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This surround DVD should have been better
on November 9, 2010
The Grateful Dead's "American Beauty" was their sixth release, but arguably their first really professionally recorded album. The album was recorded at Wally Heider's new studio in San Francisco in August and September 1970 by Steve Barncard. Garcia liked the sound of the studio when he recorded steel guitar on Crosby, Still, Nash & Young's "Deja Vu". Steve was especially good at capturing acoustic instruments of which there is plenty of, and this album was certainly a second installment of "Wokingman's Dead", with again, no experimenting or jamming. Though not your typical Dead presentation, it is full of great tunes and performances, and many consider it their favorite Dead album. It is one of mine.
In 2004 Rhino issued this remastered version that contains a two sided disc. The CD side is your regular 44.1kHz/16 bit release of the album. The DVD side has the entire album in 5.1 surround sound and in higher 96kHz/24 bit resolution. It also has the entire album in stereo 192kHz./24 bit resolution.
Though not remixed, the CD side does not sound nearly as good as the regular CD issue and box issues from Rhino that were remastered in HDCD by Joe Gastwirt and contain bonus tracks. On the DVD side, both the 5.1 and stereo versions credit Mickey Hart (yes, their drummer) as Surround Sound and Stereo Remix Producer, Sound Design, Engineer and Mixer, with Tom Flye as Chief engineer and Mastering Supervisor. The remix will be interesting to serious Dead Heads as there are many new things to listen for. For example; it seems that with the new mix, faders were often left up so you can hear instrument and vocal parts that were originally removed. This is fun stuff to hear, no doubt. There are also many song intros and outros to hear for the first time.
The problem with the DVD side is the very poor fidelity. Even with the higher bit words and sampling rates, it sounds very flat and congested in the sense of soundstage, dynamics and timbre. Even with the separation of surround sound, the instruments are not as individualized as they should be. For example, the emotion of Garcia's pedal steel and Wales' organ solos on "Candyman" are buried. There is also an added reverberation effect to the entire work that makes the remix sound like you are listening to the band doing a sound check in a small auditorium. This changes the entire feel of the album for the worse in my opinion. The original recording is studio dry and sounds like the band came over and are playing in my home as if we were friends. It is much more intimate with more presence, detail and better tonal balance than this remix. My favorite issue is still the MFSL analog LP.
The DVD includes a photo gallery (thirteen photos) and two short interviews; one with Mickey Hart about his remix approach, and one with Bob Weir about writing "Sugar Magnolia".