Steven Wilson: Getting Surrounded With Music

Steven Wilson is best known as the founder, lead guitarist, singer, and songwriter of the progressive rock band Porcupine Tree, but he’s becoming the go-to man for remixing classic rock recordings into 5.1 surround for DVD and Blu-ray. His recent solo album, Grace for Drowning, proves he’s just as adept in creating new music that fully exploits the surround soundscape.

Steve Guttenberg: I have to admit, I’ve been a pretty harsh critic of music surround formats in general, but mostly because of the record labels’ halfhearted support of surround. But you, Mr. Wilson—you’re the lone champion for music surround.

Steve Wilson: Right, I’m fiddling while Rome burns.

SG: I first heard your music in 5.1 with the In Absentia DVD-A way back in 2002.

SW: That was done by Elliot Scheiner, and I was persuaded that surround was a good thing to try. I was blown away by the sound, and I believe that if you get any musician to hear their music mixed in surround sound, well—and that is a caveat—they cannot fail to fall in love with it. As stereo was to mono, 5.1 is to stereo; it is an extension of the immersive experience of listening to music. It’s like comparing three dimensions to two dimensions. It’s hard to go back to stereo after you’ve heard a good surround mix.

SG: You became a true believer.

SW: I started to mix everything I did in surround, and before long, I had other people calling me up asking me to do their surround mixes.

SG: Like who?

SW: King Crimson, and that work put me on the map as a surround mixer/producer, as something distinct from doing my own music. That was great for me. Doing the Crimson records, and now the Jethro Tull records, was an incredible learning experience. Those records are perfect for surround because that music is very layered. It’s not the MC5 or AC/DC going in and bashing out a rock ’n’ roll record. Crimson and Tull’s music is perfect for 5.1.

SG: Have you heard the Talking Heads’ DVD-As? They’re amazing—some of the very best surround mixes I’ve heard.

SW: Yes, they’re fantastic, Jerry Harrison did those. He was in the band, so he understands how to approach the process of going from stereo to 5.1. A lot of the surround mixes that were done early on were farmed out to people who had no connection with the original recordings. Neither do I, but I’m a huge fan of these King Crimson and Jethro Tull albums. I grew up with them; they’re part of my musical DNA. I know them in some cases better than the artists themselves. They haven’t listened to those albums in years! I know the music from a fan’s perspective, and I know what a fan would want to hear from them.

SG: You’re not reinventing the wheel...

SW: I’m not trying to—that dreaded word—modernize the mix. To the contrary, I’m extremely faithful to the original mixes. I spend 90 percent of the time re-creating the stereo mix from the multitrack masters before I even think about the surround mix. The fans don’t want it to sound different, they want the album they grew up with and know like the back of their hands to sound more three-dimensional.

SG: That’s what I was looking for, but didn’t always get.

SW: It’s unfortunate that surround didn’t get the best start, and there were some notoriously bad surround mixes of great catalog albums. That gave 5.1 a bad name, and surround lost momentum. I think the work I and other people have done brought back a little bit of the respect for surround as a music format. It’s also the complete antithesis of download culture; 5.1 music, like the Jethro Tull Aqualung Blu-ray I just finished, is the complete opposite of that.

SG: Right, it’s not portable!

SW: You can’t listen to it on the bus with tinny-sounding headphones, whilst you have the sounds of everyday life around you. You have to sit down at home, with the right system, and engage with the music. It’s about the art of listening as opposed to the convenience of download culture.

SG: What a crazy concept: listening to music without texting, talking, or exercising!

SW: That just shows how the art of listening to music has eroded since the birth of MTV, and download culture only accelerated the trend.

SG: What music works best in 5.1?

SW: Art rock or progressive; it naturally lends itself to 5.1. Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd—there are a lot of artists where surround would be a no-brainer. They would sound great because there’s a lot of dynamics, layers, and textures in the music, and that’s true for the genre. But even with my audience, 95 percent of them will only hear the stereo mix.

SG: The surround mix on your new Grace for Drowning Blu-ray is awesome.

SW: Apart from watching Elliot Scheiner mix In Absentia, I never studied surround. I approached it from a very intuitive point of view, so I wasn’t burdened with the established techniques. I just did what sounded right to me, and I don’t know why my mixes appeal when others don’t. I just fell in love with surround.

SG: A lot of surround music mixes seem random to me, with instruments panned into bizarre locations in the surround soundstage. Yours seem more, well, logical.

SW: A lot of people put the drums and bass in only the front speakers, which sounds wrong to me. I have them in all of the speakers, so you have a very strong foundation, and they’re the anchor for the rest of the mix. You don’t have to try and sound realistic. You can do anything, but it has to sound good.

SG: Do you use the 0.1/LFE channel in your mixes?

SW: Not much. I put a little bass guitar and bass drum in there, and I let the mastering engineer decide how little or much of that he wants to use. It depends on the kind of music you’re mixing. If you’re doing reggae or dub music in surround, the sub’s going to be fantastic.

SG: Once you release music on Blu-ray, you’ve taken yourself out of the Loudness Wars, and you’re free to deliver as wide a dynamic range as you want. The music will never suffer the indignity of an iPod shuffle, where maximum loudness is required.

SW: There’s a polarization; at one end, you have the convenience of listening to an MP3 on a bus, and the other group of people with hi-fis with Blu-rays. I find an increasing number of people who are buying into that now. With Internet speed increasing and disc space, there will be less and less need for compressed audio. I think albums now are gradually becoming quieter, and I’d love to see more albums released in FLAC or full resolution, 24-bit/ 96-kilohertz files. I think things are going to get better.

SG: Anything coming up after the Jethro Tull titles?

SW: The Aqualung Blu-ray [in a box set] has just come out, and Thick as a Brick will be out soon. I’m getting more and more offers to do things like this, which is great for me, because that whole era really defined me as a musician in the first place. I can’t talk about it yet, but I’ve just finished working with a band of a similar vintage.

Markoz's picture

I remember hearing early surround and thinking, "Oh great, now instead of 2 great speakers we will all be buying 5 crappy ones and suffering the consequences." I wasn't impressed.

I only upgraded to a surround system last year and I am totally blown away by how music benefits. I believe the combination of room correction software (Audyssey etc.) combined with 5.1 is the greatest advance since stereo. I have 20 year old B&W 804s for my main speakers which always provided great detail and sound staging. Their stereo sound is so tiny compared to a good surround mix. Even on music like Gregorian Chant where you wouldn't expect much benefit the sense of ambience in surround is breath-taking. On rock records like the SACD 5.1 remix of Dark Side of the Moon the effect is spectacular!

I lament the Mp3 resolution. When teenage friends of my grand-daughter listen to my system they are amazed. They just have never been exposed to that sort of thing.

I think it is wonderful that Steven is remastering the classics he is working on and hope that newer bands embrace the 5.1 system as well. Electronic music like Deadmau5 would be amazing as would slightly (in my world) older stuff like Massive Attack.

Carry on brother.