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5.1: A Cappella's Brave New World

By Jonathan Minkoff | December 22, 2002

I can remember being in ninth grade, lying on my living room floor at one in the morning with a pair of studio-quality headphones on. As a new devotee of the laser-tight, stacked harmonies of Freddie Mercury, I was compelled to wear out my vinyl copy of Queen's A Night at the Opera.

In an act of sheer capriciousness, clearly designed to stifle my aesthetics, my mom had allotted herself the hours of midnight to 6 am for sleeping. Headphones became our compromise.

Headphones began as a pragmatic rather than artistic choice, but that was soon to change. What I hadn't expected was the unfolding of a hidden dimension in the music. My little "boom box" wasn't up to reproducing the range or depth of this music. My headphones, on the other hand, revealed swirling high vocals, calling and responding guitars, and a rich, resonant bass line. I was "in" the music, not just listening. This was a new world, and I was hooked.

The Mad Hatters and Tangled Up in Blue, under the guidance of their founder and executive producer, Christopher Yahng, and their producer, Delee Har, have released a double version of their CD State Street. Disk two is a re-release of six selections from disk one, re-mastered in a 5.1 surround sound DVD format.

For a cappella, 5.1 is the next step beyond stereo. With the performances of nearly 50 singers and the musical and technological input of seven different recording studios, the resulting 5.1 DVD is as much an experience as it is a recording.

Imagine a performance during which you can change seats as many times as you wish. Stand next to the lead or cozy up to the back-ups. The six songs in 5.1 allow you to explore. The DVD offers the listener an unprecedented degree of control. Where you sit, how loudly you set the volume, and how you set up your 5.1 system will have dramatic consequences on what you hear. Move from speaker to speaker, or even tilt your head, and you can literally feel the mix change. Listen to the reverbs bounce from front to back as well as side to side. Notice only after a few minutes into a song that there's a second VP shaker behind you and to the left.

5.1 is not for passive listeners. Therein lies both its appeal and its Achilles' heel. You can't just take it to the gym with you. You can't just put it on while you dust your apartment. Technically, you could do these things, but it would be a little like looking at a Magic Eye 3-D picture with one eye shut. You'll see something, but you're just not going to get it.

5.1 also demands that you, as the owner of a 5.1 system, set up your speakers properly. While this is not a particularly hard task, there are innumerable ways to mess it up. Even the configuration of your living room can conspire to prevent you from properly spacing your speakers.

So the question of the moment is this: What's the real difference between the State Street stereo CD and the 5.1? On a casual listen, not too much. The sounds are nearly the same — they're just in different places. Places like back and to the left (JFK flashback, anyone?), rather than in front of you and to the left. The reverb spins in a different way, too. A surround sound way. What does that mean? Again, not too much. Parts separated within a 5.1 medium become more discrete; so too with the swirls of the reverb. But however you reacted to a State Street stereo track, you're certainly going to react the same way to the 5.1 version.

The key for listeners is that the stereo CD is included with the 5.1 in one complete, well-balanced package; you can simply "A-B" them. (That's engineer-speak for "compare". It doesn't save any syllables, but your "cool" quotient may increase a few points if you say it in the studio. But nowhere else.) The stereo tracks have previously been reviewed by RARB, and I cannot imagine any comment about the stereo tracks that would not be applicable to the 5.1.

The State Street 5.1 DVD is a historical release. If you like the pop style of the songs, and you have the technology to tune in, I highly recommend this beautifully-sung DVD.


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