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John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band 50th Anniversary Boxed Set, Part 2: The Surround Sound Mix

Welcome to the second part of my exploration of the fine new 50th Anniversary super deluxe boxed set celebrating John Lennon’s landmark album, Plastic Ono Band. If you missed Part I of this review series, please click here to jump to it as it explores the brand new Stereo remix. 

The new Surround Sound mix of Plastic Ono Band offers revelations one might not expect from such a simple series of recordings. Its all in the details, yet I realize that the logic may not make sense to some of you who are intimate with the recording. 

If you stop to consider, this is an opportunity to get a bit more inside the heart and soul of the raw sound Lennon created for the album.

The challenge of course is how to create a more immersive feel without deconstructing its essence — the core of the album is effectively a power trio of drums, bass and either guitar or piano, with occasional organ or piano doubling at points. The 5.1 mixes create a subtle sense of the recording studios where the album was made, without getting extreme.

Some insights from engineer Paul Hicks on how all the new remixes were considered and prepared (in a very high resolution audio format) will be helpful here:

“With the Imagine album, there was a lot of matching effects and arrangements. With John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band it was all so much simpler and sparser. In fact there was more time spent cleaning up the audio rather than replicating effects. One of the big reasons for going to 192- 24 rather than 96-24 was how sparse it all is, the clarity, how much of the room and how much detail you can hear – in some cases you can literally hear a pin drop, and that’s part of what makes you feel so ‘present’ in the moment. Like restoring an old master painting, all that painstaking clean-up work will be invisible to most ears, but on a good system, the level of sonic upgrade is really incredible and immensely rewarding.”

In the lovely hardcover book that comes with the set, engineer Sam Gannon created wonderful sound “maps” showing the approximate placement of particular track elements within the three dimensional surround music field. These are perhaps a bit too honest for their own good as it might make someone think there is nothing going on in the rear surround channels at times — but there is in the form of that aforementioned studio ambiance! However, these maps do emphasize the focus for the recording and where more discrete sounds are roughly located in the three dimensional sound field. 

Wisely, the producers of this new remix opted to keep the focus fairly tight in order to keep true to the original intent and feel of the album, allowing subtle levels of immersion when the opportunity arose naturally

When you play “Working Class Hero,” don’t expect a lot of immersion because the guitar and vocal are wed close together since Lennon was probably playing and singing it in real time. Any ambient flavor of the room it was recorded in would fill out the surround channels. 

Again, an important goal here was to be as true to the original album as possible, so it would not make sense to put John’s piano in one corner and Klaus Voorman’s bass in another (like an early Quadrophonic mix). That might have been interesting for a moment but it would not have the same feel as the original album. So instead, the focus here is the core Stereo mix but with moments where everything fills out more depending on the track.  

My favorites — not surprisingly — are indeed the tracks which tend to wrap around the listener more, such as “Isolation,” especially when the organ comes in from the back. 

Some of the most immersive moments on the Blu-ray Disc in the Plastic Ono Band were not even on the original album at all, but on the singles issued around that period.  So “Give Peace A Chance” envelops the listener with backing vocals and hand claps.

“Instant Karma” sounds bigger still with not only the full band but multiple pianos (played by George Harrison, Alan White and Klaus Voorman) beefing up the sound in co-producer Phil Spector’s classic layered “wall of sound” style recording technique.  

“Cold Turkey is no doubt the most aggressive mix here as the guitar solo sort of floats about you gently in time with the music. It is an appropriately trippy moment that feels right without being gimmicky. See the sound map (to the right) and look for the diamond shape to better understand the motion trajectory of the sound, with you — the listener — the dot in the so-called “sweet spot” in the center.

All in all I really like the surround mixes of Plastic Ono Band and it will definitely be my choice for when I want to listen to the album in high resolution digital form. It doesn’t replace the vinyl or the Stereo mix (for those of you who tend to think in “either/or” terms). but it does provide a wonderfully expanded view of what the album can be, and that is a good thing indeed.

Tune in again here tomorrow on Audiophile Review where I’ll explore the bonus goodies in the set including Demos, Jams and much more.  

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