|Studio Voodoo - Studio Voodoo|
|Music Disc Reviews DVD-Audio|
|Written by Richard Elen|
|Tuesday, 27 March 2001|
The possibility of dance clubs using surround replay systems has been explored experimentally for some years, particularly in the U.K., where clubs in the Midlands started installing Ambisonic surround sound systems in the ‘80s. It’s an incredible idea, and as soon as the venues are ready for it, here’s the music.
Studio Voodoo is the brainchild of Gary Mraz, professor of recording technology at California’s Citrus College, and Ted Price (about whom I know nothing). For the last decade or so, they’ve been working on combining ethnic chants and other material with some amazing grooves from the forefront of modern digital technology – and from the sound of this album, some healthy old analog machinery, too. The result is a collection of truly ferocious grooves and a surround extravaganza which, at the very least, will show off your system to great effect, and much more likely will get you on to the floor – especially if you can turn your system up loud.
The album leads off with "This Beat is Voodoo," and the surround recording of us leaving the building – by the sound of it, recorded with a Soundfield surround mic or similar – and getting into a car. The engine starts, and we tune around on the radio, some scratchy sounds emerging from center front, until suddenly we encounter what sounds like the Congo pygmies familiar to fans of Deep Forest, accompanied by some truly impressive drum loops and effects. A multitude of other world vocal samples follow over a powerful groove, even including a little Balinese "ketchak," or monkey-chant. The sound continues building. An incredible deep bass note glides down from low to l-o-o-o-w (you need full frequency range for this album), clear and clean. Lively guitars enter, a brass section, the 6:15 train from Paddington (no, I’m lying about this one) – you name it. At its climax, this has absolutely everything going. Sounds fly around the room. Loops enter and leave. And you can’t keep still. An impressive opener.
"Fire," the second cut, starts us off in an African jungle. We hear voices around us in Swahili. There’s that descending bass thing again – and we’re off into a frenetic complex organism founded around Stewart Copeland’s remarkable collection of ethnic vocal and drum samples. Dense, two-bar percussive loops characterize this track. Very cool, and one of the seminal tracks on this album. A lot of work went into the sound picture created in this track.
A complete change of vibe announces the third number, "Lamentatio." Ominous bells sound as gravelly footsteps cross the surrounds. Pseudo-Gregorian Latin chant and distant plainsong make your hair stand on end, but not half as much as it does when opera diva Michelle Latour comes in, improvising, one would guess, almost 100% of the time and evidently having a whale of a time. The bells and deep bass notes are way cool here, as is Ms. Latour, but perhaps the ultra-dense percussion loops are a bit too intense here to avoid detracting from the track as a whole.
"Straight from the Heart," Track Four, is the low point of the album for me, with African chants and languid percussion loops underlying Leroy Barnette’s voiceover. It’s good, but the rest is so much better. "Trancedance" is fun. Someone called Ava takes us on a physical relaxation program, while contradictory drum loops and the voice of Margit Jensen insure we can’t stay still.
"Integratron" is one of my favorites, apart from the opening number. It features a long segment sampled from one of the "Ruby" tongue-in-cheek sci-fi radio shows from ZBS media. The latter started out in the mid-‘70s with an incredible radio serial called "The Fourth Tower of Inverness," and have gone on over the intervening years to produce some of the most inventive audio drama on the American continent, including the "Ruby" series and a number of follow-ups to the "Fourth Tower." I don’t think they’ve done a bad show, ever. Check ‘em out at www.zbs.org. Meanwhile, the Voodoo guys take us through a collection of cool sci-fi movie samples, most of which I can’t identify. Eventually a snare and kick drum loop comes in with a bright, "pangy" snare sound, accompanied by some very cool analog (presumably) synth sequences. Nice.
"Imagenes de España" changes the mood dramatically once again, with Flamenco guitars from Scott Ray and vocals from Rafael Silva. Castanets, hand claps and more build the feeling until the entry of some great slap bass and ultimately some rather more digital loops and a strong bass part. "Rain" takes us back to Africa again and we participate in a rain dance of some kind, with loping drum loops and voice fragments.
I would have stopped the album here, but it goes on to conclude with "Song of gnos" (geddit?), a kind of "underture" where all the themes and primary samples of the foregoing tracks are paraded before our ears. Unfortunately, it ultimately descends into a morass of loops and repeats and stays that way until everything drops out to leave us with the analogical sound of a vinyl locked groove which plays on until the stylus is forcibly removed. A nice touch, but I would have passed on the number as a whole, or at least pared down its density a bit.
The occasional low points on this album do not, however, compromise the infectious grooves that characterize the vast majority of that Studio Voodoo that they do so well. I had a great time testing the level and frequency limits of my system with this stuff. Get it and have a great time at your next party. Or catch some of the performances they’ll be doing around during the coming months – www.voodoomusic.com for details. Dance and surround are made for each other. Enjoy.
On the technical front, this is another utterly professional DVD-A/V production from DTS Entertainment – see my Larisa Stow review for more technical info. The menus on this disc claim that the surround tracks (DTS and MLP) are both 5.1, but elsewhere in the sleeve notes the album pushes the fact that the DTS stream is in 6.1 rather than 5.1 – the extra full-bandwidth channel being designed for center rear replay. Well, I don’t have a DTS "ES" (Extended Surround) decoder, so I couldn’t check this, but it sounds like a good idea from a technical point of view, if not a budgetary one. If you use level only to localize a sound source in surround, you will do fine across the front stage, but rear localization is much less effective and side imaging is worse still – this is why sounds that are not in the front stage tend to be pulled into the speakers and inter-speaker imaging is so difficult to achieve. There are ways around this, but in the meantime a center-rear speaker is a logical extension of the existing set-up.
The album contains 24-bit/48 kHz MLP (DVD-Audio) and DTS (DVD-Video) streams, and, as I have found previously, I personally prefer the MLP (no loss of data) over the DTS (minimal loss of data). But whichever stream you can hear on your current player, if you enjoy material to get your feet moving and really test out your system, here it is. All the first four DTS DVD-A releases are worth buying and this is no exception.