Made for a real world...
After some delay, it seems the 5.1 mix 'Heathen' SACD will be released here in Europe on Monday, and the following day (Tuesday the 10th) in the US. I'm sure you all know that you need a fair bit of expensive kit to play SACDs, but according to our ear-witnesses it certainly sounds like 'Heathen' is an even more impressive experience when heard in this format.
The album has four bonus tracks for this version, making it a very generous 16 tracker. The bonus tracks are: 'When The Boys Come Marching Home', 'Wood Jackson', 'Conversation Piece' and 'Safe'. There are probably a few of you out there, like me, that aren't familiar with this format. TV has very kindly explained it all here:
5.1 is multichannel format and it is a generic term. There are presently 4 types of 5.1 available. Basically, all 4 can playback, left, right and center front channels, left and right rear channels and 1 subwoofer for low frequencies only (low frequencies are non-directional, which means you can't tell from which direction they're coming from.)
Here are the 4 formats:
Dolby Surround - Mainly for movies. Music doesn't sound great on this system
DTS - Great for music and movies, higher quality and more separation between channels.
DVD Audio - Very upscale, no encoding takes place as is done in the previous two formats. Just 6 discrete channels of high quality audio.
Here's the anomaly:
Sony SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc). It comes in two flavours. 2 channel, just like normal stereo, and 5.1 channels, just like the other three 5.1 formats. SACD 2 channel is what the Stones were released on. You MUST have a SONY SACD player to play this. The latest SACD players can also play 5.1, hence the Heathen mix. You'll have to buy a new SONY SACD and have an amplifier that can accommodate the six outputs of the player.
For those of you that have already splashed out on this new kit, we will be giving away five copies of the 'Heathen' SACD next week, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, here are the verdicts of BowieNetters Eric Schwejlih and Mayasky, accompanied by a couple of pictures taken by Tony Visconti. Eric and Mayasky got to hear this new mix back in August when they were Tony's guests at Looking Glass studios in NYC.
Many thanx to both of you for sharing your story with us, and sorry it's taken so long to get it out... But, I know you understand why.
Heathen 5.1 report from Eric Schwejlih
"Eric? Which one is play?" - "Don't touch that one Maya!! Too late."
I was one of two lucky B-netters to be invited by Tony Visconti to Looking Glass studios in NYC yesterday to preview the new mix of Heathen he's been working on, in surround sound 5.1. Let me be the first to tell you - it is amazing. The sound is rich and full and coming from all directions. Surround 5.1 is a 6 channel system consisting of your normal stereo (l & r) speakers, a center channel speaker, a subwoofer and two rear speakers (l & r).
When I got there, I met up with Tony who introduced me to Hector Castillo and Christian Rutledge (the engineers who worked on Heathen) as well as his kids Sebastian and Lara. Tony explained that he was just working on 'When the Boys Come Marching Home' and told me I'd get to hear it later in the day. A few moments later, Mayasky arrived.
After a few minutes of explaining some technical aspects it was time to start. Two weeks ago, at the beginning of the 5.1 mix project, Hector had to be very meticulous in setting up the speakers. He set up a speaker stand right between where he and TV would be sitting and attatched a piece of string. He then used the string to measure and place all the speakers an equal distance from that spot. For that reason, Maya and I were asked to sit as close to directly in the middle as we could (so close together that our seats were touching). Then the preview began.
'Sunday' started, and what a great track that was to first experience 5.1. The songs that sounded best on the system were the more textural ones ('Sunday', 'Slip Away', 'I Would Be Your Slave' '5:15 and 'Heathen'). Hearing 'Sunday' begin with the opening guitar notes coming from every direction was fantastic. By the time the whole band kicks in, the sound is an awesome force. We sat through the entire album listening intensely. A couple of tracks have truly beneffited by the remix by bringing out sounds and voices otherwise inaudible on the original stereo mix. My favorite tracks on the remix were 'Heathen', 'Slip Away' and 'Cactus' (the latter definitely not being one of my favorites on the original mix). When the album ended, we were treated to the 5.1 mix of 'Wood Jackson', which also sounded incredible. Hopefully this (and other b-side or unreleased Heathen songs) will make it onto the new version which they're hoping to get out around the holidays this year.
After the listening, Hector and Tony discussed a few aspects of the 5.1 mixing experience and answered questions we had. They explained (among other things) that when mixing into 5.1, some engineers will not use the center speaker because 5.1 is in its infancy and there is no standard way of mixing. On the contrary, they put DB's vocals directly into it. To demonstrate, they turned of all the other speakers and played 'Wood Jackson' through only the center. One thing I learned is that, when recording, DB likes to have his headphones loud. So loud in fact that the sound leaks through to the vocal mic. Obviously the headphone noise is drowned out when listening to the entire mix, but when stripped down it was unquestionable. Tony and Hector were very receptive to what Maya and I had to say and seemed genuinely happy that we came to the studio.
Tony explained that another friend of his would be dropping in shortly and invited us to stay longer, which we did. Since TV, Hector and Christian had work to get done, Maya and I stayed out of their way as they put the finishing touches on 'When The Boys Come Marching Home'. It was wonderful to watch them at work - a part of the process that most Bowie fans never get to see or experience.
While they were working, Tony's friend arrived and they talked a lot of technical stuff. It was truly fascinating to see how the technology works (running from ProTools into the mixing board and then back to the 5.1 software). The more difficult stuff to do on the mixing board is much easier to do on the computer and we got to see this in action. After they finished 'When The Boys...', we sat down to re-listen to about 1/2 of Heathen 5.1. This time I took the opportunity to move around a little bit and see what it sounded like facing different directions or which sounds were coming from the different speakers. Once 'I Would Be Your Slave' ended, TV and kids were leaving so Maya and I left as well.
I truly feel like one of the luckiest Bowie fans alive to be able to have experienced this. It's not every day that one can sit in the actual studio where an album is mixed (or re-mixed) and hear it the way the producer meant it to sound.
I'd like to extend a huge 'THANK YOU' to TV, Hector and Christian for allowing us this opportunity.
Heathen 5.1 report from Mayasky
"Maya, wake up...TV is taking our picture, and we're not ready for it."
I walked into the studio to find TV's adorable two kids engrossed in their Apple Macs. After Tony told us we were the first to hear the remix, aside from the actual people that worked on it, we embarked on our space oddity. I expected some massive panning work, you know, like in the movies. But no, Hector the engineer, told me that they intentionally stayed away from that. It'd be cheesy & not particularly realistic, he explained. There are the two speakers to the left & right; a center speaker for DB's vocal exclusively; the two speakers in the back, mostly used for the effects on the instruments & some of the choir; some of the strings' positioning; and, percussions. Hence the five speakers. But it's 5.1 because of the additional subwoofer, which makes the low frequencies sound as crisp and clear as every other component in the recording! I usually have trouble actually hearing the specific notes played by the bass, so here I was in bass heaven.
TV & Tony Levine did such an awesome job. It deserved nothing short of the above treatment. Also, DB's growling (Gemini Spaceship, for example) is right in your face. His whole vocal truly sounded as if he were singing right there to us. You see, as I've mentioned above, the center speaker is for the stripped down vocals alone. The effects come from the other speakers. VERY cool concept, to say the least. Imagine the surreal joy, after Tony isolated the center speaker for us to demonstrate the point. You can hear Sailor's breath and these funny sounds one makes in between singing phrases. So ENDEARING! You can also hear the music tracks bleeding through his headphones. (He likes them REALLY loud while recording his vocals). And of course, one could again, be thoroughly reassured of Sailor's complete command of his solid vocals! What can I say, the man can sing! And how!!!
Every instrument is SO crisp you could practically touch it. Yet it completely engulfs you. I really did feel like I was in a 'Heathen' spaceship, transported. I kept very still, my eyes closed, through the whole duration of listening, only to be completely caught off guard when I saw this bizarre snapshot of Eric & I, never realizing at the time Tony snapped it. He's such a naughty, playful child, this amazing man! I really was in a deep audio meditation, if there is such a thing...
A funny moment ensued when I asked Hector, Tony's right hand man, to explain the process in some more detail to me. Guess I wasn't particularly clear when I stuttered, 'So...um, what do you... think of when you engineered this?' 'I think it's lovely' he answered, lol! Good thing Tony came to my rescue, & told him that I meant 'how do you approach it'. Again, as I've described before, every instrument & vocal benefits immensely from the mix. They just shine & glow through. The drums kill!!! I can't wait to hear it again in a bigger room, like in a big club or such. Awwwrrrr!
Tony's 11-year-old daughter, an unnervingly precocious girl, is a fan of Rufus Wainwright, who was recording in the other room. She got a lovely autograph from him 'Keep loving me!' He's so sweet. I was pouring me some coffee, & out comes this cutie. I realized it was him, half way through my 'hi' to him, & he just extended his hand for a shake 'Hi, I'm Rufus!' Cool people are usually unpretentious & down to earth, I've observed. They know what they got.
Another funny anecdote, was when I was waiting for Tony to come & get me from the reception area. There are all these legendary albums on display that were recorded there. Earthling, & the symphonic instrumentals by Philip Glass, w/ TV & Eno, for "Heroes", Low etc. And practically every album (if not all of them by Glass) when I expressed to Tony how impressed I was about it, he said 'well it's Philip Glass' studio!', doh!
I feel so very honored & am eternally grateful to Tony, for inviting us, taking the time (they?ve been mixing a song a day!) & being the exceptionally fantastic guy that he is! In fact, we were invited to hang around afterwards, while they were mixing 'When The Boys Come Marching Home', a bonus track on the 'Slow burn' single (& another 3 songs, I believe). It's an amazing song, w/a haunting strings hook. For the life of me I can't imagine why it wasn't included on the album. I'll be sure to get the 'Slow burn' EP, if only for that gorgeous song! Tony did all the string arrangements, in case you didn't realize. The guy is a genius, & don't we know it!