The Who: Tommy

 The Who: Tommy

                    Deluxe Edition – SACD/CD Hybrid [Geffen B0001386-36]
                         Reissue Remixed and Remastered by Pete Townshend

                     Original Recording Produced by Kit Lambert                                          

Adam Sohmer               

I realized when first listening to the opening chords of The Who’s Tommy that the “Overture” was no ordinary rock song, which, at the age of nine, was all I really cared to taste. Slapped on the flip side of “See Me, Feel Me,” itself an edit of the album’s finale, the “Overture” was foreign to my AM-adjusted ears, yet I sat through the four-minute piece staring straight at the single spinning on my childhood phonograph, before placing the needle back at the beginning for the second of what must have been a half-dozen trips through the track.

Accustomed as I was to hording nickels and dimes for the sole purpose of increasing my record collection, the full double-LP became my next acquisition, followed by many afternoons of focused listening, overture to finale, following the lyrics that were included in the brilliantly illustrated booklet that accompanied the set. Unlike my treasured Beatles albums and the assorted dreck comprising my collection, Tommy fascinated me for a host of reasons, most important being the music, but also for the way the package paid little heed to the band and its members. No photos. No backgrounders. Just credits to accompany the landmark production that continues to set the standard for rock concept albums, or “rock operas” as this album is so rightly positioned.

Today, Tommy is as important an entry in the canon of so-called classic recordings as it was when it was first unveiled in 1969. Conceived and mostly written by Pete Townshend, Tommy is a sterling example of the composer’s musical aptitude and ability to tell a story, as well as the band’s almost telekinetic communication in the studio. The familiar story of a boy who witnesses his father’s murder before shutting himself inside a deaf, dumb, and blind world is known not only to Who fans but pretty much anybody exposed to popular culture over the past 35 years. From the album to the screen, an orchestrated interpretation and the bright lights of Broadway, Tommy has been reconstructed and presented for nearly every conceivable medium. 

Jon Astley was the first to remaster the original Tommy in ‘96 as part of a general Who catalogue overhaul. That revitalized disc offers a noticeable leap beyond the previous second-rate product, commonly marketed by MCA during the CD era’s early stages when mega-companies simply slapped third-generation masters on the shiny new objects that some claimed were better sounding than the vinyl originals. Of course, that was a lie for which some corporate types should be suspended by their toenails, but I digress. The upgraded version of Tommy was more than respectable, but there is now a solid reason for passing it up in favor of an even newer production, and the first version of the original album to be mixed and mastered by Townshend himself.

Simply put, Townshend’s new 5.1, high resolution mix presents a fresh and textured staging for a very familiar album. Without diving into the deep end of the stereo vs. surround argument, it’s safe to say that some producers get it and some don’t. Tommy is a ringing example of what-to-do, which is only fitting, considering it is essentially an opera, with a full cast of characters supported by robust arrangements that belie the band’s rough-edged roots. 

This being his initial foray in multi-channel audio, Townshend engaged the help of producer/engineer Elliot Mazer to help sort out the mix. Originally known for his groundbreaking production of such important albums as Neil Young’s Harvest as well as engineering efforts on “The Last Waltz” and scads of notable recordings, Mazer, in recent years, has established himself as one of the preeminent proponents of high-resolution multi-channel productions, remixing both his original output and the work of others for this exciting new medium. (Formats come and go, but multi-channel is here to stay. Get over it.)

In his role as Pre- and Post-production 5.1 Consultant, Mazer helped guide Townshend through the process of positioning voices and instruments around the virtual stage, shaping a program that in many ways emulates a theatrical performance, with vocals distinctly situated in front of the listener. However, the real revelation comes from the placement of the strong and recognizable Who sound. It would have been too easy to just drop listeners in the middle of the studio with three musicians and a full-bodied vocalist bombarding them from every direction. Instead, Townshend, with the help of Mazer, established a sound field that envelops listeners without the distraction of misplaced instruments sneaking up from behind or whizzing around the room at lightning speed. The positioning of voices and music is so seamless that, two minutes into the new (and improved) “Overture,” I lost all interest in analyzing what came from where, as I was drawn into the familiar though new performance.

Take, for example, the track entitled, “Tommy, Can You Hear Me,” a short jaunty song featuring acoustic guitar, bass and three-part harmony. Instead of dividing the voices among three front channels as surround mixers sometimes do, Townshend spread the harmonies across the front and around the back, utilizing the LFE channel to allow John Entwistle’s bass more room to breathe than on the original mix. Even the strums of Townshend’s guitar appear to reach around the listener, rather than just moving from one channel to the next.

But this is a Who album, so don’t be shy about cranking up the volume, especially during tracks like, “Pinball Wizard” and “Christmas” when it almost feels as if the audience is sitting on Keith Moon’s lap. Anyone who doubts that Moon was one of the most talented and resourceful drummers in the history of popular music need only to listen to the surround mix for a qualified change of heart. The pop-pop-pop of his drumming on, “Go to the Mirror,” is clear and more resonant in a way that led me to spin the disc again, just to focus on the drum parts. 

But where are my manners? After all, this is an audiophile publication, so here comes the official commentary on the sound: holy s***! The new mix is so engaging that it took several listens to fully understand just what was accomplished in the mastering process. While a 5.1 mix can certainly open up a recording to allow buried instruments and harmonies to emerge from the clutter, Tommy fills the room with clean, full range sonics that are detailed without sounding crisp or clipped. The medium may be digital, but this new mix of Tommy offers one of the most satisfying analog experiences to come along in many years, in any format. There is a real sense of “air” that I associate with the most memorable vinyl prints of the 60’s and 70’s. Though I did not detect any audible tape hiss, the soundfield leaves plenty of room for analog anomalies, but includes none. 

Though not the star attraction, at least for me, the high-resolution two-channel layer improves upon previous versions with a forceful presence that mostly stays true to the original stereo blueprint. As gratifying as it may be, the 5.1 version is the primary reason to invest in the new disc. (It’s safe to assume that most consumers with SACD playback equipment own a nifty surround speaker array as well.) Similarly, the 16-bit layer comes across with more presence than the ‘96 version, but a reasonably high-end system is needed to fully appreciate the difference.

With all four sides taking up just one CD, the second disc features a total of 17 outtakes and demos, including one of my favorite Who B-sides, “Dogs (Part 2).” Surround sound was created for this track alone. 

My only criticism is the omission of a libretto. Tommy is bound to reach at least a few newcomers who would be served by a printed version of the lyrics in order to follow the story. Not that the package skimps – there are extensive historical liner notes and session photos to satisfy the most ardent Who fan, but the assumption is that the buyer owns at least one earlier edition of the album.

But that’s nitpicking. The new and improved version of Tommy will not only astound audiophiles but anybody who appreciates emotionally gripping music conveyed through jaw-dropping performances. Just make sure to put the volume knob to good use. The neighbors will deal with it.
# # #

Sidebar: An interview with Elliot Mazer

Anyone who has invested a few dollars in any of the more impressive examples of high-resolution multi-channel audio has at least one or two Mazer productions in their collections. Mazer’s name is affixed to some of the most memorable high-res. productions to date, including the DVD-A version of Sinatra at the Sands and two of Santana’s most popular recent albums, Shaman and Supernatural.

Here, Elliot Mazer fills us in on his contribution to the new multi-channel Tommy.

How did you get involved with the new mix of Tommy?
I met Pete a few years ago for the first time. I have been a huge Who
and Pete fan since “My Generation”. He is among my favorite song
writers. I sent him the DVD-A version of Harvest and he called
to say that he really enjoyed it. We began a dialog during which we
talked about how one would make a new version of a classic album in
2003. He said to me that he felt the original Tommy was “voice
heavy.” (Tommy was produced and mixed by his former manager.) 

I told Pete about my studio and how I loved working in Pro Tools HD at
192kHz. Pete liked that the Harvest DVD-A made him feel like he was in the room
with the band. Eventually he purchased a Pro Tools HD system for his Oceanic Studio
outside of London and started working on Tommy in PT at 192.

What was your role on the project?
We exchanged a lot of email over a six month period. I visited Pete and
heard some of his early mixes and was very impressed. Keith’s drums
sounded huge and much like I remember them sounding live. Pete had set
up his studio similarly to the way we set up Neil’s studio for the
Harvest mix. I gave him some ideas and showed him some tricks in

Pete did the entire mix himself. He spent a long time
working on it. He sent us a rough first draft of the album on DVD-A
disks. I suggested a few things, like bringing the voices more into
the room and spreading the guitars even more. I also felt he could get
a little more impact out of John’s bass. Mixing in 5.1 gives you so
much more room to make things heard.

Did you work on the bonus tracks as well?
No. I knew he was thinking about them and I was blown away when I got 
the released disk and heard those tracks. For me, these alone are worth 
the price.

After so many iterations over the past 35 years, why a new version
of Tommy?

Pete loves surround. The film version was one of the first surround
movies. He invented “Quintafonic Sound” which, I believe, was the first
five-channel theatrical release. That, plus his desire to make an
“author’s version” of Tommy was part of the motivation. For the
stereo, they found the original stereo master, which had never been
used since the first vinyl edition.

It seems as if the album is presented “on stage,” in that the
voices are positioned as you would hear characters in a musical or
opera. Was that intentional?
Yes, even though I had suggested that he use the complete room to
exaggerate the story, i.e when Pete or Roger are different characters,
they could appear in a different position with different ambience.

Roger’s voice is huge anyway and Pete’s voice is light and fragile. I
like the way he handled the voices and I am glad that he has lots of
his own voice in the final mix. In the early mixes, Pete had
underplayed his own voice.

Were there any challenges in re-mixing the Who’s signature sound 
for 5.1? Are there any elements that stand out?

Keith’s drums sound better here than any other Who record. The power
from Pete’s acoustic guitar is exciting and this is a great way to
tell a story.

Is it true that there is a DVD-A print in the works? 
The Universal “new formats” site says that they are releasing a DVD-A 
version. I think the reason is that The Who were signed to Polygram 
and they had a DVD-A license while Universal has an obligation to 
release SACDs. At any rate, the DVD-A should have lots of photos and 
some video stuff.



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