Only a few albums in the history of popular music can be said to rival the success of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Artistically ambitious and blatantly appealing at the same time, Dark Side of the Moon remains a staple of the pop/rock recorded legacy, thirty years after its release.
The world will get to hear Dark Side of the Moon in new, high-resolution audio garb – a 5.1 surround remix due for release in April on multichannel SACD – for the first time later this week, at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City on March 20th.
The decision to remix the classic album for 5.1 is a landmark in the early history of surround audio. Highly-regarded producer and engineer James Guthrie, who has worked with Pink Floyd for more than two decades, was asked to handle the remix. Although he happily accepted the assignment, Mr. Guthrie says he had some concerns from the outset.
“This was a very difficult 5.1 mix,” comments Mr. Guthrie. “Not from a musical point of view, because the record really lends itself to a 3-dimensional treatment, but from the point of view that everyone knows the original mix so well. It is indelibly printed on our minds. We’ve had 30 years to live with it, and some people don’t want that image to be altered. Knowing that you are about to start work on something controversial can be unsettling.”
“The issues with 5.1 mixing all come down to one thing,” he continues. “Have you retained the emotional impact of the songs? All this technology is meaningless if you’ve turned the album into a video game.”
An unabashed analog fan, James Guthrie decided to get as many of the original tapes as possible and mix the entire project on 16-track Studer machines of the same vintage used on the original Abbey Road sessions. Fortunately, almost all of the source material was catalogued at Abbey Road and remained in good shape. The studio made copies for safekeeping and sent Guthrie the originals to work with.
“Nowadays most people work in digital audio workstations that have unlimited tracks. Back then you were constantly bouncing down tracks from one machine to another. We got our hands on all of the original tapes, giving us much more control over the mix. We did awaken a 30-year-old argument among band members, though. Roger and Nick liked the theatrical elements – the speaking voices primarily – louder and more intelligible, while Dave and Rick preferred that they be wetter and more mysterious. Since we had these parts on individual tracks, we were able to effect a compromise.”
“As this is a conceptual work, we agreed that I should complete the mix and then play to the individual band members for their input. That way they could experience everything in context.”
Mr. Guthrie’s studio, Das Boot, is located in his home in northern California. He designed it himself, and had it wired by Vertigo Recording Services. For this project he had two EMT 140 plates re-built to help recreate the reverb used on the original recording.
In designing his facility, James Guthrie paid particular attention to the monitoring system: “The most important equipment in my studio are the speakers. They’re your window to the outside world. Conversations about using analog versus digital are very much secondary to me. I’d rather work in a room that has some sub-par gear and great speakers than the other way around. That’s one of the frustrations I have with working in many commercial rooms. People just don’t put enough emphasis on monitoring. I’m like a fish out of water in that kind of situation.”
In order to faithfully reproduce the sound he created at Das Boot, Guthrie made sure that all band members auditioned his mixes through the same ATC monitor speakers that he created them on. “ATC speakers are simply fantastic. I can’t say enough about them. I have five of the SCM 150’s and a down-firing 15″ sub-woofer here at my place. The entire line – including the 9” model that ATC was kind enough to send down to Compass Point Studios in Nassau, where Roger was working on another project – has imaging unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. The dispersion characteristic is fantastic, and the phase coherency is fabulous.
“ATC speakers are so easy to mix on. The mid-range is instantly relatable – it’s so easy to equalize through them and know exactly where you are in the frequency spectrum. And there’s no hype to ATC speakers. Mix on them and you can go outside, play the mix on any system, and have no surprises.”