Saturday, December 31, 2011

Michael Fremer Album Review

Dark Side of the Moon

Pink Floyd

Capitol/EMI SHVL 804 180g LP
Produced by: Pink Floyd
Engineered by: Alan Parsons
Mixed by: Chris Thomas
Mastered by: James Guthrie
Lacquer cut by: Doug Sax at The Mastering Lab



38 years after its original release, DSOTM continues to intrigue listeners. This review, originally posted in June of 2003 included coverage of the then new multichannel SACD issue as well as an AAA remix from the multitrack masters.

Dark Side of the Moon Yet Again? And Again?
by Michael Fremer
December 01, 2011

Another decade, another reissue of DSOTM, this one using the very fragile original two track master tape, again supervised by James Guthrie. Guthrie had determined that the tape was in fragile shape back in 2003, which is why he opted for a remix in the analog domain. That edition was very good and worth having, especially if you didn't have a very clean early UK pressing, but in retrospect it departs from the original much as the Mo-Fi does: the EQ is a bit much at the frequency extremes, which bleaches out the mids. As for the mix's micro-elements and how close Guthrie came to reproducing the original mix, I have to surrender that to the DTOTM fanatics, of which I'm not one.

This time Guthrie took the original tape and very carefully converted it to digital at 96/24 resolution. He then went on a quest to provide lacquer cutter Doug Sax with the D/A converter that best expressed what he heard from the analog playback and that's what Sax used to cut the lacquers for this reissue, which appears to have been processed and pressed at Rainbo.

While Rainbo has long been known as a "commercial pressing house," owner and industry veteran Steve Sheldon told me has was ramping up quality to produce audiophile level 180g pressings and based upon most of the 180s I've gotten from Rainbo, he's succeeded, though the record edges have a weird quality that makes it look and feel as if two 100g biscuits have been pressed together to produce one 180g LP. I'm sure that's not the case. It's just looks and feels like it is.

Despite the tape's age and the digital roadblock, this new DSOTM is clearly superior to the 2003 edition. It's more coherent sonically, especially in terms of the EQ, which is essentially what Parsons and mixer Chris Thomas produced. Rainbo's pressing is thick, flat and quiet, with but a hint of "non-fill" noise for the first half minute or so. The 2003 edition pressed in The Netherlands had the same issue, but even more so—at least my copy did.

This one comes with all of the posters plus an MP3 download. The packaging is first class too. So how can you go wrong? As for the music, it expresses the '60s exhaustion most young people felt by the second year of the '70s, which was a time when it seemed like civilization as we knew it was decaying and dying as was the dream of a grand rebirth at the hands of a young generation. Both were of course, and DTOTM mirrored that exhaustion. Poking around in 2011 leads one to the same morbid state, so let the decay begin! And what better soundtrack to the action than Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon?

What's below is the 2003 review

It is almost embarrassing to write about Dark Side of the Moon 30 years after its initial release. Can one add anything of substance to the books' worth of reviews and essays that have already piled up? Pink Floyd's musical ruminations on the "human condition"--whatever that is--is one of the best-selling albums of all time, and has attracted a worldwide audience that crosses every demographic, and has done so consistently for all 30 years. And now this hybrid 5.1-channel SACD has propelled Dark Side of the Moon yet again to the top of the Billboard charts. Amazing.

The lyrics are not all that cryptic. You gotta breath and try to relax, despite having no idea what this place is and what it's all about--except that death will come knocking one day--and who knows what that will bring, if anything. Despite our best efforts, or because of them, money rules and we spend most of our time trying to earn it. Time flies, though what time is, we don't know, but it's probably a spatial dimension we can't grasp. "Quiet desperation" is a worldwide phenomenon; it's not merely "the English way." And so on. Pink Floyd tackles the same big issues on Dark Side of the Moon that The Moody Blues did on In Search of the Lost Chord or On the Threshold of a Dream--minus the hokey spiritualism, the grandiose attempts at enlightenment, and the existential cornpone. The gritty ambiguity of the Floyd's message--and the brilliance of the album's production--explain why Dark Side of the Moon remains timeless and has continued to find new audiences with the maturing of every successive generation.

The message here is "Why try to explain what this is? Why bother?" Better off to scream like Doris Troy. In fact, if you look around at what's happening in the world today--and especially in America--and you don't scream, you've got your eyes closed.

Dark Side of the Moon is as much a producer's album as a musician's. The music, after all, is not that challenging, intricate, or original. In fact, you could argue that the music slogs along at mid-tempo on folk/rock chords that sound downright pedestrian. The magic is in the performances, the production, the arrangements, and the engineering.

The whole story is the remixing and remastering. For this edition, the longtime Floyd engineer James Guthrie went back to the 16-track analog work tapes. In the original production (and thus in the two-channel mix), two machines were synched together and elements were combined and bounced back and forth to free additional tracks. For this mix Guthrie chose to go back to the original, first-generation pre-mix elements, all of which fortunately still exist in the EMI vaults. He was also determined to remain in the analog domain until the bitter end, insisting that this was, after all, a distinctly analog-sounding production. That decision created enormous technical difficulties, as the elements did not often stay in synch due to speed variations between machines. It would have been easier to dump the elements to digital and then synch them, but that would have defeated the purpose of the exercise, and in these enlightened sonic times, Guthrie felt doing so would have detracted from the final sound quality. It wasn't so many years ago that most engineers would have been anxious to get into the digital domain as soon as possible for the very same reasons! How far we've come from that muddled thinking!

There will always be "the original is still the greatest" types, who will prefer an original UK EMI/Harvest vinyl pressing, but be prepared to pay for a truly early edition (solid blue pyramid on label, -1 lacquer, mother #1, and early stamper code). Mo-Fi's Japanese-pressed half-speed LP was super quiet, but EQ'ed to emphasize the frequency extremes, and the small-sounding gold CD is hopelessly outdated sonically. That leaves as contenders for the best available version this SACD reissue and the new vinyl version, mastered by Doug Sax and Kevin Gray at Acous-Tech from the original stereo mix, plated at RTI, and pressed in The Netherlands. According to RTI's Don MacInnis "We sent 2 "A" and 3 "B" side nickel Mothers, each protected by the first stamper, to Record Industry in Holland. Any additional stampers would have been made there.

As has been reported elsewhere (including in John Atkinson's piece in the June 2003 Stereophile), the CD layer on this SACD has been foolishly compressed. Still, it sounds pretty good, but a bit "hot" on top. Guthrie's ultra-dynamic 5.1-channel mix is the most effective multichannel mix of a record with a two-channel history that I've yet heard. Part of the reason is the nature of the material. It's laden with sound effects and voices that work well when spread around the room, and Guthrie's mixed it with both skill and good taste, avoiding the temptation to make things "pop" in the rear channels.

Instead, the effect he's created is that of an enormous three-dimensional space, with most of what formerly sat across and behind the stage now forward and around it in an enormous "U"-shaped arc that extends well past the sides of the front speakers. He's also avoided larding up the center channel with too much discrete information. The result is a brand new Dark Side of the Moon that, one could argue, truly fulfills the original intent of the band.

I auditioned it in my home theater on Sony's XA-777ES SACD player via an Arcam FMJ preamp/processor and FMJ multichannel amplifier driving a pair of Audio Physic Virgos, an AP Avanti center channel, a pair of AP Brilon surrounds, and the Minos subwoofer. I can't imagine anyone reading this would be anything but thrilled by the sound--especially the deep-bass textures and the enormous, enveloping, superbly integrated 3D soundstage. The EQ is still a bit "hot" on top for my tastes, but below the very top, the textures are rich and fulfilling and the bottom end is muscular and well controlled.

That said, for transparency, texture, harmonic complexity, and the display of subtle dynamic gradations, the new LP can't be beat. I compared it to a later UK Harvest pressing and to a Japanese Toshiba/ EMI "Pro Use"-series LP, and while the UK Harvest was somewhat richer in the mids and not quite as "hot" on top, this deluxe, well-packaged reissue is worth having even if you have a clean original.

EMI has apparently decided to support DVD-Audio in the future. Given the enormous success of this hybrid SACD (I've been told it's been selling upwards of 20,000 copies per week), perhaps the company will reconsider. How eager are consumers going to be to buy a disc they can't play in their cars or boom boxes, or portables--and which will only play in a compressed format (Dolby Digital) on standard DVD players? (The DVD-A folks have announced plans to issue double-sided discs in the future: CD layer on one side, DVD-A on the other. That solves the compatibility issue, but would you want to be handling such discs in a portable environment?)

Thanks to Michael over at  for the exclusive rights to reprint this material. Stop by for more reviews and features.

©2011 & Michael Fremer - - All rights reserved

Reprinted by Permission

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