In 2011 Pete Townshend and The Who put out a special “Director’s Cut” box set commemorating their landmark 1973 album Quadrophenia. This was a beautiful package, lovingly created replete with remastered CDs and two discs of demos. Most notably, the set included the first bits of the by-then-somewhat-legendary 5.1 surround sound mixes of the album in unfinished form. Only eight of the tracks were offered then and those were interesting but they did, ultimately, sound somewhat unfinished.
Fast forward onto the heels the commemorative tour celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Quadrophenia’s release and here we are three years later with yet another deluxe box set and the finished 5.1 mix. Got that? You get the live concert from London (on Blu-ray or DVD and CD) plus a bonus disc with the FINISHED complete Quadrophenia audio album in 5.1 surround sound. This bonus disc includes a new stereo mix and — for the first time in the high resolution digital realm — the original 1973 mix!
Fortunately, for those of us who have the mighty fine “Directors Cut” set or who don’t want to spend an additional $100+ on that new deluxe set, there is also a much more affordable standalone version of the studio album available as part of the Pure Audio high resolution audio-only series of Blu-ray Disc releases. Yes, that is right: audio only on a Blu-ray Disc, no video — they use the expanded space on the disc to deliver super high resolution, uncompressed audio which gets you, Dear Readers, that much closer to the master tapes.
So, I’ll get right into the review part at this point since most of you reading this probably (a) know about Quadrophenia and have the original album on LP or CD and (b) don’t need my analysis of what the story line is about and such. I leave that for other websites and magazines around the Interwebs…
You probably want to know how it sounds and whether I like it, right?
The answers are “real good” and — a qualified — “yes!”
There are lots of dynamics on this full fidelity 24-bit / 96 kHz Blu-ray release. The mixes are by Bob Pridden and Richard Whittaker and they do a good job of capturing the essence of the album while carefully bringing the music out into the three dimensional space of your home theater listening area. They, perhaps wisely, decided to keep the core of the band’s sound very much a front and center affair, so the surrounds are mostly used for textural portions such as synthesizers, overdubbed guitars, special effects, nature sounds (the sea especially) and such.
Stylistically, the new mixes are good and ultimately very respectful of the original, while of course bringing Roger Daltry’s often amazing lead vocals up higher (as per the 1996 remixes). While the producers tried to get things as close as possible, there are inevitable little detail differences. For example at the end of “The Real Me,” the echo timing applied to Daltry’s final outburst (“Can you see the real me me me me me…”) is a little different than the original. So, at first listen — for those of us intimate with the original mix — details like that can be a bit unsettling, depending on how passionate the listener is about this sort of thing. Once I acknowledged that this new mix is different thing (and that we always have the original stereo mix to listen to if we prefer that), I became completely accepting of the variations.
The surround mix works very effectively on quieter tracks like “Helpless Dancer” which rotates Roger Daltry’s conversational vocal lines in time around room before ending up front and center In other songs such as “5:15,” the horn sections appear from the rear while the band rocks out in front of you.
]]>Details worth discussing: In the liner notes to the original LP credit is given to an assistant engineer for “Mixing continuity” and there is also note of a “Studio earphone mix” credited to another engineer.” It is also important to take note of some details revealed there which may have impacted the final sound which was “recorded at ‘The Kitchen’ in Thessally Road, Battersea, while building was still in progress. Ronnie Lane’s Mobile Sound served as control room while ours was being finished.”
I bring this up specifically for those of you who may be intimately familiar with this album and have a certain concept of how it “should” sound. When you listen in surround sound and the new stereo mixes, you start to notice subtle track-to-track differences in how the recordings were made. While I admit that I don’t know the specifics on this, I can speculate that perhaps (quite likely) they didn’t have the luxury of leaving their instruments set up in the studio exactly the same way for the weeks/months it probably took to complete the album. Or, since the studio was under construction, perhaps they had to move things around between sessions. That might have resulted in a different sound. There are many variables, but the bottom line is that there are times when the sonic footprint of the music changes significantly. At some points things sound very dry and in your face, while in other points there is larger ambiance on the core rhythm tracks.
Some people might find this jarring. But when I went back to listen closely to the original mix on LP (which I hadn’t heard in some time) I could hear that this was indeed the way the album was recorded. It is just a bit less noticeable in simple stereo. In surround sound, the inconsistencies become more evident and thus it is my guess that this factor may have influenced the producers choice to keep the mix centered in a more traditional stereo sound stage (again, vs. succumbing to the temptation to take the whole band out into the room). In addition to the caveats I’ve spelled out above, I also suspect that making the mix more immersive may have not been an option given these recordings were initially recorded on 4- and 8-track and then 16-tracks (per the notes in the Criterion reissue of the Quadrophenia movie soundtrack, which FYI, I reviewed here on Audiophilereview back in 2012).
So, yes, while I personally would have preferred the mix to be a tad more immersive, ultimately I respect the artist’s intentions and what they have delivered for us. The music of Quadrophenia remains brilliant and the new surround mix only enhances that experience.
Just listen to the clarity of the cymbals during opening of “Cut My Hair” to get a quick idea of what I’m talking about. And at the end of the album it is a magnificent wonder to experience that final moment where the band slams down on the last notes of “Love Reign O’er Me,” with Keith Moon’s drums thundering away while Daltry’s blood curdled scream soars to the heavens and Townshend’s trademark pick screeches across the strings of his electric guitar flying all around the room smashing into that final BIG NOTE!
And then all you hear is the sea….
This is powerful, heady stuff, still, after all these years.
Now in 5.1 surround you have a new way to enjoy and explore the majesty of this amazing music which Pete Townshend wrote at the peak of his powers and which he and the rest of The Who brought to life for the ages.
Quadrophenia is classic, one of the best rock recordings ever made, and it just got a little better with this new 5.1 surround mix. Who fans have every reason to celebrate this release.
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.