The introduction of immersive streaming through platforms such as Apple Music and Tidal seems to have gathered a mixed reception in audiophiles circles – perhaps due to the fact that the bitrate for Dolby Atmos is capped at a paltry 768 kbps and listeners are merely “renting” the music rather than actually owning it – but I’d argue there’s a cavalcade of worthwhile exclusive content, including fantastic new Atmos mixes by acclaimed mix engineers like Bob Clearmountain and Steven Wilson.
Though IAA tends to focus primarily on immersive discs and downloads, this is one case where I felt an exception had to be made. Much to the surprise of the audiophile world, Steven Wilson announced on social media this past weekend that he’d remixed The Grateful Dead’s classic 1970 album American Beauty in Dolby Atmos.
Unsurprisingly, Wilson’s Atmos mix is absolutely incredible. What he’s achieved is simply remarkable, especially for an album of this vintage. Nearly every instrument is assigned to its own speaker for an ultra-wide immersive presentation, yet the massive soundstage still gels and retains the feel of the original stereo mix.
Drums and bass hold down the fort upfront, while additional instrumentation like guitar, piano, and organ fill out the side and rear surround speakers. Electric guitar solos in “Sugar Magnolia” and “Til The Morning Comes” appear directly behind the listener’s head.
Lead vocals are isolated in the center speaker, creating the impression of the singer being in the same room as the listener. The height speakers are engaged aggressively as well, typically for harmony vocals and David Grisman’s mandolin.
The Atmos mix not only highlights how well the album was recorded, but also the surprisingly dense nature of the production. Though The Grateful Dead’s music is obviously not as complex as some of the art rock bands Wilson has mixed in 5.1 and Dolby Atmos – recent examples include King Crimson and Tears For Fears – some of these songs have what sounds like at least three rhythm guitar parts going at once, plus solos and multi-part vocal harmonies.
Every last detail is now revealed, including previously-obscured instrumentation such as the organ popping up in the rear surround speakers in “Truckin’” and the piano in the rear right height speaker throughout “Friend Of The Devil.”
With so many Atmos mixes using the height speakers primarily for “you-are-there” ambience and the odd directional sound, it’s refreshing to instead hear them deployed as an integral part of the overall soundstage. David Grisman’s mandolin arcing over the listener’s head during the chorus of “Ripple” is one of those magic moments that only Dolby Atmos can deliver. Jerry Garcia’s pedal steel solo towards the end of “Candyman” comes blasting from the front heights, while Howard Wales’ organ simultaneously appears in the rear heights.
“Attics Of My Life” is perhaps the highlight of the Atmos presentation, with different voices positioned in all four height speakers for a cathedral-like sphere of sound. This track is slightly marred by the low bitrate though, I was able to detect some high-frequency artifacting in the top speakers.
Immersive music fans may recall that American Beauty and its predecessor, Workingman’s Dead (1970), were issued on the high-resolution DVD-Audio format by WEA way back in 2001. Both discs featured new 5.1 surround remixes courtesy of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.
Hart’s surround approach for the 2001 5.1 remix is markedly different from Wilson’s, as lead vocals instead emanate from all four corner speakers for an “singer-inside-the-head” effect. Rhythm guitars are positioned between the front and rear speakers for a more ‘blended’ surround soundstage. Oddly enough, the center speaker contains very little in the way of vocals: it’s instead used for instrumental highlights like the mandolin in “Friend Of The Devil” and bass guitar in “Box Of Rain.”
In a short video included with the DVD-Audio release, Hart explains his goal with the 5.1 remix was for the listener to experience the band’s performance from his perspective on-stage. Due to the presence of large monitor stacks behind the band during a live performance, there’s quite a bit of sound in the rear speakers. Back in June 2001, he humorously stated “I wanted to put you in the Grateful Dead - without having to pay the dues."
It’s also worth noting that Wilson’s Atmos mixes adhere closer to the feel of the original 1970 stereo mix, whereas Hart applied more reverb and increased the amount of low-end significantly in his 5.1 remix. “Sugar Magnolia” and “Candyman” are slightly extended in the 2001 5.1 remix.
I found the sonic quality of the Atmos mix stunning, despite the supposed loss of fidelity from streaming. The aforementioned “Attics Of My Life” is the only track that seemed to test the limits of the 768 kbps Dolby Digital Plus/JOC codec. The drums and acoustic instruments sound crisp, and the bass is powerful and tight. Vocals are strikingly clear and immediate. Unlike the 5.1 DVD-Audio, the dynamic range is not compressed: you can crank this up really loud without any fatigue.
It will be interesting to see if Wilson has been tasked with reimagining more of The Dead’s studio back-catalog in Atmos. If so, I can only hope there are plans to issue the Atmos mixes on Blu-Ray disc – perhaps as part of an elaborate deluxe edition in the vein of Kiss’ Destroyer (also remixed to 5.1 & Atmos by Wilson) or The Band’s Cahoots. In any case, this is one of the best Dolby Atmos mixes I’ve heard to date. If you’re subscribed to Apple Music or Tidal, don’t hesitate to check it out!