This review focuses on the drum sound of the new Dream Theater album and compares the 5.1 audio mix with a previous DT 5.1 mix. I do like the album but as there are hundreds of reviews that cover in detail each of the songs and general impressions, I have not included that here.
I eagerly purchased the new Dream Theater deluxe version as once again they'd produced a 5.1 audio mix version. I still regularly listen to their "Systematic Chaos" 5.1 recording and marvel at the clarity and power. Paul Northfield had done a superb production job on capturing the brutal force of the rhythm section without losing the subtle nuances. So finally we had another to enjoy! My initial excitement melted quickly as I listened to "False awakening". I flicked through my Marantz amp settings to ensure I hadn't made an error. This is probably the worst drum sound I have heard on a DT album. I was so looking forward to hearing Mangini louder and crisper in the mix. Yet the sound of the drums are completely muffled. I certainly hear no hummingbird wings...
The more I listened, the more I noticed other things. No surprise but the definition to the bass was almost completely absent. Forget a 5.1 audio mix, I have CDs from the 90s that sound better.
Then the pain sunk in, the bitter disappointment. You see I really like this album and believe it could have been one of their top 3 albums...but the cardboard, drum machine sound of the wonderful drumming of Mangini is so very disappointing in the recording. Now I am unsure if this is because of the mixing, mastering or initial recording. Whatever the reason, it's unacceptable for a 5.1 mix.
When I listen to the album with my Grado headphones, the drum sound is perhaps acceptable. So are they mixing for the headphone generation? On my sound system ( Marantz player, Mission speakers and Velodyne sub) the power and definition of the recording is missing. If I compare "Systematic Chaos" 5.1 with this then you realise how different the recording of the drumming is. This is sterile and compressed. On "Systematic Chaos" 5.1 (which is my least fav DT album) the drumming physically knocks you with my Velodyne sub. The drum sound is varied, the snare and toms clearly distinguishable. On this new DT, I have to have the sound blaring on my headphones. And then they sound acceptable... I think Kevin Shirley got the warmest and punchiest drum sound on the LTE albums. (Listen to Simon Phillips' s drum recordings - these are nearly always impressive. Try Sherinian's "Oceana" opening track. That's a drum recording done right!)
Hey, have any of you listeners the album "Systematic Chaos" on 5.1? Do a simple comparison and you'll soon realise what a STUNNING recording it is. Listen to "In the Presence of Enemies" part 1. Go to about 4 .45 and listen to the build up of drumming. Listen to the attack of the snare, hear the tight kick drum and distinct different tom sounds. Even when the power wall of guitar comes in you can easily hear the snare and bass pedal. You can hear hi hat cymbals! Try "Repentance" and you hear every little drum nuance. Rim shots, ghosting, cymbal. This is what I anticipated for the new DT 5.1. I am now depressed. What a waste of opportunity! In comparison I now think the DT drum mix is poor. No offense, Mr Petrucci, you are one of rock's greats and your guitar sound on this IS wonderful, but I thought you wanted people to embrace Mike Mangini. How can we if we can't hear him properly! (Maybe someone stole his signature Pearl snare drum and replaced it with a cardboard replica?)
Finally, all the other elements are in place. I love the packaging, the art work and even the lyrics. All of the compositions have grown on me and Petrucci's guitaring is more melodic and soaring than I can remember in a decade. After all I have written, this is a strong album and I will live with the flawed drum sound.