I must admit, the appearance of a boxed set featuring quadrophonic mixes from the legendary rock-jazz-pop band Chicago took me a bit by surprise when I first heard about it. Not sure if its release was triggered by the band’s recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or was simply a long-brewed project which coincidentally came to fruition. Whatever the case, this set represents a huge archival undertaking — to preserve all those deteriorating quad tapes lost in the vaults — which should be applauded.
The Chicago Quadio box set covers most of the band’s initial ascent from 1968-1977. That adds up to eight studio albums (and a Greatest Hits collection) each on its own individual, audio-only Blu-ray disc containing original Stereo and Quadrophonic mixes. All of the recordings are captured and presented at very high resolution (192 kHz, 24-bit).
This is a set for hardcore fans of the original incarnation of the band — ie. the Terry Kath era. It is also a set clearly designed for the established home theater / surround sound enthusiast: there is very little information actually “in” the set apart from a useful info-graphic on the box which gives some instruction on how to deal with the absence of a sub-woofer channel (for those who pay attention to that sort of thing — this is actually a good thing in many ways which sounds real good while remaining true to the original mixes). Rhino assumes that for the most part you know how to play a Blu-ray Disc and are set up to enjoy surround sound.
The relative lack of information doesn’t mean this set is somehow bad or in complete. On the contrary: this set is lovingly made with beautiful miniature recreations of the original album covers… and all the posters … and even a miniature version of the iron-on t-shirt decal that came with original pressings of Chicago VIII!
And, yeah, a little booklet might have been a nice finishing touch. Since this is targeting audio geeks like you and me, Dear Readers, perhaps offering a little detail on how the album was created/remastered/prepared for release would have been interesting for us.
But…y’know… if that is the only “problem” with the set, then so be it. The important thing is that the music and the original albums are very, very well represented here.
Chicago VII is especially impressive as it recreates the very detailed embossing that graced that album cover. Original inner sleeves from Chicago III onward are also re-created; if I remember correctly, my older brother’s original first two Chicago albums had generic Columbia Records promotional inner-sleeves, so it is understandable that Warner/Rhino wouldn’t be able to reprint those (ie. copyrighted material belonging to a competitor now owned by Sony).
They DID, however, create early record labels that mimic the look and feel of the old “two-eye” Columbia label from the late 60s as well as the version from the 70s (replacing the Columbia name around the perimeter of the label with the name “Rhino”). Its a nice touch.
Each Blu-ray also comes in a protective plastic inner-sleeve so there is very little chance of discs getting scratched in shipping or in regular use. Someone in production thought this set through.
And this is a set you’ll probably enjoy getting some regular use out of as the Quad mixes sound pretty fantastic.
In general the mixes are not gimmicky. While I haven’t played every album yet, those I have heard tend to keep the drums, bass and lead vocals front and center, with the drum kit Tom Toms and cymbals percolating in the right or left front channels. Keyboards, primary guitars and other rhythm instruments also fill the front channels usually. Horns, harmonies, some lead guitars and other accents tend to occur in the rear channels.
Before I go into how the new Quadio discs sound, a little aside on the prior DVD-Audio releases is in order…
Chicago II and Chicago V had been previously issued in 5.1 surround sound back in the early days of the home theater boom (ie. the early 00s) to mixed response — some loved those DVD-As, others hated them.
I have Chicago II on DVD-A and in comparison… well…. there really isn’t a comparison… they are both quite different beasts.
Here is why: The Quadio mixes are taken from the 1/2-inch, four-track, 15-IPS quadrophonic master mix tapes made back in the 1970s.
According to notes on the 2003 DVD-Audio (aka DVD-A) release of Chicago II, that 5.1 mix was made off the master multi-tracks. So assuming that really is the case, then that would in fact place the DVD-A version digitally a generation ahead of the Quads fidelity wise…
That doesn’t necessarily make it better.
But it does make it a different listening experience, with a Low Frequency Effects (LFE) channel (ie. the “.1” of 5.1 surround) and a somewhat more modern approach to the mix — a 21st century perspective, if you will.
The Quadio mixes were probably created in the early/mid 70s — likely to capitalize on the sale of quadrophonic 8-track cartridge based systems which were getting somewhat popular at the time, as well as a certain amount of Quadrophonic LP systems which were around for a short while.
These Quadio mixes sound fine and present the music as it was created in the 1970s. That is not a bad thing, mind you. In fact, for many listeners, authenticity is a very good thing. That there is no sub woofer channel may also appeal to many audiophiles since many don’t like the notion of a “.1” channel when it comes to listening to surround sound music — that is a feature many reserve exclusively for movie special effects.
The other giveaway that the Chicago II DVD-A was most likely a dedicated new mix was revealed when I read a consumer comment on Amazon: there the person was talking about the fact that some of the takes on the Quadio box were different than the LP version. Indeed, the Quadio take of “Wake Up Sunshine” has a different vocal line at the end of the song than the regular release; the stereo version has the line found on the LP version. Yet, the DVD-A, accordingly, also has the correct line as heard on the original LP — so if you want to hear a surround sound version of the LP take, you’ll need to hold on to your DVD Audio versions (as will I, completist collector geek that I am).
Got that? Stick with me on this a bit more…
For the Quadio version of the hit song “25 or 6 to 4” there is a different guitar bit happening, particularly at the start of the song. But, when you switch to the stereo version you get the regular version! The same thing happens on this track for the song’s entry on the Greatest Hits album (ie. Quad a different take; Stereo the LP version)
So…. someone at Rhino was paying close attention to the little — but important — details. Kudos to them!
And the producers of the DVD-A clearly worked off the correct master tapes! That didn’t always happen with Quad mixes back in the day and thus the reason that some Quad LPs (and 8-tracks) like this have been quite sought after by fans (including albums by the likes of Jethro Tull, Blood Sweat and Tears and Pink Floyd).
Ok, onto the Quadios…..
You’re probably wondering what are my favorites on this set? I admit that I am partial to Chicago VII which is in fact my favorite Chicago album, so I’m not entirely surprised about this. Chicago VII marks the point where I, as a young teen, got to attend my very first rock concert which was Chicago and The Beach Boys at Madison Square Garden in NYC (around 1975!). So, beyond it marking my ascent into adulthood, I think that Chicago VII documents the moment where the band found just the right balance for their jazz / rock chops and pure-pop hit making machinery (the album delivered several big hits!). As an end-to-end listen, Chicago VII works real well as an album and also makes for really interesting listening in Quad (especially the jazzy parts!).
Chicago III rocks real well in Quad. I’d forgotten how great that album was, it often over-shadowed by the first two albums as well as the 1-2-3 hit-making punch that the band subsequently delivered with Chicago V, VI and VII.
Chicago VI benefits nicely from the high resolution treatment, particularly in regular Stereo. One of the big hits off that album, “Feeling Stronger Everyday” always suffered from its strategic location at the end of the LP — meaning it was the most compressed sounding track on the record and often the first to get distorted if played on a less than perfect turntable. It always sounded a bit fuzzy, especially as the song built up to that big rockin’ ending part. In my experience, finding clean used original copies of that album on LP isn’t all that easy; despite the thousands of used copies out there, most seem to distort on that song. So without need for all that compression in LP mastering, on the Quadio Blu-ray we get to hear this song in all its un-distorted, hard-rockin’ big-band glory.
Perhaps the only bit of sonic oddness I’ve noted thus far is on the first song of the Quad mix for Chicago VI. I don’t think its a problem with the disc, but simply a curious choice made by the producers of that original quadrophonic mix. They put a sort of reverb-delayed vocal into the rear surrounds, which ultimately sounds a bit spacey and off kilter. Fortunately, its just that one song and the rest seemed to be OK after that. I have to spend some more time with that album, admittedly.
Perhaps the the only real notable omission from this set is that it omits Chicago XI, Terry Kath’s last recording with the group. Perhaps a Quadrophonic mix was not made of that album? I don’t really know.
So, technically, this set doesn’t quite go to 11… it stops at X.
Opportunistic Spinal-Tap bad-punning aside, Chicago Quadio is an essential set for the audiophile Chicago fan.
It is a well curated collection that should make Chicago fans — and surround-sound, quadrophonic enthusiasts — rejoice.
I know it has made this longtime Chicago fanboy a very happy camper.