“I personally like to be surrounded and ambushed by music. I want it to surprise me, and I want it to come from surprising places,” says Steve Hackett, echoing the sentiments of scores of audiophiles the world over. The progressive-minded guitarist has been enjoying accolades for the depth, compositional excellence, and overall live sound quality evident on his Genesis Revisited II 2013/2014 tour — so much so that a number of additional legs, dubbed Genesis Extended, have been added to his touring palette through next spring, at which time he’ll focus his energies on a new solo album release. Of that forthcoming new music, he says, “I like to think about it as a rock album with a difference. It’s very much like having scenes from a film for the ear rather than the eye.”
Said new disc was mixed in surround by Hackett’s keyboardist and production partner Roger King, who also helmed the surround mixes for two enveloping Genesis Revisited II live offerings from 2013 — Live at Hammersmith and Live at The Royal Albert Hall — as well as Squackett’s A Life Within a Day, his 2012 studio collaboration with Yes bassist Chris Squire.
Hackett, 64, and I got on the line a few days before he headed back out on the road for the next leg of the Genesis Extended tour for an in-depth interview over on The SoundBard. But here on good ol’ HRAC, you get all of the hi-res highlights, including Hackett’s personal favorite Genesis surround mixes. Hadn’t you heard? He’s a supersonic scientist.
Mike Mettler: You and Roger King are such a good team in terms of knowing what you want to get out of your surround mixes and how to make listeners feel we’re right in the middle of them. Do you think surround sound the best listening format? Especially considering how near and dear this music is to you, you must want to evoke certain specific things with it.
Steve Hackett: Well, I do. I think that it’s great. What we try to do is address the fact that there are so many people who swear that their own listening medium is “The One” — the one true God. (MM laughs) Vinyl is that medium for some, and it’s CD for others, DVD for others, and Blu-ray for others. You know what I’m saying. It’s a multi-dimensional listening market. And the fight-back for audio is in making the package, including all of those forms, as attractive as possible.
We survivors like to think that we’re trying harder. It feels like things are getting better, as far as I’m concerned. I know people are talking about the contracting market, but at the end of the day, yeah, it always was tough to be in showbiz. But on the other hand, yes, it must have been great to have been around in the 1950s with a handful of rock & roll artists, and there wasn’t too much competition around — perhaps. But now, there are hundreds of thousands of them. Everyone can make a record and everyone can be a star. What distinguishes you? What makes you different than everyone else? I keep asking myself that. Just to try and get to the heart of the music. I like to think I’m flexible.
Mettler: I have to say the 5.1 mix of “Supper’s Ready” that Nick Davis did for the early Genesis “cube” box set [1970-1975] really makes you feel like you’re sitting inside the audio movie that’s unfolding all around you.
Hackett: I think so, yes. If the job is already done and you already enjoy the song, to my mind, I feel you can be ready for that. Everyone hears these things differently. When you think of surround sound and if you’re thinking of something percussive, there’s no need for it all to be happening in the front — in other words, having the drummer in front of you. You can split the drum kit if you want and stick the cymbals behind. Why does any of it have to happen in the visual equivalent of the chronological approach?
I personally like to be surrounded and ambushed by music. I want it to surprise me, and I want it to come from surprising places. So the idea of the imaginary listening environment is something that’s been concerning me for quite some time. In fact, way back in early ’80s, I did an album which had a ton of percussionists on it [Till We Have Faces, 1984], and I mixed in in Ambisonics at the time, which was a BBC-approved format that was around for a while. As we said earlier, we’ve recently been releasing live concerts in surround, and I’ve just done the new, yet-to-be-released album in surround. Roger’s done a great job on that.
Mettler: And also on the surround mix he did for the Squackett record [A Life Within a Day, 2012].
Hackett: Yes, he did. And there are certain tracks that really take off on that one — for instance, I’m thinking of “Tall Ships,” the second track, which is wonderful in surround.
Mettler: I totally agree. And also the first track, “A Life Within a Day,” where you switch modes and styles right in the middle of it to take us off in a different direction.
Hackett: Yeah, I absolutely love the format. It’s a wonderful thing, and it’s the fight-back of audio. What is it that makes audio important to people? What is it that relegated it to the state where it’s less important than a DVD or a game show? As the format becomes ever more popular, even though it’s had a rocky start, luckily, people in the progressive area realize that you’re talking about the real audiophiles who want to hear stuff at the highest quality, and mixed in the most imaginative way for the listener.
So, yes indeed, ideally, music should be indifferent to the playback system, but for those of us who subsequently have fallen in love with full-bandwidth listening, we want to hear it with all the bells and whistles.
Mettler: Do you have a personal favorite surround mix of yours, and also of early-era Genesis?
Hackett: I’ll tell you in regards to the Royal Albert Hall show — one of my favorites was “The Fountain of Salmacis” [originally from Nursery Cryme, 1971]. Basically, we mixed that thinking of the mellotron string aspect being the element of water combined with organ, having that crescendo start quietly in the front speakers, and end up enveloping you like a wave. I visualized it as if the music rose up and enveloped you, and then ended up behind you.
In regards to the Genesis stuff, I think Wind and Wuthering (1976) sounded very good in surround, particularly on “Afterglow,” with the voice loops we did with Phil [Collins]. Back in the day, the idea of the voice loops being behind you was the equivalent of the heavenly choir somehow. That was important, and I’m glad that [Genesis surround producer] Nick Davis did all the things instinctively that I would have wanted to do. I have an idea that, with big sounds — orchestral ideas and choral ideas — you might as well spread them around like that, because that’s how choirs work. They work in a kind of arc, and orchestras are really meant to be heard from the center, and not from the front. They should be all around you. And mellotrons work in that kind of way as well — filling the room with purple fog, as it were. You need to be able to submerse people in it so that they can’t see their way out of it, you know? It needs to be fully enveloping.
Mettler: That’s where you want to be as a listener. That also brings to mind some of the quad mixes Derek Varnals did for The Moody Blues featuring Mike Pinder’s mellotron work, which were later expanded into surround mixes under the direction of Justin Hayward.
Hackett: Ah, yes. There does seem to be a direct correlation between those who are interested in mellotron and those who are interested in the surround factor. There seems to be a natural progression — for a start, the idea that the awe-inspiring mellotron, when it first happened, was the most magical of boxes that any band could sound like an orchestra, even a strange one, and it was something that was mighty and eerie and ghostly. I think you just have to “haunt” people in a different kind of way — take all that forward and embellish it further, with certain things like infinite echo and frozen reverbs. That’s something that’s become a style that we’ve worked on recently — “freezing” a sound. It’s a very ghostly, wonderful thing. I think I’m probably a reverb junkie. I’m hooked on that. (MM laughs)
Mettler: I think that’s a good drug to have.
Hackett: I think so, yeah. I think it’s a good drug. Because the perspective of music itself — this is enormously important to me, not just the sound but where it’s coming from. Bulletproof AOR FM mixes aren’t necessarily the way forward. Making great radio mixes — you might as well send a different mix off to radio. But for an album, you don’t necessarily need it screaming at you with bulletproof top [end]. The warm tones are important.