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Positive Feedback ISSUE 10
october/november 2003

The Art of Recording and The SACD of Tommy
by Clay Swartz

tommy (25501 bytes)

The Who’s Tommy has been one of the most eagerly anticipated releases on SACD. This 75-minute rock opera about a deaf, dumb, and blind kid, recorded in 1969, is one of the best rock albums ever made. The music is strong throughout, including such songs as "Pinball Wizard," "I’m Free," "See Me Feel Me," and "We’re Not Going To Take It," as well as two interesting instrumental pieces called "Overture" and "Underture." "Underture" is one of my favorite pieces on the album.

Before I go on, I should explain what I feel is necessary for a good-sounding recording. Above all else, it must be true to the emotion of the music. This means that it must convey such things as power, intensity, tempo, dynamics, beauty, nuance, airiness, and tranquility. Each instrument (and the term "instrument" includes the human voice) should have its own place in the stereo image. Its sound should come from a definite spot on the soundstage, with the appropriate size for that instrument. If you hear ten-foot-wide guitars or five-foot-wide heads, something is wrong. There should be two sounds from each instrument. The first is the sound produced by the instrument. The second is how that sound affects the air around it. The close-miking widely used today usually eliminates this second sound. Many recordings (and stereo systems) present instrumental images that are too big and come from a nebulous area in the soundstage.

The recording should convey the individuality of each instrument and how it is played. This is done is by retaining the proper harmonics of each instrument. Brass instruments should sound brassy. Woodwinds should have a reedy character. Bass should be tight and clean. Low percussion should have the initial impact and then the proper weight of the note produced. High percussion should have the initial strike and then the airy ring of the instrument. On bowed strings, you should hear the rosined bow going across the strings. On plucked or strummed strings, you should hear the musician’s fingers on each string. In orchestral music, you should be able to distinguish between the different sections of the orchestra. With main voices, you should be able to hear what individuates each voice. With backup voices, you should have some idea of how many voices there are behind the main voices and where they are placed.

Each instrument should have a sense of presence in the soundstage—a sense that there is an actual instrument being played in front of the listener. The proper balance in sound between the instruments should be maintained. Instruments should appear on a three-dimensional soundstage. If the backup instruments are too recessed, the sense of presence is lost. If the backup instruments are too prominent, the role of the solo instrument is lessened. There are two ways that backup instruments are used. They may have conversations with the main instruments, as in jazz, concertos, and rock, or they may be the musical background used to support a soloist, usually a singer. In either type, proper instrumental detail enhances the reality of the music.

The advent of multi-channel sound has added another set of parameters. The first rule for such recordings should be: Do not detract from the performance. Surround should be mainly used for ambience, to create a sense of the recording venue. Examples of this are orchestral music in a symphony hall, choral music in a large hall, and Jazz at the Pawnshop-type ambient sounds. One of the best uses is documenting the low-frequency sounds echoing off the rear and side walls of a room. The sound must be delayed enough so that the ear hears it as a separate sound. If it is not, the bass gets muddy. Surround sound can also enhance the feeling that the music is trying to evoke. Examples of these uses are Pink Floyd-type sound effects, the wind machines in Vaughn Williams’ Symphony Antarctica, offstage horns or bells, and the ambient wash of New Age music. The principal misuse of multi-channel is putting the main instruments in the surrounds. This destroys the sense of a live concert, since listeners are very seldom in the middle of a band. It also has a tendency to destroy the front channel’s image and blur the music. Properly executed surround can enhance the listening experience. Done wrong, it can make listening to music an unnatural and fatiguing experience.

The good news is that CD layer of Tommy sounds really good. It sounds much better than the Mobile Fidelity Gold Ultradisc II CD, which was the best version of the album until now. The CD layer of this SACD adds more solidity and crispness, making the MoFi sound dull by comparison. The original LP sounded fairly good, but not as good as the MoFi, which was the first version to give some idea of the music’s true content. The standard CD of Tommy is dull and lifeless.

The better news is that the SACD stereo layer is an improvement over the CD layer. There is more presence. There is also more sense of pace and energy. The music has more solidity. The bass is more controlled and has more detail. Is the SACD layer perfect? No. It could use more bass impact and a little more detail in the backup instruments.

Nevertheless, this is the recording to have, even if you don’t have a SACD player, as the CD layer gives about 96% of performance of the SACD layer. Unless you can get hold of an early-generation copy of the master tape, this disc will give you the best version of this essential album.

Now for the not-so-good news—the multi-channel SACD layer is very problematic. At times it can sound fairly decent, but much of the time the engineers gave in to an "Oh Wow" mix. The principal instruments are heard in all the channels, which destroys any sense of a rock concert on a stage. The bass has no detail or impact. Images are often nebulous and lack presence. The sound is at its best when there is only one or two instruments are used, and are kept in the front channels. The only way I would listen to this layer is if I wanted to turn out the lights and be surrounded by music, without caring about the sound.

The second disc in this deluxe edition is of limited interest. I believe it was added to justify charging an extra $15 for the set. There are six songs not included on the original album, but they are not particularly interesting. There are also alternative versions of six tracks on the album, some of which are not complete songs. There are also five "stereo-only demos" of songs from the album. They sound very good, but don’t add much to the album versions. I doubt I will play this disc very often. The Tommy SACD set is well worth buying for the CD and stereo SACD versions, but it would have been nice if only the first disc were available, at half the $32 retail price of the two-disc set.