By Mike Mettler and Christopher Dragon
We’re usually surrounded by so many great things to see and hear at CES every year, but my favorite A/V experience at CES 2018 took place at the HARMAN International Showcase at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas back on January 8. Inside a specially constructed soundroom, it was my distinct honor to have moderated a private listening session and Q&A with Styx guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw, producer/guitarist/vocalist Will Evankovich, and producer/engineer/mixmaster Jim Scott to both debut and discuss the as-yet-unreleased but absolutely brilliant 5.1 surround sound mix of Styx’s triumphant 2017 studio album, The Mission.
During this hour-long event, we cued up “Locomotive,” “Red Storm,” and “The Outpost,” three of the pivotal tracks from The Mission that best exemplified just how fully enveloping the album’s surround mix truly is. The hardcharging buildup and eventual full-channel release of “Red Storm” was hands down the most impactful sequence of the entire session. As Shaw oh-so-rightly pointed out following a series of wows that emanated from the audience once the garrulous track concluded: “It did what it was supposed to do: It rattled the objects in the house!”
The listening room itself was setup to be as real world as possible, having been outfitted with some of the best gear the HARMAN family has to offer. The speaker array consisted of Revel Concerta2 M16 bookshelf loudspeakers as the front left and front right channels, a Revel Concerta C10 on-wall loudspeaker as the center channel, a pair of Revel W553L in-wall loudspeakers as the surrounds, and Revel B1 and Revel B28W pairs as the subwoofers. Additional system gear included a Lexicon RV-9 AVR, a Revel SA1000 subwoofer amp, an Arcam UDP411 Blu-ray player, and a Samsung 65-inch QLED monitor.
What was immediately evident upon listening to The Mission in 5.1 was how these three wise music men all inherently understood not only how Styx needed to sound as a band in all six playback channels, but that they also came across in the mix just like you’d hear them perform these very same songs live. “The Mission is a pretty adventurous record,” admits Shaw, the album’s chief songwriter and composer. “We’ve had records attributed to us that are concept albums, but this one was really made as a concept album. When you listen to the whole album in surround, you’ll hear lots of soundscapes, and many other things of that nature. One of the main things we love about it is that I can say there was not a single digital plug-in used in making this record. If you hear a delay, that’s Jim Scott figuring out the delay times with a reel-to-reel machine, and varispeed. Not only that, but I also had an actual tape deck running next to the Neve console.”
Mission producer Will Evankovich, who performed double-duty later that evening as lead guitarist in The Guess Who, the featured act at a HARMAN private event held inside the neighboring Vinyl nightclub, pointed out how it had been decided early on in the recording process that some of Styx’s most classic records — namely, 1977’s The Grand Illusion and 1978’s Pieces of Eight — would serve as the new album’s key inspirations. “It was natural for us to lean towards those great albums for our overall sound template,” Evankovich confirms. “And I think what’s great about some of the choices Jim made when he was mixing it was that he took a lot of chances. I don’t know about you, but I’ve listened to quite a few 5.1 mixes over the years — some of them are great, and some are kind of vanilla. They’re like (says with a sarcastic tone), ‘OK, great, there’s some ambience in the back.’ Jim and I decided to take some chances with our mix and do some unconventional stuff with it. Our feeling all along was, ‘Let’s get it right.’ There’s no fixing in Pro Tools, there’s no re-tuning. Let’s just get the right performance. And the guys in Styx were very capable of doing that in the studio.”
For his part, Jim Scott — who’s worked behind the boards for the likes of Tom Petty, Crowded House, Dixie Chicks, and Wilco — adds that aside from the songwriting, what people talk to him about this album is the sound of it, because it’s loud, and it’s clear. “The important things are important, and that was the big success for me with this record,” he says. “Besides, it’s just fun to listen to! Styx puts on a big stadium show every night, and that’s what this album came out sounding like in the 5.1 mix we did. It’s a 360-degree world. Things are flying around. They’re over here (points left), they’re over there (points right), they’re in the front, they’re in the back. But at the very front of it, it’s really pure and loud, and as kick-ass as your favorite stereo headphones mix — but it’s coming from everywhere, as the mix goes around each channel. And it’s not easy to do that with old, ancient analog equipment.”
Shaw believes the meticulous nature of the team’s overall collaborative process made mixing The Mission that much more special. “On pretty much every song, there would be a moment where Jim would be up at the console and all of us would be thinking, ‘It’s almost there,’” he notes. “Then we would have this playback where something magic would happen. Every song had its own magic moment that we’d know as soon as we heard it in those mixes.”
Scott credits the production team’s collective experience for bringing The Mission home in exactly the right way. “Every record is different, and it’s not cooked until it’s cooked,” he admits. “And if it isn’t good, you pull it down, and you start over. We weren’t looking at minor, little things here either — we were looking at the bigger things, and all sound problems could be solved with volume. Whether it’s louder or quieter, brighter or duller, ‘left-er’ or ‘right-er’ — it’s all just your impression of what the volume of what you’re listening to is.”
Ultimately, Shaw feels it was critical the production team made sure The Mission came across as a cohesive statement. “We always thought of The Mission as an album, and we made sure it would fit on two sides of a vinyl record,” he clarifies. “I know we’re asking people to take quite a leap. Don’t shuffle. Listen to it in its entirety. And if you can, listen to it in 5.1 when it comes out in that format. Yes, we’re asking a lot. But the payoff is, when you listen to it all the way through, then you get it. It’s a journey from the top to the bottom, when you listen to it in order. Like when you get to ‘Locomotive,’ you can tell that’s a turning point in the big, overall story. It’s all part of the payoff when you listen to the stereo mix — or the surround mix.”
While the official release date for the 5.1 version of The Mission has yet to be announced, what advice would Shaw give to fans and listeners in the interim? “The best thing to do would be to listen to the stereo mix first, get familiar with it, and then listen to the 5.1 once it comes out,” he suggests. “It’s a trip. And it was meant to be a trip, especially for those listeners who remember the ’70s and wanted to get out those Pink Floyd albums or Styx albums, put the headphones on, and hear stuff going back and forth. It was always my hope The Mission would wind up being just like that.”
After listening to this magical outer-space story in all its surround glory on such an amazingly rich sound system in HARMAN specially engineered demo room, I think it’s more than fair to say: Mission very much accomplished.
Author bio: Mike Mettler is the music editor of Sound & Vision, chief content officer of Hi Res Audio Central, Audiophile columnist for Digital Trends, and Styx’s official biographer.Me