When it was first announced the Wish You Were Here Super Audio CD would be forthcoming, I greeted the news with excitement along with a healthy dose of skepticism - Floyd fans have been taunted with such good news before only to have their hopes eventually dashed. Then the surprising news broke - the Analogue Productions' record label would be releasing my favorite Pink Floyd album on Super Audio CD. And the best news yet - Pink Floyd Producer and Engineer James Guthrie had executed the 5.1 Surround Sound mix, sourced from the original analog master tapes. Everything was falling into the right place, except the waiting just killed me…
A full disclosure is in order before we begin: Wish You Were Here is not only my favorite Pink Floyd album, it is my absolute reference recording of the modern music era - the essential desert island disc. So writing anything objective about Pink Floyd meant the journalist in me had to reconcile with the hardcore Floyd fan. Consider the legacy of Wish You Were Here - the album is thematically unified around the concept of absence in one form or another, but lyrically polarized; the Floyd waxed poetic about their past, while exposed an increasingly cynical present. This album was also meticulously constructed, even labored over in the studio, yet somehow musically it unfolded in broad dramatic strokes underscored by an outpouring of creative tension and heartfelt performances. While Wish You Were Here has been well documented and justifiably celebrated over the decades, the album isn't quite as commercially iconic as Dark Side of the Moon or conceptually dynamic as The Wall. Instead, Wish You Were Here is a multifaceted sonic masterpiece which sublimely connects with the strongest emotions unlike any other Pink Floyd album.
The entire process of producing and bringing a Super Audio CD to market is quite complex. Since I had limited insight on the actual nuts and bolts of the process, I had questions, scores and scores of probing questions. I mean, anybody tampering with my favorite Pink Floyd recording had certainly put me on high alert. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the main constituents involved with the project. I also wanted to understand the technology involved. That meant a closer look at the record label behind the Wish You Were Here project; Analogue Productions owned by Acoustic Sounds, Inc. located curiously enough… in Salina, Kansas. Yes Floyd fans, I know precisely what you're thinking! What I found was a story no less intriguing but without all the smoke and mirrors.
For over 20 years, Acoustic Sounds has grown into the biggest one-stop shop for all things audiophile, focusing on high-grade vinyl and premium analog playback systems. Acoustic Sounds also offers an amazing range of Super Audio CDs spanning all genres and interests. Acoustic Sounds is so much more than just a retailer of fine music, it is also a small music empire dedicated to the preservation and recording of live music and the licensing and manufacture of quality recordings. Under the Acoustic Sounds umbrella are Blue Heaven Studios; a soundstage and recording studio housed in a restored church, and the state-of-the-art record pressing facility Quality Record Pressings with six operating record presses.
Interviews: Pink Floyd fans are naturally very excited about the Analogue Productions SACD release of Wish You Were Here. For the inside story on the Wish You Were Here SACD, I first spoke with CEO and entrepreneur CHAD KASSEM, who has been kind enough to share his considerable knowledge (with input from James Guthrie, more from whom later) with Brain Damage readers:
How did Acoustic Sounds and Analogue Productions get the exclusive production and distribution rights to the Wish You Were Here SACD?
Chad: Acoustic Sounds sells more SACDs than anyone and has worked with and known Doug Sax for more than 20 years. Doug, of course, has done a great deal of work for Pink Floyd and Roger Waters. And has done much work for me. Through Doug, I became acquainted with James Guthrie. We respect Doug and James' work, and their legacy pretty much speaks for itself. Again, Acoustic Sounds sells more SACDs than anyone, and we've known they were doing this project for years. And it's something that just never happened. So, Doug and James and Gus know that we're the top at what we do. And over the years I have done what I could to try to see this come out. And I've just expressed a real interest in it. And they know that we're all about the highest quality possible, so from James' recommendation to the band and the managers, they chose us as the right fit for this sort of product. It was James recommending it to the band and managers that we should do it, and that's how that happened.
There has been much speculation and reoccurring news over the years about the Wish You Were Here SACD. Why has the project taken so long to come to fruition?
Chad: We're not sure why it has taken this long but are very happy that the wait will soon be over. And like the old saying goes, better late than never.
Was the tie-in with the WYWH Immersion box release deliberate?
Chad: We're not sure, but this is a huge release campaign for the label and the band and they probably wanted to try to release everything around the same time.
Do you foresee other Pink Floyd albums making it to SACD?
Chad: I certainly hope so.
Would you like the opportunity to participate?
Chad: Hell yeah!
Does it surprise you that vinyl is making a modest resurgence in popularity?
Chad: No it doesn't surprise me in the least. I've trusted my ear since 1984 (the year CDs came out) and have always thought vinyl was the best sounding format and SACD is the closest digital format I've heard that resembles the sound of vinyl. It's more than a modest resurgence. We just opened a state-of-the-art pressing plant called Quality Record Pressings and we have a total of 47 employees. It's not going away anytime soon. In fact, it's only growing.
Do you fear the extinction of physical media to the popularity of digital downloads?
Chad: I'm sure downloads are diminishing the sales of physical CDs but aren't affecting vinyl at all. I'm still old school. I like to have a physical product myself, and I know I'm not the only one out there. So there will always be at least a small demand for physical product.
Regarding the James Guthrie 5.1 surround mix for Wish You Were Here - Is the same mix used for the Blu-ray audio and SACD discs?
Chad: Yes (confirmed by James Guthrie).
Why are there are no Blu-ray audio discs on your Acoustic Sounds site?
Chad: Why? I mean, how many are there? I just haven't seen that many releases and customers are not requesting it. Also, my understanding is that this format has not been optimized for audio yet. The full potential hasn't been realized yet.
I have the Rush - Moving Pictures Blu-ray Audio disc, my first impression was quite positive yet the density of the mix sometimes gets in the way of the music. I get the impression that for true surround sound perfection it comes down to the quality of the mix. For example, Steven Wilson's (Porcupine Tree) 5.1 surround sound mixes for the King Crimson 40th Anniversary Series are exceptional and revelatory. How important do you regard the mix for 5.1 surround sound releases?
Chad: It's a very important component.
Who in the industry do you admire for their 5.1 mixes?
Chad: James Guthrie!
What do you think of James's 5.1 mix for the WYWH SACD?
Chad: I think the surround sound mix of Wish You Were Here is excellent. You will not hear a better mix anywhere!
I hear a more natural rich sound from my SACDs; a blooming of the soundstage, more articulate vocals and a velvety smoothness in the instruments. Dynamics are a given improvement. It simply sounds like live music. Makes me want to listen more! Can these sonic improvements be measured or should we just get over the audiophile debate and just enjoy the music?
Chad: Yes. Trust your ears. If you like what you hear, just enjoy it. The reason I like SACD so much is it seems to be warm, smooth and rich. I find it less bright and sterile than a DVD Audio or CD. Specs don't always tell the whole story.
It used to be you had to have a dedicated SACD player for these discs. Now with universal players' ability to play SACDs, do you see the format becoming more popular?
Chad: Yes. The universal players are great and should only help the format. I just wish they could have done it earlier.
OK, If I'm the average Pink Floyd fan with the nice surround sound system and the universal player... why do I want this WYWH SACD?
Chad: Because you will hear one of the best albums ever made in true surround for the first time. It will be a new awesome experience.
Since you work exclusively with the analog source tape to master audiophile vinyl - Pink Floyd fans have to ask - Why not a Wish You Were Here pressing on the Analogue Productions label?
Chad: Because EMI and Pink Floyd already scheduled this to be released on their own for the Why Pink Floyd Campaign. We hope one day to re-do all the Pink Floyd LPs and SACDs from the first one to the Final Cut on our label and pressed at Quality Record Pressings. But at this point it is only a request/dream.
What do you think of the classic Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab vinyl pressings?
Chad: Well first of all, the JVC Super Vinyl is no question the quietest and most flawless vinyl ever. The mastering was different from the original. Many people love the job MFSL and Stan Ricker did. I do not want to criticize it. The last mastering that Doug Sax and James Guthrie did with Kevin Gray is outstanding. I would suggest people get one of those before they are gone. I really like this one. If this version had only been pressed at Quality Record Pressings or JVC it would, in my opinion, have been the best all around version to come out.
Pink Floyd collectors are most familiar with the MFSL pressings of Dark Side and Meddle, What do you think of these releases in terms of sound quality and packaging?
Chad: Pressings were great, mastering better than average. We of course think that if we had the chance, working with James Guthrie and Doug Sax and pressing at Quality Record Pressings, that we would have the highest quality records with cover/jackets made to match the original LPs. We believe we can do better. All three of the MFSL LPs as well as the Gold CDs have only increased in value as we buy and sell them every day. That is a testament to how much people have liked them.
Pink Floyd's Atom heart Mother was their last Floyd pressing - what has happened to Mobile Fidelity as a company?
Chad: Mobile Fidelity went out of business in 1999, and a few years later Music Direct bought the name and has continued to reissue LPs, Gold CDs and SACDs. Acoustic Sounds sells all of the releases from MFSL along with all the pre-owned and sealed out-of-print titles. We normally have the largest selection of any place in the world.
Thanks Chad! We now have a much better perspective and appreciation of the work behind the Wish You Were Here Super Audio CD project. Now we turn to JAMES GUTHRIE, the Producer and Engineer of Pink Floyd, for his hands-on experience with the music we all love to listen to. In this interview I asked James some specific questions that many Floyd fans have on their minds right now, along with his take on DSD technology and its bright future:
Is Pink Floyd's The Wall Immersion edition going to have a 5.1 Surround Mix?
James: My understanding is that EMI plan to stick to their release schedule for the 'Why Pink Floyd?' campaign, which means there wouldn't be time to include a 5.1 mix in 'The Wall' Immersion Box. I will be doing a 5.1 mix of The Wall for release on SACD, but we don't have a planned release date for that yet. The original multitrack tapes are in pretty bad shape, so the project will take some time. I'm currently working on a Blu-ray release of 'The Wall' Movie.
By "the original multitrack tapes being in pretty bad shape" - are you referring to the Ampex (or other brand) reel tapes manufactured post 1978 that can gum up tape machines and shed magnetic oxide?
James: Yes. Half-way (ish) through the 70s, and unbeknownst to all of us in the studio world, the tape manufacturers changed the formula of the glue that bonds the oxide to the backing of the tape. I'm told that the original glue contained whale oil, so they had to change to a synthetic oil and that synthetic oil unfortunately causes the glue to break down over time, producing a gummy substance that seeps through the oxide making the tapes unplayable. Fortunately, a bright spark bravely discovered that you could bake the tapes and then safely play them a few times. But, that's not the only challenge when it comes to restoration - Edits, or tape splices, and the breakdown of the glue in the splicing tape that holds those edits together, have caused huge problems. I made hundreds of edits on both the 2" and the ¼” tapes of 'The Wall', so you start to get an idea of how time-consuming the restoration can be.
Additionally, there was a manufacturing period of 2 or 3 years where the tapes were particularly unstable. Of course, they appeared fine at the time. Both 'The Wall' and 'The Final Cut' albums are recorded on the peak of that bad tape.
Are any other Floyd multitrack tapes, in your experience, suffering from this particular problem?
James: Everything after 1976 or 1977 is susceptible to the problem. Even the tape we are using now. And it's not just the multitrack tapes that are affected – the ¼” and ½” masters are in the same predicament.
Great news about The Wall 5.1 mix on SACD and the Blu-ray of The Wall Movie! Are there any plans to release the Live at Pompeii movie on Blu-ray?
James: Some years ago, Adrian Maben and I had many conversations about that very thing. We made some good progress, but ran into budget problems. The Floyd do not own the rights to 'Live at Pompeii', so they do not have their usual level of influence over it. Don't hold your breath, but I am hoping we can come back to that one in the future.
It is a given fact that you have a great working relationship with the members of Pink Floyd. How much trust do the guys have in you to make the really tough decisions, like mixing their music for Surround, or deciding what archival material is suitable for commercial release?
James: You'd have to ask them that! We do have a great working relationship. As far as the 5.1 mixes are concerned, they leave me to get on with it and then when I have a mix that sounds good, I present it to them for their input. As far as archival material that may be suitable for release is concerned: In the case of the latest campaign, I was consulted, but the final decisions were made by panel. In fact, many of the elements were chosen by some of the band managers and EMI, whereas with the 'Echoes' release of 2001, the content was all chosen by the band and myself. So it varies from project to project.
Did you use the Sonoma DSD Multitrack Recorder-Editor for the Wish You Were Here SACD?
James: The Sonoma was used only in the mastering stage of the SACD. The mix came from analogue tape.
What other artists have you recorded or mixed in DSD?
James: I actually haven't recorded or mixed any artists in DSD, as I tend to favour analogue. My only experience with DSD is in the mastering stage.
I hear overwhelming warmth and feeling from the Wish You Were Here SACD. Is this sonic attribute a benefit of mastering in DSD?
James: Well, it all starts with the recording. If the desired end result is warmth and feeling then you need to capture that on the original recording, protect and enhance it on the mix and then preserve it in the mastering stage. Mastering is just the process of transferring your final mix to a format that is ready for manufacture. Certainly, you can preserve (and possibly improve) what you have achieved in the final mix during the mastering process, or you can ruin it. But we're talking about overall EQ, or tone - you're not making musical, creative balance decisions during mastering. The creative process that shapes the sound of the music is in the recording and mixing stages.
Mastering in DSD for SACD is inevitable, as that is the format for SACD. Just as mastering for CD is done in the PCM format. Having said all that, the benefit of DSD is that it does seem to have a more 'analogue' sound to it than PCM digital, so SACD is a much nicer consumer release format than CD.
The 5.1 of 'Wish You Were Here' is an analogue mix, printed to very high-resolution PCM (SADIE) and then mastered to DSD for the SACD. The SACD is absolutely the best way to hear the new 5.1 mix.
Thanks James! It sounds like you really have your plate full with The Wall multitrack tapes. With your depth of knowledge and expertise in the studio, we are confident that the SACD edition of The Wall will be absolutely stunning! On behalf of Brain Damage and Pink Floyd fans everywhere, we want to express our sincere thanks for speaking to us, and for making the Wish You Were Here SACD the most incredible Pink Floyd audio experience yet!
With the depth of information provided by Chad and James in mind, think of these next sections as analog and digital boot camp. Before we even listen to the music and examine the packaging, let's take a much closer look at the endless conflict between the music and the technology:
Music in Transition: Today's music quality faces serious headwinds. Portable music files encoded with the compressed mp3 codec would make Mozart, Miles or Jimi simply quit the music business overnight. This so-called digital evolution of music was essentially a tragic digital mutation. The sound quality of the dominant codec - the mp3, has only mediocre sound quality but without a good sonic reference, the new generation of music listeners don't care. Like it or not, the portable digital music file is here to stay along with all its sonic compromises. For the rest of us however, higher resolution music has not fully escaped the threat of sonic destruction. The quality of recorded music in the last decade faces many challenges; one issue has to be the excessive compression of dynamics. This mastering technique lowers the peaks of a recording while boosting the lows to allow the music to be mastered louder and louder up to the point of ear fatigue. There are no dynamics left in the music and forget about the subtleties, they're simply gone. This phenomenon has been well documented as the 'Loudness Wars' in the media, and unfortunately, the practice has gone viral in the recording industry. However, not all qualified recording engineers follow the masses down this sonically destructive path.
It is an age old audiophile saying that sound quality is only as good as the weakest link in the chain. This is a most important element in the recording studio. Assuming the multitrack recording process goes well, the next step is the final mixing and mastering stage. Seasoned recording engineers make this process seem effortless to outsiders; but it is exacting work requiring patience and skill, and the most experienced of ears. Recording engineers like Alan Parsons, Andy Jackson and James Guthrie are masters of the mix, artists in their own right, without whom Pink Floyd recordings would sound like everybody else, and no one desires that. It is not an overstatement to proclaim that recording and mixing engineers play the mixing board like a musical instrument, bringing select sounds into sharp focus while intentionally submersing others in the mix. The end result of the process should fully engulf the listener in a vivid musical experience. Pink Floyd fans can breathe easier knowing the music we've grown up with now sounds better than ever with the 2011 remasters, a testament of how good the sound quality was to begin with. The real trick is getting the finished music master from studio to the masses sonically intact.
When the compact disc was introduced in 1984 (using late 70's digital standards), the digital medium promoted as new and improved took a bit of time and refining before compact disc playback lived up to its own sonic potential. If a compact disc is engineered or reproduced improperly anywhere in the production or playback chain, the music can be fatiguing or even unlistenable. Early digital adopters discovered this first hand, as their CD players were quite harsh sounding and the discs themselves were not much better. All normal resolution CDs are based on the Redbook digital audio standard using the sampling rate of 44.1kHz and 16 bit quantization. This digital domain mastering process is known as Pulse Code Modulation (PCM), where sampling and quantization are the digital keys to the world of digital audio. Yet as good as a normal resolution compact disc is, it has been proven that compact disc specifications are not sufficient to encode all the musical information humans can hear. We are naturally programmed to hear in analog. Live music or the smooth waveforms flowing from vinyl, not compromised digital bitstreams, when presented properly sound best to us. While vinyl has its own measurable distortions and impulse noises, the brain has an uncanny ability to filter out most of these imperfections. Digital audio has its own objectionable distortions and these are more problematic. Most digital errors are sourced to technical limitations inherent in the mastering itself, imperfect digital-to-analog conversion, and the overworked error correction engines working inside our cd players, attempting to correct all the digital errors in real time on a 250+ rpm spinning disc. The one absolute constant issue in digital, regardless of format or interface, is mechanical and electronic jitter, which manifests itself as an artificial brightness or a grating harshness in the music. Despite this and amazingly so, properly engineered compact discs can offer near excellent sound quality - dynamic, transparent, articulate and so on, but Direct Stream Digital (DSD) technology can do so much better.
Serious tech alert ahead. The arrival of the Super Audio CD early in the last decade set the highest standard yet for high quality sound reproduction. The Super Audio CD was a joint research project between Sony and Phillips to create a read-only optical disc designed to replace the standard CD, superseding it in storage capacity, fidelity, imaging and dynamics. Unlike normal compact discs which are encoded in PCM, Super Audio CDs use Direct Stream Digital (DSD). By all criteria, Direct Stream Digital technology is a much purer method of storing music digitally; by using a 1 bit system with a sampling rate of 2.8 million times per second, DSD samples music 64 times the rate of conventional CDs capturing four times more information. The result is an extremely smooth digital waveform with unparalleled frequency response and dynamic range. If your ears are really exceptional, the SACD frequency response tops out at 50kHz versus 20kHz, and the dynamic range has increased to a staggering 120dB compared to 98dB for a normal CD on both counts. That kind of dynamic range represents a tangible spread from soft to loud, comparable to the most delicate whisper to a ground-shaking clap of thunder. The storage capacity of the SACD of 4.7 GB, compared to 700 MB for a CD, provide it with enormous potential to stream digital data at much higher resolutions. However the number crunching tells only part of the story. One of the benefits of DSD is the elimination of complex filtration from the signal path which significantly reduces noise and errors. Plus most SACDs are a Hybrid disc containing two layers - one for standard resolution music CD and one for high resolution SACD, giving them backwards compatibility on ordinary CD players. Another big plus for SACDs is their multi-channel capability, up to six individual channels, perfect for the 5.1 Surround Sound standard. Proof is always in the listening; the obvious sonic attributes of the SACD experience are the ultra high resolution of detail and tone, the extended top-end frequency response, and a palatable smoothness of presentation with superior imaging and transparency. If you're hearing sound quality from an SACD that most resembles the natural warm sound of analog, then congratulations, that was the intended goal!
To really understand the superior sonics of Super Audio CD technology, you need to listen closely to the sound of vinyl. Ask any hardcore music fan raised up on vinyl their opinion of digital and you will get the same opinion over and over… vinyl is warm, and digital is cold. It is an established fact that digital has long had a bad rap for being sterile and cold, while analog is renowned for its smoothness and warmth. A SACD produced correctly bridges this audio gap, offering more of the sonic attributes of analog, without sacrificing the clarity of digital. With high quality playback components, the music from an SACD breathes spatially in three dimensions allowing us to escape fully inside the music. Playing my Hybrid SACD of Dark Side of the Moon (30th Anniversary edition which James Guthrie also mixed) in 5.1 Surround Sound left no doubt in my mind that this new digital format set the standard high for optimum sound quality. Some listeners have discovered yet another benefit - high resolution stereo playback through an SACD player results in imaging more enveloping than from a normal CD. Because of resolution limitations of normal CDs, natural spatial cues are often lost in the mastering process. In the home theater environment, the real bonus that most people really enjoy is the immersive 5.1 Surround Sound mix available from SACD. The growing popularity of home theater Surround Sound and 'universal players' have made playback of the SACD possible, without going out and buying a dedicated SACD player. Bottom line: If you want the purest sounding physical medium for Surround Sound music, the SACD is the way to go.
As we navigate intrepidly into the 21st century, there are new horizons ahead for quality recorded music. Currently computer based audio systems are a fast growing trend within the audiophile music community, and for very good reason - downloaded or ripped high resolution music files (lossless 24 bit files at 96 kHz or more) offer an enhanced musical experience. New streaming music services and the future integration of the 'cloud' will offer the ability to access your music from many different mobile devices. Through all the myriad of changes, the decades and formats, my obsession for collecting and passion for listening to Pink Floyd remains unwavering. It is a most gratifying fact that Pink Floyd have always strived for the audiophile ideal, insuring that every step in the music creation process was passionate yet precise, recorded with the utmost care, hoping that their music would sound excellent for future generations. The Why Pink Floyd? reissue campaign is a just celebration of that ideal - the conviction that high quality music endures and transcends time, especially now with the new high resolution disc formats. We have now come full circle in a sense, it is time to turn out the lights and just listen… As Chad said above - "Trust your ears. If you like what you hear, just enjoy it." Just listen... no remote controls, no distractions, no time element… Breathe. Listen. Discover. Experience. Immerse. Disconnect. Dream. When was the last time you did just that?
Wish You Were Here Super Audio CD Presentation: My initial look at the Wish You Were Here SACD really impressed me; the enclosure is essentially a small hardback book measuring 6.25" x 5.50" with a durable semi-matte finish. The front cover features Storm's burning photo of the Wish You Were Here album cover, all tastefully colored in rich deep hues. The back cover shows the 'Man in the Desert' photo immersed partway in the sand, with song titles printed below. In much smaller fonts underneath are the technical details of Super Audio CDs and Hybrid CDs. The spine reads "Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here Special Limited Edition". Inside the front cover is a sleeve containing six glossy postcards designed especially for this SACD edition. Each postcard is printed on premium quality stock and includes the following images from the original Wish You Were Here vinyl album: The Diver, The Swimmer, The Veil, Cover Sticker, Man in the Desert, and Burning Man. The original photography and design, was of course, by Hypnosis in 1975. Next, inside attached to the spine is an eight page color lyric and credit book with several pictures from the Abbey Road recording sessions for Wish You Were Here. On the back page of the book is a small picture of Rick, with no captain, as if any were necessary. The Super Audio CD label features the Cover Sticker silk-screened design, and is affixed to a clear plastic tray in the back cover. Underneath the disc tray is another photo, the 'scarf caught in the wind' against a distant shot of a dark figure walking on a sand dune. It should be noted that the SACD package was designed by StormStudios. Earlier in preparation for this review I had some concerns about the premium $35 USD price, but once receiving and inspecting the packaging, without even listening to the disc, I can fully appreciate the impeccable quality of components that went into the final product. Very impressive.
Equipment Used: Yamaha BDA1000 Blu-ray player. Yamaha RXA1000 Home Theater Receiver. Samsung 46' LCD TV. All audio and video connections were with Audioquest Carbon HDMI cable. Polk Audio Blackstone TL350 5.1 Speaker System with Audioquest X2 Speaker cable. Polk Audio DSW Pro 440wi Powered Subwoofer with Audioquest SUB 1.3 RCA Interconnect Cable. Pananmax MB-AV Power Conditioner.
The preceding Surround Sound equipment setup was used for evaluating the 5.1 Surround mix. Without getting into equipment specifics, I also have an audiophile grade stereo system with a Super Audio CD player, as well a normal CD player. This audio setup was used to evaluate the high resolution stereo mix of the SACD. Granted the individual components are not 'cost-no-object reference grade' or on the same performance scale of a Playback Systems SACD player or ATC Pro Monitors, but in reality, my equipment is much closer in quality to what most music loving audiophiles have in their home. Most importantly, I am very familiar with my equipment's sonic capabilities and inherent limitations. In regards to the Surround Sound system; I made sure the system was performing at its optimum state - no digital sound processing was selected, or in other words, straight sound with no sonic embellishments such as EQ or DSP. I also selected Pure Mode on the Blu-ray player which turns off all unnecessary circuitry to eliminate any possible degradation of the sound. The 5.1 speaker system was carefully calibrated to balance the sound levels relative to my listening position. Subwoofer levels were variable without being excessive.
Listening Test: I want to begin with a popular quote: "For me, the most satisfying, musical reproduction is analogue. DSD is the closest I've heard digital get to analogue and I feel that SACD is probably the best consumer release format we've had so far. Very few people are recording in analogue these days. Hopefully, they will find DSD." - James Guthrie, Grammy award winning Producer/Engineer, Pink Floyd. The source for this quote is the brochure for the Sonoma DSD Multitrack Recorder-Editor.
Now, I'm not one for preconceived notions influencing my decisions, but James' eloquent statement confirms everything I have discovered over time about the sound quality of the Super Audio CD. When considering high resolution releases on a physical disc, there are two dedicated mastering factions at play: the PCM crowd and the DSD crowd. I spent a considerable amount of time with the PCM crowd reviewing the Wish You Were Here Immersion edition. With that revelatory experience behind me, I will use the Blu-ray disc as a sonic reference in my audio shoot-out with the SACD. To compare the stereo version of the SACD, I'm going to reference the 2011 EMI remaster of WYWH. What comes to bear will be un-biased, fun and very interesting… It should also be noted the same analog master tapes, and the same 5.1 Surround mix were used for both the Blu-ray Disc and SACD.
Super Audio CD Surround: With this information in mind, I spent the better part of a day listening to the Blu-ray version of Wish You Were Here, with anticipation building to hear my favorite Pink Floyd album debut on SACD. As the disc finally loaded up and began spinning, I cranked the volume up loud and then louder until the sound blended into the center of the room; if sound indeed had color, I imagined the room quickly filling up with deep blue hues broken by silver bolts of lightning. The music could only be described as remarkably analog like - not the trendy Pro Tools enhanced, DSP plug-in tube emulation of analog, but the old-school 1970's kind of vintage analog. I fondly remember those days when the music flowed effortlessly from the warm grooves of vinyl, taking you on a long adventurous journey. In preparation for this article, I studied a graphic representation of the DSD waveform that remarkably resembled the structure of an analog waveform. Coincidently, what I was hearing with this SACD was not a cold digital stream, but the invitingly warm and lifelike ebb and flow of music. The Wish You Were Here SACD had the pure natural sound of vinyl with the clarity and dynamics of digital, and even at moderately loud levels the music did not fatigue my ears, nor did it sound like I was listening to a recording… I found myself part of a living breathing performance!
'Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts 1-5)' presented a huge soundscape imbued with rapturous color; iridescent wine glass symphonies float around the room, Rick's warm keyboards immerse everything in deep blue hues, David's black Stratocaster projected clusters of searing orange notes one moment, volcanic molten red lava the next, and the layer upon layer of vocals are noticeably more articulate and smoother than from Blu-ray. I was awestruck by the pristine clarity, deep imaging and precise placement of instruments and voices; Rick's various keyboards occupy front and rear channels, David's vibrant guitar tones resonate in the front, lead vocals are precisely pitched in the center, and vocal harmonies and chorus extend to the front and back channels. As part of a well rounded foundation, the bass and drums established a taut yet earthy strata. The 5.1 mix is impeccable, blending perfectly into the center of the room creating a spatially perfect sonic hologram. One of my favorite sax solos in all of modern music closes the song; every musical note from Dick Parry's sax is soaked in atmosphere, casting silvery tones like a torrent of falling rain, slowly receding as one of the longest fade-outs ever drifts away… beginning in the front channels, and ending far behind me creating the audio illusion of the sax playing in another part of the house!
'Welcome to the Machine' is the monster Surround Sound showcase here with its full dynamic utilization of the five channels. As the subwoofer creates seismic waves underneath and ping-ponging upper bass proceeds to move from one channel to the next, icy acoustic guitars and emphatic vocals transition into Rick's soaring synthesizer solo. Synths today usually don't sound very warm, but Rick's Minimoog is a vintage analog machine, voiced in unforgettable tones that will make your hair stand up. Much is made of SACD's superior dynamics, but the degree of resolution on this disc are as revealing as they are startling in their presentation, such as Nick's tympani flourishes during the song's denser moments. On a normal resolution disc, this background percussion sound is mostly buried under the relentless synth assault, but the SACD resolves it clearly and the 5.1 mix presents it like it was meant to be heard. Such minute details are scattered throughout Wish You Were Here's panoramic soundscape, adding to the album's dramatic production. Be forewarned: nothing about the lower bass here resembles minute - an earthquake would be an apt description.
'Have A Cigar' brings a meaty dose of funk to the Floyd's sonic palate; Roy Harper's vocals are ultra-clear and swaggering, while David's slinky rhythm guitar builds up the tension for his concise yet angular guitar solo. Many people elaborate endlessly about various sound quality attributes when it comes to recorded music, but truly great recordings convey volumes of emotion, such is the case here on 'Wish You Were Here' as exemplified by its yearning vocals and rich instrumental textures. The Floyd's performance here is flawlessly direct and passionate, engaging the listener on many different levels; a rumination of relationships past set to a deeply affecting melody, soft steel guitar and piano interplay, heartfelt vocals with a timeless quality make the song even more beautiful on SACD. The second half of 'Shine On (Part 6-9)' brings a hopeful resolution to the album, concluding with Rick's evocative keyboard nocturne. Re-discovering this album on SACD was an absolute joy, made even better by the Surround Sound. Now will the Wish You Were Here SACD be as enjoyable played back in stereo?
Super Audio CD Stereo: For my next listening session I cued up the Wish You Were Here SACD on a dedicated player. Because the same DSD high resolution layer is being sourced for the stereo mix, the sound quality ideally should be the same, but presented in two channel stereo instead of the five channel surround. To my surprise the immediacy of the music leapt from the speakers in exquisite detail, forming an enhanced stereo image. The imaging could not have been more breathtaking as the space between the speakers bloomed with music, filling the room from top to bottom, and from side to side with intoxicating sound. The quality of sound here is considerably more focused, richer and deeper, presenting the familiar stereo mix with a stunning realism. The album's dynamics were in a word - stunning, no compression at all was detected. Everything just sounded right; warm tonality was ever present in the guitars and Hammond organ, abundant in the multi-layered vocals, and entrancing in the soaring saxophone notes during 'Shine On (Parts 1-5)'.
'Welcome to the Machine' and 'Have A Cigar' form the album's tougher center with their gleaming modulations, auditory illusions and tight chunky rhythms playing off the assured realism of the vocals. I really think these two songs benefit the most from the Surround mix, as five discrete channels unravel each composition to its fundamental core. Conversely, the title track 'Wish You Were Here' just feels better to me in stereo; suggesting its organic nature benefits from both simplicity and restraint. Finally, when I inserted the Wish You Were Here SACD into my normal CD player, it began playing the standard Redbook stereo layer, as all Hybrid SACD are backwards compatible. Overall, the music sounded excellent as expected, but the resulting sound quality was virtually indistinguishable from the EMI 2011 remaster of the album. Bottom line - if you choose to buy the Wish You Were Here SACD release for the intent purpose of an improved stereo playback experience on a normal CD player, you will probably be better off sticking with the 2011 stereo remaster.
Conclusion: It cannot be overstated that releasing the Wish You Were Here album on SACD would not have been possible without the initiative from EMI and the final approval from Pink Floyd. Moreover, the nuts and bolts required to bring a Super Audio CD to market involves the technical expertise of many talented engineers. The Wish You Were Here SACD project really had a dedicated team; James Guthrie created the 5.1 Surround mix with help from Assistant Engineer Joel Plante, the DSD Disc Authoring was performed by Gus Skinas at the Super Audio Center, and the Disc Mastering was facilitated by James and Joel at das boot recording. On the manufacturing and distribution side, Analogue Productions was chosen because of their ultra high quality standards, owned and overseen by Chad Kassem. Congratulations to the aforementioned who were involved in bringing Pink Floyd's magnificent Wish You Were Here album to SACD. We hope plans are in motion as we speak to remaster many more Pink Floyd albums for the Super Audio CD format.
In contrast to the massive WYWH Immersion edition, it is completely understandable that the non-committed fan may not desire all the books and artifacts of such a lavish and expensive presentation. For those primarily seeking the audiophile thrills of Wish You Were Here in Surround Sound, the SACD is your best choice to experience the album in high resolution sound. The Analogue Productions SACD of Wish You Were Here offers a premium quality compact package and the rapturous sound quality of high resolution audio at a considerably lower price. A possible Floydian combination many fans have considered would be a combo of the WYWH Experience edition CD (with its unreleased concert and studio material) and the WYWH SACD for its premium quality Surround Sound. For Pink Floyd fans, Wish You Were Here represents the perfect synergy of sonic perfection, lyrical emotion and instrumental proficiently. Deservedly so, Wish You Were Here now joins Dark Side of the Moon on the Super Audio CD format, offering Pink Floyd fans the quintessential audiophile listening experience. Highly recommended!
Released on the same date as the Experience and Immersion editions of WYWH, the SACD can be ordered direct from Acoustic Sounds. You can also order through this link to Amazon.com, who charge around the same price, but are cheaper on shipping. Other Amazon stores who now stock this are: Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, Amazon Italy, and Amazon Canada. International/European orders are best placed through this direct link to JPC.de, a German based retailer that ships worldwide, and who are charging a very reasonable price for this item.
Selected Sources - Books and Technical Papers:
- The Complete Guide to High-End Audio (Fourth Edition) Acapella Publishing - Robert Harley
- Mastering Audio - The Art and the Science (Second Edition) Focal Press - Bob Katz
- DSD / SACD White Paper - A Sony & Phillips publication - www.superaudiocenter.com/images/dsd.pdf
Selected Sources - Web:
Proof-reading: Debra Powell