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American Beauty and Workingman's Dead to be released on DVD-Audio 5.1 Surround Sound

Grateful Dead Studio | Novato, CA

Mickey in the studio

On Wednesday, a few members of the media were treated to a special listening preview of some of American Beauty. Mickey Hart has remixed it onto DVD-Audio 5.1 Surround Sound.

The other people there were far more knowledgeable than I about the technical aspects of this format, and I hope to talk Blair Jackson into reporting to you soon in more accurate detail. Earlier in the week, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article about Mickey and Surround Sound. Much of what we were about to hear was mentioned in the article.

What is DVD-Audio?

The short answer to what the heck DVD-Audio is not really short, but here goes: It's a high-resolution audio format (capable of higher resolution than DVD-Video sound) that supports a variety of formats. The specific format Mickey is working with is called 5.1 Surround Sound. This is not something you can play in a normal DVD-Video player. You need either a DVD-Audio player, or what's called a Universal DVD player.

In 5.1, you have 6 channels:

  • front left
  • front right
  • front center
  • rear left
  • rear right
  • subwoofer

Some DVD-Audio links:

The Listening

We crowded around the center of the studio, as Mickey started off with some examples of 5.1 from his own Supraligua sessions. In this case, percussion was flying all over the room. But when dealing with something like American Beauty, he felt it was important to not overdo this effect, but use it for creating an expanded spatial feeling from music that we're already quite familiar with.

Mickey first played us the vocals only from Attics of My Life. He had added a reverb to the voices that made you feel as if they were singing in a cathedral. It was quite stirring. The 6 channels were not flying all over the place, but giving you the sensation of being inside the band, as they were singing. After this, he played some more Attics with all the instruments.

Next up was Sugar Magnolia. Here we had a case not merely of applying the high-rez spatial feel, but Mickey had indulged in some archeological digging as well. He felt that Garcia's pedal steel solo needed to be more upfront, and he also discovered that the fadeout was significantly longer, and interesting enough to include. Listening to the "new" ending was a real treat. I felt like this was a whole lot better than whatever they found in Al Capone's vault!

During the demo, Mickey briefly played the music through some cheap Radio Shack speakers to show how good it sounded, even if you don't happen to have a Meyer Sound speaker system in your house! Since we had been kind of listening to the music at almost ear-splitting levels, I inquired about how something softer, perhaps, say, Ripple, would sound if the speakers weren't being pushed so hard. I'm happy to report that you don't need to blow your brains out to really enjoy this format!

Conference Room Q&A

After the listening session, we retired to a conference room where Mickey took questions. Mickey is by far the best member of the band to interview, as you don't have to goad him to expound on the topic. Even though he was eager to get back to the studio, he answered questions at length, and became quite expansive from time-to-time, as when he was discussing the emotional side of approaching this material.

Apparently, American Beauty is finished, and will be released first, in the Fall by Rhino. Mickey said Workingman's Dead was about half done. Mickey mentioned that Bob Weir had popped in now and then, and seemed to like what he heard as well. While those of us on the outside of the band have listened to these recordings uncounted times, Mickey reminded us that as a band member, he hadn't heard much of these album versions since they were recorded. His perspective has been as a drummer in the band, and that is where he has heard these songs the most.

I don't even have a DVD player at home, and now that I've heard what the DVD-Audio sounds like, I think I'll hold off until I can afford a universal player. After all, what the consumer wants is not to have to buy a million gadgets to play all these different formats! There was some speculation that in the next year or two, 5.1 sound would become widespread in car stereos, since there are already a ton of multi-speaker installations in cars today. I'm not sure how safe it is driving around, lost in a blissful moment, when the choir sings:

In the secret space of dreams
Where I dreaming lay amazed
When the secrets all are told
And the petals all unfold
When there was no dream of mine
You dreamed of me.

Perhaps you've seen those bumper stickers that read something like: "Caution, in case of rapture, this car will be unmanned!" or maybe even the followup bumper sticker: "Caution: in case of rapture, can I have your car?"

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