Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The film remains the same, but the sounds are vastly improved

The sound engineer behind the newest revisiting of Led Zeppelin’s film says next month’s re-release of The Song Remains the Same will look exactly the same as it did in 1976. What will be vastly different with this version is what you hear, says Kevin Shirley in an interview conducted over the weekend for Modern Guitars magazine.

As was the case with the DVD set released in 2003, the primary sonic output technology for this release is Dolby Digital 5.1 channel surround sound. What does that mean to a layperson? This is high-tech sound quality for the modern era.

“5.1 has made a huge difference in things. It’s like taking an 8-track and saying, ‘Does this work as modern DVD audio?’ It might have been state of the art back then, but it just doesn’t fly anymore,” explains Shirley in the interview conducted Saturday, Oct. 13, by Tom Watson, content director for Modern Guitars.

The film, whose theatrical debut was 31 years ago this month, captures the band at one height of its brilliant career. It concentrates mainly on a three-night tour-closing stand at New York’s Madison Square Garden in July 1973 and also embraces scenes of the band and its entourage at home, work and play.

The original project endured a change in directors a year into production. The end result is a hodgepodge of segments filmed either at those concerts or in the ensuing months. All of that footage will be included on the new release without any alteration. “It would have been a whole can of worms with directors, and legal hassles, and whatnot, if you started editing the movie,” Shirley explains.

So, the new project was essentially matching the 16-track audio recordings from each of the three Madison Square Garden concerts to fit the visuals included in the movie. “We started from scratch,” says Shirley. “Everything was reassembled from the ground up.”

Of course, this was done for the film’s original release, but some concert portions occasionally were not exactly synchronized to the audio. “If you look at the end of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on the original movie, the visual’s from a completely different take than the audio,” Shirley notes.

Often, this was due to the original audio containing a “mistake” – assumedly things like a guitar note that is out of tune or a crack in Robert Plant’s voice. Such things would render a live recording unusable in the 1970s, but modern editing technology has made it possible for such occurrences to be manipulated and corrected. Given this technology, Shirley says, “I could fix the mistake and we could put the original audio back on there,” thus making the audio match the video.

The music that will be available on the CD soundtrack will closely match the audio presented on the DVD. Historically, the soundtrack has contained its own cuts unlike those in the movie. “What you hear on the new soundtrack CDs is what’s in the movie,” Shirley reveals. “They’re not two different things now.” One persisting difference is that the revisited soundtrack almost completely restores the original sets played in 1973 from start to finish. The movie, however, follows the running order of songs that was approved for theatrical release, and songs not included in the movie are presented separately as bonus features.

As Shirley is aware, the revisited soundtrack will surely be analyzed once it is released worldwide. For one example, “The Garden Tapes” is a site run by Eddie Edwards, an enthusiastic fan who has scrutinized every detail of the audio on every Led Zeppelin live release. (Edwards wrote me in September, saying, “Yes, I think I will be quite busy in a couple of months' time.”)

Shirley says he isn’t interested in that level of painstaking examination. To show this, he gave this sole interview to Modern Guitars magazine before heading off to Peru for a charity bicycle event. He’ll be biking for 11 days, and he doesn’t seem interested in any others at this time. Shirley says of the new releases:
"I hope people dig it, I really do. I'm not going to do a lot of interviews about it because these Internet days are very tough with some people analyzing things to death and obsessing over minute detail. It's really just for people to go and enjoy. The detailed analysis isn't really welcome - who cares if somebody says, 'You needed more cymbal in "Black Dog," or something like that. Enjoy the experience. Don't over analyze it. It's the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band playing a very good set of shows."
Music journalist Lisa Robinson, writing for Vanity Fair, has the following to say about Led Zeppelin’s new releases: “A great band is a great band. Frankly, it doesn't matter how many times these guys re-release this stuff; it always sounds better, still sounds modern, and still combines hard rock with blues, acoustic songs, and Eastern influences.”

Apparently, even Robert Plant had his doubts about the merits of the project going into it.
"What was very cool was Robert [Plant] would come to the studio and he's not a big fan of the original movie, I'd say he was probably a catalyst to the thing being re-done, and when he first came by he said, 'Oh my God, I don't want to hear this,' and he sat down and listened to it with his hands over his eyes. Then, he starts nodding his head and rocking with it and turns around with a big grin on his face and goes, 'It rocks, doesn't it?' Then he looks at the video and goes, 'We weren't half bad, were we.' It was great to experience that chrysalis, to see the butterfly coming out."
Plant ended up telling Cameron Crowe, who quotes him in the liner notes, that the project's end result captures "the warmth and the feel of the room and it sounded good." The room to which he is referring is Madison Square Garden. Watson asked Shirley where the audio point of view is for somebody watching the DVD in 5.1 Surround Sound. Shirley laughed as he answered, "You're sitting three rows back, in the center, just behind the gorgeous girl with blonde hair." Asked what the rear speakers will produce in the proper surround sound environment, Shirley answered:
"There are all sorts of things coming from the rear speakers. Audience, delays, and there are some elements coming back from the rears like in 'Dazed and Confused' - the violin bow thing goes all over the place when Jimmy's climbing up the mountain - some of the drum solos, and in the fantasy sequences the audio travels between the front and the back. So, you're sitting in the middle of this very interesting experience."
And it’s not just during the concert portions either. He continues:
"There are also the sound effects. There's the subway train that comes in the middle of the movie right before 'No Quarter' - the train comes from right behind you and through the middle of your head, which is pretty cool, actually. It's a surround experience, no doubt. It's not a concert with just some subtle rears."
The concerts depict Led Zeppelin at its best.
"They are explosive, they really are explosive. They're just so much on the edge the whole time, everyone's on the edge - Robert's performing, John Paul Jones is such a solid foundation, and Bonzo, John Bonham, what can you say? He's the rock. …

"Actually, there are a couple of things on the DVD menu, like where I've taken 30-second samples and they'll cycle around, and you could make a song just from those samples of them jamming. There's Soundgarden in there, and countless others. What makes Zeppelin so unique is that it wasn't just about one thing taken further, it was about so many things done in so many different ways."

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