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No Place Like Space: Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson on Remixing King Crimson in Surround Sound

3/1/2010

The release of several classic albums from legendary progressive rock band King Crimson has its longtime fevered cultists all a-twitter. Titles are being offered from the band’s Discipline Global Mobile division via Inner Knot distribution, and thus far include In the Court of the Crimson King, Lizard, and Red. The albums, in deluxe packages containing CDs of the original album mixes plus bonus tracks, come with DVDs that include the original audio content plus selected tracks in MLP Lossless stereo (24/96), PCM stereo 2.0 (24/48), MLP Lossless 5/1 surround, and DTS 5.1 surround; vintage video clips are also included.

KC1974King Crimson in 1974 (left to right)—David Cross, John Wetton, Robert Fripp, and Bill Bruford. eq0310_punchin.dsg 1/11/10 2:42 PM Page 8

Much like the recent Beatles catalog reissues, the task of properly presenting the original sound was a key issue, ensuring that picky old fans wouldn’t be disappointed by the modern representation of 40-oddyears’- old recordings.

A longtime Crimson fan and a frequent collaborator with the band’s founder, Robert Fripp, Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson was called upon to dig into the old King Crimson tapes and help give them lush new life, which he did using his pre-Intel Mac G5 running Logic 7 and an Apogee Trak2 A/D converter.

Beyond touching up stereo mixes, Wilson saw Crimson as the perfect band for the surround-sound treatment. “Whatever kind of music you classify Crimson as—art rock, progressive rock—this is a genre that lends itself perfectly well to surround sound in a way that, say, AC/DC wouldn’t lend itself to,” he says. “King Crimson is very impressionistic music; it’s not trying to sound like it was made in a basement, it’s trying to reach for something higher, something more epic, something more experimental.”

 

swilsonWilson experimented with alternative positions for instruments and voices in surround sound, but he was careful not to eclipse the visceral slam of the original stereo mixes: “I was throwing out the stereo mixes and going back to square one and asking, ‘Where should things go, where would they go, where could they go?’ There was no reference from the stereo there. I tended to have the bass centered in the front middle, but everything else was up for grabs.”

But he was aware that with surround, there’s a risk of creating a hollow center in a previously hardhitting mix. “There’s a case to be made for things having more impact when they are more congested,” Wilson says. “Some people prefer the Beatles’ mono mixes over the stereo, for example. With surround, there is a danger of creating more space but somehow pulling apart the glue that holds the music together and gives it its power. Crimson’s music, however, is layered enough that it can withstand this more spacious approach, in a sense pulling the stereo apart wider and creating more of a spectrum.”

For both the stereo and surround mixes, having access to original studio reels helped. “There was no need to use the bounce-down slavery of the original mixes,” Wilson says. “We could go back and use the original session tracks. So we had first-generation drums and bass on In the Court of, for example, because the tapes you heard on the original albums were actually third-generation by the time the master reel was compiled in 1969.” But there were other issues.

“Some of the tapes were in such terrible condition that the engineer had to hand-wind them onto another reel and fix all the edits and get all the glue and crap off the tape,” Wilson says. “Some of the tapes came back with dropouts, where literally the tape had shredded away. We had to lift, occasionally, a moment or two from somewhere else off the track to repair a piece of music.”

Otherwise resisting the urge to do anything radical in his treatments, Wilson contented himself with minor adjustments to stereo placement, EQ (with Focusrite d2 and Pultec EQP- 1A plug-ins), and reverb (Logic Space Designer and Digidesign DVerb “in mono mode and very often with a hi-pass/low-pass filter to emulate those vintage reverb effects,” he says). He points out that if there are noticeable differences in any of the mixes, it’s because Fripp himself insisted on them.

“I was trying to be religiously faithful,” he says with a laugh, “and occasionally Robert would come in and say, ‘You know what, I never liked that anyway’ or ‘Now we have a chance to fix this,’ so he was making changes to some of the stereo mixes that I wouldn’t personally have made.”

But Wilson believes the surround-sound treatment—done with monitoring help from six self-powered Genelec speakers—was the ultimate tribute to a legendary band. “In my experience, anyone who hears their catalog in surround sound loves it,” he says. “And if they say they don’t like it, it’s typically because they haven’t heard it properly. To be able to hear your music in surround sound is really the ultimate.”

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