Jerry Harrison: Talking Heads in Surround Sound
By Dustin Driver
Surround sound is perfect for action movies, but for the entire Talking Heads music catalog? Jerry Harrison, the keyboardist and guitarist for the legendary band, thinks so. “It’s a new way to experience this wonderful music,” he says. “You hear more deeply into each song; it becomes so visceral.”
Harrison, master remixer E.T. Thorngren, and engineer Matt Cohen remixed all eight Talking Heads studio albums in surround sound for the massive DVD/CD compilation “Talking Heads Brick.” The opus cleaned house at the 2005 Surround Music Awards, winning four awards, including “Best Overall Surround Release of the Year.
Since then, Harrison has woven surround sound mixes of his own albums and is currently finishing the surround mix for the film “Ten Days Out: Blues from the Backroads.” The film features guitar virtuoso Kenny Wayne Shepherd playing with both legendary and little-known blues masters in the Deep South. Harrison’s shop, Sausalito Sound in California, is at the forefront of surround sound remixing. “Surround sound just sounds fantastic,” he says. “It’s the difference between listening to an MP3 and a CD. It’s dramatic when you have a proper system.”
The early sound of Talking Heads tended toward the sparse, seasoned with haunting vocals. It wasn’t until the fifth and sixth studio albums — “Remain in Light” (1980) and “Speaking in Tongues” (1983) — that the band beefed up its sound. So when Rhino Records asked Harrison to go over the Talking Heads catalog for reissue, they asked him to start there. “Because they’re so dense with material, they seemed ideal for multichannel audio,” he says. “We did those two and they came out so well that we decided to put all the albums out at once.”
“Talking Heads Brick” contains all eight Talking Heads studio releases remixed in 5.1 surround sound, plus several music videos and previously unreleased songs on dual DVD/CD disks. “It’s almost a month’s worth of enjoyment,” says Harrison. “There’s a lot of material in the set and all of it is new in some way.”
Harrison secured all the original Talking Heads studio tapes and had them dubbed to hard drive at a 192kHz sample rate, giving him complete control over every song in the collection.
From there, his team was ready to massage them with his Power Mac G5 running a 72-output Pro Tools HD system.
But tweaking classics like “Burning Down the House” and “Psycho Killer” wouldn’t be easy. “We came up with a philosophy,” he says. “We liked the band in front of you. We liked a stereo stage that expands around you. We wanted the impact of the band; we didn’t like the idea of the listener being in the middle of it all. It just seemed too tricky and a bit unnatural.”
The engineers at Sausalito Sound took advantage of the 5.1 surround environment to spread out the sound. “Certain things work well in the rear channels,” says Harrison. “The sonically dense songs sound fantastic. We were able to take overlapping parts and put them on separate channels, which made the songs sound clear and alive. Even with the more sparse material, a few parts on the rear channels have a big impact.”
When they sat down at their Power Macs to remix the Talking Heads collection, Harrison and his crew were mindful of fans’ expectations. “People have listened to the music carefully for years,” says Harrison. “You want the listeners to feel like there’s more to it, but you don’t want them to say, ‘Wow, this is totally different.’ For the most part, we stayed true to the original mixes. If something nice came into the song as it was fading out, we extended the mix a little bit — we weren’t locked into the time constraints of an LP.”
As a bonus, the team did add a few new mixes of some iconic songs. “We did include an additional extended mix of ‘Burning Down the House.’ We started with the original arrangement, but took it in a new direction. We felt much freer with that song because we already had the original mix in the compilation.”
Harrison used digital audio filters sparingly. “We did use some equalizers and compressors and a little reverb for 5.1 surround from Trillium Lane Labs. The studio is also filled with a ton of old analog compressors that we still use. They have a sound that can’t be completely recreated in the digital realm. We run the digital audio out to them and bring it back into Pro Tools. We’re essentially combining things from both the digital and the analog world.”