf' to the proceedings in those low tom fills by Mason. The drum sound is really something to be amazed by. Again, I can't help but feel that this song could have used more adventurous use of the rear channels. The talking voices emerge from all different corners of the room. Rick's organ in the front right channel transitions us into...

Us and Them: I love the way the bass sounds here. Roger may have not been the most technically gifted bass player, but he made sure his bass was well recorded. Again the sax appears to be front and centre. The echoing vocals start out in front and decay slowly behind you. Very cool. The choral backup singers fill out the rear of the room quite nicely during the powerful chorus section. It's impossible to deny the whole track is a simply sonic joy to hear. You know that really emotional section when the choral backup singers join in with the sax solo? It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. This is what I mean by "melting" good sound.

Any Colour You Like: Rick's echoey synth fills the room and echoes from everywhere. The effect never quite was this convincing in stereo only. Dave's guitar solo starts in the centre but slowly expands to the point you have one part in the front left and an overdub in the left rear of the room. This track may have the best surround mix of the album so far! This is a real showcase of how a good mix can bring a layered instrumental track to life.

Brain Damage: The rhythm guitar is focused in the front and those little lead lines kind of come from over your right shoulder. Roger's vocals sound like they are coming from just about everywhere. A whirling organ from behind introduce the backup singers who also seem to emjoy hanging out in the back of the room. (Maybe they're chilling with Rick and his organ?) The lunatic is in my head, or in the left rear speaker, either way that manic laugh has never been creepier. The moog synth during the instrumental break circles around the room while that crazy guy laughs back and forth in the rear.

Eclipse: Oooooooo in the rear, Roger in the front (mostly). This track seems to really fill the sound field as it climaxes. The female backup singers anchored all over the place. "There is no dark side of the moon really..." is quietly muttered behind you as the heartbeat slowly fades out.

All in all, I can't say this is the best 5.1 music mix I've ever heard. It is far too tame and I find it hard to pick out discrete elements the way I can in some of my other favorites (check out my Lizard review). I'm quite sad that this is considered by many to be the best surround sound album as it's really a "stereo+effects" mix. Alan Parson's Quad mix is, in my opinion, much better in terms of giving the layered nature of the music its deserved space with the rear channels employed far more often. Given his work with King Crimson's albums recently, Steven Wilson should be given the task of doing similar treatments to Floyd's catalog. If this album was released with a more ambitious mix you may have to wonder if the SACD/DVD-Audio formats would have been taken more seriously. Oh well...mere speculation on my behalf really.

I will, at some point, give a similar review to Alan Parson's mix of this album. Considering that you can get that version "illegitimately" online, and the fact that it is on the DVD format (one you can probably play without purchasing additional equipment) makes it an ideal choice for the surround beginner to enjoy a 'free' sample. (I'm not encouraging piracy here, only that Parson's mix was never officially released on a digital format, so going through so-called "pirate" channels is the only way to hear it)

Until next time, keep your ears open and

Keep The Prog Alive!

No comments: