Music From Big Pink (1968) was The Band’s classic debut album, featuring the classic line-up of bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, organist Garth Hudson, guitarist Robbie Robertson and drummer Levon Helm. Having originally performed backup for Bob Dylan on his 1966 tour as the “The Hawks,” the members of The Band gathered at a house in upstate New York (colloquially known as “Big Pink” due to its exterior color) to develop original music.

Astute fans may recall that Big Pink has received the immersive treatment twice before, first on a 2002 DVD-Audio disc (featuring a 5.1 remix from Don Gilbert) and then the 2018 50th anniversary box set containing a Blu-Ray disc with new stereo & 5.1 renditions by legendary mixer Bob Clearmountain.

As is so often the case when two different surround sound iterations of a classic album are made available, comparing the two 5.1 remixes makes for a very interesting study in contrasts.

I wasn’t overly impressed with Don Gilbert’s 5.1 mix on the 2002 Capitol DVD, sonically it suffers from an overabundance of dynamic range compression and tape hiss (to the point where I wonder if it’s from a generational copy of the multitrack rather than the original tapes?).

The Band Pig Pink 5.1 DVDA 2002

In terms of channel separation, it strikes me as a more-conservative ‘double stereo’ presentation with most of the instrumentation (including lead vocals) panned somewhere between the front & rear speakers. Moments of isolated instruments coming from behind are far-and-few between.

Bob Clearmountain’s 2018 5.1 attempt thankfully offers a significant improvement in overall sound quality, mostly nullifying the obtrusive tape hiss underneath the opening acoustic riff of “The Weight” but seemingly without any digital noise reduction artifacts.

Clearmountain is known in audiophile circles for his far more active approach to surround sound, often giving the listener an ‘inside the band’ perspective with individual instruments largely isolated in different speakers. That style of mixing is on display here, but it seems to have had the unintended side effect of exposing shortcomings within the source material.

“Everybody thinks, "Well, you've gotta be sitting right in the right place to get surround"—but I don't think that's true at all. I think that's one of the coolest things about surround mixes. That's why I like to mix discreetly like that and put things in different speakers, so you can listen to it in a lot of different ways. You can go back and listen to it again and hear it completely differently by standing in a different part of the room, you know?”

Bob Clearmountain, 2021 (link)

Nearly half the album was recorded in just two sessions at A&R studios in Manhattan – a number of reports even suggest than some of the songs recorded in New York, such as classic single “The Weight,” were done on a simple four-track recorder - whereas the remaining tunes were cut in Los Angeles on a more complex eight-track machine, at Capitol and Gold Star Studios.

When listening to the 2018 5.1 mix, it quickly becomes apparent which songs were tracked in New York (where the group wanted it to sound "just like it did in the basement" at the Big Pink house) and which were done in Los Angeles. 

The Band Big Pink Box Set Blu-Ray 5.1 2018

“To Kingdom Come,” “Caledonia Mission,” and “We Can Talk” are mixed very wide with individual instruments and vocals isolated largely at the corners of the room, whereas others like “Tears Of Rage” and “The Weight” instead opt for a more conservative ambient presentation.

In a 2021 interview with Sound & Vision magazine’s Mike Mettler, Clearmountain interestingly revealed that some sonic trickery was required to retrieve the organ on his new mixes of “The Weight.”

“You know, they didn't actually record the organ! (chuckles) I mean, you can hear it way off in the background. It was a four-track recording and the organ wasn't on any of the four tracks, but you could kinda hear the part. It was just in the third or fourth chorus, or something like that."

"The thing is, I remembered I had done a remix a year or two before of the Rock of Ages concert. I went back and found I still had it on my server as a multi-track, so I just pulled the organ off of that. It was Richard [Manuel], I believe, who played the organ on that one, so I pulled that off and added it in there to the studio version, because it seemed like it should have been there.”

In June 2023, a third immersive mix of the album – this time in Dolby Atmos, again mixed by Clearmountain – quietly appeared on the Apple Music and Tidal streaming services. I was pleasantly surprised at how he was able to improve upon the previously-conservative expanded presentations for several of these songs. 

Similar to Giles Martin’s recent Dolby Atmos remix of The Beatles Revolver album, Clearmountain used filmmaker Peter Jackson’s proprietary AI-based stem separation software to parse out vocals and instruments recorded to a single track on the multitrack master. 

“The Weight” was previously more of a three-channel affair, with most of the core instrumentation & vocals arrayed across the front soundstage while ‘you-are-there’ ambience and organ permeating the rears. Now -  thanks to the ‘de-mixing’ technology - the opening guitar riff hovers between the front right and side right speaker while piano is almost entirely confined to the side left channel. The rears again feature the organ, with the ambient sound spread both behind and above. 

Similarly, “Chest Fever” relocates the organ and rhythm guitar from the fronts to the side channels while backing vocals and horns remain in the rear surrounds. “Caledonia Mission” is again a highlight, with the tenor sax(?) now raining down from the right rear height speaker.

The Band Pig Pink Dolby Atmos 2023 Apple Music

With the album having already been reissued in a deluxe LP/CD/Blu-Ray box set for its 50th anniversary in 2018, the odds of this superior new Dolby Atmos mix getting a physical release seem increasingly unlikely.

It’d certainly be a great candidate for Super Deluxe Edition’s “Surround Sound Series” of Blu-Ray Pure Audio discs: similar to the recent Tubular Bells release, all three immersive mixes of the album could be featured together on one disc for the first time ever.

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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 is currently enrolled in a Master’s Program in Audio Technology.