Joel Goldenberg: The Best of Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin in the 1970s.

Quadraphonic sound, one of the earlier forms of surround sound with music emanating from four speakers, has made a limited comeback since its demise circa 1976-77.

From around 1972 to 1975, especially on the Columbia and RCA Victor labels, there were numerous quad releases in all genres — classical, jazz, rock, country and soul.

But quad died because setting up such a system was rather expensive, there was no one system consumers could buy that would play all quad records and the quality of the mixes was rather erratic. Some were magnificent (Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon by engineer Alan Parsons, Harry Nilsson's Nilsson Schmillson) and others were erratic or sucked (Paul McCartney and Wings' Venus and Mars, which I have on a DTS CD was erratic, and the ones that sucked produced fake quad from stereo or mono sources).

Also, the records that produced four-channel sound in the CD-4 format (favoured by RCA and the Warner Bros. family of labels) may have produced more discrete sound than the SQ matrix records put out mostly by Columbia Records, but the format resulted in scratched-up records.

I confirmed this fact several years ago after I excitedly downloaded a DTS surround file of The Best of Aretha Franklin, put out in the early 1970s on Atlantic Records (already part of Warner) in quad. The resulting file, which I transferred to a CD, had such loud crackling sound that the recording was not at all enjoyable.

Thankfully for fans of quad sound, the album has been reissued on a DTS CD by Rhino Records, and can be heard in full clarity. This is one aspect of how quadraphonic is making a comeback — an original recording can be reissued on DTS-CD, DVD and/or Blu-ray no matter the format, removing the compatibility problem that also hurt the SACD and DVD-Audio music surround formats.

Another way quad is making a bit of a comeback has nothing to do with its four-channel characteristics. Instead, people have discovered that quad albums, even when played back in two-channel sound, have different versions of songs than the stereo albums in many cases.

One aspect is a switch from mono or narrow stereo to full stereo, as was the case for three songs from Sly and the Family Stone's Greatest Hits, and a few (such as Proud Mary) on Creedence Clearwater Revival's Gold compilation.

Another aspect is differences in the mix, whether they be instrumental parts that are more prominent or newly added in quad, or different vocal takes than the originals.

Which brings me back to The Best of Aretha Franklin, which I have on LP.

Hearing this album was a revelation. As mentioned above, the DTS-CD sound was pretty bad, so I have no comment on the quality of the quad sound.

But the differences from listening on a regular stereo system are both evident and, in at least two cases, drastic.

Some of the 1960s songs, which I have a feeling were not effective in quad because of the recording technology limitations of the time, have a massive amount of echo added, especially on Respect. I'm sure, in quad, the echo travels to the rear speakers.

But the two wildly different songs are Chain of Fools and Rock Steady, both fantastic songs in any case.

I submit that they are presented at their best on the quad LP. Chain of Fools has an extended gospel-like intro that lengthens the song by at least two minutes, and has superlative singing by Aretha. This version was reissued in stereo only in the late 1990s on CD, so I felt very privileged for a good while.

Rock Steady is wonderful in a very different way. I first heard this song on the quad LP, and I was struck by the swampy atmospherics presented through the percussion sounds throughout, especially at the end.

But when I then heard Rock Steady on a regular stereo CD, I was extremely disappointed. It sounded like a songwriter's demo. Much of the instrumentation sounded like it was stripped away, and the slinky percussive ending (which sounded like a snake's rattle) on the quad was missing, and the song just faded out in stereo.

I felt very lucky to own the quad LP, and I'm slightly considering getting Rhino's Quadio reissue. However, it's pretty pricey ($30 U.S. for 12 songs) and, as mentioned before, if I play music at any volume on my surround system, I'll get a complaint from my condo neighbour.

Next time: Elvis Presley's C'mon Everybody LP.

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