If, circa 1971, you and I had been hanging out in my college dorm room and you had said to me “Man, I’ll bet that, 43 years from now, you’ll be attending an academic conference on Pink Floyd at an Ivy League school,” I’d have said, “Man, you must be smoking something!” I’d have been right, of course—but so would you. On a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon in April of 2014, there I was, striding past stately stone buildings on the campus of Princeton University, on my way to an audiophile event that was part of a four-day interdisciplinary conference entitled Pink Floyd: Sound, Sight, and Structure.
I was skipping the presentation of scholarly papers (“Space and Repetition in David Gilmour’s Guitar Solos”; “Past as Material Object in Pink Floyd’s Work”) in favor of the world premiere presentation of a new multichannel mix of Roger Waters’ 1992 album Amused to Death devised by Pink Floyd engineer/producer James Guthrie. Guthrie was to be present for the playback and, the following day, appeared as the keynote speaker for the conference. Waters, of course, was a founding member of PF and the creative force behind the band’s most celebrated albums, including The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. Amused to Death was Waters’ third solo album and its structure, sonics, and musical syntax is very Floydian. A “concept album” inspired by Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book by Neal Postman that explored the corrosive influences of mass media, it features a seamless blending of thematically linked songs, spoken texts, and nonmusical sound effects. Guthrie, who mixed and mastered most of Floyd’s commercial releases from The Wall on, has been credited by Roger Waters for giving listeners, with his surround mixes, “the chance to hear the music as always intended.” The Dark Side of the Moon is the best-selling SACD of all time.
Guthrie’s hot-off-the-press surround mix of Amused to Death was presented in McAlpin Hall, a smallish rehearsal space in Princeton’s music building. The irregularly shaped room measures perhaps 60' by 40'. In the middle was a rectangular block of chairs for 30 listeners; many more were standing around the room’s periphery. Guthrie and his assisting engineer had brought with them five self-powered ATC Professional Series monitors that were elevated on platforms; two subwoofers were positioned in the front of the room as well. The music was played off a hard drive into a Prism Sound ADA-8XR multichannel modular AD/ DA converter. The equipment had been set up the previous day and there had been time for some acoustic treatment to a space already designed for hearing music. Sonically, the results were imperfect but acceptable—more than adequate to convince that this is another must-have surround-sound program, a rare beast outside classical genres. From my outside-the-sweet-spot location at the back of the seating area, much closer to the two rear speakers than the front three, Waters’ vocals were bass-heavy and difficult to understand. But the low-end response was quite smooth and, even from my position, the localization of instruments and nonmusical sounds was stupendously involving. Tiny details registered with an almost surreal clarity and there was, on occasion, a dimensional steering of sounds. And those crickets! With the lights down, you’d be forgiven for confusing the confines of McAlpin Hall with a nearby field at dusk in late August.
For the 73-minute duration of Amused to Death, Guthrie stood at the side of the room next to Chad Kassem, whose Acoustic Sounds will be distributing the SACD. (Kassem was not forthcoming as to when that might be.) At the end of the album, after a suitably respectful silence, the audience broke into enthusiastic applause. Arms folded, Guthrie smiled slightly and remarked: “I guess you liked it.” I sure did, and look forward to hearing Amused to Death under more familiar circumstances at home.