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Toy Matinee - Toy Matinee Print E-mail
Friday, 28 December 2001
ImageToy Matinee, a remarkable album, was originally released in stereo in 1990, but I was only introduced to it last summer, when a colleague used it as an aid in setting up a live sound system at an event where I was engineering. This DTS surround remix (by Elliot Scheiner) has been around for awhile, so much so that you may have difficulty obtaining it. I was first made aware of it at a recent Audio Engineering Society Convention, where someone, once again, was using it to set up a 5.1 system. Professionals are using this album for such purposes because it is a quintessentially well-produced, excellently recorded (by Bill Bottrell) and exquisitely performed rock tour-de-force, ideal for checking a system and blasting out at high levels so everyone else can enjoy it.

To label Toy Matinee, in either form, the ultimate rock demonstration album is by no means doing it justice. Here we have a unique collaboration between two masters, keyboardist/producer/composer Patrick Leonard (Madonna, Roger Waters, Elton John, Jeff Beck et al, and ambient composer with his own label) and sadly deceased multi-instrumentalist Kevin Gilbert (who worked with a host of artists from Brand X to Sheryl Crow to Eddie Money, and whose only solo album, Thud, Bottrell also co-produced). In addition, the album features backing vocals from Julian Lennon and a solid band consisting of Brian McLeod on drums, Tim Pierce on guitars and Guy Pratt on bass.
This album sounds as though it was made for surround. There are a million subtleties that are kind of audible in stereo that really pop out in this excellent surround remix: repeat echoes, little guitar or keyboard figures and subtle effects. The surround spread is used extremely effectively. There is a tendency for sounds to fall into the surround speakers, but this is a failing of level-only localization, not of the abilities of the creators. Depending on your replay configuration, you may find the surrounds a bit loud – and thereby hangs a tale.

There is an elephant in the surround listening room that no one will admit to noticing. When we first started to mix music for surround, back in the days of quad, we envisaged the listener sitting in the center of the listening area, surrounded by four loudspeakers. We also held (and still hold) the belief that you should be free to put sounds wherever in the room we think they should go.

Now, although movie surround was developed from at least one of those old quad systems, the parameters that defined its configuration for this new sound-for-picture environment were quite different. There was a screen in front of you, to begin with, so you couldn’t realistically have any sound anywhere you wanted – it would either distract from the images, or the images would dominate: you just wouldn’t do it. Also, the purpose of surround was not for music, it was largely for effects. As a result of these and other theatrical considerations, the standard home theater arrangement that has developed has the listener sitting towards the rear of the space, with surrounds that may well be alongside, rather than behind the listener. There is often a much shorter distance from the listener to the surround speakers than to those in front.

Music surround albums are often mixed assuming that the listener is equidistant from all the speakers, while movies assume the listener to be nearer to the surrounds. As a result, the level of the surrounds will often tend to appear higher in music-only recordings than in movie soundtracks. The industry has yet to address this unfortunate problem, no doubt because, as yet, there is no commercially-available solution. People are not going to move their loudspeakers, or their couch, depending on whether they’re listening to a music album or watching a movie. Equally, there is no point telling music mixers that they should work with the cinema layout, because it simply isn’t as good for music in the absence of a screen in front.

There are several possible solutions, but none of them have yet been implemented. There are surround mixing and encoding technologies that offer significantly enlarged, stable and accurate listening areas, but they are not yet popular, and require additional studio equipment that is only gradually becoming available. Most easily implemented is the use of DSP technology in home surround systems to effectively change the speaker layouts depending on whether images are involved or not. But until this happens, you will increasingly find music surround albums that appear to have the rear channels up too loud. For now, just sit forward in your seat!

Back to the music. If you’ve encountered Toy Matinee before, you’ll remember its complex, sophisticated arrangements and intricate mixes. They are all the more impressive in surround. You may also recall the innovative and sometimes bizarre lyrics, and now you will at last be able to hear some of the words you could never quite catch before (though most, but by no means all, of them appear in the liner notes). The first two tracks, "Last Plane Out" and "Turn It On Salvador" (dedicated to Salvador Dali), are the most immediately impressive, but once you’ve enjoyed these a few times, do go on to listen to the rest of the album, which will grow on you pretty rapidly if you’re anything like me. For my taste, the extraordinary chord progression of the chorus of Track 3, "Things She Said," is one of the high points of the recording (it’s pity the words to this song are missing from the liner notes), while all the lyrics have a great deal more to say than the average rock album – from the decadence of "Last Plane Out" to the lost love of "The Ballad of Jenny Ledge." There’s even a poetic number dedicated to Vaclav Havel, "Remember My Name."

This album is up there near the top of my personal Top Ten for engineering, production, writing, arrangement and playing. On the engineering and production front alone, it’s worth listening to as an example of how well rock can work in surround, given virtuoso-level material. This is a truly great album, made all the better by being remixed in 5.1. All I can say is "get it." Hopefully, added demand will make this surround landmark a little more available than it currently appears to be.

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