NOVATO, California You've never heard "Sugar Magnolia" sound like this before. And if former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart has his way, with the Dead's catalog and more of rock's canon following American Beauty and Workingman's Dead into the multichannel realm, you may never hear music the same way again.
Hart has spent a month here, at the Dead's Club Front studio north of San Francisco, remixing the seminal pair of 1970 albums in 5.1 Surround Sound. The technology reproduces music through six distinct channels, as opposed to traditional stereo's left and right channels, employing speakers located right front, right rear, left front, left rear, center and a subwoofer. Unlike prior attempts to bring music into the multichannel world, Hart said, these mixes utilize the full topography the technology offers.
"This isn't your normal movie mix," Hart explained amid Club Front's mixing boards, computers and speakers, "where you have your little reverberator and some out-of-phase sh-- in the back speakers." Simply putting the lead voice in the center channel and some reverb in the back speakers would be "a waste of this medium," according to the drummer.
When Hart cued up the vocal tracks from the newly remastered American Beauty's "Attics of My Life," a choir seemingly emanating from the rafters like angels from on high filled the room. Arguably the Dead's finest recorded vocal performance, the demo displayed the ability of six channels to gloriously evoke three sonic dimensions from even a 30-year-old master tape.
To "Attics" Hart added digital effects simulating a cathedral's natural reverb. The otherworldly feel is eerily underscored by such lyrics as, "When there were no ears to hear/ You sang to me."
And talk about presence: In addition to Bob Weir's rhythm guitar coming from off to the left, Jerry Garcia's leads from the right and Phil Lesh's bass from the center channel, the crisp drums seem directly underneath the listener. "It's all mixed from my perspective," he admitted. "I wanted to put you in the Grateful Dead without having to pay the dues."
Co-producer Tom Fly explained that each instrument and voice has more room in 5.1, so fewer sonic sacrifices are necessary in the final mix.
Hart has taken some liberties with the new Beauty, adding guitar and vocal tracks omitted from the original albums. These include an extra rhythm track on "Operator" and 40 seconds of Garcia scatting at the end of "Candyman."
"Sugar Magnolia" now includes 30 more seconds at the end. Garcia's pedal-steel line, once relegated to the middle of the mix, is now the lead instrument, restoring the country feel of later live versions. One can literally hear Garcia's fingers touching the strings during "Ripple," in which every plucked guitar note rings out like a bell.
Hart envisions a world in which the multichannel process will revolutionize how people listen to music, particularly in the rave scene. He said car-stereo manufacturers many of which already produce systems with multiple speakers and subwoofers will start selling 5.1 players within the next year. DVD audio may eventually supplant compact discs just as CDs replaced vinyl LPs in the 1980s.
When that happens, be prepared to hear each singer on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's 4 Way Street occupying his own channel, thereby immersing you in their legendary harmonies, or a future 'NSYNC album recorded so each of the boys emerges from his own speaker in your living room.
Hart plans to work his way through the Dead's catalog, likely hitting the sonically lush Blues for Allah and Terrapin Station next. If 5.1 catches on, it wouldn't be the first time the laid-back improv rockers were ahead of the curve. Their '70s Wall of Sound was the first PA system designed to fill large venues with high-fidelity music. They helped pioneer the band-run record label, direct ticket sales to fans, the release of entire concerts (the "Dick's Picks" series is up to number 22) and free music streams (via www.dead.net). Hart said they would experiment with 5.1 multichannel streaming in conjunction with a "major partner."
Six years after Garcia's death and the band's breakup, the Dead camp just keeps truckin' on. The 5.1 version of American Beauty is slated for release this fall, with Workingman's Dead to follow in early 2002. A 12-CD boxed set, scheduled for October, will offer all nine albums from their 1967-73 Warner Bros. tenure. Mixed faithfully for CD for the first time, most of these albums will be nearly doubled in length by the addition of outtakes and live versions. The box will include two CDs of proto-Dead material and a band history by historian/publicist Dennis McNally (who has recently finished a book-length biography of the group). Lesh and Weir will tour with their respective bands this summer; the two groups will rendezvous for seven shows in July.