Recording of June 2003: Dark Side of the Moon
Capitol CDP 582136 2 (CD/SACD), Capitol (LP). 1973/2003. Pink Floyd, prods.; Alan Parsons, eng.; James Guthrie, 5.1 remix. AAD/AAA. TT: 43:00
Sonics ***** (SACD layers) *** (CD layer)
Dark Side of the Moon is one of those rare albums that has fostered an entire mythology that continues to evolve. Floydian lore reached a peak a few years back with the madcap theory that the band had recorded the music as an alternative soundtrack for the film The Wizard of Oz.
Instead, DSotM is simply an extraordinarily inspired work whose every note and instrument is carefully placed, and whose music sounds as fresh today as it did 30 years ago. The record is so well-known that it needs no elaborate play by play, so here's a quick recap that quotes the words uttered at the very end of the disc: "As a matter of fact, it's all dark."
In the April "As We See It," I downplayed the hybrid DSotM's significance as the savior of SACD. In my opinion, the format has bigger problems than the occasional classic album reissue can solve. But this disc does make the case for high-resolution surround sound.
This hybrid disc has everything the format can offer: two-channel stereo CD and SACD layers, as well as a 5.1-channel surround mix. The stereo mixes are remastered from the original 1973 two-track master. The multichannel track, an entirely new mix made from the original multitrack elements and kept in the analog domain until converted to DSD, was begun by James Guthrie in late 2002 and finished in February 2003. With a thick, full-color booklet and an imaginative new cover, this is one of the best reissue values I've seen.
When it came to the surround mixes, artistic decisions were made that differentiate them from the original stereo and quad mixes. Individual instrument and voice levels were altered, a few bits of guitar left out of the two-channel mix were reinstated, and the overall levels of some tracks, such as "Us & Them," were dramatically changed. While this gave many a Floyd fan nightmares of revisionist tinkering, they needn't have worried: If your system is set up for it, this is now the only way to go. I've tested the 5.1 mix on many a Floyd fan, and the response has never been short of ecstatic.
With the new multichannel mix, you'll clearly hear details you've never heard before. You'll finally be able to sort out all those little snippets of spoken word, and you'll get much closer to the sounds of the individual instruments and vocals, which are now spread out farther. Background hiss and noise have been largely eliminated, and the brilliant use of the surround channels adds to the power of the music without driving you to distraction. If you don't have a multichannel system set up yet, seriously consider getting together with another audiophile pal and combining systems for at least one evening.
For those wanting to compare the CD and SACD stereo layers to gain some insight into what DSD offers, things are more complicated. I used the new Philips DVD963SA with 192kHz upsampling on for the CD layer, and both the CD and SACD signals were sent out through the player's analog L/R jacks into a Lexicon MC12 in analog bypass mode, so as to not to "PCM" the DSD track that had now been converted back to analog.
I'd figured this would be a good way to see how lo-rez PCM stacks up to DSD, but I was stumped. The CD layer doesn't only sound less detailed and more congested than the SACD layer, as I've come to expect from these shoot-outs—it also sounds altered. The CD layer is clearly more forward than the SACD layer, and much louder than my original Harvest/EMI (Japan) CD. However, it also substantially cleans up the haze of the earlier CD release, adds impact to the bottom end, and breaks out the first two titles as separate tracks. And yes, you can still hear an orchestra faintly playing the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride" at the very end of the stereo SACD track, under the fading heartbeats, and to a lesser extent on the CD layer.
But as John Atkinson and others have found (see this issue's "As We See It"), it appears that, although they were likely sourced from the same analog tape, the new CD layer was processed differently during mastering from the stereo SACD layer. JA's graphs and analysis indicate that the CD layer was compressed and peak-limited a bit to make it sound more aggressive. Did they muck up the CD layer to make it sound inferior to the SACD, or were they just trying to make it "pop" more on CD-only systems and radio stations? Who knows?
For now, we'll have to assume that the wonderful-sounding SACD stereo tracks are the closest we'll ever get to the original two-channel master tape—unless you've got a decent vinyl setup. I also got hold of the new vinyl edition, mastered in February by Doug Sax and Kevin Gray at Chad Kassem's Acoustech Mastering. The new pressing easily gives the stereo SACD track a run for its digits.
If you count the various imports, anniversary editions, and audiophile pressings, DSotM has been reissued dozens of times. I've got six versions myself, and I'm sure most readers own at least one copy. Should you consider adding the new SACD/CD hybrid and/or vinyl as well? I recommend the hybrid for its brilliant multichannel mix and the two-channel SACD layer, but if you're analog-endowed, the new LP might be the ticket. Either way, Floyd fans will uncover new details and meaning in this landmark album from rock's college days.—Jon Iverson