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An Interview With James Guthrie
Perfect 5.1 Sense

Interview By Mike Mettler

 

An Interview With James Guthrie

  Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters wants his music to be reproduced at the highest quality, and he turns to one man to make sure he achieves that goal: producer and engineer James Guthrie. Guthrie and Waters have worked together for decades, starting with Pink Floyd's seminal 1979 album, The Wall. Waters has since entrusted Guthrie with producing hi-res surround-sound mixes for 1973's The Dark Side of the Moon, 1975's Wish You Were Here, and the recent 5.1 recasting of Waters' oft-overlooked 1992 solo album, Amused to Death.

While Patrick Leonard was Waters' co-producer on Amused to Death, Guthrie was enlisted to bring his own special brand of mixing elixir into the control room. "We did try to make a dynamic album, but, really, that's going to happen anyway, just because of the music that Roger writes," Guthrie explains. "His storytelling is so dynamic, and we follow his lead."

Waters himself is beyond appreciative of the work Guthrie has done in remixing key entries of his catalog in 5.1. "Oh, I agree — James did a good job on all of them," Waters says. "The new mixes of Amused to Death sound stunning. Yeah, it's great; I love it. It's pretty amazing."

(For more on his views of ATD in 5.1, the origins of how Pink Floyd came to utilizing live quad, and his overall thoughts on surround sound, see our companion interview with Roger Waters.)

One thing Guthrie can confirm is his next surround assignment: "I'm going to be starting a 5.1 mix of The Wall soon — the original studio album, that is," he reports. "And we have discussed Animals." No timetable on when The Wall in 5.1 will be completed for release as of yet, but rest assured, we'll be right on top of it.

In the meantime, Guthrie was more than happy to exclusively discuss the merits of high-resolution audio, the true beginnings of how Amused to Death came to be mixed in 5.1, and the gear he used to make it all happen. Miraculous, you may call it — you ain't heard nothing yet.

 

Mike Mettler: First, I'd like to get your general feelings about the inherent value of 96kHz/24-bit high-resolution audio versus MP3 and streaming. Why is going the high-resolution audio route a better listening experience overall, in your opinion? What does high-res audio provide that MP3 and streaming can't even approach?

James Guthrie: For those who have been living with MP3, AAC, and other compression algorithms, I would say they can expect a dramatic increase in harmonic content and an altogether more emotionally engaging listening experience.

In addition to attaining a better understanding of the music, the listener will be drawn in to a breathing soundscape and taken on a journey where they become an active participant, rather than the music just being played at them.

With full-resolution audio, you can suddenly hear into the music, and you will notice a more three-dimensional soundstage along with greatly improved low-level detail. But it has to be done properly.

Digital music is highly volatile. Correct interface and clocking are crucial. When buying hi-res files, for instance, it's good to question the source. Are they truly hi-res, or have they been up-sampled? Who prepared the files? Was it someone who has a good reputation for attention to detail? Someone who understands musically how the file is supposed to sound? Someone with the ability and equipment to produce a good product? Just because the label says "96kHz/24-bit" or "192kHz/24-bit" doesn't mean that it's automatically going to be good.

Be discerning, use your ears, then learn to trust your ears. I've heard 96/24 sound better than 192/24, if the 192 was executed poorly. Done well, though, 192 can be great, and DSD can be great. The success of hi-res audio will rely on the engineers, producers, and artists to make a good product; it will then rely on the consumers to be vigilant and optimize their playback systems. Doing a very quick A/B listening session between source files can be misleading. It's important to take your time, and it's crucial to listen to both files at a matched level. To the untrained ear, louder equals better. Even to a trained ear, louder can equal better! Ultimately, how does it make you feel? Can you comfortably listen to the music? Is the energy level good?

And then there's the playback device. If you're a DSD fan, is the player outputting true DSD, or is it converting the signal to PCM? How good are the DACs?

I recently evaluated a portable hi-res player, and discovered on that particular unit the onboard storage sounded completely different from the removable Micro SD card (the Micro SD card was not the winner, by the way). There are so many variables, which makes it difficult for us as consumers to do the right thing.

Also, do some listening research into how you feel about compressed files, even lossless compression. I've never heard a lossless algorithm that sounds the same as the original file. It may look correct on paper, but the audible result is not the same. Some may be quite happy living with lossless compression, but personally, I'd like to see most people listening to hi-res files at 96/24, 192/24, and DSD with no compression at all. In the case of PCM audio, listen to .WAV files. In the case of DSD, listen to .DSF or .DFF files. Both of these would be closer to what we are working with in the studio. I understand this raises issues about the size of storage devices, but storage is becoming faster and less expensive almost daily. Ultimately, there's some great product out there, but be careful!

Mettler: You raise a lot of good points. You mentioned at the Princeton symposium last April ["Pink Floyd: Sound, Sight and Structure — An Interdisciplinary Conference," held at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, April 10-13, 2014] that you told Roger Waters mixing Amused to Death in 5.1 wasn't about making money, but that it was "an investment in his art." Can you go into further detail about that?

Guthrie: After making the announcement on his website that we were planning to release a stereo SACD of ATD, [founder/owner] Chad Kassem from Acoustic Sounds called and told me he had received a number of letters from fans expressing their desire to hear Amused to Death in 5.1. I told him that I had long wanted to do a surround mix of ATD, but we had always pushed the project into the background due to its complexity. There was also no guarantee that we'd be able to find all the tapes, or that the digital tapes would even play after so many years.

Chad sent the letters to me and I began to think, if the record companies would accept a later delivery on some of our other pending projects, then maybe there was a chance that we could do it. I was also moved, as a few of the letters not only requested a surround mix, but requested that I do the mix.

I called Roger and pitched my case. I reminded him of how difficult the project would be, and said he should look at it as an investment in a piece of art. I felt that we should do it for his legacy — that the album deserved the treatment, but that ultimately, we should do it because the fans wanted it. Thankfully, he agreed. So, in many ways, it was the fans who drove the project.

Mettler: What else did you and Roger discuss in terms of your specific goals for the 5.1 mix? Did Roger give you any directions as to what he wanted to hear in the 5.1 mix himself?

Guthrie: We didn't discuss the content, just that we agreed it should be done.

Mettler: What source material did you start with? Was it culled from digital, DAT, tape, or other sources? How much work did it entail in terms of the reconstruction you had to do?

Guthrie: The album was recorded over a long period of time and spans three different formats. They started on analog tape and then moved to two digital formats — Mitsubishi X850 and Sony 3348.

When I mixed the original album 23 years ago, I insisted on using all elements for their original generation, rather than a digital copy. This meant that we often had four multi-track tape machines running on a mix.

For the 5.1, we had to find all of those first-generation elements. I went to British Grove Studios in London and waded through hundreds of tapes. The studio owned a Sony 3348, so we could play those tapes. They also managed to get hold of two Mitsubishi X850 tape machines, and Chris Myring was able to coax those tapes to play by essentially robbing parts from two machines to make one work! It was touch and go. The tapes were old, and when you get enough errors on a digital tape, it results in a mute, never to be recovered. We did have some mutes, but thankfully only on outtakes.

Even though the early digital formats were low resolution —mostly at 48kHz — I played them back with high quality DACs, and then made the transfers to 96kHz/24-bit. When I got all of the digital and analog components back to my studio, Joel [Plante, assistant engineer] and I began the process of rebuilding the album in hopes that I would actually have a project to mix! It was a massive undertaking.

Mettler: Tell me about the gear and the equipment you used in the studio while working on the 5.1 mixes. This was all done at das boot recording, right?

Guthrie: Apart from the digital transfers that we made in London, it was all done at das boot recording, yes. My studio is a collection of gear I've acquired over the years that I consider to be the best amalgam of analog and digital. We live in a digital world, but a lot of equipment that makes the most pleasing sound to me is still analog. Having that analog gear means we can always use the original master tapes in conjunction with newer digital files.

I use Studer A827 2-inch multi-track recorders that can be configured as 16-track, 24-track, or even 8-track. On the digital side, it's all SADiE for workstations with various high-quality options for ADC and DAC. Nothing is done "in the box." The workstations are used as tape machines, and all tracks are output through a digitally controlled analog console made by Euphonix. Multitrack playback DACs are made by Prism. Mix converters were dCS for TDSOTM and WYWH and Prism for ATD. Meitner converters are used for transfers to DSD. I'm a big fan of [founder of EAR valve amplifiers] Tim de Paravicini, and I use numerous pieces of equipment that he has designed and built, including some custom pieces that he has made for me.

Before building my own studio, I used to travel to commercial studios with a few flight cases full of outboard gear that I liked. These cases were with me when I mixed the original stereo album in 1991/1992. I still have all that gear, so it made life a bit easier when I needed to recreate some of the original effects for the 5.1 mix. I don't use plug-ins — it's all the real thing.

I use ATC speakers exclusively — the most important gear in the room. It's my window to the outside world, and the only thing that tells me whether or not what I'm doing will translate to other systems.

Mettler: Explain the role Joel Plante played in the overall process in terms of engineering, mastering, and authoring.

Guthrie: Joel assists me with all aspects of a project, so in many ways, he is a one-man support crew. On this project, he had a lot of work to do, as even after I got back from London, we were still searching for elements and had to ensure we used all the correct performances without omitting anything from the first release. I could remember numerous details from mixing the original, but some of the memories were less clear, so together, we had to undertake some serious sleuthing. There were weeks of painstaking, intricate work before I could even start mixing. Thankfully, Joel shares a very high level of attention to detail with me.

He takes copious notes and documents the settings of every piece of equipment while I'm mixing. That way, we can return to a mix at a later date and effectively "recall" it in order to make fine adjustments. I use a lot of ancillary equipment, and that all needs to be logged. I rely on him to be highly accurate with the documentation.

Over the years, Joel has developed a great affinity for Blu-ray and DVD authoring software. Because of his talents, we were able to keep the entire Blu-ray master of ATD in-house. I shot some video, we designed the disc together, added the mixes, and then he authored it.

Mettler: I noticed a line in the credits that reads, "Additional recording by James Guthrie." Could you explain what that relates to?

Guthrie: It was a credit that I didn't take the first time around on the stereo mix, so we brought it up to date. Back in 1991, as I began to mix, the new balances seemed to inspire Roger to want to try new things — which included him re-singing a number of songs — so I ended up doing a lot of recording during the mixing sessions. This spanned everything from individual overdubs, to a complete re-record of "It's a Miracle" as a ballad. The song had originally been up-tempo, and we just couldn't make it work. Late one night, [original ATD producer] Pat Leonard suggested slowing the whole thing down. He set a click track, began playing a synthesizer, and the new version emerged. When it came time to add drums, Roger and I looked at each other and simultaneously said, "Jeff!" Jeff Porcaro had played drums on "Mother" many years earlier [on 1979's The Wall], and we knew he would be great on this. It was one of Jeff's last sessions. [Jeff Porcaro, best known for his years of ace session work and as the drummer for Toto, died August 5, 1992, at age 38.]

Another small point of interest on "It's a Miracle": most of us knew the Beatles story about "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" [from 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band], where [engineer] Geoff Emerick had cut up old tapes of organ music, thrown them in the air and onto the floor, and then reassembled them at random, running the new sounds concurrent with the song's main organ part. Well, I decided it would be fun to emulate this. In our case, I made a stereo mix of the keyboards and choir along with one or two other bits and pieces, then followed the ritual, cutting that tape up into hundreds of pieces and throwing them into the air and then reassembling them at random. The result runs through the song in a seemingly erratic way: some bits forward, some backwards, at times melodic, at times dissonant, with level rides that pop out as more of a feature in places — on the "earthquake [hits the theatre]" lyric, for instance.

Mettler: Is there anything or anyone you'd consider "underrated" on the album?

Guthrie: One person who doesn't get mentioned enough on this album is Andy Fairweather Low. His signature is all over the record. He has a great style and made brilliant sonic contributions. Just one example of this is the Rickenbacker 12-string guitar that he played with a feather on "Three Wishes"! Those pickups are quite microphonic, and you can hear Roger shouting into them as Andy is playing! [In the song credits for "Three Wishes," Fairweather Low is noted as playing "rhythm and feathered 12-string guitars."]

Mettler: Finally, was anything missing when you went through the original source material? If so, what did you do about it?

Guthrie: The original recordings were not well documented and as the album was recorded in so many locations, over so many years, elements were fairly scattered. Initially, there were some missing elements, but we persevered, left no stone unturned, and, in the end, we found everything.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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