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Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells Print E-mail
Friday, 25 January 2002
ImageVirigin Records
performance 8
sound 9
released 2002
original release 1973

At first glance, it would seem completely ridiculous for AudioRevolution’s first review of a brand-new audio format to concern a reissue of an album originally released in 1973. But actually, it’s thoroughly appropriate, as you will see.

Super Audio CD is the answer Sony and Philips (the people who invented the CD in the first place) are offering to the advent of DVD-Audio. The latter is essentially an extension of what we already know: a digital audio technology called PCM (Pulse Code Modulation). DVD, and DVD-A in particular, just has more bits and higher sampling rates than CD. SACD, on the other hand, is based on an entirely different principle, called Direct Stream Digital (DSD). The differences between, and challenges of, these two media are discussed elsewhere.
The proponents of SACD have always said that it sounds not only significantly better than CD, but significantly better than the best DVD-A can offer. The DSD process involves fewer stages, and in some ways the resulting signal is quite "analog-like": in theory, for example, you can do a digital-to-analog conversion for DSD with just a low-pass filter. You don’t actually do that in practice, but you could.

SACDs come in more than one flavor. They can be either multi-channel or stereo, for example, and they can either be single or dual layer. The vast majority of releases – and there are more overall than there are DVD-A discs at this time – are stereo, while all DVD-A discs are surround. Some SACDs have a Red Book layer, which means that the same disc that you play on your special player at home will play on your WalkPerson or in the car.

Mike Oldfield’s, er, classic "Tubular Bells" is an example of an SACD that offers all the possibilities of the medium – well, virtually. The stereo Red Book layer contains Simon Heyworth’s "remastered version" that he mixed at Chop ‘Em Out in London in 1998. The DSD layer contains Phil Newell’s 1975 quad mix. I was able to check this and other SACD discs out for AudioRevolution, thanks to a short loan from Philips of an SACD1000 player (more about that in a separate article). Feeding the SACD 1000’s six outputs direct into the analog ins of my system insured that there were no PCM converters in the signal path, so I was not compromising the sound. For the first time, I was able to listen to the SACD experience outside the demo room.

So what did I think of it? As a pure, 16-channel analog recording, the quad mix jumps out of the speakers, warts and all, and there are plenty of warts. The sound is extraordinarily clear and clean and leads me to suspect that the possibilities of this medium for sound quality do actually exceed those of DVD-A. The sound is exceptionally transparent, and it really does sound as if you are listening to the original analog masters. I do not know the history of the stereo mix, but as it was done in 1998, it seems most likely to have been mixed to PCM for CD originally. Switching between the two is a fairly harrowing experience: the source material is obviously the same 16-track tapes that were used in both cases. But what has been done at the mixing stage is radically different.

The quad mix was performed at Virgin’s request when they were experimenting with matrix quad in the mid-‘70s. The idea was to offer a boxed set of Oldfield’s albums to date, remixed for the new format. Newell essentially bashed off a set of rough mixes for listening purposes on cheap Ampex instrumentation tape – and in the process discovered that there were various things missing from the masters for one reason or another.

The liner notes tell the story in more detail, but he had to play a missing piano part himself, for example, and smooth out a lot of rough edges. Even so, the intent of these mixes was to put something together that would excite Oldfield into wanting to pursue the quad remix project, and Newell let himself go quite a bit, "taking liberties with the mix," as he put it, having instruments crashing in from different points of the compass, dramatically changing levels and often using rough, edgy sounds – all with the dual aims of enjoying himself and at the same time giving the composer something to get excited about. Then, contrary to all Newell’s expectations, when Oldfield heard the mixes at his studio on Hergest Ridge, he simply okayed them: no changes. So what came to be released as the quad mix was this set of, essentially, roughs.

What you hear on this disc, however, is not the same as the quad vinyl. As these tapes were intended as demos for Oldfield’s ears only, they were not EQ’d, compressed and otherwise mangled as masters needed to be in the days of vinyl. In addition, that cheap instrumentation tape, picked up at bargain basement prices, did not suffer the same problems that bedeviled masters recorded around the same time on regular audiotape, which requires careful baking to restore. Instead, these tapes were simply run through de-noising processing and a little additional digital clean-up, and then sent off to the SACD master. So you get the audio with as little in the way as possible. Each track of the multitrack is clearly audible in a well-defined position: you get the distinct feeling of listening to unadorned analog masters, more strongly, I believe, than on any other high-quality audio disc I have heard so far. This says a lot for the DSD process and is one reason that Tubular Bells is not the strangest choice for a first SACD review after all. Yes, the tapes do show their age, with some noise and artifacts especially on the stereo mix, but never mind.

While these mixes are rough and quite coarse in places, with dramatic instrument entries and exits and wild level changes, the mix strangely keeps the feel of the original stereo mix of a couple of years previous. The sounds, although edgier than the original (and of course I haven’t heard the original stereo master tapes for many years, so my memory may be blurred), are very similar, and while the balance is somewhat different, the overall feel is very much in keeping with the original piece.

Not so the stereo mix from 1998. Evidently reviewed with a great deal of hindsight by Heyworth when he came to do the remastered version, the Red Book stereo mix is much more distant, cultured and smooth. It is very pleasant, in fact, and very sensitively handled – but it creates an enormous contrast with the coarse vitality of the quad mix. One is a master, the other is a rough mix. One is in stereo, the other is in surround. Apples and oranges: you will be pleased that both are here.

At the end of the quad mix is an unusual version of the Sailor’s Hornpipe. Microphones were placed all over The Manor, the vast country house in Oxfordshire that Virgin took over as their recording center, and this performance dances from room to room, changing sound and balance dramatically, while a slurred 3 AM (and goodness knows what else) voiceover from the late Viv Stanshall (of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, who narrates the instrumental entries at the end of "side 1") describes the rooms and their unique "features." The procession ends up in the studio and the final few repeats enable us to hear a lot of the inner workings of Oldfield’s approach to arrangement, with double-speed guitar harmony parts, for example, much higher up in the mix than what we are used to hearing.

My overall feeling on this album, and the DSD process, is – to steal someone else’s rating system – "two thumbs up."

If you want to experience this for yourself, I suggest that you don’t pay $2000 or more for one of the expensive players. Instead, wait until truly universal players are around in a few months, which will play CD, SACD, DVD-A and DVD-V. In the meantime, if you are waiting for cheap DVD-A/V players to turn up, pop down to Costco, where you can find JVC blowing out their formerly $800 first-generation DVD-A/V player for less than $280.

Also, by the way, keep an eye open for Telarc’s upcoming releases: they are made with DSD equipment, but they will be offered in both SACD and DVD versions, so we will be able to compare the technologies directly. That should be fun – watch this space.

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