Friday, November 25, 2005

Talking Heads build a masterpiece...brick by brick!

Artist: Talking Heads
Title: Talking Heads Brick
Format: Dualdisc (CD/DVD-Audio)
5.1 Mixes By E.T. Thorngren & Jerry Harrison
Mastered by Ted Jensen

Finally! I've finally been able to digest this entire box set of the Talking Heads complete studio releases. Never before has an artist's complete works been released in surround all at once, at least not to this extent. All I can say is this might just be the greatest surround reissue to date, for almost every reason you can think of!

Talking Heads burst onto the scene out of New York in 1977, with a New Wave-ish, energetic style of pop fronted by the geeky, gangly David Byrne, supported by guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison and the rock solid rhythm section of bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz. As they evolved they ran the gamut from funk to African rhythms to simple pop and rock. This collection of 8 studio releases shows off their ability play music that is smart, clever and at the same time very danceable! Keeping ones foot from tapping is a difficult task when playing this set!

The music:
Starting with 77, the Heads show some great pop sensibilities with songs such as Uh Oh, Love Comes To Town and the classic Psycho Killer. With Brian Eno taking over the producer's chair for More Songs About Buildings And Food, we hear things start to change with a more atmospheric sound, such as the classic swamp drenched cover of Al Green's Take Me To The River. Eno would produce 4 consecutive Heads albums (Buildings....followed by Fear Of Music, Remain In Light, and Speaking In Tongues). Each successive one getting more intricate and syncopated, with killer tracks like Crosseyed and Painless, Once In A Lifetime, Burning Down The House and Swamp. The next two albums, Little Creatures and True Stories, found the band producing themselves and returning to a more pop oriented sound, with songs like Stay Up Late and Wild Wild Life, before finally getting back to the heavy funk and African influenced sound of their final release, Naked, with the beautiful track (Nothing But) Flowers and the horn driven and super bad beat of Mr. Jones.

It is rare to find a band's body of music to be almost flawless and so consistent. Other than some self indulgence on Fear Of Music and Remain In Light, this band basically blew me away, as I was always a casual fan and considered them to be rather smarmy and stuck up. My opinion has drastically changed! They are one of the most important bands in music history and current bands such as Franz Ferdinand and The Killers are forever indebted to the Heads.
Score: 9/10

The mixes:
What can I say, these might be the best surround mixes ever! Thorngren and Harrison's use of space and their speaker placement is impeccable. As with any good surround mix, not only are the speakers used but the space between the speakers! They were not afraid to put sounds dead rear center, just behind the listener's head. There is plenty of movement as well. Vocals appear out of every speaker. Just perfect! If one had to find one song to single out from all of these great tunes, it would have to be Burning Down The House. A 5.1 showcase if there ever was one!
Score: 10/10

The sound: Ted Jensen's mastering is superb. Everything sounds warm, full and vibrant! Guitars ring clearly and bass and drums pound with force without sounding too aggressive. No shrill highs. No faults at all!
Score: 10/10

Overall: Despite the 9 for music....a big 10 !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

A must for any lover of surround......or music for that matter!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Some cheap tweaks for your music room!

Here is some advice from Steve Hoffman Music Forum member Ron Stone. I followed some of Ron's recommendations and they made a world of difference in the sound! Bass is no longer boomy and blurred, and the sound seems more defined. Take it away Ron!

Dollar for dollar, you can do a whole lot more with cheap acoustic tiles and foam mattress covers than you can with expensive equipment upgrades. I often wonder how many audiophiles ceaselessly improve their equipment without addressing the room, or cripple their STEREOPHILE-approved purchases by planting a fifty-inch monitor right between their speakers. These tips come from observing an audiophile buddy of mine. He has methodically maximized an unlikely living room into a very good listening room, without paying through the nose for the sort of dubiously priced room treatments you see advertised in the back pages of equipment journals. FWIW, he's a professional statistician not prone to hype or fads, and I have A/B-ed almost every change to his room listed below.Once you've established where your speakers sound best, the near walls must be treated for soundstage width. Determine where the sound from each speaker reflects off both side walls and treat those hot spots with an ear-level acoustic tile. The easiest way I've seen to determine these four reflection spots is to put a candle on each speaker and move a mirror along the sidewall until you see the candle's reflection from your listening position. (Needless to say, this process is much more efficient with another audiophile in the listening seat or holding the mirror.)If you have an uncarpeted floor, you need a good rug between you and your speakers. Windows need winter-insulated drapes (not blinds), and a television screen must be covered, preferably with two acoustic tiles back-to-back; a beach towel thrown over the monitor doesn't cut it. Framed pictures and posters, etc., need to go in another room: sorry, honey, but your mother's portrait just looks better over the commode. And you already removed any variable light switches or adjustable halogen lamps from the stereo's electrical line, correct?Treating the back wall behind the speakers is crucial for soundstage depth. If the expense of professional wall treatments leaves you as shocked as I am as to how much someone will charge for articulated foam, you can treat the wall behind the speakers with the hospital mattress covers sold in discount stores, which come in a wide assortment of hideous non-neutral colors. It sounds like it would look horrible, but if you install it neatly -- keeping in mind you cannot paint acoustic treatments without greatly compromising their efficacy -- it looks almost normal when the wall's done. I said "almost." You don't need to cover the entire back wall with foam. A couple covers should do it. (One of the ironies I've observed about room treatment is that audiophiles, excited by the changes they can wring from such inexpensive tweaks, tend to overdo it and kill the room.)After these hot spots are addressed, the next step is to tame the corners of the room. Half an acoustic tile mounted diagonally across each corner, the long side of the rectangle positioned against the ceiling, has a surprising effect on the sound's vibrance or liveliness, smoothing out excitable frequencies from the midrange up (assuming you've taken care of the bigger problems above). In fact, you may end up removing one or two of these corner treatments to regain some brilliance.Buy two more hospital mattress covers, and roll them each into a big pillar-- snugly, but not so tight as to squash the articulation of the foam flat -- and move those into the corners of the back wall behind the speakers for bass control. These pillars could be covered with very light fabric, and mounted on a piece of plywood should you find their effect too pronounced by simply leaning them in the corner. Again, these could be made look almost normal, depending on your HGTV skills.

I used the rolled up mattress pads for the corners and built screens out of 1x2's and drop cloth material to hide the rolls (they looked pretty goofy!). Used the same drop cloth material to cover the acoustic tiles on the side reflection points. I played some of the Herbie Hancock Gershwin SACD, and the acoustic bass finally sounds amazing. Things just sound so much better!

For under $100, you can do the same. Give it a shot.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

" I have seen the face of God! "

I have only played the first 2 discs of my Talking Heads Brick, and I will go on record as saying this is the best surround release this year.....maybe EVER! I will post a full review when I'm done. If you haven't got it yet.....what are you waiting for????

Monday, November 14, 2005

McCartney DVD: Warning..may cause dizziness!

Artist: Paul McCartney

Title: Paul McCartney In Red Square

Format: DVD-Video

5.1 Mix By Micheal Brauer

As the commercial says...he's been a Quarryman, A Beatle, a Wing....and so on...Sir Paul McCartney certainly needs no introduction. His career has spanned 5 decades and he shows no sign of slowing down. His latest DVD Video offering is In Red Square, a concert film produced by A&E. I'll be concentrating more on the content and sound quality of the concert than the video quality.

The music: What can be said about the music that hasn't been covered before? McCartney disregards most of his solo material of the last few years in favour of classic Macca and Beatles tunes like Band On The Run, Can't Buy Me Love, Hey Jude and Maybe I'm Amazed. His band members, Paul Wickens (keyboards) , Rusty Anderson (guitars), Abraham Laboriel Jr. (drums), and Brian Ray (guitars) do an admirable job, although Laboriel Jr.'s busy style is a tad much at times. The performances of Beatles classic pretty much stay faithful to the originals, and McCartney is in fine voice.

Score: 9/10

The sound and mix: After watching DVD's such as The Concert For George and Eric Clapton's Crossroads Festival, with their incredible sound and excellent 5.1 mixes, this one is a huge letdown. The surround mix is mainly a wider stereo with crowd noise and ambiance in the rears, which is fine...however the sound quality is poor. Muddy and veiled. The drums have no presence at all. The bass is poor. Totally lacking detail. In this day and age there is no excuse for making such a poor sounding DVD.

Score: 5/10

Overall: 7/10

That score is being generous as I didn't even take into consideration the dizzying, annoying editing of the video. The camera spends more time on the crowd and individuals than the band, and when it DOES concentrate on the band, it's for no more than 2 seconds at a time. I was woozy by the time it was over.

One day, we'll get a well made McCartney day.....

Thursday, November 10, 2005

El Cielo is heavenly!

Artist: Dredg
Title: El Cielo
Format: SACD

5.1 Mix By Mark O'Donoughue
Mastered by Joe Gastwirt

Hailing from California, Dredg's style can best be described as "art rock". Heavy, yet very melodic and lush with some serious and thoughtful lyrical content. Their second album, El Cielo (meaning "the sky") is a concept album dealing with quite a complex theme, sleep paralysis! The liner notes are testimonials by individuals who have suffered from this affliction. The music, lyrics and overall mood can best be described as dreamy and nightmarish at the same time.

The music:
Throbbing, thunderous and haunting, the disc is peppered with short instrumental links called "brushstrokes". The other cuts such as Same Ol' Road, Sorry But It's Over and Scissor Lock combine the instrumental prowess of bands like Rush with the more gentle side of Pink Floyd or Genesis. Vocalist Gavin Hayes has a choirboy style of singing that enhances the textured sound. Hard to really pigeon hole them, but this is a good thing in what is otherwise a cookie-cutter world of rock music.
Score: 8/10

The mix:
Fantastic use of all channels! There is a moment on Same Ol' Road where the entire mix dramatically sweeps to the rear channels in a wash of reverb. Spine tingling! At one point a maniacal laugh literally made me jump as it appeared from the rear left channel. Plenty of guitars and keyboards mixed among all speakers. Another great disc to show off your system!
Score: 10/10

The sound:
As with a lot of modern recordings, things get a bit harsh on the top end when things get going, but overall a nice sounding disc with great bass and presence. Could have used a bit more warmth.
Score: 7.5/10

Overall: 8/10

Sadly, the newest Dredg release, Catch Without Arms, did not find it's way to SACD. At least we have this fine disc to enjoy. Highly recommended!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Gershwin's World a great place to visit!

Artist: Herbie Hancock
Title: Gershwin's World
Format: SACD

5.1 Mix By Al Schmitt
Mastered by Doug Sax

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of composer George Gershwin's birth, jazz legend Herbie Hancock put together this all-star celebration, jazzing up some of Gershwin's best known pieces, and also including works by Ellington, Ravel and W.C. Handy. These people were revered by Gershwin and influenced him as well. Featuring appearances by Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Wayne Shorter, this is a thoroughly listenable disc, and one of the finest sounding ones as well.

The music:
The disc begins with Overture (Fascinating Rhythm), a short African drum and percussion piece with Hancock accompanying on piano. This fades into the next song, It Ain't Necessarily So, a slow, swaggering number with Eddie Henderson playing a great Miles Davis influenced muted trumpet. The two songs featuring Joni Mitchell, The Man I Love and Summertime, are incredible. Mitchell's voice is smoky and sultry and full of presence. Other highlights are Stevie Wonder wailing away on vocals and harmonica on a funky interpretation of W.C. Handy's St Louis Blues, and the classical pieces, including Lullabye, featuring the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. All in all, some great playing by some great musicians.
Score: 9/10

The mix:
Stereo lovers will run screaming from the room upon hearing this! Al Schmitt is not one to shy away from putting instruments all over the place. Trumpets, saxophones and drums are scattered around the fronts and rears. Pianos appear to occupy the entire room. As unorthodox as it may seem, it works, and any surround fan would be happy with this mix.
Score: 10/10

The sound:
Superb! Another winner mastered by Doug Sax. I have yet to hear a disc done by Sax that did not sound great. Warm and smooth. This can be turned up to deafening volume and still sound good.
Score: 10/10

Overall: 9.5/10

Any lover of hi-rez/surround music must have this in their collection. It's the perfect disc for showing of your system!

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Thorns leave me with prickly feeling.

Artist: The Thorns
Title: The Thorns
Format: SACD

5.1 Mix By Nick Didia
Mastered by Bob Ludwig

Take 3 pop singer-songwriters (Matthew Sweet, Shawn Mullins, Pete Droge), put them in the same room and the results should be some fine singing and songwriting. This part of the debut by The Thorns holds true, as we are presented with soaring vocal harmonies and great acoustic based numbers that are the best thing Crosby, Stills and Nash never did! Unfortunately, the sonic and surround aspects of this disc fall short.

The music:
As was already mentioned, the songs are very reminiscent of CSNY. The opening number, Runaway Feeling, has a Tom Petty-ish guitar riff with some lovely 12 string guitar accents. Think It Over is Deja Vu all over again! The same can be said of Dragonfly, where the dissonance of the vocal harmonies and guitars have David Crosby's name written all over it. The overall mood of the disc is like a nice blanket on a cold day. Comforting.
Score: 8/10

The mix:
Nick Didia gives the album a very staid, conservative mix. This might have been expected as the music is generally mellow. However, with the amount of guitars and vocals present, some spreading around would have been nice. The majority of the information comes from the front three speakers. Runaway Feeling might be the best 5.1 mix on the disc. It's pretty much downhill from there. Information coming out of the rears is subtle at best.
Score: 6/10

The sound:
One of the worst on any SACD I have heard. Vocals are compressed and cloudy. The talents of drummer Jim Keltner are reduced to sounding like he's beating on a cigar box. Acoustic guitars fare much better.
Score: 5/10

Overall: 6.5/10

Sadly, a fine performance is ruined by a poor mix and poor fidelity. It coulda been a contender!

Return To Avalon!

Artist: Roxy Music
Title: Avalon
Format: SACD

5.1 mix By Bob Clearmountain
Mastered by Bob Ludwig

Roxy Music will be remembered as one of the most influential bands of their time. From the mid seventies to the early eighties they released many albums that paved the way for artists like Talking Heads and The Fixx. Combining a danceable beat with superb musicianship and the suave delivery of frontman Bryan Ferry, they had a huge hit with Love Is The Drug, and finally hit their musical peak with the release of Avalon in 1982. In 2003 Avalon was released as a multichannel Super Audio CD. It was worth the wait!

The music:
Starting with the opening track, More Than This, we are taken on an exotic, erotic and intoxicating musical journey. More Than This is simply dreamy, with a lovely melody and Phil Manzanera's guitar's echoing around the steady backbeat of Andy Newmarks drums. The Space Between is as funky as a group of white men can get. The title track, Avalon, is the musical equivalent of a soft core porn movie. Sultry and sexy with a laid back feel. I could go on and on. This might be one of the best albums to have as a background to a dirty evening!

The mix:
Bob Clearmoutain states in the booklet that he envisioned something more than stereo when he mixed the tracks in 1982. He finally got what he was looking for. His 5.1 mix is almost perfect. Drum hits, guitars and keyboards fill almost every speaker. He uses reverb to dramatic effect on songs such as The Space Between, where the vocal reverb sweeps to the rears. Lush keyboard fills take advantage of the extra speakers, giving it a truly 3 dimensional feel. On the instrumental song India, the entire song swirls around the room (the multi-track tapes could not be found, and Clearmountain had to improvise by using the stereo tracks, but revolving them around the 5 speakers!) If I had one minor gripe, it would be that I prefer drums to come from a phantom center between the main speakers rather than the center channel speaker. Sometimes there is a bit too much info in the center channel. However, overall..... Incredible!
Score: 9/10

The sound:
Very analog feel. Rich and airy, a Bob Clearmountain specialty! No gripes here at all.
Score: 10/10

Overall: 9.5/10

A perfect example of how one can take a classic record and transform it into a classic 5.1 release. Wish we could see more like this.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Second Porcupine Tree DVD-A simply stunning

Artist: Porcupine Tree
Title: Deadwing
Format: DVD-Audio

5.1 Mix By Elliot Scheiner
Mastered by Darcy Proper

England's Porcupine Tree is one of those rare bands that cannot be "pigeon holed". Neither progressive rock or metal, they serve up a relentless combination of pounding rhythms, jack hammer guitars, and melodic, haunting vocal melodies and harmonies that are original, and yet at the same time hearken back to the sounds and styles of Rush, Yes, and more current artists like Nine Inch Nails. Their most recent release, and second on DVD-Audio is Deadwing, and it not only solidifies their position as one of the better bands in music, but as pioneers of surround sound, led by their leader, singer- guitarist Steve Wilson and the great surround guru, Elliot Scheiner.

The music:
With a number of tracks exceeding 10 minutes (which probably leads to the progressive rock tag they often have to bear), musically, Deadwing is stronger than it's predecessor, In Absentia, and more consistent. The title track (featuring an incredible "strangled cat" guitar solo by Adrian Belew) is a complex song propelled by the great drumming of Gavin Harrison.
The band knows how to use dynamics to build tension, bringing the song to a quiet halt part way through with an eerie break reminiscent of Dark Side era Pink Floyd, only to be torn apart by pounding drums and guitars once again. Shallow is a simpler riff-driven song with a lovely piano accompanied bridge. Other songs such as Lazarus and Glass Arm Shattering are some of the most beautifully arranged songs heard in years, with incredible melodies and backing vocals. Only Open Car fails to really get going musically.
Not much to dislike here at all.
Score: 9/10

The mix:

2 words....Elliot Scheiner! This man is simply THE best 5.1 mixer around. Here he offers up some stunning moments. During Deadwing, Steve Wilson's doubled vocals jump from front to rear and back during the chorus, creating a very spooky effect, and guitars come at you from all four speakers like a herd of elephants. Keyboard sounds and guitars pan around the room through out the disc. On Halo, Wilson's voice at one point hovers over the listeners head and flits around from left to right so quickly that it's dizzying! Glass Arm Shattering ends with the sound of a needle skipping at the end of a record, spinning around the room.
Simply perfect!
Score: 10/10

The sound:
While the disc at times has a slightly digital edge to it, mostly when there are very loud moments, the overall sound is strong, with nice deep bass and not overly aggressive on the top end.
Score: 8.5/10

Overall: 9/10

Porcupine Tree is said to be working on a concert DVD. This fan can hardly wait!