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Townshend Rushes to 'Tommy's' Defense
Brown: Townshend rushes to 'Tommy's' defense
January 10, 2004
Whether music sounds good or not has always been a subjective thing.
With new technology it may be even more so. While some audiophiles
still argue that vinyl sounds best, others are embracing more and more
A few weeks back we ran a review of the surround-sound Super Audio CD
mix of The Who's Tommy, noting that while the guitars and vocals were
well-mixed, the bass and drum sound were disappointing. That caused
writer-guitarist Pete Townshend some consternation, as he'd worked
incredibly hard to bring out the bass and drums from the master tapes
he had, despite some limitations.
"I spent half a year mixing this and I feel sure if you sat in a room
with me and heard it the way I've been hearing it you would not feel
the drums and bass were undervalued," Townshend wrote in a long e-mail
to the News explaining his work and motivation behind the Tommy
release (it's due out on DVD-Audio with visual extras later this
year). "Setting up a 5.1 system is pretty tricky, and quite
At Townshend's request, the discs were given another listen - this
time with the bass boosted substantially and the understanding that
Tommy's master multi-tracks have some limitations. The 1969 album was
recorded on eight-track equipment, with Keith Moon's drums recorded in
mono. Thus it would be impossible for it to sound like the 16- to
48-track albums that we compared it with, more modern works by Pink
Floyd, the Flaming Lips, Bob Dylan and others.
You have to take the era of a recording into consideration when
listening; the DVD-Audio of Elvis Presley's 30 #1 Hits features great
surround sound on latter-day tracks such as Suspicious Minds, yet
obviously is limited when it comes to Heartbreak Hotel - recorded in
1956 on a single microphone.
Keeping that in mind, Townshend did do an outstanding job with the
surround mix, deftly melding voices, guitars and rhythm section. Smash
the Mirror and Christmas are particularly good. Yet some of the songs
seem to lose their punch to me still; Pinball Wizard, for example,
just doesn't seem to have the kick it did in previous releases. But as
Townshend pointed out, the SACD has the original stereo analog mix on
it as well, so fans can have it both ways. Fair enough.
He took the chance to offer some insight into his work on the album.
"The best thing about getting out the original 8-track analogue
masters to work with was that Keith Moon's drums (recorded in mono!)
and John Entwistle's bass were such a revelation. They had been
recorded so well. I featured them proudly in every mix, and my
consultants Elliot Mazer and David Pelletier had to work quite hard
with me to restore some equality with the guitars and keyboards," he
"I started with a clean sheet for the 5.1 version. Unlike (original
mixer) Kit Lambert, I added no artificial echo to the studio tracks
(sometimes I gave vocals a tiny bit of 'flutter' echo to set them up
in 'space'). I wanted the incredible energy and basic rock vibe of the
band's studio work to come across without too much interference. The
sound is dry, forceful and old-fashioned. I also think it is full of a
kind of joy that comes over properly for the first time in my mix."
Townshend has great news and bad news for fans of the band's classics
Quadrophenia and Who's Next. He became interested in surround sound in
the early '70s and wrote songs for both those albums with surround in
"My Who's Next writing was targeted at 'quadrophonic' live
presentation. Shortly after, in 1973, I composed Quadrophenia
specifically for the promised quadrophonic audio revolution that
didn't happen," Townshend says. "I hope to have that album remixed in
the way I intended back then - with four musical themes emerging from
each of four corners of the room, and combining centrally in the
finale to demonstrate the hero's spiritual epiphany. Ken Russell's
Tommy film - which I music-directed - was the first five-channel movie
- prior to the emergence of Dolby film sound."
But unfortunately, for the time being, Who's Next won't get that
"One sad fact about Who's Next is that one of the master reels has
been misplaced or stolen at some point in the record's history," he
says. "Until we track this down, there will be no definitive surround
remix of that wonderful record."
- SCHRADE in Akron
The Council For Secular Humanism