The surround sound world got a bit shafted back in the day, caught betwixt and between the bitter format battle of warring super powers vying for the champion crown (each obviously wanting to be the prime recipient of the majority royalties from format licensing). At the end of the day, neither DVD Audio, SACD or the last-ditch attempt that was DualDisc took off in a very big way, which is really very sad. Each format had its merits. But in a consumer-driven marketplace burned out by prior format wars, the industry overall did a very poor job of (a) market research and (b) sell through marketing.
So, instead of consumers rallying behind the great sounding and flexible formats, those who were still stinging from their VHS vs. Betamax memories (and 8-track/Cassette for that matter) decades earlier decided to sit that round out.
It almost happened again with Blu-ray Disc but wisely one of the competing formats, HD DVD thankfully backed down, giving at least one of the fledgling super disc formats some chance at succeeding. And it sort of has ... I mean... Blu-ray is still here and the industry is even starting to experiment with audio-only Blu-ray releases, using the massive storage space on the discs for uber high resolution physical copies that can be packaged and marketed much like records and CDs used to be sold.
Some of the first ones on the market have come out in boxed sets and the results have been quite spectacular. I am quite fond of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here "Immersion" series and Jethro Tull's Aqualung reissue. Yes' Close to the Edge on Blu-ray Disc may well be the standard bearer for all to follow in terms of overall quality and attention to detail.
With all this Blu buzz brewing again, I thought it might be fun to revisit some surround sound gems that got lost in the sauce amidst industry bickering and withering marketing budgets. Perhaps soon these will be reissued for all to enjoy on Blu-ray. We can only hope!
I remember talking with a friend who used to work at a big reissue label discussing "wish list" albums for surround sound. A year later I happened upon a DualDisc format release of one of those albums, Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane's fabulous Rough Mix album! This was merely a grand coincidence of course -- I don't have THAT much influence, folks! This far from rough mix is really quite nice with some intriguing moments when played in 5.1 surround. Most notable is Townshend's epic "Street in the City," which puts the listener kind of in the middle between his guitar and voice and the symphonic string section behind you. Its really very cool! Its also a really hard disc to find -- I have only seen one copy, the one I bought in the store when it came out. Indeed, copies are running at crazy collectors prices on Amazon and eBay, some asking well over $100 for the disc! I can't tell you whether it is worth spending that amount. Personally, I'd wait. If it came out once, chances are it will come out again on a more widely distributed format.
The Flaming Lips released this fabulous live concert video on Warner Brothers' short lived MVI format disc (essentially a DVD Audio disc with some other groovy features programmed in). The discs can be found around in the bins at places like Amoeba and on Amazon for reasonable prices. Its a straightforward concert video using the surrounds mostly for audience ambiance but it still sounds and looks really good. And of course, it being The Flaming Lips. the show is a whole lot of fun, capturing the band at a commercial peak on their home turf before an audience of adoring freak fans out for a fun time. Wish list to The Flaming Lips: while you are at it, why not reissue the awesome 5.1 surround sound DVD Audio discs of "The Soft Bulletin," "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots" and and "At War With The Mystics." I bet there is even a surround mix of Embryonic and The Terror lurking around somewhere in the land of the Lips. C'mon guys ... bring it on!
I picked up this SACD on a whim in a bargain bin and it turned out to be quite a spectacular find. It is a tribute collection featuring Herbie and a killer band doing justice to Gershwin's legacy (and also some of his contemporaries),the album includes cameos from the likes of Joni Mitchell, Wayne Shorter, Stanley Clarke, Stevie Wonder and many others. The arrangements are gorgeous, the recording impeccable and the surround mix immersive and fulfilling. What more do you need? This is a favorite go-to demo disc, especially for people who don't like surround sound. Its one of those really "nice" recordings that just sucks you in and makes you listen without you really noticing that you are in an immersive listening environment.
Lets hope these and many others get reissued sometime soon!
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written: www.dialthemusical.com.