Chicago Asserts Its 4.0 Sonic Authority

To say it’s been a banner year for Chicago might be a bit of an understatement. Not only is the band in the midst of its (yes) 49th consecutive year on the road, but it’s also celebrating a well-deserved induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which took place back on April 8 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. “Rather than limping into our 50th year, we are sprinting uphill,” observes Chicago co-founding member and trumpeter Lee Loughnane (pronounced “Lock-nane”). “It’s an honor to be inducted along with our peers — past, present, and future. It’s great to be a part of it.”

Bassist/vocalist Jason Scheff, who replaced original member Peter Cetera back in late-1985, loves playing Chicago music night in and night out. “It’s a songbook that never gets old to perform after all these years,” Scheff notes. “There’s always been a striving for musical excellence and to not compromise, to make sure every album was wall-to-wall solid. It’s a work ethic, you know? A vibe. My favorite songs to play are ‘Saturday in the Park’ and ‘Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?’ — those are phenomenal, classic songs.” (Hard to argue with any of that logic....)

Last year, 20 of the band’s sequentially numbered albums got the deluxe reissue treatment with a pair of 10-disc Chicago: The Studio Albums CD box sets from Rhino. Half of those albums are currently available to download at 192kHz/24-bit, while others come in at 96/24. Not only that, Rhino has just released Quadio, a collection of the band’s first eight studio albums plus their first greatest hits compilation in 192/24 DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 mixes on nine Blu-ray discs. Many of you will recall Rhino released the quad version of the band’s 1969 debut album, Chicago Transit Authority, on DVD-Audio in a 40th anniversary limited edition in 2009. You may also recollect a pair of 96/24 5.1 releases during the 2003 heyday of DVD-Audio — namely, 1970’s Chicago and 1972’s Chicago V. I’ll be doing a deeper-dive review of Quadio (including a comparison with the two aforementioned 5.1 mixes) in the not-so-distant future, but rest assured, it’s well worth the time and dollar investment for audiophiles and quadaholics alike.

Recently, Loughnane, 69, called me to discuss quad and surround, the challenges of mastering digitally, and the unique way the band recorded its most recent studio album, 2014’s Chicago XXXVI – “Now.” In many ways, it feels like it’s only the beginning.

Mike Mettler: Lee, I think it’s fair to say you’re one of the bandmembers who’s been in charge of how Chicago sounds on record, so you must be satisfied with the more unified sound across the 20 albums remastered in stereo on the two Studio box sets. And now we have Quadio, so I image you must be cool with surround sound as well, yes?

Lee Loughnane: Oh yeah, yeah! They’ve kept me in the loop, as to my opinions for what things sound like. It’s very nice of Warners and Rhino to keep me involved. They have allowed me to be (pauses)... a listener, let’s put it that way. I love it. I think it’ll hold up.

Rhino has always done unique packaging and unique ideas for re-releases for albums, so I’m quite confident in all that. The biggest problem during this process has been for me to get to a place where I can listen within a quad-type setup. When I’m on the road, I can’t do that. I have to wait until I get back home to immerse myself in the middle of a room, and listen in a quad setting.

I’m the guy who says to the engineers, “Yes, that sounds good,” or, “That doesn’t sound quite so good.” And whenever I say, “That doesn’t sound quite so good,” they try a different technique.

Mettler: From the listener’s point of view, what’s the best way to hear Chicago in surround?

Loughnane: I like to have it so that when the listener is immersed in the song, it feels as if you are almost a part of the band. That’s the most satisfying, for me.

Mettler: I like that too. The most obvious example is practically right out of the box on Chicago Transit Authority with the second track, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” As the listener, you really do feel like you’re a part of that whole presentation.

Loughnane: Right — and the album was originally designed sonically as though you were listening to us live.

Mettler: And by the time we get to “Beginnings” and “Questions 67 and 68,” I really feel like I’m immersed with you guys right there onstage.

Loughnane: When quad came to be, that mix had to be redesigned sonically, because it was initially set up to be stereo, which was what was available at the time we recorded it. And we did it on an 8-track machine, so there was some bouncing to be done too.

Mettler: So you had to “share” tracks in certain channels, almost with smoke and mirrors.

Loughnane: Exactly. We had to accept mixes of certain parts of the album and transfer or bounce them to another track, and hopefully by the end of doing that with all the different tracks, that mix would sound as good sonically as the newer stuff we were doing. You had to sort of think ahead, with that type of recording. I also had to make sure I was holding up my trumpet chops. (both laugh)

Mettler: I don’t know if it’s ironic to say CTA tracks like “Someday (August 28, 1968)” and “Liberation” are going to be just as important come later this summer. Those statements are as relevant now as they were in 1969.

Loughnane: Uh, yeah, again — exactly! As well as “Dialogue (Part One) and (Part Two),” which came a little later [on 1972’s Chicago V] — two college kids, one who’s an actual student, and one who’s, “Yeah, well, I don’t know, maaan.” Almost like me, walking around a campus. (both laugh)

Mettler: And now here we are with all that being just as relevant today, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Loughnane: It’s probably the “history repeats itself” aspect of life, you know? Unfortunately, it continues over and over and over again, and in many different areas.

Mettler: It’s sad but true. As a trumpet player, are you looking forward to seeing Miles Ahead, the Miles Davis film that Don Cheadle has done?

Loughnane: That should be interesting. I’m definitely going to go see that. For whatever reasons, I wasn’t a Miles fan back in the day, but I am more of a Miles fan now. He wasn’t as good a trumpet player as the other people I listened to, like Freddie Hubbard and Doc Severinsen [the bandleader of The Tonight Show during most of the Johnny Carson era, from 1967–92]. He wasn’t really a jazz player, but he played jazz, and he was often a lead player. I’ve always admired Doc as well.

Mettler: What were the very first albums that impacted you growing up and are still ones you go back to, to this day?

Loughnane: I think Maynard Ferguson’s A Message From Newport (1958) and Si, Si, M.F. (1962). There was also an album way back when called America the Beautiful: An Account of Its Disappearance, by Gary McFarland (1968, on Skye Records). It was very nicely done.

Mettler: How did the whole album numbering system occur? Shouldn’t Chicago actually be named Chicago II?

Loughnane: (chuckles) You’re right, The first album was called Chicago Transit Authority, and we changed the name in the liner notes to Chicago [mainly because the city of Chicago’s actual transit authority threatened to sue them if they continued to use the band’s full original name]. Subsequently, every album after that was called Chicago, which is why the roman numerals came into being.

Mettler: Right, because we only get the band name on the covers, not any numbers with them.

Loughnane: Exactly. We had to differentiate one album from another.

Mettler: And now we’ve gotten up to “Now” (2014), which is also still being numbered as Chicago albums go...

Loughnane: Yeah, Chicago XXXVI. (chuckles)

Mettler: I happen to be a fan of “Another Trippy Day,” which is the bonus track on that album.

Loughnane: Oh yeah, you like that one? It started out as part of the album, and then it became a bonus track — because bonus tracks are hip, you know? (chuckles heartily)

Mettler: Of course! And having newer songs like that available to you must also make it interesting for you as a player — to be able to slide new songs into the set list if you want.

Loughnane: Exactly. And now we have recorded an album on the road, which is where Chicago XXXVI – “Now” was done — in hotel rooms, ballrooms, conference rooms; wherever we could. We did the entire album on the road, and never went into a studio. Even the mixing was done in more makeshift, computer-oriented studios.

I kept working with the engineer, Hank Linderman, to get the equipment [dubbed “The Rig”] better and better sonically — to take it out of the box, as it were, as computer mixes tend to be. As the plug-ins have gotten better and better, it was taken further and further out of the box.

Mettler: I would say a track like “Free at Last” is as true as anything you’re going to hear.

Loughnane: Yes, it sounds like anything else you’d hear come out of multi-million dollar studios! (chuckles) And now that we have that equipment, we can continue recording along those lines. We’re so busy that we haven’t done much new recording yet, but I would imagine that will coming up pretty soon, after the excitement of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and when the Now More Than Ever documentary gets out there more. We’re trying to make deals with TV as well, so instead of it just playing for hundreds in the theater, it’ll be playing for millions on TV. That’ll be very nice. [Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago documentary, directed by Peter Pardini, premiered at the Sedona International Film Festival (SIFF) in February 2016, where it won Best of Fest.]

Once all that excitement wanes a little bit, we’ll be able to sink our teeth into another album. We’re looking forward to that.

Mettler: Me too. There’s an evolution of that horn-driven style you essentially created, where I can hear the throughline from [CTA’s] “Introduction” all the way through “Naked in the Garden of Allah” [the next-to-last track on Chicago XXXVI – “Now”].

Loughnane: Exactly! We have “eras.”

Mettler: And there will be more of those eras to come. I also happen to love vinyl, and I like that Rhino has also been reissuing Chicago music on vinyl the past couple of years. Is that also a preferred listening method for you, besides the surround and quad we’ve been talking about?

Loughnane: Actually, the digital has gotten better and better. We realized the speed at which digital had to take over. Once the CD was invented and the suits wanted the entire catalog on CD, a problem was created that made digital look bad and sound bad because we used the same mixes from the original vinyl.

Once the engineers got their 2 cents across to the suits, the catalog could finally be remixed. And in order to make the digital sound good, you have to remix these things digitally. We could get more high, and low, and mid to fill up what’s available. That’s when we started getting much better sound that was much more close to the original analog recordings. We could go as high as 192k, but when it gets down to a CD, it’s 44.1.

Mettler: 44.1/16 is OK for CD, but if I can hear Chicago music in 96/24 or even 192/24, that’s really my preferred format. Like we were saying earlier, I feel like I’m right there in the room with all of you while you were recording.

Loughnane: Yeah, yeah; exactly. Bingo! That’s what you can do in 192. And that’s the whole point of music — to make it sound like you’re right there with the artist.

Mettler: I love that. Because you guys have such dense arrangements with so many different instruments involved, I feel like we lose the character of the brass and horn section especially, with an MP3.

Loughnane: Right, right. The more technique you can use, the better. This is what we do for the audiophiles. It’s a lot of fun, whichever way we can best get it across.