It’s the time of year for saving money!
If you missed part one of my exploration into Robert Fripp’s excellent new boxed set called Exposures, please click here to jump to it and catch up. I’ve tucked in much useful back up information and perspective there which will make today’s listening report that much easier for anyone reading to appreciate.
Assuming everyone is all caught up on all things Fripp-tastic, lets dive right in…
Please note that this is technically my first formal review of an Atmos mix and I can’t think of a better maiden voyage than with Robert Fripp’s Exposure recordings as mixed by the great Steven Wilson. I have recently upgraded my living room home theater system so that I can now listen to the wealth of Dolby Atmos releases I’ve received in the past year. Prior to this review, so far I’ve been somewhat underwhelmed by many of the Atmos mixes I’ve tried — and thus have not written about any yet. But, I’m not entirely surprised as it is a new medium and some mixing engineers are probably getting instructions from the powers-that-be to not get too crazy on their titles.
But it is worth noting that there is a difference between an outwardly wacky gimmicky mix vs. one which tastefully uses all the surround fields to create an appealing immersive listening experience.
Save for the Atmos mix of producer Steven Wilson’s own most recent solo release (click here for my earlier review of his The Future Bites which I hope to update at some point about the Atmos mixes), the mixes here on Exposures are the first compelling home audio use of the new Dolby technology which I have heard to date!
Not all of the albums included in Exposures are mixed in Dolby Atmos or DTS HD Master Audio, probably for very good reasons beyond the scope of this review. But the ones that have been are significant within Robert Fripp’s catalog.
The core original Exposure album is available here in 96 kHz, 24-bit DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound as well as 48 kHz, 24-bit 7.1 Dolby Atmos (and in Stereo!). Both options have their benefits and the two options mostly support one another for easy comparison and contrast. Even though technically the Dolby Atmos option is about half the size of DTS HD MA option, I didn’t notice any significant loss of fidelity between the two versions (so kudos to mixing engineer Steven Wilson for working that magic!).
Listening to the “Fourth Edition” of Exposure in a new 2021 mix, one of the first things I noticed was that the ‘height” channels in the Dolby Atmos mix were (happily) being used for discrete instrumentation as well as room ambiance. This is one of the big issues I had with many other Atmos mixes I’ve heard — most had opted to just throw some lazy reverb-y ambiance in there, much in the way that poorly crafted 5.1 mixes sometimes handle in the rear surrounds. I understand it is a safe method — keeping everything “true” to the original Stereo mix — but being bland doesn’t add any value to the surround mix. That approach is almost always ultimately disinteresting (at least to me, and I suspect others who hope for a bit more muchness from their home theater listening experiences).
Thankfully, Exposure in surround sound is not lacking in muchness here on Exposures! Plenty of it here to go around!
So for example, on “North Star” I heard delicate pedal steel guitar parts and scraping effects emanating from the Atmos channels toward the end of one song. On “I May Not Have Had Enough of Me but I’ve Had Enough of You” there are these fantastic odd guitar “punches” (if you will) which percolate there.
In addition to discrete information, the Atmos channels here are often used for height information which seems to help everything sound bigger, more to scale of the room they were recorded in. Not necessarily louder but just bigger, if you will.
So on the title track “Exposure” the drums are particularly huge. At times it feels like the kick drum is in your face, as if you were standing in front of the stage in a club or small venue.
“Mary” is utterly gorgeous, Terre Roche’s voice sounding hauntingly direct as is Peter Gabriel’s vocal on “Here Comes The Flood.” “NY3” is more manic and intense than ever, if that is possible.
When I listened to the Atmos mix of Under Heavy Manners, the impact was quite spectacular. “Zero Of The Signified” is especially jaw-dropping with much huge sounding Frippery going on including (what sounded like a sort of) detuning of strings on his guitar to make fat roaring rhinoceros like sounds (akin to what his future band mate Adrian Belew would be doing in Discipline-era King Crimson and on his solo albums). There are some incredible washes of Frippertronica (if you will) flowing over and around at the end, with one loop sort of whipping behind the listener. It is a subtle effect, but it is there for sure.
The extend mix of ”The Zero of The Signified” is a standout for me. Fripp’s wicked repetitive guitar signatures seem to ping-pong more aggressively around in the surround fields while Frippertronics tides crash on the shores of your listening sweet spot. Amazing, achingly beautiful feedback guitar — which I believe would make Hendrix cry — plus even more rhino rips appear front and center while frippertronics loops soar around.
At this moment I can more fully appreciate why Fripp eventually connected with Adrian Belew — they were both working on similar concepts from different directions!
“Red Two Scorer” is one of the most immersive Frippertronics mixes I’ve heard thus far, with seeming diagonal passes of sound at times, flying left-front to right-rear, left-rear to right-front. And its not gimmicky, just very very cool. I have only heard that attempted once before by none other than Frank Zappa (on the QuAUDIOPHILIAc version of “Waka Jawaka”)!
Perhaps the only curious — and maybe negative — detail I’ve found so far in comparing the different mixes happened when I switched to the DTS-HD Master Audio mix of Under Heavy Manners to attempt a crude A/B comparison of the two versions. The difference was almost too dramatic. The DTS mix felt immediately less immersive but it seemed to be more than that… Fripp’s guitars were toned down to the point where I wondered if there might be a problem with the technology delivering that particular mix. I’m not sure what is happening there and it is certainly not a deal breaker for me at this point now that I’m Atmos-equipped, but thought it was important enough to bring up for those of you who might have any issues.
There are also many many bonus options you’ll find in this realm worth exploring on Exposures.
For example, Daryl Hall’s vocals on “Mary” on early versions of the Exposure album — presented as the wonderfully titled Breathless or How I Gradually Internalized The Social Reality Of Manhattan Until It Seemed To Be A Very Reasonable Way Of Life and Last Of The Great New York Heartthrobs — is mind numbingly gorgeous. Hall’s vocals — which were initially blocked from release due to industry machinations back in the day, thus prompting the recording of Terre Roche’s beautiful but different replacement take, as heard on the first commercially released edition of the album — had eventually been released on CD several years back. But honestly, hearing it in this form is like hearing it for the first time. Darryl feels like he’s right there in the room singing to you against Fripp’s beautiful electric guitar finger picking. It is pretty knocked out!
“Morning” is another of the bonus tracks which jumped out at me while exploring Exposures on the Blu-ray Disc in the set. This track feels like a preview of the rich acoustic sounds Mr. Fripp refined during his instructional Guitar Craft years (some of which you can hear on the League of Crafty Guitarists album) but with haunting Frippertronics flown in over it all. It is beautiful!
And so it goes on the Exposures boxed set. One mesmerizing joy after another.
Stay tuned as I’ll soon explore the amazing Washington Square Church performances in part three.