Music For People With Four Ears
Surround sound audio visual systems have in recent years become very common indeed in people’s living rooms (or man caves).  It is possible to equip oneself with a 5.1 surround system (i.e. a centre channel speaker plus left & right speakers at both front and back and hopefully, a sub woofer) for as little as £100, including DVD player & amplifier.  Used in conjunction with a typical DVD, the system will provide six discrete1 audio channels from the amplifier and on to the speakers.  Such a budget system may not sound all that impressive – compared, say, with a visit to your local state of the art cinema - but the sound will at least be multi directional.  Bullets will whizz overhead, car tyres will screech from left to right, the voice track will enunciate from front dead centre and explosions will do their best to blast and thump from the sub woofer. 
Unsurprisingly, the sound quality and articulation of this type of system shall improve considerably as expenditure on the components increases.  Nonetheless, the price of admission to the world of surround sound remains stubbornly low – about the same as that of a meal for two in a decent restaurant.  With a bottle or two of plonk included.  Welcome to the cheap seats.

It was not always so.  From the outset, record companies and hardware manufacturers marketed quadraphonic sound (the fifth channel being added years later) at hi-fi enthusiasts.  It was an expensive toy, that required additional equipment, specially produced records (or tapes) and plenty of patience combined with some understanding as to how the equipment was supposed to work in the first place.  Not forgetting a sizeable bank balance and an understanding wife.2

Pink Floyd took an early interest in quadraphonic sound – they premiered their first 4 way PA systems as far back as 1967 at their now legendary Games For May concert at The Queen Elizabeth Hall.  To put this in some kind of perspective, neither Sgt Pepper nor Piper At The Gates Of Dawn had yet been released; meanwhile the monophonic versions of either record would for the first few years prove to be the most popular. 

Although experiments had been made with 4 channel open reel tape machines as long ago as 1954, the surround market was truly opened up with the emergence of 4 channel 8-track tapes in 1970 and quad vinyl in 1971.  However, several different systems emerged, none of which could be considered an ideal method of sound reproduction.

Systems at Dawn

Quad 8 tapes offered 4 fully discrete channels.  But the system was not backwards compatible – although quad 8 players could play stereo tapes, the reverse was not true. It is worth remembering that the 15 minute programme (continuous playing time limit) of the 8-track system meant that longer pieces of music had to be split in half.3 Meanwhile, the 8-track system was capable of very good sound quality indeed, thanks to the 3¾” tape speed and the ¼” tape width.  Many considered that although the sound produced by 8-tracks was not quite up to reel to reel standards, they easily surpassed the audio quality of the typical cassette machine of the day.  Today, quad die hards hunt down 4 channel cartridge tapes so as to rip the music to DTS or DVD audio formats (or similar).  One infamous such amateur rip was the 1975 Quad 8 cartridge of Wish You Were Here, converted to DTS some time before the original quad mix was made available again via Pink Floyd’s Immersion box set.

Matrix quadraphonic vinyl – such as Sony’s SQ system – sought to extract four separate channels from a stereo pair.  The method used an audio method of subtraction – now, stay with me here. If A – B = C, then in audio terms subtracting the right channel from the left produced a third channel – call it left rear.  And likewise, subtracting the left from the right produced a fourth channel – let’s call this one right rear. Voila!  Quadraphonic. 

These four channels were encoded into the two track stereo album and extracted at playback stage via a decoder, as likely as not one that was built in to the amplifier. With one major problem – matrix systems could not hope to achieve total separation between the front-back channels.  That is to say, there was a sufficient degree of crosstalk between the front and the rear.  If a particular instrument was intended to be heard only from the back left speaker, the actual result was that the instrument would be heard to some degree on the front left speaker as well.  Or, the sound effect of a car driving from front to back might sound less than convincing.4   Sansui’s QS matrix system predated Sony’s QS, it was noticed by some that the two systems were practically interchangeable.  However, not too many LPs seem to have been issued in the QS format - Joan Baez’s Come From The Shadows on A&M being one of the few that I can find listed.

JVC’s CD-4 discrete vinyl quadraphonic system sought to achieve a wholly discrete listening experience by encoding into each groove a very high frequency (up to 45kHz) carrier signal.  A CD-4 decoder could then use this signal to extract the four channels in a similar method (i.e. add and subtract) to that of the matrix, but with far greater separation. 

The CD-4 vinyl system was also less than perfect, as record cutting lathes could not handle the high frequency of the carrier signal (AKA the sum channel).  Records were therefore cut with both lathe and tape running at half speed.  Some listeners observed that the lower end of the audio spectrum was severely compromised as a result, that the bass frequencies were reduced and even disappeared altogether below a certain pitch. Also, a special type of stylus – one with what became known as the shibita profile – was required to play the records.  The shibita stylus claimed increased contact with the vinyl grooves over what could be achieved using conventional profiles.   Despite the specially designed stylus, listeners complained of increased surface noise and an uncomfortable level of tracking error (inner groove distortion) as the tone arm came to the end of each side.
The Third Option

Buyers of Brian Eno’s 1983 LP Ambient 4 – On Land were informed via the extensive sleeve notes on the back cover of a seemingly revolutionary way to listen to the record. 

By this time, quadraphonic sound was all but dead – the 8-track system had breathed its last (in stereo or otherwise) and no new LPs were being issued in QS, SQ or CD-4.5 EMI’s remarkable decision to issue all of its classical LPs in quad had been quietly dropped after a few years.  The BBC’s (barely publicised, however extensive) experiments with matrix quadraphonic broadcasting had ceased.  Little in the way of 4 channel equipment could be found for sale. 

Brian Eno’s Ambient 4 On Land was an LP less devoted to music, more a montage of extremely quiet sounds.  Eno notes on the sleeve notes of the 1975 LP Discreet Music that the idea for his ambient projects came to him whilst convalescing from a car accident.  An LP was playing very quietly in the background; being bedridden he had no way of turning the volume up or off.  He could hear it, but he couldn’t really hear it at all.  Of the ambient series, On Land is possible the quietest, it is also possibly the most engaging as one struggles to hear what is really going on amongst the rumbles, slowed down church bells and wildlife sounds.  In making the record, Eno had stumbled across a little known poor man’s surround sound set up.  By connecting a third speaker across the left and right positive terminals of the amplifier, a third - rear - channel was created.  Because of the matrix-like cancellation of sounds – i.e. any sound common to both channels being cancelled out to varying degrees – the rear channel revealed an awful lot of resonance, reverberation and atmosphere from a recording that had previously gone unnoticed.  And a vocal track, invariably being dead centre of the left and right stereo channels, cancelled itself out – the rear speaker in this arrangement carried what was in effect a ghostly instrumental channel.  When all three speakers were arranged in a perfect triangle, a true surround sound effect was created from recordings only ever intended to be heard in stereo.  Without the use of a decoder, I might add.  Matrix quadraphonic LPs played back through this arrangement appeared to give the full surround effect - as intended by the producer.  I employed such a set up for many years, my SQ copy of Dark Side Of The Moon was used on numerous occasions for demonstration purposes.

I can report that this system still works exceptionally well, and one should not worry about causing damage to an amplifier by connecting a third speaker in this way.  Simply connect the extra loudspeaker as thus – with the existing speakers still connected, hook one of the third speaker terminals (either one) to speaker output positive left and the other to positive right on the back of the amplifier.  As Brian Eno noted, it can be advantageous to employ an attenuator (i.e. in line volume control) on the third speaker so as to balance the volume out a bit.  

All hooked up?  You’re in for something of a surprise.  Enough to make you want to rediscover your entire music collection.

Pressing Matters

CD-4 aside, one of the best reasons to hunt down SQ quadraphonic vinyl was the sound quality.  EMI and CBS reportedly used only virgin vinyl for their quad LPs – nothing recycled was allowed – and the records were pressed using some of the few hand operated machines that were still in operation.  In other words, the same level of care and attention that was afforded to classical vinyl was at last being used for popular music. Furthermore, the relatively small number of copies being pressed ensured that the relevant LP stampers remained in excellent condition – only thousands of quad copies of Dark Side were made, compared to tens of millions of the stereo copy.  

In The Mix

Best of all, quad collectors were treated to a brand new mix of their favourite album.  By virtue of the requirement for four channels rather than the standard two, the original multi track recording had to be remixed.  It was, of course, possible to play the quad version back in stereo.  And even then, the quad versions sounded different and in many cases clearer and just – well, better. 

Notably: -

  • Pink Floyd – The Dark Side Of The Moon.  In 1973 engineer Alan Parsons was tasked with remixing the album for quadraphonic – the results were simply stunning.  The record took audio the audio perfection of the stereo copy to a new level of openness and attack.  Meanwhile, hearing the ghostly voices in quad was like hearing the twisted mutterings of inmates as one past the cell doors in some long forgotten asylum.  On this YouTube video, a kind listener – a self confessed quadranaut - allows us a selective front-back comparison of selected parts from the album.
  • Steely Dan – Can’t Buy A Thrill.  The guitar sound – on what may just be the finest guitar solo on record – is somewhat different on the quad edition.  Parts of the solo may even be a completely different take.  Don’t you miss it. Oh, alright – it’s a CD-4 record.
  • Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells.  I’ve pinched the title of this article from a sticker that appeared on the front cover of the quad version of Tubular Bells.  The pressing quality was, sadly, not that great (at least on my copy) but the mix was significantly different.  And side two contained some weird sound effects tagged on at the end.  A few years later, the quad mix was included in the highly successful Boxed LP collection; which also contained 4 channel SQ mixes of Ommadawn and Hergest Ridge.  And vastly superior pressing quality.  Boxed was a quad-only release, so could possibly claim to be the most successful quadraphonic album of all time.  I cannot find anything to substantiate this, but I do recall reading that Virgin at least intended to issue Tubular Bells in SQ, QS and CD-4.  In recent years, a definitive version of Tubular Bells has been issued on compact disc, including a copy of the SQ quad mix. 
  • Miles Davis – Bitches Brew.  Miles Davis' jazz rock masterpiece was remixed for quadraphonic in 1971.  The quad mix leaves the stereo for dust.   Read more here
  • Barclay James Harvest – Once Again.  Hardly the trendiest of bands – they once referred to themselves as a Poor Man’s Moody Blues – Barclay James Harvest were nonetheless quite a draw on the college and festival circuit.  In August 1971 they appeared at the Weeley Festival and delayed proceedings by 90 minutes whilst they struggled to set up along The 45 piece Martyn Ford Orchestra.  Earlier that year, BJH had released their second album, Once Again.  The following year, the (heavily orchestrated) record was remixed into 4 channel and issued as an SQ LP on Harvest.  The added depth and breadth – and the fluid sound afforded to the SQ mix (combined with the high quality pressing) made the stereo version almost totally redundant.  Some were of the opinion that the quad mix was almost too detached – as if members of the band were playing in different counties.  But it was only an 8 track recording to begin with.
  • Deep Purple – Machine Head.  Like The Dark Side Of The Moon, Deep Purple’s most famous studio LP sounds that much better in the 4 channel mix.  Blackmore’s guitar on Smoke On The Water is centre stage (rather than extreme left as per the stereo mix); Ian Paice’s hi-hat follows the opening riff in quad (it doesn’t in stereo).  Jon Lord’s Marshall-amped Hammond organ is far more prominent (and raw) and Glover’s bass is almost three dimensional.  Elsewhere on the record, different guitar parts have been used.  The SQ vinyl edition on the EMI Purple imprint is, for me, the definitive version.  This mix is now available on CD; however, it is not encoded into 4 channel.  In the USA Warner Brothers issued a CD-4 quad vinyl copy and 8 track cartridge.

However: -

  • Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music.  An LP that no-one could stand listening to (unless your name was Lester Bangs) issued in 4 channel.  Even Lou Reed confessed (on the sleeve notes to the record itself) that neither he nor anyone that he knew of had listened to it all the way through.  All 4 channels were totally separate; there was no phasing or imagery.  Today, Metal Machine Music is looked upon as an underground avant garde classic – a tribute, perhaps, to the works of composer La Monte Young - but in reality it was more likely a way for Lou to get out of his contract with RCA.

Probably not: -

  • The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Included in the MFSL box set of The Beatles albums were pictures of the original master tape boxes used by Abbey Road studios.  In April 1973 the tape box for Sgt Pepper is marked as having being removed from the library for a quadraphonic remix.  The resulting mix was never used, presumably because at the time there was little that could be done with what was only a 4 track recording to begin with.  Nowadays, computer wizadry has allowed more convincing Beatles surround sound mixes to appear, not least on the Love DVD audio album and also on the Anthology DVDs.  But there is no SQ copy of Sgt Pepper out there.  Is there?6   
  • The Who – Quadrophenia.  In 1973, neither Polydor/Track Records nor The Who did anything to quash the assumption made by the media (and everyone else) that the band’s new double album was in fact a quadraphonic record.  The album’s title, of course, referred to the multiple personalities of the story’s central character Jimmy, and how these were based in turn upon the personalities of each band member.  It was not supposedly intended to refer to the album’s audio configuration.  Some years later, I recall reading in Practical Hi-fi that Pete Townsend had admitted that the recordings had only ever been mixed to stereo.  This was because the record company (presumably MCA, the Who’s American label) were tied to a matrix system – QS – and he didn’t like it.  This story has been repeated ad infinitum on various internet forums (with predictable variation) but this is the version that I recall.   In 2014 Quadrophenia was finally issued in surround, in a 5.1 SACD version.  But for those of us who bought the album in 1973, imagining what the record would sound like in 4 channel – it was never to be.  A few years later Ken Russell’s movie of The Who’s Tommy was issued in Quintaphonic sound – an early attempt to augment 4 channel sound with a fifth central speaker.  Furthermore, both the Tommy soundtrack album and Lou Reizner’s all-star 1972 recording of the piece (on the Ode label) have been issued in quad.

Quadrophonic vinyl thus offers a new angle on listening and record collecting.  Best of all, a decoder is not altogether necessary to reveal the surround sound properties of the matrix (SQ or QS) editions.  You really must hook up that third speaker (see above) and rediscover your stereo albums.  Then, pop down to your local charity store, grab that copy of Mike Oldfield’s Boxed and play it through your new triangular speaker configuration. 

That’s it.  You’re now officially hooked.  eBay, watch out. 

Footnotes

1 Completely separate audio tracks, with no crosstalk.  Essential for true surround sound.

2 Or husband. Alright already. But hi-fi is a bloke thing.  Women don’t seem to like the idea of huge speakers, assorted brushed aluminium/black/gun metal grey boxes (covered in switches and dials) and miles of cable dominating the living room. Not forgetting thousands of records, tapes and CDs.  It’s just not their thing. I can’t for the life of me imagine why.  Whatever.

When quadraphonic audio was first launched I can guarantee you that it was a 100% male pursuit.  No good lady wives would have been happy about the idea of more audio equipment turning up in the house.  Don’t mention the need to rearrange the furniture so as to make the most of the new 4 channel set up.

3 8-tracks worked on a loop system – the tape had no theoretical beginning nor end; each loop (or programme) would play for 15 minutes before the machine either repeated the selections or moved on to the next set of tracks.  In stereo, there were 4 sets of stereo tracks (2 x 4 = 8). In quad, it follows that there were two sets of 4 quadraphonic tracks. But the 15 minute playing time restriction could create problems with extended pieces of music.  Two of the longer songs on Genesis’ Nursery Cryme (The Musical Box and The Return Of Giant Hogweed) were split in half.  The 8-track version of Fragile by Yes split Heart Of The Sunrise into two sections, the cartridge edition of Al Stewart’s Year Of The Cat effectively butchered the song Broadway Hotel.

It is thought by some that certain rock bands included conveniently short songs alongside their longer pieces to assist in the sequencing of the 8-track versions of their albums.   Famously, in 1977 Pink Floyd combined two songs – Pigs On The Wing parts one and 2 – for the 8-track version of Animals.  This version featured a delightful guitar solo from Snowy White which, thanks to some judicious tape editing, linked the two otherwise separate songs.  The Snowy White version of Pigs On The Wing belongs in any serious Floyd collection - take a listen to it here .

4 The EMI/Harvest SQ quadraphonic LP of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother featured the sound effect of a motorcycle, in effect circling or riding around the head of the listener.  One wag was heard to comment – “He ride that thing so fast, it’s a wonder that he don’t come orf.”

5 The www.quadraphonicquad.com website lists the last CBS/Columbia SQ albums as having been released in 1977, whereas RCA kept releasing CD-4 albums until 1978.   EMI kept the Pink Floyd SQ albums on catalogue until about 1981.

6 Modern technology allows surround sound to be created from stereo recordings (known as Upmix) – this effect is available in most home theatre amplifiers.  Whilst it is more successful and convincing than, say, the fake stereo albums of the sixties and seventies, it is no substitute for a proper 4 (or more) channel mix.  This has not prevented numerous bedroom producers creating Upmix versions of their favourite stereo albums and sharing them on the internet as surround sound releases.  What is more interesting is the unofficial release of the Beatles’ mono albums in stereo – all created by Upmix software.  It’s worth seeking these albums out.  Watch out for all of the mistakes and bad editing in the mono version/mix of Sgt Pepper – these are emphasised somewhat in the phony stereo version.   Such mistakes were successfully ironed out of the official stereo mix.  Don’t believe me?  Listen to the start of Good Morning, Good Morning in mono.  Oops.  Meanwhile, purists sniff at the (official) stereo version of Sgt Pepper because The Beatles themselves were not in attendance at the final mix down.