Back to Surround, Part 2
"People have to hear DVD-Audio in the car to realize how much they're missing."
Illustration by John Ueland
In Part 1, we heard from a few musicians, producers, and engineers who deemed the car to be the ideal environment for DVD-Audio. This time, we'll hear from a few more. "It's time for music to outgrow stereo, to outgrow CDs," proclaims John Kellogg of Dolby Labs, a producer/engineer who's worked on 5.1-channel mixes for the likes of Deep Purple, Foreigner, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. "DVD-Audio in the car will become as common as DVD players," he predicts. I concur. Now that companies such as Eclipse, Kenwood, Panasonic, and Pioneer are bringing DVD-Audio-ready head units to market, there's never been a better time for surround sound to take off in the car.
Seeing that I had raved about the DVD-A version of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours in my "Road Gear" column in S&V awhile back after listening to it in a 5.1-equipped SUV, Kellogg put me in touch with Ken Caillat, the 1977 album's original co-producer, who remixed it for multichannel playback in 2001. (He was in the studio putting the finishing touches on the DVD-A version of the Mac's 1979 opus, Tusk, for a projected fall release.)
"Hearing DVD-Audio in the car is going to wake people up," says Caillat, president and CEO of Highway One Productions. "It still amazes me that so many people don't even know DVD-Audio exists. It's annoying, in fact. People have to hear it in the car to realize how much they're missing."
So what exactly are people missing? "When you mix in stereo, you often have to make the instruments 'smaller' in a way," he explains. "Say I wanted an acoustic guitar to poke through a couple of electric guitars in the front left channel. I have to find the essence of that guitar - which may be at 1.2 kHz - and make it so you can hear it fight its way through those other guitars. With a surround sound mix, I can take that acoustic guitar and put it off by itself over my left shoulder. Now it has its own space, and every instrument gets to sound bigger than before."
Hearing Rumours in that 5.1-equipped SUV was a revelation. Lindsey Buckingham's mostly acoustic "Never Going Back Again" is accented during two instrumental breaks by vocal harmonies and Mick Fleetwood's snare drum - neither element was used in the original mix. And Christine McVie's "Oh Daddy" displayed more punch by featuring a more prominent John McVie bass line. "That song never really jumped out at me in the stereo version," admits Caillat. "John was trying to make a whale sound with his bass, so, to get that across, I engineered a delay that went from the front to the rear speakers. In the surround version, you really get a sense of the echo and the bass movement. The bass becomes the foundation for the whole song."
Recently, I took my stereo Tusk CD out in my Explorer for a listening session, and while I love many of the songs on it - especially the punky edge to "The Ledge" and the urgency of "That's Enough for Me" - I found the sound a bit flat overall. "One reason," explains Caillat, "is that a lot of the songs were cleaned up and sanitized from what was originally there. So now I'm going to give the listener some alternative mixes."
One Tusk track that will benefit from this approach is Stevie Nicks's "Beautiful Child," a lesser-known ballad that's been on the set list for this year's Mac tour. "There was an electric guitar doing a sustain in the background as a counterpoint to the chord changes that got taken out [of the original mix], and now it's back," Caillat reveals. "Also, I'm using the bass probably 10 dB harder than you'd anticipate. It's so strong now that it builds a foundation that all the high-frequency stuff can sit on top of."
Caillat got some reinforcement for his work from an interesting source. "I happened to go to one of the band's dress rehearsals the other night with my daughters," he says, "and when they played 'Beautiful Child,' the bass was way back in the mix. One of my daughters turned around and said to me, 'Oh, I like your mix better.' " That's the kind of reaction Caillat hopes to get when people experience the Tusk DVD-A in the car. "I want them to hear it like they're hearing the album for the first time," he says.
Caillat also wants car companies to take serious notice of the potential of multichannel playback in the car environment. "My 5.1-channel studio gear is portable," he explains, "so I could hook it all up to a wiring harness in any vehicle. I'd love to take a special demo disc to Detroit and actually mix something like Tusk in the car - literally make the adjustments right there - so they could hear the mix exactly the way it was intended. That would be phenomenal." Ken, if you need somebody to hook that up for you, you know where to find me.
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