In September 2022, Warner/Rhino issued The Asylum Albums (1972–1975)–the third release in the ongoing Joni Mitchell Archives series. The 4CD box set contained brand-new remasters of four of the most popular entries in Mitchell’s discography: 1972’s For The Roses, 1974’s Court and Spark, the 1974 live double LP Miles of Aisles, and finally 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

Not long after the box set hit shelves, new Dolby Atmos remixes of all four albums quietly became available to stream on Apple Music, Tidal, and Amazon Music. As readers may recall from my enthusiastic March 2023 review, I felt these new Atmos versions–mixed by Ken Caillat and Claus Trelby at their Marshmellow Skies studio in Westlake Village, CA–sounded absolutely phenomenal and certainly deserved a high-resolution physical release on Blu-Ray disc.

When the accompanying 5-disc Archives Vol. 3 set (containing unreleased/rare recordings from that same period) arrived about a year later in October 2023, again with no Blu-Ray included, I’d assumed that the opportunity for such a release had come and gone. However–when I had the opportunity to interview Caillat and Trelby a few months later, they teased that a physical immersive edition was yet to come.

…Back when we first did the [Atmos] mixes, our A&R rep at Rhino was talking about doing a Blu-Ray release with all the uncompressed audio. I’m surprised it hasn’t come out yet. Maybe early next year?

Claus Trelby, December 2023

As hinted, The Asylum Albums 1972-75 (Quadio) boxed set unexpectedly appeared on April 19. The set houses four audio-only Blu-Ray discs–each containing not only the 2022 Caillat/Trelby Atmos mixes, but also 192-khz/24-bit digital transfers of the rare 1970s quadraphonic mixes. This is the third ‘Quadio’ series Blu-Ray box set to come from Rhino in recent years, following 2016’s nine-disc Chicago Quadio and 2020’s four-disc Doobie Brothers Quadio.

As many longtime immersive music fans may recall, Asylum Records issued both Court and Spark and The Hissing of Summer Lawns on quadraphonic LP (in the ‘CD-4’ format) and 8-track cartridge. Though quad LP and tape editions of Miles of Aisles–the live album that came out between Court and Hissing–never materialized, it turns out that a four-channel mix was indeed prepared by engineer Henry Lewy and ultimately left unreleased. After having languished in a vault for five decades, this mix is finally seeing the light of day as part of the new box set.

In another great surprise, since vintage quad masters were only available for three out of the four albums, famed producer and engineer Bruce Botnick (best known for his work on The Doors' catalog) was brought in to create a brand-new four-channel mix of 1972’s For The Roses. Finally, to round out the set, Bernie Grundman’s remasters of the original stereo mixes are also included on the Blu-Rays in 192-khz/24-bit resolution.

Joni Mitchell Asylum Albums Quadio Blu-Ray IAA

The first album included in the set, 1972’s For The Roses, retains the stripped-down ‘confessional’ style of its predecessor Blue (1971) while also hinting at the stylistic change to come with songs like the jazzy “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” and uptempo “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio”. Since much of the album is just a single voice with acoustic guitar or piano accompaniment, there’s only so much scope for an exciting surround experience.

Even with those limitations in mind, I found the quadraphonic mix decidedly conservative in its approach. There are some specific sounds assigned only to the front speakers (such as the harmony vocals) and others that hover in the space between front and rear, but very few unique elements appear exclusively in the back of the room. Joni Mitchell’s voice fills up all four corners, creating the impression that it’s projecting inside your head.

The Dolby Atmos mix is considerably more ambitious in its use of the extra space, especially in the more densely-arranged tracks. The lead vocals are kept closer to the front stage, with additional support in both the front heights and side surrounds. Whereas the quadraphonic version places the backing vocals in the front speakers, the Atmos mix instead often features them in the side, rear, or height channels.

Joni Mitchell Asylum Albums Quadio Blu-Ray IAA

“Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” is definitely a highlight, kicking off with the twin acoustic guitars panned hard left and right–just as in the original stereo mix–but hovering somewhere between the side speakers and the height array. The background vocals ("do you want to contact somebody first?") and James Burton’s electric guitar part are pushed entirely into the left side surround speaker, while the soprano sax flares off mostly in the rear right height speaker.

1974’s Court and Spark is a considerably more ambitious production, featuring various layers of percussion, horns, and vocals suitable for a wider spread around the room in a multichannel mix. As owners of the four-channel LP and tape editions can attest, the 1974 quadraphonic mix is quite experimental in its approach.

John Guerin’s drum kit is entirely isolated in the rear speakers, split wide with the snare mostly panned left and hi-hat over to the right. Both the lead and backing vocals stay upfront, while additional elements like the electric guitars in “Free Man In Paris,” percussion in “People’s Parties,” and horns in “Car On A Hill” also appear from behind.

Joni Mitchell Asylum Albums Quadio Blu-Ray IAA

The 2022 Dolby Atmos mix keeps the drums upfront with Joni Mitchell’s voice, instead opting to surround the listener with other elements like the background vocals, acoustic guitars, and percussion. The aforementioned horns in songs like “Car On A Hill” and “Twisted” now appear largely in the front height speakers, along with the harmonies in “Just Like This Train” and “Trouble Child.” 

Even though the Atmos mix doesn’t pull the instrumentation apart quite as much as the quad, the vastly-improved sound quality makes it my go-to version of the album. The quadraphonic mix sounds rather harsh by comparison, especially in the upbeat songs like “Raised On Robbery” where there’s an unpleasant brightness to the hi-hat and cymbals in the rear speakers.

When it comes to presenting live recordings in a multichannel format, whether to take a more conservative or aggressive approach has always been a point of debate among audiophiles. Should the listener’s perspective be that of a spectator in the audience, or is it appropriate to place instruments behind one’s head for a 'center of the band' experience? Much to my delight, the previously-unissued 1974 quadraphonic mix of Miles of Aisles certainly falls in the latter category.

Joni Mitchell Asylum Albums Quadio Blu-Ray IAA

Guerin’s drums hold down the front stage, with Robben Ford’s electric guitar isolated in the left rear speaker and Larry Nash’s keyboard over in the right rear. Joni Mitchell's voice and Max Bennett’s bass guitar appear omnipresent in all four channels, but additional accents such as the percussion in “Carey” and Tom Scott’s sax in "Cold Blue Steel" are centered in the rear speakers–directly behind the listener’s head–along with the audience noise at the beginning and end of each track.

Though perhaps not as ambitious as the quadraphonic presentation, the new Dolby Atmos mix strikes an effective balance between ‘on-stage’ and ‘spectator’ perspectives. The instrumentation wraps around the front half of the room in a horseshoe-like shape, with Ford’s guitar pushed out towards the left side speaker and Nash’s keys on the right side. The drums stay mostly upfront, though the tom fills throughout "Love Or Money" extend upwards into the front heights.

1975’s jazz-tinged The Hissing of Summer Lawns, my personal favorite of the four albums in the set, is arguably offers the most impressive immersive experience. The new Dolby Atmos mix really peels back all the layers: throughout “In France They Kiss On Main Street,” you can hear backing vocals from James Taylor, Graham Nash, and David Crosby in the rear speakers and Skunk Baxter’s guitar licks primarily in the front height channels.

Joni Mitchell Asylum Albums Quadio Blu-Ray IAA

Brass highlights often appear in the back corners, lifted up into the rear height speakers. There are even some fun passages with movement in the surround field, such as when the hypnotic backing vocals in “Edith and the Kingpin" swirl around behind the listener or when Joni’s voice hops from speaker-to-speaker midway through “Harry’s House/Centerpiece.” The closing track, “Shadows and Light,” is an immersive tour de force with the layered harmony vocals spread all around and above the listening space. 

In contrast to Court and Spark, the 1975 quadraphonic mix of Hissing is surprisingly subtle in comparison to its Atmos counterpart. There are some elements that appear exclusively in the rear speakers, like the horns in "Harry's House" and backing vocals in "Sweet Bird," but most of the instrumentation seems to float out towards the middle of the room. The drum kit, bass guitar, and lead vocals all seem to be spread evenly across all four channels, yielding a sort of 'super-stereo' effect that fills the room nicely but lacks the pinpoint precision of the Atmos mix.

Overall, for fans of Joni Mitchell’s music and immersive audio, it simply doesn’t get better than this. I’d have been thrilled if the set only included the Dolby Atmos mixes, but the addition of the ‘70s quadraphonic versions (especially the previously-unissued Miles of Aisles) puts it over the top. I’m hopeful Rhino will proceed with similarly-comprehensive reissues for other key '70s artists like Carly Simon, James Taylor, and The Eagles–each of whom have several albums that were mixed in quadraphonic during the 1970s.

Author picture
About the Author
Jonathan is an audio engineering enthusiast from New York with a passion for immersive audio, having amassed a formidable collection of multichannel optical discs and quadraphonic vinyl. He earned his undergraduate degree in Television-Radio from Ithaca College and Master's degree in Audio Technology from American University.