Music Reviews

posted: September 19, 2011

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Pink Floyd’s Latest! Immersion and Discovery Box Sets

EMI CD, and High Resolution
Pink Floyd’s Latest!

Why Pink Floyd? So asks the clever tagline given to EMI’s exhaustive overhaul of the British legends’ catalog. The statement also doubles as a straightforward query that begets two easy answers. While the group’s records have seen myriad reissues, the band has never unlocked its vaults and allowed for the release of sought-after oddities. And, from a commercial standpoint, Pink Floyd and its record label realize that the open window on marketing physical media to the mainstream is quickly closing. A more apt slogan for the archival project might be “If not now, when?”

Spread across several phases and categories, the campaign is designed to please casual fans, newcomers, and diehards. The 16-disc Discovery box collects the band’s studio records (also available individually) in newly remastered form, while Experience versions of The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall add a bonus disc of previously unreleased related content to the classic album. Yet the greater temptations come courtesy of multi-disc Immersion box sets of the aforementioned titles, Pink Floyd’s three most celebrated efforts. Loaded with extras, collectables, and options, they seemingly respond to one of the only criticisms of EMI’s Beatles reissues—specifically, a paucity of bonus material.

Of course, sharp redesigns and lavish booklets mean little if the James Guthrie-remastered sound and assorted rarities fail to live up to expectation. Beginning with the first stage of releases, TONE takes you through the sonic merits of each studio-album remaster via tireless comparisons to myriad original LP pressings as well as previous digital editions. In addition, we interview Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason and get lost inside The Dark Side of the Moon Immersion box set, emerging with fresh perspectives on content, sound, packaging, and value. (Similar explorations of the Wish You Were Here and The Wall Immersion sets will occur closer to their respective November and February 2012 release dates.)

Set the controls for the heart of the sun and prepare for interstellar overdrive. —BG

Discovering the New Pink Floyd Box Set

By Jeff Dorgay

Five years ago, Pink Floyd released Oh, By the Way, a catalog-encompassing European-made box set limited to 10,000 copies. Issued internationally in mass quantities, the new Discovery box set contains the same lineup of studio albums. Yet it’s also worth mentioning that the Oh, By the Way retails for close to $300, making Discovery a better value at $199.

After spending several days listening to as many variations on the Pink Floyd catalog as imaginable, to me it’s evident that the big jump in performance stems from Oh, By the Way as compared to the original CDs, which sound flat. Think of the contrast between the early Beatles CDs (also produced by EMI) and the recent remasters; the prior Floyd set represents a similar leap in quality. While the generic, late 80s Floyd releases are not overly harsh, they claim a smaller soundstage than either of the remastered versions.

James Guthrie gets the mastering credit on Discovery and a “remastering production” credit on Oh, By the Way, on which Doug Sax is listed as mastering engineer. But here’s where the mystery thickens. Extensive A-B listening between the 2007 box and the new one reveals the slightest distinction between the two—and one that this writer strained to hear on a $60,000 dCS stack. At times, it feels as if the new box has a few more molecules of dynamic range, but overall, the sound is basically identical. There is absolutely no difference between the two sets as experienced on a $2,500 CD player, meaning, that for the mainstream listener, the box sets might as well be the same product.

That said, while the 2007 and 2011 remasters are essentially twins, enormous differences exist between the new discs and original CDs, even when played on a budget transport. Whereas the original CDs keep the sound distinctly between the speakers, the new discs provide a more expansive left-to-right presentation, along with more depth. The high frequencies are free of grain and distortion, and the slight bit of tape hiss, especially on the oldest discs, suggests that the analog masters were procured. All the remasters boast a level of warmth and openness not always associated with digital.

On the band’s debut, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the psychedelic classic “Interstellar Overdrive” offers more defined bass lines. And while the re-channeled stereo effect on CD might not appeal to purists that love the original mono release, it adds a welcome hallucinogenic element.  Moving up to 1971, Meddle reveals a much more elaborate and dense mix. The remastered CD again gets the nod over the original, revealing a wealth of cool electronic effects as well as a heavy bass line.

Such factors helped make Pink Floyd a favorite in hi-fi-store demos for years to come. Unless you have a pristine UK version, the new Meddle sounds considerably more dynamic than the US LP, especially on Side Two, on which “Echoes” (at 23:29) takes up the entire side. The howling dog at the beginning of “Seamus” is more convincing on the CD, too. (For coverage of the biggest-selling Floyd albums—Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall—please see our reports on the Immersion box sets.)

On Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell, the two albums created after bassist/vocalist Roger Waters’ departure, the gap between the original CD and the remastered discs converges—probably because the pair was recorded digitally, whereas the rest of the catalog was recorded on analog equipment. Again, the remasters get the nod, but just slightly, as they show subtle traces of extra depth and clarity.

How does Discovery (and the set’s individually available CDs) fare against vinyl? In an exhaustive comparison of the Discovery discs and various LP releases, the former are equal to and, on the whole, more enjoyable than garden-variety US vinyl pressings—particularly worn copies. And, be honest: you probably spun these records to death in the 70s. While the US LPs get a slight nod in regards to analog warmth, they are fairly murky, lack in midrange clarity, and, in some cases, fall short in dynamics. The first thing you notice with the CD remasters is their extra punch and sparkle.

Those fortunate enough to have early-stamper UK, German, or Japanese vinyl pressings own the motherlode. The aforementioned match the detail of the digital discs and claim peerless tonal purity. However, the new CDs are good enough to please even collectors by functioning as daily drivers that will minimize wear on the more valuable vinyl. Listeners with excellent digital front ends should come away extremely impressed. I did.

Like its predecessor, Discovery offers mini-LP packaging. However, the printing lacks the intricate nature of the 2007 box, which features heavier cardboard sleeves and disc artwork that mirrors that of the original LPs. The discs in Discovery claim stylized artwork unique to the set. Similarly, an exquisitely rendered 40-page book contains unpublished artwork from Storm Thorgerson, yet the printing quality doesn’t carry over to the CD covers. Stylistically, the Japanese Mini LP versions remain the benchmark for the Floyd CD catalog. In terms of reproduction quality, they are the equivalent of the recent Beatles discs.

Yes, completists will want everything. But if you already own Oh, By the Way, you will gain no new ground with Discovery. However, if you still just clutch the original CDs or worn vinyl copies, these new remasters provide a highly satisfying upgrade.

The Dark Side of the Moon Immersion Box Set

By Bob Gendron

Three prism-stamped black marbles that likely will never see much daylight outside of their pouch. An 100% viscose printed scarf that wouldn’t be out of place around an opera patron’s neck. A facsimile concert ticket tucked into a professional envelope. Four collector’s cards meant to mimic the cigarette cards of yesteryear. Nine thematic coasters on which no self-respecting human will dare set a drink. An art print suitable for framing. These tokens represent much of the memorabilia stuffed inside the six-disc The Dark Side of the Moon Immersion box, a tricked-out set that aims to be the end-all-be-all version of the iconic 1973 album.

Immersion volumes for Wish You Were Here and The Wall will follow, and the rest of the British group’s catalog has been remastered in the newly minted and illustratively appointed Discovery set. It’s all part of a capacious reissue project that could very well be the last of its kind in an era turning away from physical digital media. (Note: Obsessive types will probably detest one aspect of the Immersion packaging. While placed on lock-down mechanisms, discs can come loose in transit and slide around the inside of the box.)

Featuring new graphic designs by the band’s resident artist, Storm Thorgerson, and the iconic record in every conceivable digital fashion, as well as two 26×26-cm booklets, the heaviest of all The Dark Side of the Moon reissues is in many aspects true to its name. Visually and aurally, it immerses fans into its contents and presents no less than ten ways to experience the studio LP. Audiophiles strictly bent on sound—forwards, sideways, and reverse—get their holy grail. Yet, ironically, in a year in which opulent and expensive box sets that honor single albums are the norm, the ostensibly stuffed package unintentionally begs the question: Is it enough?

On the surface, raising such an issue seems greedy and grumpy. Short of containing replica vinyl seven-inch singles or any vinyl itself, the Immersion entry covers the bases on how The Dark Side of the Moon can be experienced. In addition to a traditional CD, diehards get a DVD that boasts 2003’s 5.1 surround mix in both 448kbps and 640kbps; 1973’s 4.0 Quad mix in 448kbps and 640kbps; and 1973’s LPCM stereo mix (newly remastered). Toss in a Blu-ray disc that presents the 5.1 surround, 4.0 Quad, and original stereo mix in 96kHz/24-bit audio—and another CD that makes available the original 1972 mix supervised by Alan Parsons for the first time—and repeat listeners stand to gain a better understanding of instrument placement than the artists that created the album.

If it isn’t expected in these situations, overkill is at least welcome. Yet while multichannel aficionados should have a feast dissecting and comparing different sonic choices, a more important quandary rests with the fact that more than half of the material here has already been released. The reservation as to whether this particular Immersion probes deeply enough isn’t related to the recycling of the surround mix or Quad program but, rather, concerns what’s absent. Namely, rarities in the form of demos, outtakes, and live cuts. The few intriguing tidbits that appear leave one wanting more.

Flashing a lascivious smile that would make the Mona Lisa proud, and bathed in dizzying red light, Roger Waters looks as if he’s just swallowed a tab of LSD and entered a parallel universe. The blissed-out scene marks the beginning of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” captured live in Brighton 1972 in all its hazy full-color glory. With a smoking cigarette tethered to the end of his bass, Waters whispers wordless calls into the microphone and Pink Floyd ascends into psychedelic nirvana. Related visuals inform a spooked “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” from the same concert. Mason wallops the drums, mystical Indian melodies coarse across the slow-building arrangement, and, at fever peak, a gong’s outer edges burst into flames. Inhale, and you might still be able to get a whiff of the scent of hallucinogenic drugs perfuming the air.

Such vignettes are exactly why super-deluxe box sets exist. However, they’re the only live audio-video examples afforded. They’re teasers, brief hints of a bigger payoff that never arrives. Instead, three Concert Screen films constitute a bulk of the visual elements. These concise films were used as background projections while Pink Floyd played in Britain, France, and the United States, respectively. As historical relics, they’re passably interesting. Computer-generated graphics of heartbeat monitors, images of landing strips, cartoon-sketched natural landscapes, animated clocks, pictures of working-class office dwellers, montages of exploding refrigerators, interiors of clinically white hospitals, and surrealist collages complement the album’s lyrical topics and moods. But do even the most dyed-in-the-wool Pink Floyd zealots need to see and hear the cumulative hour-long footage in DVD stereo and 5.1 as well as Blu-ray LPCM stereo and multichannel? A 2003 documentary on The Dark Side of the Moon, shot to coincide with the SACD release, does nothing to ease the disappointment over the dearth of revelatory material.

Granted, the high-resolution stereo and surround mixes sound exceptional (see the “Immersed in the Dark Side” sidebar). And the live performance of The Dark Side of the Moon at Wembley from 1974 (the same disc that accompanies the Experience version) demands frequent listening. Onstage, the music takes on a more impacting geometry, with knifing guitars and aggressive percussion driving the rhythms forward. An extended rendition of “Money,” especially, transcends its studio counterpart, courtesy of funk washes and David Gilmour’s sharply penetrating treble-based guitar fills. Here, the group sticks to an exactness demanded by omnipresent pre-recorded voices and effects yet manages to transcend potentially sterile limitations.

Further insight is gleaned from a pair of demos on the set’s final CD. Richard Wright’s solo piano interpretation of an early “Us and Them” enchants with simplicity, beauty, and austerity. Waters’ acoustic framework for “Money” foreshadows the blockbuster that would soon be adorned with ringing cash registers. Alas, the original mix for the album contains few surprises, and the live instrumental tracks from 1972 that served as foundations for several The Dark Side of the Moon songs cry out for context. The latter should’ve been provided by the kind of encompassing essay that usually graces normal-scale box sets. However, apart from a Thorgerson-dominated art booklet and an adjoining tour-related photo-essay booklet, perspective is left to the listener. None of the band members contribute reflective prose, an unthinkable shortcoming given the record’s stature and myth. Is that really all there is? In this case, yes.

Sonics: Becoming Immersed in the Dark Side

By Jeff Dorgay

No version of The Dark Side of the Moon has ever invited more sonic comparison opportunities than those contained in the Immersion box.

Rustling up a -2 German pressing, -5 late 70s UK pressing, Japanese ProUse pressing, and MoFi’s UHQR for stereo evaluation, it became clear that as good as the current CD mastering is, it still falls short of the best available vinyl, even if it’s easily on par with (and occasionally better than) an average US pressing you can find in used bins for about $10. The German and MoFi editions boast the best overall balance and offer monstrous dynamics, an abundance of subtle details, and the largest soundstage. Alas, the UK and Japanese pressings lag, and claim a slightly depressed midrange.

Better news is delivered via the DVD disc with multiple sound options. It possesses a level of resolution that none of the CDs match and an overall clarity that rivals that of the finest LP versions. For those without access to the absolute best vinyl editions, the DVD easily suffices as the go-to copy of the record. The Quad mix is another treat. While I’ve never been a multichannel fan, the Quad configuration gives off a trippier feel than the 5.1 mix and keeps with the period better than the more modern multichannel version.

The arms race between the SACD and DVD gives an edge to the latter. Now eight years old, the fabled hybrid SACD owns more resolution in the higher frequencies, which some might accuse as being slightly thin, whereas the DVD enjoys a more analog-like feel—definitely more robust and weighty on the bottom end, with more overall texture. The alarm clocks in “Time” are more distinctly defined and the acoustic instruments, particularly the saxophone on “Us and Them,” feel more three-dimensional on DVD.

As our staff collector likes to say, “There isn’t a bad copy of The Dark Side of the Moon, but they are all different.” And so, Pink Floyd fans have yet another version to add to their collection, with all of its idiosyncrasies.