It’s the time of year for saving money!
I’ll be honest folks, I’m more than a little bit giddy right now…
I am not sure if I am more excited about the facts that two of my favorite Frank Zappa albums have not only been given the 21st Century remastering treatment (including all analog vinyl mastered by Bernie Grundman!) … Or that the Zappa estate is opening up their archives further for a deep dive into studio outtakes and alternates that most of us have not heard… Or, that the producers took the time to mix both of these albums into surround sound…
Or, am I simply more excited that they took the time to mix it into really great sounding surround sound?
I think that latter point is where I’ll start!
The new Dolby Atmos and Dolby TrueHD 5.1 versions of The Grand Wazoo and Waka/Jawaka are easily the most exciting surround sound mixes I’ve heard in quite some time. These are among the first Dolby Atmos mixes made for home listening which I’ve genuinely enjoyed outside of Stephen Wilson’s more recent works, particularly on his solo albums.
These mixes are included in the four CD plus Blu-ray Disc boxed set called Waka/Wazoo, out now from Zappa Records and Universal Music.
On these new surround sound mixes, I think the producers have struck a nice balance between honoring the music, evoking Frank’s adventuresome creative spirit had he been around to supervise this mix all while crafting an engaging listening experience which most everyone should be able to enjoy.
Both of these mixes keep relatively true to the basic sound of the original albums — they are not overly brightened to sound contemporary. Yet, the producers were not afraid to fully embrace the 7.1 channel surround sound spaces with discrete information that delivers a compelling listening experience.
I recently upgraded my living room home theater system so I could experience Dolby Atmos music, particularly on Blu-ray Discs (which I play over my Oppo UDP-203 universal disc player). Prior to this I’ve certainly heard some very compelling Atmos movie mixes in the theaters and even one for the one off demo of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper in a movie theater. But in general, most of the Dolby Atmos mixes that I’ve heard, at least for those made from vintage archival recordings from the past, have been underwhelming. Most of the mixes I’ve heard (on some pretty major releases from some big name bands) have played it “safe” to the point of being uninspiring and ultimately not worth listening to. Most of those mixes tend to use the surround and height channels for room ambience. It is even more discouraging when the regular 5.1 surround and Stereo mixes on the same disc are more exciting and engaging.
Well, hopefully we can say that this is one of those “that was then, this is now” scenarios…
From the official Frank Zappa website we learn: “The Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo albums themselves will be presented on Blu-Ray Audio disc in a variety of exciting listening experiences: brand-new first-time-ever immersive Dolby Atmos and Dolby Digital True HD 5.1 surround sound mixes mixed from the original multi-tracks by Erich Gobel and Karma Auger at Studio 1LA and 96kHz 24-bit high-resolution stereo remasters mastered by Doug Sax with Robert Hadley and Sangwook “Sunny” Nam at The Mastering Lab in 2012. Both albums will also be available for hi-res streaming.”
One of the first things I did when I got my copy of Waka/Wazoo in hand was to break out my DVD Audio disc of Frank Zappa’s 2004 release called quAUDIOPHILIAc. This fantastic but sadly short-lived release — featuring recordings of Zappa in surround sound — included some early quadraphonic experiments Zappa made even before playback options were a mass market reality for consumers. One of my favorite tracks on that album is the early quad mix of the song “Waka/Jawaka,” a wonderful listening experience where you get to take a ride with Frank at the controls as he takes some wild chances on his sound design. At one point guitars from opposing angles intersect in the surround fields as if they were doing battle with one another. It’s a very exciting and engaging mix, actually!
On these new surround sound mixes for Waka/Wazoo, engineers Erich Gobel and Karma Auger don’t quite re-create that but they do aspire to their own adventuresome spirit which I suspect Frank would appreciate. They do keep the basic rhythm section focused mostly on the upfront channels but at times it feels as if you are in the middle of the drum kit — or perhaps sitting on the drummer’s throne! It sort of envelopes in you at times, yet not in an overwhelming manner. I found it at minimum very enticing and at times quite exhilarating.
Keyboards and sound effects tend to percolate from the rear and sides of the surround fields, sometimes even washing over you front to back. Vocals tend to come from up front while harmonies can sometimes come from the back. Again, they’re not afraid to take some creative chances here.
Interestingly the mixes were done at 48 kHz, 24 bit but they sound really nice and particularly quite warm which is essential from my perspective. These are albums featuring lots of horns and jazz flavors, so that is part of the vibe of the original recordings which Zappa captured back in 1972.
Following are some of my first reflections on fun details I heard while listening to each of the albums, mostly in Dolby Atmos. Please note that these are first impressions and I reserve the right to alter/update my perspective upon subsequent listens (as I ask myself: “Did I really hear what I thought I heard?”).
Also, an important note of warning as you start to explore this disc: the 96 kHz, 24-bit Stereo (original album) mix is set significantly louder than the surround mixes. So if you are switching in real time between the different options (as I frequently do), be sure to lower your volume settings accordingly before switching to it! That is a disc mastering issue which probably should be fixed for subsequent pressings.
The Grand Wazoo
The first thing I noticed was that the height channels are used very effectively not just to deliver room ambiance but the scale of the instruments. Suddenly, the drums are filling a more three dimensional space, with cymbal parts seemingly coming from higher (where they would be in a live situation if you were on stage or in the studio with the band) vs. just coming out of the speakers with everything else.
As I mentioned earlier, at times it feels that the drum kit is almost filling the room, as if you might be sitting on the drummer’s throne. Listen closely during “Cleetus Awreetus-Awrightus” for Zappa’s mad overdriven guitar parts jumping out from under the horn, which were formerly blended so well into the mix that they were almost a buried sonic texture. I’m glad they brought out that detail because, well, it is frankly super badass! Its all neat how the “tack” piano solo sort of emerges mid-room. On “Eat That Question,” keep alert for Frank’s repeated string bending moment during his solo which kind of echos, bouncing front to rear, in time with the music.
“Blessed Relief” is especially gorgeous, bathing you in a lush wash of Fender Rhodes style keyboards and horns. Listening to this song in surround sound, I am realizing that this beautiful composition is about as close as Frank Zappa ever got writing a melody that had that Burt Bacharach kind of flavor — I could hear Herb Alpert covering this (and I mean that as a compliment).
While perhaps not quite as flirtatious as The Grand Wazoo mix, Waka/Jawaka in surround sound is still a quite active listening experience, from a trumpet solo part which travels around the room, to keyboards padding out from behind you. Once again, the cymbals and drums in general sound uncannily realistic. There are some neat flute-horn combination parts popping up at times which are more audible, formerly buried in the Stereo mix, again as more of a texture.
I could go on and may update this at some point with other observations. But in general I am very impressed with these mixes and — for me at least — it makes owning this set an essential if you are a fan of Zappa and surround sound.
In 1968, Frank Zappa ran an ad in Marvel comic books promoting his then new release We’re Only In It For The Money. In that ad were some semi-sarcastic-but-not-sarcastic tagline-type words, reminiscent of the kinds of ads run in supermarkets or perhaps a car dealership! That copy read (roughly in this order depending upon how you read the ad: “Thrilling, clean fun! Cleans you! Thrills you! Cleans & Thrills you! Expensive! Fun!”
I think most of that ad copy applies to this new Waka/Wazoo boxed set save for the word “expensive.” With it selling for about $60 on Amazon, this feels like a bargain for music of this caliber and with it including such a great surround sound mix. You’d pay almost as much for many fancy single disc Pure Audio type releases on Blu-ray or a Criterion movie.
I’ll post my review of the CD portion of the set — the outtakes and live recordings — next week so please stay tuned. But if you are into surround sound and Zappa and want to have a fun holiday gift for yourself (or the Zappa fan in your life) you might want to jump on getting a copy of this sooner than later.