2112 in 5.1
This one's been 36 years in the making - or you could call it 100 years ahead of schedule, depending on how you look at it. I'm talking about the DTS-HD Master Audio 96-kHz/24-bit 5.1 Blu-ray version of it's-about-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Rush's 1976 epic 2112 (Anthem/Mercury). This 5-star reference mix was done by longtime Rush engineering maven Richard Chycki, who also helmed the benchmark surround mixes for Moving Pictures, Fly by Night, A Farewell to Kings, and Signals.
Back in November 2005, while discussing the surround mix that Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson supervised for the live R30 DVD, I asked him about the possibility of the band remixing its studio catalog in 5.1. Lifeson specifically zeroed in on the running water in "Discovery," Part III of the 2112 title suite, as something he'd like to hear in surround. "You could be sitting right by that little stream, you know," he mused. "It would be quite dramatic and dynamic."
Jump ahead to the spring of 2011, when Chycki and I were dissecting the nuances of his Moving Pictures 5.1 Blu-ray mix, and I, er, politely suggested that 2112 needed to be done in 5.1, pronto. "That's one of the things I'm pretty much lobbying to mix in surround," he agreed. "It would be absolutely fantastic, since 2112 is such a strong thematic record, on par with The Dark Side of the Moon. It has that essence. It would be great to take the triple tracking of Ged's [Geddy Lee's] vocal and put that in a three-dimensional environment."
And now, we finally have our wish of hearing 2112 in 5.1, whether all planets of the Solar Federation wanted it or not. Chycki shared with me some sweet lessons about the mixing minutiae.
Mettler: Can you give me a timeline as to when you were contacted about doing 2112 in 5.1, and by whom? Were you given any specific instructions or directions from anyone in the band, like Alex?
Chycki: I suppose it all began with a coffee-infused, big-eyed discussion with Alex about the environment of "Discovery." The experience of seeing 2112 in 5.1 slowly come together, and then finally pushing it to completion after 7 years, was nothing short of amazing. I knew something might be up in 2011 during the discussion about the three DVD-Audio discs I mixed for the three road case Sector box sets [i.e., the 5.1 mixes for the aforementioned Fly, Kings, and Signals]. Although I had the multitrack masters for 2112 in hand at the time, it had been decided to not include it in 5.1 in the Sector 2 set. My suspicions that 2112 was being held back for a special release of sorts turned out to be correct. I went into discussions with label and management in the spring of 2012 about scheduling and delivery. Like the other surround mixes to date, the band has preferred that the mix remain true to its heritage, rather than modernizing it and including effects that didn't exist back in '76. The Dark Side of the Moon 5.1 remix [done by James Guthrie] would be an excellent reference example as to this interpretation's integrity. 2112 5.1 was mixed while the band was on tour [supporting Clockwork Angels], so Alex and Andy [Curran, who does A&R for the band's label, Anthem] booked a suitable 5.1 room while on the road to review the mixes and comment on any changes.
Mettler: How did the process get underway? Were you given the original masters to work with? You did the mixing at your own studio, right?
Chycki: Yes, the original analog multitrack and stereo masters were transferred and then delivered to me. The mix work was done at my studio, Mixland, just like the others were. I had it built a few years ago specifically for mixing, and it's been working out great. The main challenge of a project of this magnitude is remaining true to the original album mix while remixing it to the 5.1 format, using modern technology in ways that sound vintage and maintain the sonic aura of the era, albeit in 3D. And at the end of the line, Andy VanDette at Masterdisk did an amazing job mastering both the 5.1 remixes and the original analog stereo masters for the 2.0 option on the various release configurations. I can't speak highly enough about his dedication and the quality of his work.
Mettler: Why do you think Blu-ray audio is the better way to go for 5.1 mixes?
Chycki: The 96-kHz /24-bit format is fantastic. There's so much resolution with no lossy compression, and that really allows a listener to hear the masters the way they were intended, without degradation.
Mettler: Let's delve into what you had to do for the waterfall sequence in "Discovery," since that's become one of my favorite surround sound sequences ever. And then tell me what else you did for the rest of the title track.
Chycki: It's very much like the original discussion Alex and I had years ago about having a rear waterfall; we tackled the whole deal! I should also note that there are accompanying illustrated sequences that you'll see onscreen in some incarnations of the packaging. It tells the visual story and it punctuates the true achievement of Rush coalescing the lyrics, performance, and sonics on 2112, which I believe is a major part of the overall success of this album.
Anyway, I felt very proud of the 5.1 mixes when Alex called me, bubbling over about how it sounded like the original album yet "so much more." He was so excited. It really was that moment, when one of the three people who would know this project better than anyone gave his blessing, that I felt this had turned into something very special.
The title suite segment "Presentation," Part IV, is a great example of how the album breathes. All of the instrumentation goes from light and meek with a darker front-only vocal while the Protago-nist speaks to a huge and wide band, with a strong vibe of foreboding as the priests retort. The priests - Ged's triple tracked vocals - are huge and omnipresent, both in effects and placement.
The effects in "Soliloquy," Part VI, were particularly fun to recreate: a bright, highly compressed, and EQ'd plate with a lot of pre-delay on it for the vocal echoing in the cave. There's a final push of that effect at the very tail of the song while the band decays. And there's another, more organic surround plate for the accent shots on the guitar that really pokes through the band stops. It's all very exciting, especially when listened to loud! The solo in "Grand Finale," Part VII, was an interesting adventure. I recreated the wild panning by putting on headphones, taking a piece of paper, and drawing the pan from left to right with my eyes closed. I then used that map to match up the panning, while adding some front-to-back motion as well.
Mettler: Wow, I love that. Now tell me what you did for the songs on the original Side B.
Chycki: Side B turned out to be remarkable, especially "Tears." The layers of keyboards that Hugh Syme laid down felt exceptionally exciting in surround, as did Alex's texture of acoustic and electric guitars. Again, the goal was to recreate an atmosphere, so we opted out of gimmicks and stayed tried and true to the original essence. The "Tears" vocal has the same ebb and flow as in "2112," with the tripled vocals being very omnipresent against the single vocal in the song.
Both "A Passage to Bangkok" and "Something for Nothing" are simple (by Rush standards), great songs. Placement of the guitars is especially wide in these tracks, with cleaner guitars pushed more to the rear.
Accents like Neil [Peart]'s cowbells and Alex's Far East guitars in "Bangkok" are hard-panned to the rear. Ged's vocals are spread out with a touch of Eventide 910 and very tight analog delays, the 910 being tremendously popular at the time of its release in 1975. It's particularly huge and cutting during the break in "Something for Nothing" and onward.
Mettler: Do you think you'll eventually be able to do the entire Rush catalog in 5.1?
Chycki: Well, to date, there has been no further discussion of upcoming 5.1 remixes, so I'm currently not aware of any new projects. But as we've seen time and time again, that situation does seem to change. The real vintage Rush era is so exciting to mix, but I'd love to dig into a complex keyboard-era track like "The Big Money" [the song that leads off 1985's Power Windows]. And then maybe Vapor Trails  after that. And also do something like Caress of Steel , with all of the motion - everything would be very extreme. But it would be a treat to sit and listen to, especially at extreme volumes. So do I want to do the whole catalog? Sure, bring it on!