Queen Rock You Like Never Before

Roy Thomas Baker helps surround sound and "A Night at the Opera"

March 22, 2002 12:00 AM ET

When Roy Thomas Baker and Brian May talk about "BoRap," it's not some new hip-hop project from the legendary rock producer and the guitarist from Queen. It's shorthand for "Bohemian Rhapsody," the signature song of the artsy English rock band.

And the reason they're talking about it -- and were recently together at Capitol Records in Hollywood -- was to remix that song and all of A Night at the Opera, originally released in 1975, for a new release in DTS 5.1 surround sound on the DTS Entertainment label.

It's a fitting format for this music, as Baker reveals. "When we were recording A Night at the Opera, we had a type of surround sound in mind, so it's great to get to do it now in DTS 5.1. Quite a lot of this mix," he insists, "is how we heard it in our heads when we were doing it [twenty-seven years ago]."

May and Baker were experimenting with then-state-of-the-art technology -- "dummy heads" from Sennheiser -- which were basically mannequin heads with mikes in their ears -- for a surround-sound effect. The limitation, Baker recalls, was that it only worked if you listened with headphones.

But 5.1, a new standard in theater and home audio, has no such limitations, and the remix of "BoRap" and the other tunes brings new life to the classic tracks. Hearing it this way for the first time is a little like watching The Wizard of Oz, when the film turns from black and white to vivid color -- that's how dramatic the difference is from the stereo sound of the regular CD to the DTS 5.1 version.

"It's a better emotional experience [than stereo]," Baker says of 5.1 audio. "You feel like you're part of the band or orchestra." He's convinced the format is here to stay. "If you like music, if you want to sit down and listen," Baker says, "this is the only way."

"This will be the biggest ever for the format," says David DelGrosso, VP Marketing for DTS Entertainment. Indeed, this recording is perfect to show off the capabilities of home theater systems as Baker's new mix has hundreds, if not thousands, of virtual Freddy Mercurys surrounding the listener and chanting "Mama mia, mama mia!"

Baker concurs. "It's a great test disk. It has great separation, and great harmonics with vocals, pianos and guitars. It's not just a guitar, but a guitar orchestra, not just vocals but a full choir."

With a little help from engineer Elliot Scheiner, already a pro in the 5.1 format, Baker went back to the original twenty-four-track analog masters and transferred them to a hard drive. He mixed off the hard drive, and then converted the music back to analog because he still needed to get his signature saturation sound, which can't be replicated in digital. And Baker likes the DTS technology because it uses less compression than other 5.1 systems like Dolby.

The new 5.1 mix of A Night at the Opera makes full use of all the speakers, with a big, fat drum sound, vocals flying all around (especially on "BoRap") and great presence in the lead guitar. "BoRap" is 5:54 of sonic bliss that completely envelopes the listener.

Baker is so enthusiastic about the recently completed project that he's looking forward to his next 5.1 projects. While nothing is yet in the works and his personal choice would be to rework the debut album by the Cars. "I want to go back," he says, "and do all my previous recordings in 5.1."

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