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In The Court of the Mix: Technology & You

Sections: Love Hz

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A Facebook friend recently posted a fairly glum account of his experience listening to King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King in 5.1 surround. The FB friend in question had also previously expressed problems with the 5.1 remix of ELP’s Tarkus, which, like In the Court…, was mixed by Mr. Steven Wilson (of Porcupine Tree fame).  I own both of these recordings — and many others remixed by Wilson, including most of the King Crimson catalog — and can attest to enjoying them all profusely.

It’s a joy to hear this music — favorites among fans of classic and progressive rock — spread out around the room and enveloping the listener like the warmest blanket of sound imaginable. After reading my friend’s complaints about the mix, though, I decided to take an hour out to delve a bit deeper in the mix, to give it an analytical listen and see if I could understand his point of view.  As much as I hate to plagiarize myself, here’s what I wrote on my reply with regards to the surround mix of In the Court of the Crimson King:

OK, so I just spent an hour-plus going through a couple of the songs in question, switching between the MLP 5.1, DTS 5.1 mix and the LPCM 2.0 mixes on the disc. And I will preface all of this with a healthy message of spirit-of-community, and that it is OK for us to disagree! That is what makes the world go ’round, as they say.

That said, I think Mr. Wilson has done a really admirable job on this mix. Personally (remember, spirit of community) I think the surround mixes are quite a bit heavier and more aggressive than the stereo mixes. One example is how, on “21stCSM,” Fripp’s distorted Les Paul blasts poke around the room in time with the song, where as on the stereo (original and remix) they just lie there in one speaker. I found this sort of spirited use of the surrounds in “ITCOTCK” as well — all the while keeping true to the overall feel of the original recordings (as opposed to, say, the Guthrie Pink Floyd remixes, which add a whole new modern flavor to those classic recordings, some say to its detriment).

Regarding Greg Lake’s vocal not being kept in the center channel, I’d be willing to bet ($1 ) that the reason for it is technical and based on the original master recordings. It is common to record a separate track for certain vocal passages that require a consistent burst of energy from the singer. If you listen to the phrasing he always just says “In the court of the crimson…” and then the choir comes in. This happens on the stereo mixes as well. And the mono! (more on that later).

My guess is that they recorded the big “king” choir on separate tracks and that Greg’s main lead vocal never actually had “king” on it in the first place… Regarding the quiet fade out before the calliope … that is how it is on the original LP as well… I just listened. I have a near mint original Atlantic pressing and the hiss fades out after the cymbal hits, and the calliope emerges from a bed of virtual silence. So it may not be just Mr. Wilson’s doing. That may be the way Mr. Fripp wanted it.

That, by the way, is a very good point to keep in mind when listening to any of these remixes (especially the Crim stuff). Realize at the end of the day that Fripp is the client in this case and he approved every mix. So I’m sure it had to adhere to his very specific standards. And if this is the way the artist intends his music to be presented, well, than that is his right as the artist.

Regarding the pure rock value of “21stCSM,” you might want to seek out the mono mix (in the multi-disc box set they put out for this album). It has everything you seek: front and center, mixed super punchy for US radio at the time when even on FM, most people listened on mono transistor radios. Drums, Guitars, basses, woodwinds and vocals all keep your attention dead center and it rocks pretty righteously.

Anyhow, that is my take on it. Again, this is offered up in a healthy spirit of conversation and community and not meant to be any sort of a slam on your opinion or talents.

In subsequent back and forth, though, it was revealed that this person was listening on an an admittedly low-budget type system — and by low-budget, I don’ t mean it as a bad thing; he was using a laptop with an external soundcard plugged into an amplified video gaming surround sound speaker system.  It is OK for what it is, and might be just the right size for his small listening space — I can heartily understand his reluctance to invest more in surround just to test his curiosity. I certainly don’t wanna come across like Judge Reinhold in this awesome scene from Ruthless People, after all:

But the point I was trying to make — which may have gotten a little lost in my exuberant exploration of the music — is that Wilson’s mix for the album may have simply been more than my friend’s sound system was capable of effectively recreating. And it got me to thinking how many others might be getting a less than stellar experience from their surround mixes simply because of the type of system they’re using. Rather than criticize anyone for their system — again, I think its great that the guy went to the trouble of rigging up his laptop to do 5.1! — I thought I might spur others on to at least seek out a chance to just hear a decently set up 5.1 surround system that includes some sort of dedicated amplifier to handle the hard processing of the audio (vs. relying on a software solution on a laptop).

Perhaps someone should start a group on Meetup to give music fans a chance to hear what a true hi-fi system is capable of doing for music.

Sure, I’d love a wall of sound like this one assembled by The Grateful Dead in 1974… if I had the $ and space, that is!

While I of course love high end stuff, I too have restrictive budget and spacial limitations. Frankly, I made the decision long ago to consciously go with relatively modest gear that would sound great but yet not break the bank. I wanted something that I could enjoy and also wow my friends with — and then blow their minds when I told them how relatively inexpensive the system really is! Decent sound doesn’t have to cost as much as a new Escalade. It does, on the other hand, require a bit of know-how.

Usually, anyway. I have to admit I’ve heard some amazing sounding home-theater-in-a-box systems that typically sell at places like Best Buy for under $400. My friends Jake and Jeff recently upgraded their old stereo system after hearing my set up and got a really quite sweet sounding Panasonic 5.1 system for something like $300 — speakers and wires included. And it rocks their living room just fine!

Maybe I’m rambling here, but the point is, we audiophiles are often accused of caring about esoteric elements of sound reproduction so much that we forget about the simple pleasure of listening to music. A great song, after all, is a great song even if it’s pumped through the tinny little speakers on the bottom of an iPhone, right? Well, yes, but when you have an artist like Wilson working with music like King Crimson’s, the sound is an essential element of the music.

So while I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone in their pursuit of musical exploration — if you’re curious about surround sound music, surely go for it and experiment with the gear you have — give yourself the benefit of seeking out something to judge your experience against so that you can put your system in some sort of perspective (especially when judging whether a mix sounds good or not). There no doubt might be a weak mix along the way, but it might also be an issue with your own gear and how you have it set up and the nature of how your gear is interacting with your listening space.

It’s kinda like a bit of advice my high school history teacher hammered into us:

“Always remember the multiple causes of everything.”

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