June 2010

Hear and Now

At long last, 21st-century technology has caught up to ’70s-era quadraphonic recording


quadraphonic recording, tech

“Dismal failure” may be the kindest way to describe quad.

To music fans for whom even cassette tapes are a quaint throwback, here’s a real obscurity: Quadraphonic sound systems were an experiment launched in 1970. Music came out of four speakers spread around the room—guitars over there, vocals over here, drums all around. In a perfect world, the listener would hear what it was like to be inside the studio as the songs were recorded. But the world was far from perfect.

“When quad came out, people were still listening to music on these little systems with a drop-down turntable and attached speakers,” says Steely Dan engineer Elliot Scheiner. Even FM stereo was relatively new.

Worse yet, you could buy a new car for what a decent quad system cost. According to quad fanatic Tab Patterson, a Kentucky-based video editor and Webmaster of 4channelsound. com, a truly great system was about $3,500 in 1973—adjusted for inflation, more than $17,000 today. And it was labor intensive, requiring special equipment, decoders, records, tapes and a sound engineer’s expertise to set it up properly. Even if you configured it perfectly with the finest gear available, you had to sit in one spot to get the you-are-there experience.

“I thought it was a gimmick,” Chicago producer James William Guercio says. “Then when I went in the room and listened, I said, ‘Wait a minute—this is a whole different art form.’ A lot of guys were doing it by just bouncing some echo around. I saw a new medium.”

Pink Floyd saw the potential too. The Dark Side of the Moon from ’73 “was anticipated to have a quad version,” says Alan Parsons, whose quad-mix Dark Side is an underground classic. “We recorded the clocks for ‘Time’ on 4 of the 16 tracks. The ‘Money’ loop was recorded in a way where it would essentially walk around the room.”

Not all producers at the time saw it the same way, though. Scheiner did extensive quad mixing on jazz recordings only to be sorely disappointed when he heard his hard work played back on consumer systems. “Turned out to be more effort than I was willing to put in to have somebody think I actually mixed it that way,” he says. “I got out of it very quickly.”

Eagles producer Bill Szymczyk was similarly unimpressed: “I vaguely remember doing some quad mixes, but it was really as an afterthought.” Of the Eagles’ On the Border and One of These Nights, which both have quad mixes, he says, “To be honest, I don’t remember if I did those or not—but if they’re good, I’ll take credit for them.”

Despite the obvious drawbacks, the industry smelled money. Convinced the public would catch up, it churned out quad mixes of everyone from Barry Manilow to the Archies. “Excuse my laughing, but it seems so unlikely the Archies would be in quad,” says Parsons.

It’s pretty much an open secret that the most stunning underground quad out there comes from techies who stashed away personal copies.

Not surprisingly, quad lurched through the ’70s and died a largely unnoticed death right around the rise of disco.

But now it is back.

And while the Eagles’ Szymczyk groans, “Oh my God, why?” fans (and, yes, they are out there) are ecstatic. A circle of hobbyists cracked the code to transfer the format to today’s equipment, so now the music industry has jumped back into the sound it abandoned.

The Flaming Lips are known for wild surround-sound mixes. These were partly inspired when lead singer Wayne Coyne heard quad as a teenager in Oklahoma City, both on vinyl and during a serendipitous run-in with it live. “I was walking out of a KISS concert, probably 1978 or ’79,” Coyne says. “In the parking lot there were a bunch of people playing KISS songs out of their eight-track stereos. I walked through an area where I heard the same song—‘Rock and Roll All Nite.’ It was almost in synch. And it stuck with me—I wondered if you could really do that [on disc].”

Years later, he tried it with Zaireeka, a 1997 Flaming Lips project on four CDs. To properly hear it, you needed four boom boxes, each with two speakers, playing the four discs. It was a take on the original quad concept, just doubled.

There were a few false starts as quad waited for technology to catch up. DTS Entertainment had put out a few classic titles in the ’90s taken straight from the original quad mixes—Wings, Eric Clapton and Santana come to mind—but not many homes had surround-sound theaters.

There was yet another opportunity missed when home theaters became more common in the early 2000s. Instead of putting surround-sound music on regular DVDs, new formats were invented—Super Audio CD and DVD Audio—that required new, expensive players. Both formats faltered.

Around the time the Flaming Lips’ Coyne was conjuring up his own brand of surround sound, purist quad fans discovered new technology had finally caught up with the old.

It was 1999, and the fledgling eBay was becoming a phenomenon. Quad fan Patterson typed in “Marantz 4400,” a vintage quad amplifier, and a couple popped up. Soon he was combing the Internet, thrift shops and used-equipment stores to track down the best available quad reels. He married them to his computer, for which he’d bought some expensive DTS surround-encoding software. The result: discs that would flawlessly reproduce quad mixes on any home-theater system equipped with a DTS decoder. After almost 40 years, quad finally worked.

Word got out about what Patterson was up to, and he was flooded with requests. It got crazier when he modified an old reel-to-reel so it could convert quad eight-tracks to discs. (In an effort to boost sales of both music and cars, Ford had introduced quad eight-tracks in some of its vehicles.) The result was again perfect.

A really cool unintended consequence of rediscovering quad was the hidden treasures tucked inside the recordings that began to emerge. Sly & the Family Stone: Greatest Hits quad used the true master tapes, and some of the songs run longer, with extra verses and choruses. Billy Paul’s ’70s classic “Me and Mrs. Jones” has a completely different vocal track. Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” has extra Terry Kath guitar flourishes running throughout. Says producer Guercio, “Whenever I heard something extra, I’d say, ‘Let’s toss it in.’”

It’s pretty much an open secret that some of the most stunning underground quad out there comes from techies inside the recording industry who stashed away personal copies. Subpar mixes of Dark Side of the Moon were readily available, until one day a perfect recording suddenly surfaced. Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water was never commercially released as a quad reel, yet the version collectors found is just that old-school format.

QUAD 2.0
“It started as a hobby, then one thing leads to another,” says Bob Romano, 49, a banker in Chicago who has personally transferred more than 100 quad recordings and tracked down scores more via the Web. “When I found traders, I was like, This is crazy. I never thought I’d be able to locate this stuff.”

Online forums like quadraphonicquad.com allowed aficionados to find one another. BitTorrent technology and its supercharged download speeds helped spread the mixes online. By downloading a few pieces of free software, fans could share their quad mixes worldwide.

“Fabulously geeky, isn’t it?” says Cheryl Pawelski, former vice president of A&R at Rhino Records. “It’s fun to dip back into the past to make something for the future.”

Hobbyists felt like modern-day versions of musicologist Alan Lomax—preserving music that would otherwise disappear. But they also feared the Recording Industry Association of America could sue for piracy.

“It’s always a worry,” Patterson says. “But this stuff is part of history, and you can’t let history die. If it were only 15 titles, it would be obscure. But there were 1,600 titles or more [recorded on quad], and I’d hate to see them disappear.”

“The tapes I get off eBay are on their last legs,” Romano says. “I never did it because I wanted to steal somebody’s music. I did it because I love the format.”

Industry opinions differ. Guercio and Parsons would like to see official releases of more of their work but are glad fans still crave the mixes they made back in the day. “I’m tickled. I want people to hear it,” Guercio says.

Scheiner, now one of the industry’s biggest advocates of surround sound, takes a different view. “If they can find something in quad, and they just want to make one copy, I don’t see anything wrong with that,” he says. But putting it on the Internet “is not fair to the artist, producer or songwriters.”

Brad Buckles, executive vice president of antipiracy operations for the RIAA, agrees: “If it’s for personal use, we don’t have any objection. It’s when you go that next step and start ‘sharing’ it...that you become a distributor of a sound recording you don’t own. That’s where you cross the line.” The fact that this music is unavailable to legally buy is irrelevant.

In March, Rhino reissued the first Chicago album, Chicago Transit Authority. It’s the bare-bones quad mix, taken straight from the master tapes, put to DVDs that’ll play on any home system—the exact thing the hobbyists have been doing for a dozen years. It might take off this time. The Consumer Electronics Association says a third of all homes in the U.S. now have home theaters.

“Fabulously geeky, isn’t it?” says Cheryl Pawelski, former vice president of A&R at Rhino Records, who wrapped the Chicago Transit Authority release before leaving the label. “It felt like the time had arrived. It’s fun to dip back into the past to make something for the future.” It’s the exact quad Guercio mixed in the ’70s at his Caribou Ranch up in the Rockies.

“That’s the way it was intended,” says David May, A&R VP at Rhino Records. “It’d be wrong to mess with history. I think that would upset people.” Especially the purists, who want to see Rhino’s trial balloon succeed and then start emptying the vault. One pirate immediately put up the new official Chicago release at an illegal downloading site and was rabidly shunned by quad fans.

“That guy is a moron,” Romano says. “I’d never put something commercially released out for download and then put your name on it and say, ‘That was me! I did that!’—you deserve everything you get.”

Quad, it seems, comes with a conscience.

MARK BROWN writes about film, technology and pop culture...when he’s not posting snarky blog items at MSN Music.