'Elvis 30#1 Hits' 5.1 DVD

- DVD audio review -

- A dream come true -

by Piers Beagley, 2002

Audio DVDs are a relatively new concept. The idea is that with multi channel recordings we are not restricted to the basic 2 channels of stereo but can increase these to five or more channels that surround you. Movies and their related DVDs already carry this information so why not expand the listening pleasure of music CDs as well?

The real difficulty of trying this with the 'Elv1s #1s' CD is that the majority of tracks were recorded in either 3-track stereo or mono.

So David Bendeth, the producer, had a real challenge on his hands to make the whole concept work. EIN interviewed him earlier this week to discover exactly what he had done to create these surround sound miracles and at last we get to hear the finished product.

If you are going to try a ground-breaking event with a new technology then Track One better sound good but "A Little Less Conversation" in 5.1 surround-sound isn't good, it is sensational!

Of the 'A.L.L.C' JXL original remix I wrote, "Listening to this new remix is a revelation. Starting with the original guitar riff & drums the scene is set as 1968 Then 10 seconds later the extra percussion kicks in and the sound explodes - Suddenly Elvis is here and NOW and rockin' in the new millennium". However on this audio DVD the impact is even greater as the sound totally explodes around the room. With 42 tracks to play with David Bendeth really has fun. The fuzz guitar & bongos are deliciously rear right, as the synthesisers play from left to right and the sound keeps building up & up.

The main track has an absolute kicking bass, thanks to the sub woofer, and halfway through as the second chorus begins the sound is truly awesome. Listening to it the first time I actually laughed out loud with joy and delight. The only sin is that the full length remix just begs for the same treatment.

'Way Down' - The first of the 'studio' multi-tracks places you in the Jungle Room with Elvis and the band. Immediately you can notice the variation in the mix with the backing vocals sounding very different. This new concept where you are sitting in the middle of the studio surrounded by the musicians is, at first, a very strange audio experience compared to the 'facing the band' stereo image that we are all used to. The percussion is separated to the centre speaker, the piano sounds great while the clavinet is rear right and anyone who has ever stood in the Jungle Room will surely feel an odd sensation of familiarity. It is truly fascinating. Interestingly Elvis' vocal error and even the barking dog at the end are still there.

'Burning Love' - I loved the 'E.1s' CD mix of this so much that I actually listened to this track first. Whereas the FTD CDs let you eavesdrop on Elvis creating his music & magic this DVD actually places you in the middle of the studio itself! Elvis and the rhythm section are cooking right in front of you while the guitars, percussion and piano are behind you. It gives you a totally different experience and with the sub woofer emphasising the bass guitar it sounds sensational and yes, it kicks ass! '

'The Wonder Of You' - Yet another audio experience since this is live from the Hilton showroom. This has been mixed very differently from the 'TTWII' movie DVD. The power of this performance sounds fabulous but something about the sound image feels a little surreal since the audience is sitting behind you but so is the orchestra. The ambience again definitely puts you in the Showroom but you have to get the visual image of the film out of your head & just soak up the music all around you.

'Suspicious Minds' - The American Studio tracks are the real standout. Both of these have incredible instrument separation and again you can feel the ambience of these very special sessions. The strings & horns are behind you along with guitars while the rhythm section and Elvis are up front. You really are 'there' in the studio experiencing the magic of producer Chips Moman's work & with Elvis making some of the most important music of his life.

With this new audio separation Elvis' vocal stands out even more than ever. When the band quietens for the bridge "Oh let our love survive. . " the audio dynamic range of the track is astounding. The strings & guitar are behind you with Elvis, almost alone, pleading out front. This is goose bump stuff! The final fade and build-up is so powerful in this mix that it astounds you. Suspicious Minds has never sounded better.

'In The Ghetto'- Elvis is sitting up front along with Tommy Cogbill on bass & Reggie Young on acoustic guitar. Snare drum at the rear, the horns & orchestra and backing vocals are also behind you. This kind of mix totally opens up the track and it honestly feels a little surreal. I have these dreams where I'm sitting in with Elvis & the band and this is the sound of my dreams! Before hearing this version take 11 of 'In The Ghetto' (FTD "Memphis Sessions") was my firm favourite because it emphasised Elvis' vocal & increased the poignancy of the song. But this is exceptional and it is like hearing this classic song for the very first time.

Not only that but you can of course turn off various speakers and listen to specific instruments or mix of tracks. Just to start with I tried experimenting with only Elvis & Reggie Young's acoustic guitar (front left) along with the snare drum & violins (rear left) on their own. It is truly fascinating. You can spend hours investigating just one song and how the band created such masterpieces. There is no doubt in my mind that IF you own a 5.1 sound system then just these first 6 tracks alone are worth the price of this DVD.

'Crying In The Chapel'- This is the first of the 12 sixties 3-track songs on the DVD. From now on David Bendeth has to work some of his magic to create the 5.1 surround-sound and this is a great start. The double-bass really resonates and the increased audio separation lifts Elvis' vocal making it sound even more delicate than ever. The backing vocals are wrapped around you (this in some ways feels a little odd as you might expect The Jordanaires to be standing on your right or left!) but the sound places you perfectly in the middle of that small Studio B in Nashville. There is no doubt that some of the sixties tracks work better than others in surround-sound.

I felt really 'in the middle' of the studio with 'Devil In Disguise' while it is fabulous to have the piano on 'It's Now or Never' being played directly behind your right shoulder. It is also strange that just by getting up & moving around the room you totally change the audio mix of the track. Turn around and you are in Studio B with Elvis singing right behind you! The spaciousness of the new sound increases a songs' dynamics and so I found that the ballads really benefited from these mixes the most.

Although I must have heard them far too many times already I particularly enjoyed the depth brought to 'Can't Help Falling in Love'. The steel guitar, drums behind you & backing vocals are exquisite.

On the original of 'Are you Lonesome Tonight' there always was an incredible audio depth. If you listened closely you could hear The Jordanaires clothes rustle and Hank Garland's acoustic guitar creaking and on this mix that special moment in Studio B has really been captured. Turn the lights down and listen. Beautiful stuff. If you try listening to the various separate channels on these 3-track originals you can notice the phasing, echo & equalisation derived from Bendeth's clever technique that was used to create the new surround image. These tracks don't particularly benefit from separate scrutiny of each channel but the over-all sound is excellent.

'His Latest Flame' is a stand out where you can feel the party-vibe of the band as they play their hearts out all around you. All three guitars sound lovely & bright, the drums are tight and Floyd Cramer's piano work shines. This makes it even more of a shame that we never got a new remaster of the dynamic 'Little Sister'.

'Return To Sender' which always had a depressingly poor Radio Recorders movie soundtrack sound once again glows as Boots Randolph jumps into the left of the room blowing his funky horn while the backing vocals and Elvis sound just right. On the 'E.1s' CD the jump when the songs went from mono to the astounding stereo sound of the sixties was a little unnerving.

The remaining tracks that follow here were all mono with which the E.1's team have tried to work their surround-sound magic. The interesting point is that these mono tracks really do seem to surround you! I know that people are going to complain that mono should stay mono but that defeats the purpose of this DVD. There is no doubt that some tracks benefit more from the new mix than others and for me the first mono track 'A Big Hunk o' Love' is not one of the best but the clever issue here is that you don't notice that it sounds particularly different from the stereo remixed track 'Stuck On You' that precedes it.

On first listening I thought that the original songs that were already echoey, eg 'Don't Be Cruel' & 'All Shook Up', didn't seem to work so well. However having lived with this DVD for several days I find myself changing my mind. These 5.1 re worked mono tracks definitely sound better being played loud and sometimes I found myself searching for that right listening spot in the room. The higher volume, of course, maybe intentional since this would have been the sound of Elvis and the band working in the studio.

With further listening I suddenly discovered the new magic of 'Don't Be Cruel' and what David Bendeth was trying to achieve. Elvis' back-slap on his guitar, D.J's cool drums and The Jordanaires sounding perfect as I sat in the RCA New York studio listening to a masterpiece being created.

'Teddy Bear' has been mixed to suit the image of Elvis rockin' on stage just like in the "Loving You" movie. While in the same way the New Orleans Nightclub sound of "King Creole" has really been captured on 'Hard Headed Woman' with Elvis on stage along with the Dixieland horns playing to the crowd below.

I love the fabulous rolling guitar sound of 'One Night' where you feel that you are in the studio with the band really rocking around you while a track like 'Don't' has amazing audio placement. Elvis' voice really embraces you here and there is a magic as The Jordanaires slide up the scale at 1min 20 with "Don't, Don't, Don't". Delicious. Sometimes it does feel odd that you can't quite pin-point where the instruments are coming from particularly when you can skip the DVD back and do a comparison to one of the later multi-track originals. However every track is still quite fascinating to sit amongst.

To be honest I still can't understand 'All Shook Up' and I do prefer the explosive binaural version of 'Jailhouse Rock' on the "Silver Screen Stereo" FTD CD.

I wonder what David Bendeth could have achieved had he been given the binaural tape of that along with the 'Love Me Tender' stereo master. In fact 'Love Me Tender' is no disappointment here and again delights with its new audio openness. It is an extraordinary experience if you go back and compare it to the original hiss-laden mono version.

However it was the surprise of 'Hound Dog' that again had me grinning. The band is really rockin' out front with The Jordanaires surrounding you just clapping their hearts out and Shorty Long's piano playing really standing out behind you in the mix. I loved the pristine version on 'E.1s' CD but this is fabulous fun. Makes you want to get up & dance with them. Really!

'Heartbreak Hotel' sounds very spacious and is gem. The sub-woofer emphasises Bill Blacks' bass and the tinkling piano is also brought out in this version. I could just imagine Elvis standing in that church hallway in Nashville. Fascinating.

The Special Bonus tracks - These are no longer in 5.1 surround sound and your system should automatically switch back to plain stereo. Having enjoyed the DVD so much I was extremely disappointed to discover that none of these bonus tracks run their full length. I know the point was that these were just 'bonuses' and not the reason to buy this DVD however I was shattered (as I'm sure any Elvis fan will be) not to get the complete 'In the Ghetto' solo vocal track here.

The A:B Tests are exactly what you imagine showing the difference between the original master tapes and the newly mastered & mixed versions from the 'E.1s' CD. Short and sweet & to the point, 'Devil In Disguise' for instance runs only 1 minute! I was so excited at the prospect of getting Elvis' complete isolated vocal from 'In the Ghetto' but unfortunately that also only runs for 1 minutes. It is a real shame since after the 'taster' promo I was desperate to hear the whole song 'a cappella'. What a sadly missed opportunity. Maybe this is an idea Ernst and the FTD team could think about for that future "Memphis Sessions 2" CD.

It is the same for 'Suspicious Minds' where David Bendeth obviously knew that we'd love to hear Elvis talking to himself - "Sing the Song Man" - but, of course, as an Elvis fan I really needed to hear the whole 3 minutes of self-harmony rather than this small 1.10 fragment. Finally there is 'Crying In the Chapel' which contains the false start of take 2 and Elvis laughing about the Jordanaires whispering. This is a fun look at the atmosphere of Elvis in the recording studio and as it hasn't been officially released before it is a lovely snippet. However for dedicated fans this is the same as has previously been out on bootlegs ("Stand by Me") for a while.

(Note - David Bendeth later informed EIN that the full solo versions of Elvis' vocal tracks were not allowed by RCA due to the obvious potential for DJ sampling)

Verdict - If you already own a 5.1 surround-sound system then the first 6 tracks are worth the price of the CD alone. Being able to listen to each individual audio track and the various permutations means that, if you are someone like me, you can really investigate every nuance of every song. You can listen to 'In The Ghetto' with just Elvis and the guitars or add the horns and remove the bass. There are literally more than 100 combinations you try for every multi-track song! So for the Elvis audio fetishists there is hours of listening fun and entertainment.

However there is just as much pleasure in sitting back and letting this brand new, fabulous listening experience wash over you. I'm sure there will be a lot of complaints with people being picky about the mono tracks and other minor details but I loved the total experience and there is so much more to explore on an audio DVD like this.

EIN NOTES;

Surround Sound 5.1 is not a static environment and it is a technical tool with which you can create some amazing audio innovations. Here some of them are audio reality and some of them are fantasy. However what is certain is that this audio DVD is certainly ground-breaking and with it Elvis fans have been served a huge platter of total audio delights! Personally I would love David Bendeth and his team to remix all the songs on the 'Memphis Sessions' as the sound on these are exceptional and stand out above everything else.

However the complete 'Elvis Is Back' sessions would suit me just fine too! This DVD will not play on your CD player and to truly appreciate it you need a system with equal power good quality speakers both front & rear along with a sub-woofer. Make sure the speakers are facing you from all sides and you will find yourself sitting dead centre with Elvis & the band. Hopefully you will end up in seventh heaven like me.

The popularity of movies on DVD has increased so much recently that the cost of a good 5.1 system has suddenly plunged to a very realistic price. You can find good quality systems with 100 watt speakers at under $1000. However make sure you get a good demonstration before you rush out & purchase them. Tell them that Elvis sent you!

Click here for EIN's in-depth 'Elvis 30#1s' CD review

Click here for EIN's interview with the Producer David Bendeth

Click here for EIN's in-depth '2nd To None' CD review

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