Surrounded by Benson

Call me stuck in the 1970s, or stuck in two-channel audio, but for me surround sound still conjures the idea of quadraphonic sound, which if I’m not mistaken was kind of like LaserDisc, or DVD-A: ideas whose time never came. To be fair, I also live in a New York apartment and the chance of me optimizing my environment to take full advantage of 5.1 recordings is nil. I have heard 5.1 recordings, recorded in surround which is key, played on a proper rig, that have been a very pleasurable listening experience, and one very different, though not necessarily better, that those in the two-channel world. I have also heard ridiculous experiments that were mixed by mad people.

With that in mind, I visited the home of Kalman Rubinson, who writes Stereophile’s “Music in the Round” column and is our resident expert on surround sound, to listen to the 5.1 mix on Audio Fidelity’s new hybrid multichannel SACD of George Benson’s Breezin’. The Stereo SACD and CD mastering on this project was done by Steve Hoffman at Stephen Marsh Audio. The 5.1 surround sound mix was done by Al Schmitt, the record’s original engineer, at Capitol Records and Doug Sax mastered the 5.1 layer at The Mastering Lab.

Breezin’ was Benson’s 1976 Warner Brothers debut after years recording in a more straight ahead jazz mode for Prestige, Columbia, Verve and A&M and finally Creed Taylor’s CTI label. He’s currently signed to Concord Records who released Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole in 2013. Breezin’ was produced by Tommy LiPuma to be the breakthrough it became. Benson’s vocal performance on Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade,” where he wordlessly sings along with the guitar, turned the track into a pop hit that won the "Record the Year" (which is a performer's rather than a songwriter’s award) Grammy in 1977. Al Schmitt also won for "Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical" and Benson won "Best Pop Instrumental Performance." The triple platinum album was nominated for "Record of the Year," "Song of the Year" and "Best Pop Vocal Performance." The band on the record featured a who’s who of pop jazz first call cats including Phil Upchurch (rhythm guitar), Ralph MacDonald (percussion), Ronnie Foster (electric piano and Moog) and Harvey Mason (drums). And then there’s that phat jacket Benson’s wearing on the cover!

Musically, Breezin’ usually divides listeners into two camps: sappy mush or a pop masterpiece. I can see both sides, though I’ve always been a Benson fan, in both his pop and jazz modes. While Leon’s growly version of his "This Masquerade," has a rough charm, Benson’s cover gives it sexy elan that even had AM radio playing it in 1976. The surround mix here makes no drastic changes. Ambience and space have been added to the mix but in general the 5.1 mix is very close to that of the two channel. Maybe that’s what comes from having the same person do both. There is some slight panning to the right and left, but there’s almost nothing in the center channel. A little percussion has been moved into the back channels, but not enough to give you that heebie jeebie creep out you can get, or at least I can get, when there’s a drum kit bashing away behind me. I have heard complaints about the reverb being off in this surround mix but I didn’t hear it. Overall, it’s a bigger sound, enjoyable certainly but compared to the two-channel stereo mix, nothing revolutionary.

bigrasshopper's picture

I would be interested in owning a decent mastering of this album if it were offered on vinyl. Why is Audio Fidelity producing so little vinyl these days ? Has AF abandoned vinyl ?

John Atkinson's picture
I have a guilty love for the Carpenters - see But when you compare their version of "This Masquerade with George Benson's, the latter is so much in the pocket that it makes the Carpenters’ version, no matter how well-crafted, sound stiff and uninvolved.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Roger That's picture

Although I'm much more of a music man myself (like John Miles said, "Music was my first love and it will be my last"), and play some instruments for quite some time, I also have a pretty decent home cinema setup (relatively speaking). I just can't accept the notion of watching a movie without 5.1 surround sound. For me, image is really only half of the story, and there's not a hint of a doubt in my mind.
So I should love 5.1 mixes of music, but for some reason, I rarely do!
Maybe I'm used to let my brain process more "virtual" channels out of two loudspeakers, maybe I'm having a prejudice towards 5.1 music recordings (it doesn't help when someone is singing on the rear channels), or maybe I have the wrong audio setup for multichannel music (although it does sound huge with orchestral parts on several movies).

I have yet to listen to this record, but I will try it. Maybe it will change my mind.

But if I understood correctly, isn't this mix closer to a two channel mix?

Thank you for the review.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Yup, this mix is very, very similar to the 2 channel mix. In fact, it is the stereo mix with minor enhancements. Since little or nothing of George Benson is in the center channel, his presence is completely a stereo presentation. Now, it is a very good stereo presentation and the 5.1 nicely expands the ambiance at the expense of an occasional percussion note or two from the rear.

Ovation123's picture

I guess I'm in the minority here, but I usually enjoy mixes that are often described as "aggressive" for MCH music releases (I prefer to call it "in the band"--less hostile). I do enjoy MCH mixes where the main emphasis is on creating a greater sense of space, with an audience perspective, but I have a predilection for being "in the band". In that sense, AIX Records are to be commended for offering more than one mixing perspective for much of their MCH offerings (though, sadly, usually at the cost of being lossy for one or more of the options).

As far as "live music" goes, the audience perspective is fine, though even here I enjoy the "in the band" presentation, if available (for me--I am well aware of my minority status). But for music crafted in the studio where individual tracks and/or musicians were not recorded simultaneously, I see no requirement to favour an "audience perspective", only an apparent tendency to avoid going too far from the familiar. I'd rather the enveloping mix of Peter Gabriel's Up to a heavily front-loaded mix of the same. Some music should be presented in a "surround", truly "surround" fashion. I have a fair amount of it already. Just wish there was more. At least with my gear, I can tweak 2 channel recordings into something like what I seek. It's not always a successful experiment (certainly not), but when it is successful, it revitalizes much that I might otherwise leave untouched.

Alright, guess I should stop my rant now. Lunch awaits (and then a bit of quality time with George Benson later this afternoon--haven't cracked it open yet).