Queen's seminal 1975 album and the worldwide hit from it, 'Bohemian Rhapsody', might almost have been tailor-made for surround sound. Now guitarist Brian May and engineer/surround specialist Elliot Scheiner have remixed this masterpiece for what promises to be a genre-defining DVD-Audio release.
If you're a regular SOS reader, you may recall that we ran a technique series on surround-sound mixing and production. One of the parts of this series (see SOS March 2002) featured production and mixing tips from top surround producer Elliot Scheiner, who has been responsible for remixing albums by many big-name artists into 5.1 surround, including REM's Reveal, The Eagles' Hotel California, and Sting's Brand New Day. While SOS were interviewing Elliot for the Surround series, he happened to mention in passing that one of his future 5.1 remixes would involve none other than Queen's 1975 album, A Night At The Opera. Of course, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to find out more about this fascinating project, particularly how Elliot was planning to go about remixing the song that most people consider the centrepiece of the album, the worldwide number one hit and all-time rock classic, 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.
Up to this point, Elliot had been using Swissonic AD96 and DA96s digital-to-analogue and analogue-to-digital converters to digitise the analogue multitracks he'd been working on in readiness for surround mixing, and on his previous couple of projects, he had then stored the converted multitrack recordings on an Alesis HD24. The system worked well and Elliot elected to continue using it for his surround mix versions of America's Homecoming (including 'Ventura Highway'), The Eagles' Hotel California and The Doobie Brothers' Captain And Me (including both 'Long Train Running' and 'China Grove'). Elliot let me sit in on the Doobie's session at Westport Studio near his Connecticut home and I got to hear all the individual elements of 'Long Train Running' as he built up the surround mix, including that famous riff, which is actually constructed from two acoustic and two electric guitar parts.
However, when the time came to begin work on the Queen remix, Elliot realised that the HD24 would no longer suffice. A Night At The Opera was one of the earliest 24-track analogue recordings and the Alesis HD24 cannot record simultaneously in 24-bit at 96kHz on 24 tracks. I had been set up as an Apple Macintosh beta-tester for Steinberg's Nuendo not long before this, and I suggested Nuendo as a possible multitrack storage and production platform to Elliot, especially as I had already ascertained that the Swissonic converters he prefers to use on his surround projects also work well with Nuendo. As luck would have it, Elliot had already been talking to Rob Hill of Steinberg North America about Nuendo anyway, and he said he would bear the idea in mind.
I heard no more on the subject for several months, until an email arrived from Elliot explaining that work on the Queen remix was due to begin shortly, but that Queen's management were very nervous about sending the original multitrack master tapes across the Atlantic in an aircraft hold. As a result, Rob Hill from Steinberg North America was coming to London with a Nuendo system to do the transfers at Abbey Road Studios (chosen for their expertise in dealing with ageing tapes). Amazingly, Elliot asked if I could go down to Abbey Road to help. As a big fan of Queen, I couldn't say yes fast enough.
A couple of weeks later I made my way to Arbiter (Steinberg's UK distributor) in north London, where Rob Hill's customised Nuendo rig had been shipped, to rendezvous with Rob and Sam Wetmore, Nuendo Product Specialist. Rob's PC rig included a custom-manufactured, rackmount 160GB SCSI hard drive array (sold in the US under the Nuendo brand) to enable the very fast data rates you need if you are going to transfer 24 tracks of 24/96 (roughly equivalent to 96 tracks of 16-bit/44.1kHz). As a safety precaution, I had borrowed a LaCie SCSI RAID Array and Adaptec SCSI card to go with my 733MHz Mac G4 system, so we were actually going to transfer the Queen multitracks simultaneously into two Nuendo systems. Having checked our systems thoroughly, we moved everything the few miles from Hendon down to Abbey Road for the transfer session next morning.
Justin Shirley-Smith from Queen Productions and Chris, the engineer from Brian May's personal studio, arrived at Abbey Road with the precious multitracks. We were due to make the transfers in Studio 3, which had the necessary 24-track machine set up and ready to roll.
The assistant put the first of the two-inch tapes on the multitrack machine, containing 'Bohemian Rhapsody', and was just winding through it when we heard a noise that made our hearts sink — the sound of a tape splice flying apart! We'd all previously heard the tales about the 'Bo Rhap' multitrack being like a patchwork quilt and worn so thin that it was translucent when held up to the light. Fortunately, it turned out to be a broken piece of leader tape and, upon closer inspection, there were no visible edits in the section of the tape containing 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. So we concluded that this must have been a clone of the original multitrack, made to preserve all those fragile edits. However, we were not out of the woods yet...
As the assistant was lining up the multitrack, he remarked that the tape seemed to be shedding a lot of oxide. He was a master of understatement — when we looked, there appeared to be soot on the heads of the two-inch tape machine. An Abbey Road archiving expert subsequently diagnosed the problem. Although the multitracks were all stored in boxes labelled 'Scotch', he told us that the Scotch warehouse had burned down in that year and, as a result, Scotch had bought in a load of Ampex 456 tape to enable them to keep trading while they were building up their manufacturing business. Now Ampex 456 wouldn't have been too bad if it had been a few years earlier, but as a result of ecological pressure by the time A Night At The Opera was recorded (in 1975), Ampex had been forced to replace the whale oil in their original tape formulation with a synthetic version and this had been found to be not so good at binding the oxide over time, with the potentially disastrous consequences that we observed. After some discussion, it was agreed that the tapes would need baking in the Abbey Road ovens at 50 degrees C for four days, so we dispersed with a great sense of anti-climax.
Four days later we reassembled at Abbey Road to undertake the actual transfers. The baking had successfully conditioned the tapes so that the oxide was no longer shedding and we finally got to hear the individual tracks coming off the multitrack for the first time. What we found most amazing about the unmixed recording was how close to the original album track it sounded. This may have been because numerous tracks contained premixed vocal bounces and guitar comps which had been processed to a certain extent, but even the individual tracks of piano, bass and drums were just so well recorded that they sounded like finished components just awaiting a touch of reverb. Hats off to original producer Roy Thomas Baker. Obviously noise reduction had been used in the original analogue recordings, in the form of Dolby A, but the track sheet showed that on one track this had been switched in and out as the instrumentation on that track changed (obviously Queen had been so short of space on the multitrack that every spare bit had been filled with vocal or guitar harmonies, drum ambience or indeed that famous final gong). On the actual transfer, this was dealt with by manually switching the Dolby A encoding in and out at the appropriate points.
All in all, the transfer of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' to Nuendo was straightforward, as everything from the original was on tape in the right running order and where it should be. There was a little bit of extra guitar going into the operatic section that did not make it to the final stereo mix (probably just Brian doodling after the end of his big solo) and three lead vocal takes, from which the final version had been compiled, but this would be left for Elliot Scheiner to figure out in the surround mix.
Other tracks on the album were more complicated. The intro to the opening track 'Death On Two Legs' was found in two sections after the main song on its multitrack: the loud guitars and screaming feedback effects in one section and the stereo piano intro (which is the first thing you hear on the record) in a second, presumably spun in from a two-track during the mixdown and fortunately copied to the end of the multitrack just for completeness. However, Nuendo's editing capabilities soon had this reassembled in the correct order ready for the mixdown. Similarly, engines being revved in a separate place on the multitrack of 'I'm In Love With My Car' (originally the B-side of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' in the UK) were easily reunited with the end of the main song.
The three sections of Brian May's eight-minute epic 'The Prophet's Song' were spread across two multitracks but, sadly, did not include all of the original song from the album, although the third section did segue into 'Love Of My Life' as on the original. However, the only sign of the a cappella vocal section in the middle of the song was a tantalising 16-part track sheet which fell out of one of the tape boxes. A search has since failed to locate this tape and so this section had to be processed into 5.1 surround from the stereo master (something that had already been decided for the 'God Save The Queen' guitar instrumental which closes the album, the multitrack of which was known to be missing before the transfer session started).
There are those around who cynically suggest that 5.1 and DVD-A in particular is another ploy by record companies to sell their back-catalogue one more time. Do you feel that surround sound genuinely brings something new to the music?
"Yes, of course. Anyone who would suggest that record companies are not interested in selling their back-catalogue all over again would be very foolish indeed! The last time I looked we were still in a capitalist society, exemplified very well by every record company I've ever walked into. I am sure that if a record company seriously believed that they could dupe the average record buyer into buying another version of the music he already loves, by adding some worthless gimmick, they would jump at the chance. But you would have to consider that to invest the money in promoting such a thing, they would have to sincerely believe that they will succeed. And the record-buying public, especially the rock and roll record-buying public, are known to be anything but fools."
So why should you want to buy another version of 'Bohemian Rhapsody', newly remixed in 5.1 surround sound? What will you hear that you have never heard before?
"I have to admit I was cynical myself at first, we all were in the Queen camp. But as soon as I heard Elliot's first stabs at rearranging our A Night At The Opera album all around my head, I was a convert. This particular album, recorded originally on analogue 24-track tape, but actually involving many more tracks than that owing to the technique of multiple bouncing, was a very complex operation. It was actually pretty difficult to condense all the vocal and guitar harmonies into one stereo mix. There were always a lot of compromises to be made. We developed our own ways of continuously varying the highlighted instruments, to give the impression that everything was up front all the time. But in reality some of the parts were always slightly submerged in the mix, in order to maintain the focus. Listening to the same songs, it was immediately apparent that with surround it was possible to unravel this material all over again. And there was now so much space for everything to live in, that it was possible to construct a kind of 360-degree panorama of all the instruments, which could be visited at any time simply by 'looking around'.
"For some reason I seem to have a kind of photographic memory for all those arrangements and harmony parts, and I immediately felt like I had 'got the call'. I had to plunge in and add my input to the process, so that no stone would be unturned, and so that every part of the spirit of the original could be created in the new surround mix. It was just a question of building on what had already been started by Elliot Scheiner and Roy Thomas Baker. Being the true gentlemen they both are, I was welcomed into the fold and we made plans to polish the diamond.
"'Bohemian Rhapsody' was, and probably always will be, the flagship track, so we steamed into this first. There were great challenges and great opportunities in squeezing the last drop out of this previously untouched moment in our history. We had never allowed anyone to remix this track from the beginning up until this time. In many cases multiple balances had been done to the harmonies, very often to stereo, and in some cases what was needed was to spread this stereo around the five speakers in some meaningful way. But in many cases some of the original parts, from which the bounces had been constructed, were still in existence on the multitrack tape. This could be a gift or a problem! The problem would be that if they were all simply pushed up into the mix, the balance of the harmony parts would be destroyed. But the gift was that in some cases we could reconstruct bounces in three dimensions instead of two, by judiciously feeding tracks into the surround mix at the crucial moment. The result has truly blown away everyone I have seen listen to this new production. Everyone hears a vast number of things which they never heard before on the record, even though subliminally they were always there. It's as if a veil has been lifted and suddenly, instead of looking at a band through a window, you are sitting amongst them. The more I got into this, the more excited I became.
"Of course, it's not just the vocal harmonies which can be disentangled in this way. The same considerations apply to guitar harmonies, and the instruments that were recorded in stereo, or in some cases with more than two microphones. And the basic skeleton of the tracks, the underlying backing track, is open to many different treatments in the new medium. For this particular record, we settled on a kind of extension of the original philosophy used in the original mixes. The band was essentially spread out in front of you, but now we were able to wrap around the ambience, and in some cases part of the drum kit or some of the rhythm guitars, so that once again the listener felt propelled right into the centre of the action. Add to this the opportunities for zooming things around, something which we were very fond of in the early days anyway, and you can understand how exciting it all began to be. We didn't go nuts with the zooming — true to the spirit of the original, we only used fireworks where it seemed to have some purpose. But there are endless new opportunities for producing little moments on the tenth listening! After a couple of days of this, I began to think, eat and sleep surround sound. A stereo mix now seemed like something rather frustrating, something which you just yearned to get into and disentangle and spread all around. It's very addictive this stuff."
What other tracks on the album are you most pleased with in 5.1?
"We actually got extremely picky about 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and only felt happy with it after the third attempt. But other tracks on the album were equally rewarding. 'The Prophet's Song' has long been a favourite of the hardcore Queen fans and it was obviously my baby, so I was excited to dive in there. And perhaps this track benefitted more than any other from the new treatment. In my zeal to go way over the top on the original, I had ladled much more in the way of guitar histrionics on to the track than I could possibly make the best of in a stereo mix. In the new version you can hear it all, swirling around and churning in three dimensions. It's pretty much how I always dreamed that track should sound. Yes, there was probably always a slight disappointment that this monster didn't become the commercial success that 'Bohemian Rhapsody' did. But in my heart I always knew that this was not a commercial venture — it was done for its own sake. Now I can die happy, knowing that it finally achieved its potential.
"I was also excited about 'Good Company', the track which features a whole traditional jazz band manufactured out of guitars! In the surround sound mix you can very clearly hear where everything's coming from, and it became almost my favourite track on the album once we'd finished the new mix.
"The ultimate joy was hearing the very simple and beautiful ballad 'Love Of My Life', one of Freddie's greatest love songs. In this new version, I felt we were able to put back in a lot of the warmth which didn't quite make it to the original mix. With the new technology available, I was able to broaden the 'orchestral' guitar piece in the middle, a little break that I was always very proud of. But the greatest thrill is to hear the simple intimacy of Freddie's piano playing and his fabulous vocal performance. You can hear every breath, every movement of his fingers and feet, every rustle of his clothes. It's as if you are hearing this performance in your own room for the first time. For me, this is the most beautiful track of all, and made me come away from the project with a warm glow!"
What do you think Freddie would have made of it all?
"I can't give you his answers, but I certainly feel that he would have loved working in these areas and using all the new technology to advance his art. We were together for more than 20 years in 'active service', and we got to know each other's ways pretty well. I often find myself looking over my shoulder, and feeling pretty sure that Freddie is enjoying himself too."
After the transfers were completed, the 24/96 versions of the multitracks were despatched to America in three different versions (RAID drives shipped with Rob Hill's rig, FedEx'd SCSI drive and DVD-ROMs carried in Rob's hand luggage). In early December 2001, by the time Brian May flew in to LA, Elliot Scheiner had already done a significant amount of work on the basic placement of all the constituent parts of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and other tracks in the 5.1 field at Glenn Fry's Doghouse studio in Hollywood. The remainder of the mix was carried out in the famous Capitol Records building.
Elliot invited me to sit in on the final phase of the 5.1 mix when Brian May was present. The 24 channels of 24-bit/96kHz audio were being played back from Nuendo through six Swissonic DA96 converters into the 72-channel Neve VRQ desk and Elliot built up the mix himself using the Flying Faders mix automation. Rob Hill would occasionally do things in Nuendo that couldn't be achieved in analogue, but for the most part the actual mix was done in analogue.
The opening section of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' uses surround to separate all the vocal elements but not too drastically. The clever thing about this mix is that Elliot didn't bring all his weapons to bear straight away. The main verse is left fairly straight to start with, as a normal front stereo picture with just Freddie's vocal being lifted by the Centre speaker, and it is not until the 'Sends shivers down my spine' piano run in verse two (just when you had forgotten that the rear speakers were there) that the first elements appear in the rear speakers since the intro, which really does set your spine tingling! Power chords from Brian's guitar follow suit and, shortly thereafter, the backing vocals burst forth from the rear speakers as the classic guitar solo takes flight from the Centre speaker (where else would you place one of the greatest guitar solos of all time?).
The part of the song which took the most mixing was clearly always going to be the operatic middle section from 'I see a little silhouetto of a man' through to 'Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me.' Here the original multitrack is full of comp'ed parts bounced together to make room for the hundred-plus voices, comprising numerous double-tracked parts from Freddie, various ensemble question-and-answer sections where Roger, Brian and Freddie are all singing ('We will not let him go') and Roger's very high falsetto vocals on the 'Gallileo' and 'for me' lines. Several tracks contained individual vocal parts which were already present in the various comps and had to be eliminated, whereas other key vocals which needed boosting were much more awkward to isolate as they were part of bounced sections.
Wherever the parts were available separately, questions and answers were set up in opposing speakers (either left and right, front and back, or both) but this was not always possible because of comps often burying one part in with others. The 'magnifico' section where harmonies came in progressively were panned across the mix, echoing the Quantel visual repeats in the famous video. Brian found it difficult at times to explain to Elliot which vocal parts he wanted to change, so Elliot's familiarity with the various parts of the tracks was crucial in quickly locating them. Brian was clearly quite moved at one point as he remembered Freddie coming up with the ascending 'Never, never, never, let me go' vocal very late on in the original recording sessions, maybe even on the day they were due to start mixing it. "At first we wondered what he was up to," Brian recalled. "The rest of us just wanted to get on and mix the thing, but it really helps lift that section."
While EQ'ing and positioning the guitars for more separation in the infamous Wayne's World heavy section, both Elliot and Brian noticed that the lead guitar in the main solo had become a little quiet (because of work on the vocals and backing instruments), which now rather detracted from its impact, so it got boosted by a dB or two. Work on the heavy guitar section resumed, including taking my favourite riff from the whole song (which appears just once after the 'spit in my eye' line) and placing it in the rear speakers for one bar only, which worked remarkably well. Sadly the same didn't hold for the two smaller riffs after 'Can't do this to me baby', so these were left where they were in the front stereo field. However, the run-ups at the end of the heavy section really benefitted from being EQ'd and placed alternately in the Rear-Left and Rear-Right speakers, while the echoing piano run-up was surround-panned from the rear pair through to the front stereo speakers in time for the original-tempo multitracked guitar finale. The various echoing parts of this were distributed across all five speakers, ending with the final close harmony guitars at the end in the front stereo.
As luck would have it, Elliot and Brian were back at Capitol to put the finishing touches to the other tracks on the A Night At The Opera DVD-A, when I visited LA for the January 2002 NAMM show. On the previous sessions I had attended, the original producer of the early Queen albums, Roy Thomas Baker, had been offering constructive advice over the phone — don't ask me how he could hear discrepancies in a 5.1 surround sound mix on a standard landline, but he did! This time he was actually going to be at the mixing session in person. Elliot, Brian and Roy had finished tweaking all the other tracks by the time I arrived and had gone back one last time just to catch a few little things on 'Bohemian Rhapsody': like the killer riff at the end of the 'spit in my eye' line only appearing in the Rear-Left speaker instead of both, and the 'ooh yeah' vocals under the final guitar extravaganza being lifted by half a dB at Roy Thomas Baker's suggestion (which made a huge difference). Roy's golden ears also noticed that Freddie's closing 'Nothing really matters' vocal sounded brighter at the end than at the beginning. This was tracked down to the fact it was going through a different compressor and it was decided that the much crisper end vocal sound was better for the whole song. The final six-channel transfer for mastering was done through the Swissonic DA96s to analogue multitrack as well as back into Nuendo via the AD96s.
All the studio time spent on the 1975 original has really paid dividends in the 5.1 surround mix. It all bursts forth, reinvigorated, and validates the format like no other recording I know. As Brian said, "We might really have been recording for DVD-A in the first place, there was always too much in there to cram into the stereo field." The surround version of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' took the best part of 10 days to remix but as Brian May remarked with characteristic British understatement: "I think it was worth spending the time".