Recording of November 2012: Tearing It Up

Albert Lee: Tearing It Up
AIX Records AIX 85054 (BD). Mark Waldrep, prod.; Mona Waldrep, exec. prod.; Dominic Robelotto, assoc. prod., eng., BD authoring. DDD. TT: 100:00
Performance *****
Sonics *****

"From a layman's perspective, I'd listen to the 'Audience' mix on my first bourbon and the 'Stage' mix on my second."

Ahh, yes, out of the mouths of . . . audiophiles . . . who like good booze!

Lacking a 5.1-channel surround-sound rig at home, I enlisted the able assistance of "Music in the Round" columnist Kalman Rubinson, who then convinced his son-in-law, Michael Schechter, source of the above quote, to host us for an evening of listening to and watching the Blu-ray disc Tearing It Up, a new set by the incomparable English country-rock guitarist Albert Lee, recently released by AIX Records.

We convened at Michael's uptown apartment early one gorgeous August evening, where he and Kal sipped good bourbon (Hemingway would be disappointed, I know, but I can't write when tipsy), and moved between Michael's two listening rooms, comparing the attributes of the "Audience" and "Stage" mixes recorded in 24-bit/96kHz (there is also a two channel stereo mix), an approach that's central to the philosophy of Dr. Mark Waldrep, the man and the mind behind AIX, now happily distributed in the US by Naxos.

The set here is a mix of rock 'n' roll hits like "Tear It Up" and the country rock tunes that have always been Lee's strongest suit. For this multi-person evaluation, I chose what I called the "Gram/Emmylou Break." Clumped in the center of this 14-track Blu-ray are three consecutive songs associated with Gram Parsons and/or Emmylou Harris: Rodney Crowell's "'Til I Gain Control Again," which Harris was the first to record; Felice and Boudleaux Bryant's "Sleepless Nights," which Parsons and Harris recorded together, and which lent its title to a posthumous Parsons album; and the Parsons original "Luxury Liner," which became the title track to a Harris album recorded while Lee was in the band.

According to Waldrep, the "Audience" mix is the traditional audio perspective on which two-channel stereo is based—you're in the crowd, the band is onstage—though in this case it also means sound of the band pours in from beside and behind you. The "Stage" mix is meant to simulate being onstage with the band, among the musicians, hearing what they hear. In this case, the musicians included Lee on guitar, Randle Currie on pedal steel, Bob Glaub on bass, and drummer Don Heffington.

Waldrep describes the "Stage" mix as a horseshoe of sound that spreads around a listener; yet the surround effect is only fully apparent at higher volumes. In Michael's large (30' by 30') listening room, I had to sit very close to the video screen to experience that sense of full immersion. In his smaller (15' by 8') room, the sensation of sitting among a semicircle of musicians (with Heffington's drums panned behind and to the right) was unmistakable. What was most interesting about the "Stage" mixes, we all agreed, was that they are what Kal called "hot." Michael described the same quality as having captured the "magic" of making music better than in his "Audience" mixes. Michael also thought the "Stage" mixes gave a truer sense of whether the band was "on" or not during a given song. For me, the "Stage" mixes sounded more alive, more musically full-blooded than the "Audience" mixes. But while the "Audience" mixes sounded flatter and were less emotionally compelling, they did have, as Kal pointed out, much more precise imaging; each instrument was more clearly defined aurally—even without looking at the video.

Speaking of the pictures, the direction and editing is simple, direct, and for the most part effective depiction of a crack band running through its set. Waldrep readily admits that sound, not pictures, is his strongest suit. "When someone rips into me big time about the way the video lighting was here and how the image was a little grainy there, I say, 'Hey, guys, I'm learning.'"

By the end of our very enjoyable listening and viewing evening, we all agreed that the choice of the right microphones in the right positions is the essential element in creating the proper source material for a 5.1-channel mix. Kal talked at length about how he suspects that some orchestral surround-sound recordings don't work well because the performances weren't recorded in a way that made possible an effective 5.1 mix. In the end, as the 5.1 newbie, I was impressed with the clarity and vivdness of 5.1, yet not ready to say that the overall effect was better or worse than two-channel sound. Similar to the CD vs LP debate, the experience is not necessarily better or worse, it was most certainly different.—Robert Baird