Download of the Week: Pet Sounds and a Q&A with Recording Engineer Mark Linett

According to the Discogs database, there have been 76 releases of Pet Sounds. This total includes the original mono LP, numerous LP reissues, the mono CD, a stereo version first mixed for The Pet Sound Sessions engineered and produced by Mark Linett under the supervision of Brian Wilson, a HDCD, a DCC gold disc, a 5.1 surround mix on DVD-A also engineered by Mark Linett, a Mo-Fi SACD from 2012 again engineered by Mark Linett, and the latest stereo/mono CD from 2012 mastered by Mark Linett. We also now have the 2012 HDtracks 24/192 version. Here's what HDtracks has to say about it, "Stereo mix produced, engineered and mastered at 24bit/192kHz by The Beach Boys’ long time Grammy®-Award-Winning engineer Mark Linett under the supervision of Brian Wilson." That's all. So I figured I'd ask Mark Linett about Pet Sounds and see if we could get some more information. Mark was kind enough to answer a few questions about what is arguably (I would) one of the most important albums of our time, The Beach Boys Pet Sounds.

Mark Linett left, right, and center with Brian Wilson
Q&A with Mark Linett

Two time Grammy Award winning Engineer and Producer Mark Linett is perhaps best known for his work with The Beach Boys. Mark was responsible for The Pet Sounds Sessions box set which was nominated for "Best Historical Album" at the 1996 Grammy Awards. He was also nominated in 2004 in the best engineering category for Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, and is again nominated this year as the co-producer and engineer of last year's SMiLE Sessions box set. He has also worked with Brian Wilson, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction, Los Lobos, Rickie Lee Jones, and Randy Newman. I'd like to thank Mark for taking the time to give us some background on the HDtracks Pet Sounds release.

Could you explain the process of creating the stereo mix of Pet Sounds?
To create the stereo mix of Pet Sounds I needed to manually sync two and sometimes three original multi-track analog tapes for each song. The original recording process in 1966 was to dub from machine to machine in order to open up tracks for doing overdubs. Pet Sounds' basic tracks were all done on 1/2" four track with the band being spread out over three of those tracks with the fourth containing a rough mono mix used for monitoring the session. This fourth track was used for the first vocal pass on some of the songs. The one exception on the tracking dates was "Sloop John B" the oldest recording, which was tracked to 1/2" three track. For half of the album, Brian mixed the backing track to mono onto one track of a second four track leaving three tracks for vocals, and that tape would be mixed to mono for the finished record. On the rest of the tracks, he took the tapes to CBS studios which at the time had the only 8 track 1" machine in LA. There he dubbed the track down to mono on one track of the 8 track and used the remaining tracks for vocals. The 8 track would then be mixed to mono for the finished record.

So in order to have anything but a mono backing track for the stereo mix these different tapes needed to be manually synced to create a new multi-track master with all of the recorded elements in their original undubbed form. To do this in 1996 I used the then state of the art Sony digital multi-track machines running at 48k/ 16 bit. I began by transferring the original 3 or 4 track backing track, and then using the mono mix on the vocal tape(s) as a guide adjusted the speed of those tapes as they were transferred until I could get the two backing tracks (3 track and mono) to stay in sync for at least 30 seconds. Once I found this speed I would transfer the entire vocal multi-track and then dubbing between two digital machines further adjust the sync so that the vocals remained in sync throughout each song. The result was an 8 to 10 track master that could be used for the mix.

The mix was done analog through an API console as well as an original Universal Audio tube console that had been used for many original Beach Boys recordings. The completed stereo mix was recorded on 1/4" analog tape running at 15 ips with Dolby SR noise reduction, and it is these analog mixes that have been used for all the stereo releases of Pet Sounds.

What was the source of the HDtracks 24/192 release?
The stereo mix has always come from my analog mixes. This applies to the CD, DVD-A and SACD as well as the HD tracks versions. I should note that by the time we did the surround mix of Pet Sounds, computer digital recording was available, so I repeated the entire sync process again this time using a DAW (digital audio workstation) running at 96 khz/ 24 bit and that new multi-track master was used to mix the surround version of the album to multi-track analog running at 15 ips with SR noise reduction.

Since the stereo mixes went through the Sony digital multi-track machines which are 16/48, how could the resulting analog tape have information that benefits from a 24/192 version?
Thousands of albums from that period used the Sony digital decks for recording so it is no different than any of those. The most important difference in the stereo mix is the mix is two to four generations closer to the original sessions than the mono mix created in 1966 from dubs of the original sessions. Arguably the benefit of this more than compensates for any questions about the digital sample rate of the Sony machines, and I think this is quite obvious if you compare the sonic quality of the stereo vs the mono mix.

Mixing it analog allowed us to enhance the mix to the standards of the day and mastering it at 192 as opposed to 44.1 certainly makes a difference in what the consumer hears. I was blown away when I heard the 192 mastering as well as the MOFI SACD. The mixes never sounded better and I was told that very little or no eq was used.

Thank you Mark! Now I suppose some of you may be thinking that that trip through the 16/48 Sony machines may have undermined the value of a HD release but as Mark points out, this as about as close as you're ever going to get to Pet Sounds short of a time machine. And the 24/192 HDtracks version was transferred directly from Mark's analog tapes. Besides, the real question is, how does Pet Sounds sound?

I purchased the 24/192 version of Pet Sounds from HDtracks and am happy to report that it sounds marvelous. For you numbers-lovers, the overall DR Value for the album scores a whopping 13, equal to the SACD release in being the most dynamic digital release to date, and there's plenty of spectral energy above CD's brick wall limit. But my ears already told me much more than what my eyes and "13" did. Compared to my rip of the mono CD, there's no comparison. The CD sounds closed in, small, muddled, spatially foreshortened, and digital. The HDtracks 24/192 version sounds big, smooth, and not digital.

From my way of listening, I'd say that any self-respecting Pet Sounds lover will want to own an original mono LP and the HDtracks 24/192 version. The latter sounds beautiful, rich, billowy, sweet, with just enough resolution to draw you into the finer musical points without being too pointed. Stunning, really.

You can buy the 24/192 stereo mix of The Beach Boys Pet Sounds from HDtracks.

deckeda's picture

My late grandfather, many years ago was in the market for a new car. Well, used. He was pretty frugal and only bought used cars. He was very interested in a mint Caddy and went to drive it over at the owner's house. Afterwards he declined purchase, saying he didn't think he deserved to own it or something similar. As a kid I though this was a sweet, if oddly weird thing to refrain enjoyment from since he clearly valued the car. For a while I had that same experience listening to this new iteration of Pet Sounds.

"Should I let myself hear this? I'm enjoying it too much!"

For many years I've owned the DCC CD and enjoyed it. More recently I've heard a 24-bit rip of the also-über rare and expensive DCC LP which easily bests it although of course it retains the same overall character.

I'd never heard any of the earlier stereo versions and jumped straight to this 24/192 and had to pause it several times to collect myself. It can be a bit overwhelming to come to grips with such a seminal recording anew. Amazing work, Mr. Linett and thanks once again ML for bringing us the insider's view into the people to contribute to the process of making music!

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Amazing work by Mr. Linett for sure.

"Should I let myself hear this? I'm enjoying it too much!"

Have you ever read Freud's "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis"? If not, you might find it interesting.

deckeda's picture

But the psychological implications weren't lost on me then ... or now. Thanks for the suggestion.

deckeda's picture

Here's my take on why something like 24/192 could be relevant here.

Then again if this is an irrelevant analogy I apologize. Prepare for this to possibly go off the rails a bit.

Say you'd like to copy a 4x6" photograph and there's no original negative nor digital file. In order to make another 4x6" print you have to scan the first at a much higher resolution than is otherwise required to produce one of that size and resolution to overcome scanning and other conversion imperfections.

In other words the process can't, by definition, get out of its own way completely transparently. And I think that jibes with our understanding that sample rate isn't merely about frequency response (bandwidth) or spectral blips on a computer monitor. Yes?

That said I "wouldn't mind" if the tapes were once again threaded up and run through modern ADCs and captured at modern rates. :) That's a cost vs. benefit discussion most labels have strong opinions about and no they shouldn't have to revisit the same project every few years whenever audio nerds type stuff on the Internet. (See also the 2008 24/48 conversions run through a consumer DAC deemed "good enough" by EMI for cutting the new Beatles LPs.)

The unanswered question is, what about the 24/96 that costs $7 less? Are you gonna save the lousy $7 and wonder what was left on the table, or have to turn in your Audiophile Club card? Or buy them both and spend possibly a long time comparing them, only to not be able to sell the one you don't want ... ? Marketing's a bitch.

hotsoup's picture

I recently purchased the Mo-Fi CD and like it. Before that I just had the 40th Anniversary downloaded from Amazon. It was quite dynamic (DR 12) and nice sounding. I didn't realize it was the same engineer..