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Surround Sound Music CDs - Article No. 2 - October, 1996

By John Sunier

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Surround Sound CDs

In the first of this series, I talked about the many music CDs now available in Dolby Surround Sound, and about the standard stereo CDs that can sound just as dramatic when played back with any surround sound processor. The point is that what makes possible the stereo effect on your front speakers are the differences between the left and right channel information. The more of this information and the cleaner and more phase-accurate it is, the more realistic will be the recreation of the performers in front of you. At the same time, this information is what all surround processors (except delay-line types) work with. The more of this information there is in the recording, the better surround effects you will get via your side or rear loudspeakers.

In the first article I suggested the best results obtained with classical music CDs came from employing simple L - R ambiance extraction rather than Dolby Pro Logic, even on Dolby Surround music CDs. However, with the pop and jazz we're talking about this time (rather than classical), there is more flexibility in the soundstaging. It doesn't necessarily need to be a realistic concert stage, since many of the recordings are entirely studio creations anyway (where individual musicians are recorded separately in isolated sound rooms). The higher-end surround processors often sound terrific with this type of material, and the occasional mis-steering of the Pro Logic circuits should not be a problem with processors of the Proceed, Lexicon or Counterpoint level. I found the 70mm setting on my Fosgate/Harman Kardon to sound excellent on most of the CDs listed below, and many were even more enveloping on the "Rock" setting, which includes more active steering than Pro Logic to place instruments all around the listener.

Now I'm going to concentrate on some of the jazz and pop CDs out there that have demonstration-level surround effects. Two come immediately to ear: "Carved in Stone" -- dmp Big Band (dmp CD-512) and "By Way of the World" -- Spies (Telarc CD-83305). The first is a release from the high-tech studio of Tom Jung featuring classic big band arrangements of Basie, Ellington, Kenton, Herman, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey: hits such as "Take the A Train", "Satin Doll", "Li'l Darlin'", and "April in Paris". Tom recorded multi-track with 20-bit digital technology and had the band seated in a horseshoe pattern around the leader. He used a process called Circle Surround, a new highly-developed matrix encode-decode system with dedicated processors now available. (More on this next time in this series of articles.)

SpiesSpies is a fusion jazz small group that appears to have been put together just for the Telarc recording session. They have a variety and originality far beyond other albums in this genre. The tunes are all originals, and many make creative use of sound effects or special effects. The surround qualities of the tracks "The Third Rail" and "Rite of Passages" are especially thrilling -- there are even sounds oriented vertically on the sides of the listening room. This 1990 CD session was recorded in Full Logic Shure HTS StereoSurround, a sophisticated alternative to standard Dolby Surround, and the improvement is definitely audible.

Henry ManciniThe music of Henry Mancini has been surrounded by RCA Victor on a number of Dolby Surround CDs. Among them are Mancini in Surround (60471-2), Mancini in Hollywood (09026-61517-2), and Mancini Themes from The Godfather & Other Movie Themes (09026-61478-2). The first is subtitled "Mostly Monsters, Murders & Mysteries," and includes "Creature from the Black Lagoon", "Prisoner of Zenda" and "The White Dawn". The Hollywood CD has five suites of about ten minutes each spotlighting Academy Award selections, Foreign Films, Peter Gunn, Music of David Rose, and Music from Hollywood. The Godfather disc includes other great scores of Nino Rota, a Disaster Movie Suite, A French Movie Suite, and another from The White Dawn.

La FamilleA new jazz quintet aided by a few other instrumentalists is Roadside Picnic. Their CD is "La Famille" (B & W Music BW067). They have a distinctive approach with an exuberant and melodic quality -- all the very original composing of leader Mario Castronari. Some of the tracks utilize wordless voices and environmental sounds. The latter nearly always decode beautifully to the surround channels to immerse the listener in the sonic experience. David Arkenstone is a New Age keyboardist-composer who assembles striking mixes of electronic and acoustic instruments playing mixes of New Age, jazz and classical. While his "Another Star in the Sky" is not one of his film or video soundtrack efforts, it has something of that feel to it, plus plenty of excellent surround effects. The opening track, for example, starts entirely in the surround channels and after about 45 seconds intersects with the front channel feeds; it makes a good musical test of both the levels and timbre-matching in your surround system. It's encoded for Dolby Surround (Narada Mystique ND-62014).

Live music recordings nearly always decode well to surround, and "Moody's Party" (Telarc CD-83382) is no exception. It has been processed with another surround sound system that encodes localization information during mastering and requires no decoder at the listening end of the chain. The Spatializer can also be used in conjunction with Dolby Surround (and has on some other Telarc releases), but this CD has no Dolby logo. James Moody is the senior alto and tenor sax star, and playing with him at his 70th birthday party are people like Grover Washington Jr., trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval and pianist Mulgrew Miller. Bill Cosby even sings a birthday tribute to Moody. With the involving surround sound you'll feel as though you're a party to the party!

Another single-ended surround process among several is Roland Space Sound. As with the others, it works best when you are situated directly between your two front speakers. You really don't require any surround speakers at all, but with them, the effect is even more enveloping. Even without them, sounds can still be located directly behind the listener. Suzanne Ciani is a synthesist and creates as well as performs her own instrumentals on "Hotel Luna" (Private Music 01005-82090-2). Several of the ten original tracks use the Roland process; In "Rain" the electronic raindrops seem to be coming down from your ceiling throughout the listening room -- quite a sensation! Most of the trippier psychedelic-influenced rock groups made (and make) use of various spatial effects in their music. Among the best are Yes, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues and Tangerine Dream. A recent trend of symphonic versions of rock classics continues with Alan Parsons' orchestrations of Yes classics played by the London Philharmonic: "Symphonic Music of Yes" (RCA Victor 09026-61938-2). Current members of Yes join the English Chamber Orchestra and the London Community Gospel Choir in Parsons' lavish yet tasteful arrangements. Among the hits are "Close to the Edge", "Roundabout", and "Starship Trooper". Yes' lead singer Jon Anderson has a solo CD that is not encoded for Dolby Surround, yet possesses as much or more surround capabilities as those that are. "Deseo" (Windham Hill 01934 11140-2) is influenced by the rhythms and melodies of Latin America transmuted through Anderson's technologically advanced electronic expertise. His high voice is joined by other vocalists such as Milton Nascimento. Pink Floyd has played with various tricks to increase the spatial qualities of their albums, including binaural sound. Their symphonic-arrangement album, again with the London Philharmonic, is standard stereo, but really energizes the surround speakers into creating a mysterious enveloping wash of sounds. Jaz Coleman was the arranger and Peter Scholes the conductor. "Brain Damage", "Breathe", "Money", and "Another Brick in the Wall" are among their hits given orchestral garb. This is on the classical new music label Point (446 623-2), so evidently Philip Glass considered it in the classical mold and deserving to share the shelf with others on his label. The Moody Blues' music (along with Tomita) was made to order for multi-channel reproduction and in fact was the source of some of the few quadraphonic tapes that made both sonic and musical sense with that ill-fated format. Even in the stereo versions of their albums there is plenty of L - R information to make an excellent surround experience. Until recently, comparison of the ambiance information on a stereo LP vs. the same album's CD incarnation tended to show the LP version with increased rear-channel effects. However, CD mastering has made some great improvements, and now the CD version is often equal to the LP and without the surface noise or rumble. The enhancement of the limited-edition gold CD pressings can increase the availability of this ambient information even more. For example, Mobile Fidelity's Ultradisc II series imparts not only an increased clarity and extended frequency range for standard stereo playback, but gives surround processors more information to work with in creating a believable soundfield in the sides/rear of the listening room. The Moody Blues' "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour" (MFSL UDCD 643) doesn't match the original 4-channel open reel tapes, but it comes close, and does it with an equipment investment as low as a $150 for a passive surround processor box, with less hiss and a great deal more convenience in the bargain. (Your passive choices, by the way, are -- in order of performance -- PhaseAround, Chase Technologies, and Dynaco.)

The phenomenal German group Tangerine Dream continues to turn out albums at a steady pace, their recent work colored by a heavier beat and more of a pop sound than their spacey excursions of yore. Both recent CDs on the Miramar Recordings label have lots of surround-decodeable details to create a most trippy sonic environment: ("220 Volt Live" MPCD2804; "Tyranny of Beauty" 23046-2).

There's another type of super-spatial pop genre that is entirely electronic and has probably sold better than any other electronic music recordings of any sort. These are the wonderfully catchy creations of Jean Michel Jarre, son of the film composer Maurice Jarre. With primitive 1970's-vintage synthesizers and electronic gear he assembled smooth-flowing albums without titles for the specific tracks but with rhythmic and melodic hooks that buoy the listener along. His two biggest albums are now reissued on gold CD from Mobile Fidelity: ("Oxygene" UDCD 613; "Equinoxe" UDCD 647). I had forgotten what amazing spatiality these albums have -- sounds sail all around the listening room! And they don't sound dated in the least. Great fun all 'round. Lastly, in the trippy-rock department, is another of Alan Parsons' efforts, a collection of some of his hits played by his group in live performances: "Alan Parsons -- The Very Best Live" (BMG Music 09026-68229-2). No symphony backing up here, but Parsons' creative use of electronics often gives that impression.

This leads us to the category of surround CDs recorded at live events, but first, how about putting some images up on that screen to go along with the trippy rock? There are some laserdiscs and videos of material along these lines (such as the Miramar VHS on the Grand Canyon, "Canyon Dreams," with music by Tangerine Dream), but you can easily synchronize almost any of these CDs to some of the "light show"-type of videos now available. Often their own soundtracks are not the greatest, so substituting some of the above CDs is a good move. I would suggest Miramar's "Grokgazer," by Todd Rundgren -- a state-of-the-art abstract animated visual trip something like a computer screen saver gone ballistic, or the uniquely beautiful and fascinating two-hour fractal animation VHS video 'Mandelbrot Sets and Julia Sets" (Art Matrix, 800-PAX-DUTY). That's not a hot-selling video title to be sure, but you don't have to be mathematician or scientist to appreciate these amazing kinetic designs. In the "live" category, almost anything taped in front of a live audience is going to reproduce with plenty of surround information, unless the remote engineers employed the "forest-of-mikes/16-to-64-track" approach. In that case you will probably end up with nothing on the surround speakers or just noise and distortion. Here are a couple of recent live sessions that drew me into the music experience: "Concerto Pour Harmonica" (TCB Records 94802) -- This concert featuring jazz harmonicist Toots Thielemans and pianist Fred Hersch plus the Lausanne Big Band and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra was recorded live to two-track and preserves the audience sounds and excitement. "Stanley Clarke & Friends Live at the Greek" (Epic EK 57506) -- Seven tracks of terrific mainstream jazz with such talents as bassist Clarke, drummer Billy Cobham and guitarist Larry Carlton. No idea where the Greek is, but the crowd it held was supportive and appreciative, adding to the "being there" sonic experience in surround sound. The Swedish Opus 3 label doesn't do live recordings (with an audience) but neither do they make studio recordings. Their policy is to tape strictly acoustic performers playing in a real acoustic space, such as a large hall or church, for the most natural and musical reverberation. A good introduction is their sampler "A Selection from the Tomas Ornberg, Gunnar Lidberg, Pygme Jazzband and Stans Band" (Opus 3 CD 7977).

Several tracks of mostly traditional jazz, performed with great accuracy and gusto, are heard from each of the four music groups listed above. They were each recorded direct to two-track analog tape in small halls with short but very natural ambient qualities, and these come across superbly in the surround information. In Surround Sound Article No. 3 we'll look at some other encoding processes that can result in excellent surround: UHJ/Ambisonics, the new Circle Surround, binaural and HDCD, plus some standard stereo CDs to seek out for the superb surround field hidden in their two channels.

John Sunier


Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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