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Pushing the aural envelope with high-res audio evangelist Steven Wilson

The Audiophile Steven Wilson
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“96/24 — that’s my bottom line these days, absolutely.”

Steven Wilson is standing firm. The once and future guru of high-resolution recording and surround-sound mixing (he’s been behind the board to forge 5.1 wonders for everyone from Yes to Tears for Fears) feels everyone should be recording (and listening) at the 96-kilohertz/24-bit standard, and won’t stand for compromise. “Even if the difference is 0.1 percent better, why wouldn’t you do it?” he asks. “There is information in those tracks that’s missing when you listen to a CD.”

Setting new standards and pushing the aural envelope all feed into the approach Wilson took when recording his fourth solo album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. (kScope), out today in a variety of formats. The Blu-ray edition includes an expansive surround-sound mix in 96/24 that once again raises the bar for what can be accomplished in 5.1. From the funk-meets-ELP, genre-bending blasts of Home Invasion to the all-channel, all-cylinders-firing cauldron of glorious noise on Ancestral to the climactic harmonic convergence of Happy Returns, Wilson shows no signs of curbing his creative muse anytime soon — if ever.

The Audiophile Steven Wilson
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Digital Trends connected across the pond with Wilson, 47, to discuss his staunch 96/24 stance, the critical difference between “prog” and “progressive,” and his surround-sound mixing philosophy. Hand. Cannot. Erase. Excellence.

Digital Trends: Let’s get right to it. Why do you consider high-resolution 96/24 as your baseline for recording these days?

Steven Wilson: Well, here’s the thing: I don’t think there’s a massive difference between 48/24 and 96/24, OK? I’m not one of those guys who’s going to pour scorn on anyone who listens to CDs. I like listening to CDs. I think they still sound great — when they’re mastered well. But 96/24 does sound a little bit better, and there’s no excuse not to record at 96/24. That’s the bottom line. There’s no excuse, because the computers that we record on now are so powerful. There’s no reason not to be recording everything at 96/24. We now have the media to be able to download at 96/24, and we can release things on Blu-ray and DVD and keep all that resolution.

I’ll say it again. It’s not a question to me of being a massive leap forward. It is a little bit better, and there’s no excuse not to release things in 96/24. That’s the way I feel about it. Why would anyone record at 48 now? Why? But people still do.

Is it because it’s what they’re used to, and they think that their music won’t “hold up” at 96?

“Even if the difference is 0.1 percent better, why wouldn’t you do it?”

Yeah. A lot of people don’t think they can hear the difference, and also they figure, “Well, most people are going to hear this music on MP3 anyway, or on CD at 44.1/16-bit, so what’s the point?” But I think those people are missing a trick here because, as you know, the audiophile market is growing. It’s the only part of the music industry that’s growing! And another part of the industry that’s growing is vinyl. In terms of physical media, vinyl and high-resolution audio formats like Blu-ray are the only things that are. I mean, they’re small, yes — but they are growing.

I figure it’s just a war of attrition and gradually, more and more people will get into this standard. And I’m happy to be the guy standing up and saying, “Look at what we’re doing over here! Look at what we’re doing!!”

I’ll stand up right there with you. One of the points you made is quite key — it’s not necessarily a massive difference, but there is a difference. Some people have gone to the other extreme to say, “Well, we couldn’t hear much of a difference in a blind listening audition on earbuds; therefore, it’s not valid.” I think that’s the wrong approach.

Yes, it is wrong. Listen, I’ve had DVDs with compressed audio that I’ve compared to my 96/24 sessions, and it’s been hard to tell the difference. It’s a very subtle thing, but I come back to my original point — there’s no reason not to record at 96/24. Even if the difference is 0.1 percent better, why wouldn’t you do it? That’s the bottom line for me.

Exactly! It’s not going to cost you anything to do it this way. If there’s even that one hint of something better, that little extra detail where you get to hear things like overtones and instrumental separation, why is that wrong? Why is that a bad thing? That’s what mystifies me about all the negativity.

Absolutely. Absolutely right. One thing that shouldn’t be understated is that there is a psychological aspect to this. If you know you are listening to high-resolution files, there’s something quite comforting about it, you know? That’s also important. There’s information in those tracks that’s missing when you listen to a CD. Whether you can hear it or not, it is quite comforting to know that it is there.

I know we’ve talked about this before, but I think it’s worth saying again that all of this high-resolution stuff is pointless if the mastering sucks. Bad mastering is more of a problem than things being released at CD resolution, or even MP3s. What’s nice about this move to 96/24 is the amount of things that are coming out in flat transfers — no compression, and no mastering engineers fucking up the sound. That is a very, very good development in the history of music.

I’ve spoken with many an artist who’s said, “I turned in my final approved master, and what I got back on the back end is not what I heard in studio at all.” You’ve taken control of the mastering stage yourself and you don’t have to give anyone instructions about what to do anymore, right?

The simple answer is I don’t have any of my work mastered. It goes straight from my mixes — flat transfers onto the disc. And that applies to the mixes I do for the Yes reissues, the XTC reissues, the Jethro Tull reissues, and of course my own work too. And it’s amazing how many of the musicians I speak to, when I say to them, “I don’t want this mastered” — they’re initially shocked. But then they understand. Why would you need this mastered? You’ve approved the masters and you think the mixes sound great, so why would you not just release them as they are?

“Whether you can hear it or not, it is quite comforting to know that it is there.”

Now, I’m not saying that’s right for everyone, because some people need or want that extra pair of ears to check what they’ve done. But I’m at the stage now where I’m 100 percent confident that what I produce out of my studio is exactly the way I want people to hear it. I actually bypass mastering completely now.

To borrow a song title from Hand. Cannot. Erase., some people think it isRoutine” to go to mastering, and that’s just the way they have to do it.

I think people have been brainwashed a lot over the years that mastering engineers do something magical, almost like a black hat, and I think, actually, mastering is not necessary.

A lot of albums are coming out with flat transfers, and the audiophiles seem to love the flat transfers. There’s no compression of the dynamics, there’s no sort of nastiness on the top end and bass. I think it’s beginning to become a little bit of a trend, which I think is a positive trend.

Let’s get into Hand. Cannot. Erase. Did you have any goals different from what you did with 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing (and other stories), an album that many consider a benchmark in surround mixing, myself included?

I wouldn’t say specifically in regards to surround, but certainly I had a plan with this record — which was, “Do something different.” The Raven was very well received. It became the best-selling album of my career, which is extraordinary. But at the same time, you could get in the mindset of, “Let’s do that one again. Let’s do Part II. People like that, so let’s give them more of the same.” But that’s never really been my way, as you know.

The main starting point for me was, “Let’s do something completely different.” Let’s bring the electronics, let’s bring some of the pop elements, and some of the metal elements. Let’s have an album conceptually very much set in the modern world and the 21st century, and let’s let the music be dictated by that story, if you like.

Even the way you treat your vocals in the first couple of songs like First Regret and 3 Years Older displays a different character and tonality.

It’s obviously a story from a woman’s perspective straightaway, so that was a challenge for me. I’m really trying to get into the character of this female [Joyce Carol Vincent, who died alone in England in 2003 and whose body remained undiscovered for over 2 years], which is a bit of a stretch for me. But one of the things I love to do with every record is face, “What’s the challenge? What’s the new challenge with this record?” And in this case, it’s the story being written from a female perspective, and of course, then, working with a female singer [Ninet Tayeb], which is also something fairly new for me, and working with a female actress too [Katherine Jenkins, who does the narrative part on Perfect Life].

The title track is very much a pop-leaning kind of song. If there were some kind of pop radio that would respond to that, it would be on the air right now, everywhere.

Yeah! In a parallel universe, yes, it quite would happen. But that’s the thing. I’ve always had those elements in my repertoire. As you know, I’ve explored electronic music, pop music, metal music, jazz music. For some reason, people tend to put me in one particular category — you know, “He makes progressive rock.” Of course, all of those elements have always been present in my music. Different elements have come out on this record, and in some ways, I feel like it’s brought out all of the parts of my musical personality.

“Bad mastering is more of a problem than things being released at CD resolution, or even MP3s.”

Some people forget the first part of the word “progressive” is “progress,” and as an artist, that’s what you want to do — progress and do different things, and challenge yourself.

Absolutely. And that’s the problem — progressive too often gets abbreviated to “prog,” which is a word I really loathe because it’s meaningless, and it just becomes a tag for a particular generic form of music. I still do like the word “progressive,” particularly when it’s used in its proper context — trying to evolve, trying to combine different forms of music to create something unique. Those are all the things I’d like to think I’m doing with my music in the true spirit of the word “progressive,” yes.

As you noted, one thing you challenged yourself with was to play off of the female vocals. What did you discover when working with Ninet and putting those vocals upfront in the mix?

I did it in a fairly strange way. I didn’t “choose” my female singer. I asked around and I found three or four singers who I thought might be suitable, and I let them all sing the same song, Routine. I was really waiting for one of them to blow me away and be “The One.” That was the version Ninet did, because she actually did something I hadn’t asked her to do. That’s something you look for when you’re working with collaborators — you want them to surprise you, blow you away, and even elevate the music beyond what you expected. And that’s exactly what she did.

But it’s strange. Even though I was writing as a character, it was strange to hear my words coming out of someone else’s mouth, particularly a female singer’s mouth. I’m not saying it was strange bad; it was just strange different. It was strange good.

How do you think the final mix of Hand. Cannot. Erase. differs from your previous albums?

This album is much more layered. It’s much more of what I would call a studio construct. The Raven was very much written to be performed live by a six-piece band in the studio. And when you hear the album, most of what you’re hearing was played live. This album is not like that. This album has more of what you would call sound-design elements and layers to the production, and those things of course lend themselves beautifully to surround sound.

What album do you think got a bad digital mix in the CD age?

There have been a lot of albums that have been cruelly represented on CD over the last 30 years, but the one that springs to mind is [Jethro Tull’s] Aqualung. When it was reissued on CD, it went through some kind of de-noising, which was hideous. Really horrible. I guess the record company or the mastering engineer thought people couldn’t handle a little bit of tape hiss, you know? But what people really wanted to hear were the natural dynamics of the music. They didn’t care about the tape hiss. I think that was kind of the nadir of mastering — when people thought that tape hiss had to be eradicated. You’d get these horrible albums that sounded like they had a blanket over the top of them.

Yes, and that gave this album an unnatural feel, especially for those of us who knew what Aqualung really sounded like. You went, “Wait a minute, this isn’t the album I know at all. What happened?” You’ve got to leave that sonic character in there.

Right. Absolutely. Unfortunately, a lot of people who started listening to music on CDs have never heard how these albums are supposed to sound, or did sound, or should sound. So it’s been great to go back and put that right, in a sense.

I know you’ve worked on the surround sound and 96/24 mixes for Yes’ Fragile, which is coming out on Blu-ray in a few months. Many people, including me, were disappointed with the surround mix that came out on DVD-Audio in 2002. What can you say about your version of it in 5.1?

“Progressive too often gets abbreviated to “prog,” which is a word I really loathe because it’s meaningless.”

Um, I think mine’s better. (both laugh) I did listen to the original mix. It’s one of those things where you listen to someone else’s work — and obviously I’m a bit snobby about other people’s surround work because I’ve done so much of it of my own — but I listened to it and I went, “What were they thinking? I just don’t understand.”

Let’s just say my mix is — well, you know how I mix now. It’s a properly immersive surround-sound mix, and it’s very, very faithful to the original in terms of using the right takes and the right drum parts, which they didn’t do on the last one. It’s very faithful, and it’s very immersive. That’s how I’ve tried to be with pretty much all of my mixes, yeah.

Since Roundabout is such an iconic track on that album, can you pinpoint the differences between the old mix and your mix? That’s the first song many people are going to gravitate toward.

My thing is trying to create something that feels like it’s all glued together. Let me explain what I mean by that. Lots of surround mixes that I haven’t liked have most things happening in the stereo, flat at the front, and then occasionally, sounds will come out of the back, but they sound very disconnected from the sounds in the front. So my approach — which is something I learned from the beginning, watching Elliot [Scheiner] work — has always been to try and create a surround picture that feels cohesive. For example, I always bring the drums and the bass a little bit out into the room. And there is a little bit coming out of the back speakers too, so it doesn’t feel like you’ve got two completely disconnected bands — one playing in the front and one playing in the back.

I think with the mix I’ve done, there’s more coming out of the back at the start, but it doesn’t feel disconnected from the band — I hope. At the end of the day, doing a surround mix, by definition, requires you to an extent to pull things slightly apart, otherwise you end up without any surround element at all. The trick for me is always trying to keep that balance between keeping the cohesion but at the same time, create a three-dimensional soundfield.

Mike Mettler
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Mike Mettler is the music editor of Sound & Vision, where he also served as editor-in-chief for 7 years. His writing has…
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