Oct 312014

I heard the surround sound remix of Nonsuch and I thought it was extremely not good. Look for reviews, you won’t find a bad one. I made it through half of the album, but it just made me angry. Set aside discussion of the validity of surround sound, don’t know if you care, don’t think it matters now. Steven Wilson has somehow gotten himself anointed as a surround sound remixer but based on this mix, I’d say he also is mixing things in a way that reinterprets the material, and I think that is a shitty intent. This is not coming from some audiophile angle, analyzing if there are 12 dBFS of headroom or putting magic beans on my speakers. I’m talking purely musical choices here. This is not just intended as a mix, but also as a fix.

One really obvious album to buy in surround is Dark Side of the Moon. The surround version of that album really sounds like the original stereo mix. Not done by Alan Parsons, but the balances, the eq, the reverb, it’s all very close. It feels like the classic album we’ve heard a million times was spread out across all the speakers. To me, that is what it should be.

Nonsuch, on the other hand, has all kinds of balance changes. The songs feel different. I can hear different parts and different nuances, but it’s because it is a completely different mix, not because elements are more exposed by virtue of having more speakers. It changes the feel of some of the tunes and it’s distracting because it does not sound like the album we know. That’s the nature of a recording, it becomes definitive. Released to the world, it’s out and no longer malleable.

One technical issue I had was that Wilson puts the vocals right in the center channel, which is kind of a no-no for the two reasons that often home systems are not set up well – you can’t really rely on the center speaker to be correct. Some people don’t even setup the center speaker, so now you have zero vocal. Also, now the vocals are basically soloed, you can turn off the other channels and get the vocals all by themselves. I wonder if Andy realized this, as you can now take his vocals and drop them into your house remix or whatever silliness you want. If you’ve been in a studio with a singer, I think you would find that most of them do not want their vocal soloed, it’s like being naked. And maybe it’s even okay in the studio for some, but it seems odd to release it that way. And Wilson’s use of reverb and delay is exposed and excessive, sounds like he got a reverb unit as a new toy and wanted to show it to everyone.

It seems dumb to imply, “who does he think he is, to reinterpret an album that already exists as a mix that fans know very well,” because Andy commissioned the mix and approved it. And I hope it’s making him some money. But it’s not Nonsuch. Not to me. And it’s one thing to screw up a surround sound mix, because not many people care and it’s better than listening to recordings of passing trains, but to also include a new stereo mix, as if this to say, “no, this is really what it was supposed to be,” I think is presumptuous and misguided.

Now Wilson’s mix of Drums and Wires is out, and the reviews will all be barfing all over themselves with joy – and the package has some really, really enticing extras. Wilson is also remixing Tears for Fears’ Songs From the Big Chair, and I’m sure the world is waiting to hear the ketchup he brought to the table, to slather all over people’s well-established knowledge of that album. I’d be happy to be wrong about that, and more happy to be wrong about the Drums and Wires remix.

So yeah, I listened to the 5.1 mix of Nonsuch and it pissed me off.


  7 Responses to “Nonsuch: How NOT to Do Surround Sound”

  1. I did a lot of surround work a few years ago with a company that had developed a system to fully spread a stereo mix matrix. It wasn’t the crappy “upmix” style but a complete artifact free full surround mix derived from a stereo source. Our first priority was that whatever we processed had to stay absolutely faithful to the original intentions of the artist and producer. The surround field is round like a pan pot on a mixing board, so wherever the sounds were panned in the original is where it would show up in the surround mix. The major reason we stuck to this rule was to avoid exactly what you are experiencing with this XTC album.

    I’m not going to name the company because I’m bitter. I was a co-founder and got shafted, completely. If you’re curious you can hear things I did in the movie Watchmen and all of the surround for Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds was done in my bedroom ….half of it done directly from QT’s vinyl collection …..I shit you not. I swear I have Ennio Morricone HD surround mixes with needle drops!

  2. trigmogigmo

    Nonsuch is an album I like a lot, so this intrigues me. Unfortunately even if I were to get rear surrounds added to my current system I think that getting use out of a surround record would require a special sit-down end-toend album listening session, which honestly doesn’t seem very likely!

  3. The experiences and knowledge people have around here never fail to amaze me.

  4. cherguevara

    But you can still check out Steve Wilson’s stereo mix! I mean, that’s part of what is grating at me. Lots of albums are being remixed for surround, some mixes are good, some not so great. But not many, if any, of these albums also feature new stereo mixes. Why would you do that?

    Who wants to hear new stereo mixes of Drums and Wires? Who thought that was necessary? Can anybody really tell me that Wilson’s mix is better or more defininitive than the one produced by Steve Lilywhite and Hugh Padgham? Two men with a shit ton of classic albums on their CVs? Seriously, the idea is almost comical.

    Patrock – that is very cool! Spinning records with QT must be a trip and a half. I’m not much of a fan of up-mixing or down-mixing. But then, having said that, I’m not much of a fan of having anything but primarily ambience in the surrounds. One of the first surround things I heard was in a demo room at an audio show, it was the Eagles, some big vocal harmony number. There were unsettling voices were behind me, it was like I was going to get jumped by Glenn Fry.

    Anyway, the new D&W does have some very tempting extras in it along with the original mix, and my CD copy is a very early British import, probably not the best version. But then, at home I play my vinyl and that works for me.

  5. 2000 Man

    I don’t have a surround system. I just have never heard one I was very impressed with. All of them have seemed under powered and while I’m not a big audiophile, I think you can hear the difference between a well thought out system and a less well thought out one. I think most surround systems seem designed for movies and thy do deep bass and vocals pretty well. Other than that, it seems to me like before the system gets musical at all you’re in to it for huge amounts of money. A two channel system just seems more sensible in a house to me.

    Then there’s every surround mix I’ve heard – YUCK! I know what Cher’s talking about with weird stuff coming from behind. I can’t think of any musical information I want to come from behind me. An echo effect like i’m in a big hall? No thanks. Weird synth effects that go zipping around all the channels? Yeah, it’s cool once. But for just music I’d rather listen and see how well the soundstage can come across. Do the Stones sound like Keith is on the right, and Ronnie on the left, like when you go see them? Does a piano just sound like it’s a phantom floating over everything or does it sound like it’s a little backstage left? I know a lot of today’s recordings are pretty much just really loud and essentially mono, but some records still sound like stereo and seem mastered more carefully.

    And what’s with the people that say they prefer vinyl, but don’t have turntables and only listen to “needledrops?” Aren’t those just digital copies of analog sourced material? I just don’t understand that at all.

  6. The whole discussion is interesting, but the best thing is it sparked me to listen to Nonsuch over the weekend — and outstanding album that I kind of ignored during my alt-country snob years.

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