Is it heresy to say that one of the greatest albums of all time just got a little bit better, 57 years after the fact? Possibly, but it doesn’t feel like too strong a statement to make after hearing the just-released Dolby Atmos mix of the Beach Boys’ 1966 classic “Pet Sounds,” as played back in one of the most state-of-the-art Dolby rooms in the world. It’s going to sound different under other listening circumstances, of course, whether the spatially immersive mix is being heard in a home with dozens of carefully calibrated speakers or through one of the all-in-one Atmos boxes that are now coming out. But what’s almost certain is that any status Brian Wilson’s masterpiece might’ve had as your own personal pet project is only going to be elevated with a lusher and richer audio interpretation of the work.
Giles Martin, who handled the Atmos mix, would be the first to recognize there a level of irony to the idea of a spatial mix for an album that Wilson, who was mostly deaf in one ear himself, probably assumed would be heard by most people in mono. And the humble scion of the George Martin family would be the last to claim that this new version marks an improvement, per se, on what went out into the world in ’66. But he makes a strong case — as anyone who has heard it would — that being able to make out more of the parts in the Wrecking Crew’s virtually symphonic playing can only increase your admiration for Wilson’s genius. It’s such a revelation that “Pet Sounds” could even move up a notch in your own personal listmaking above something or another that his dad originally produced. But why compare? In 2023, we can all be pet hoarders.
Martin spoke with Variety via Zoom from his base in London about “Pet Sounds” and about the bright future for Atmos becoming a popularly accessible medium. (The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.) For anyone who’s set up for it, meanwhile — with Martin pointing out that the bar is no longer so high — the new mix can be streamed via Apple, Amazon or Tidal at this link.
Now you’ve had a chance to do an Atmos mix of both “Pet Sounds” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” There was something that your father said about the difference between the two albums back in the day that stuck in your head, right?
When I said to him, “It’s amazing what you did with the Beatles,” he said, “Well, not as amazing what Brian Wilson did. The Beatles had me; I had the Beatles.” My dad was arranging for them; he was their ears in the studios. But essentially Brian didn’t have anyone else — that was the message. Brian had the other band members, but it was not to the same extent. He said, “You should go listen to ‘Pet Sounds’ and go listen to what Brian Wilson did,” because that was someone working without a producer and doing these great sessions.
People talk about those two albums in the same breath, and how “Pet Sounds” influenced the Beatles, but you’ve pointed out that “Pet Sounds” is not psychedelic per se. And it feels like listening to a symphonic classical album, almost, especially in Atmos.
Yeah, that’s what I thought. Anything that was unusual or challenging in 1966 was therefore psychedelic, I suppose. But it’s not essentially a psychedelic album. The sounds on it aren’t unusual. What’s unusual is the way they’ve been put together. Mixing is often compared to cooking, as it should be. And in essence, what we have with “Pet Sounds” is normal ingredients that aren’t quite normal for a pop record, in a blend that works beautifully because of Brian Wilson’s thought process and arrangement skills and genius. That’s what people mean when they say it paved the way for “Pepper,” because it gave permission for everyone else to go: “It doesn’t matter what instruments we use. Let’s use the instruments that make the record, opposed to make the record with these instruments.” And if you take “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” you have I think John (Lennon) playing a bass harmonica there, and that’s a very “Pet Sounds”-y instrument in a way. So I suppose that’s what I mean by it.
There are very few conventional drum parts on “Pet Sounds,” which makes it great for your purposes. Because when drums do come in, it sounds like a sudden blast of tympani or something, and having that explosion of percussion be a little bit more separate in the mix kind of puts a smile on your face when it happens.
Yeah, I think that was [Brian’s] intention as well. He uses drums in an almost orchestral way, where he uses drum to punctuate things, as opposed to having a backbeat throughout. That’s kind of his style, in a way. Even with “Good Vibrations,” the drums aren’t necessarily the driving rhythm; the celli are, in a way. And with ballads like “God Only Knows,” his main, core rhythm is him banging cups on the table. So when you get into my work of remixing, it opens those doors because you have another flavor to bring into the room, always. But that’s not me doing it. That’s just me being able to utilize what they did.
Is there anything you could single out that was most fun for you to play with, as far as the spatial aspect?
There’s things like, in “You Still Believe in Me,” the end comedy horn, which I’m sort of sticking back left. Or the way that the backing vocals generally surround you. I did have a lot of separation with the individual instruments, where I’m doing some sort of playing around with moving back and forth. It’s nice to have, on “Waiting for the Day,” the BBs in the rear. The approach to “Pet Sounds” for me was to celebrate the recording of it as an ensemble, and then to think of the Beach Boys being either a band together or a solo singer with backing vocals. My view of mixing records is that your focus is always the vocal, because that’s the person singing the song, and obviously “God Only Knows” is a solo lead vocal, so therefore the backing vocal could afford to be more expansive and surrounding, because it’s almost like they’re supporting this single voice. When you get something like “Sloop John B,” it’s more of a massive block vocal, so they’re less wide, and therefore you can play around with bringing the band around you more. So it’s a question of nuance, as opposed to specific things.
I mean, there’s such a rich texture of sounds going on within “Pet Sounds” that every track has something strange on it. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is guitar, woodwinds, click-clocks and bass, so that’s hardly a standard rock sound. Or on “I Know There’s an Answer,” I can put the banjo slightly further back in that track, and then you suddenly realize, “Oh my God, there’s a banjo in this song.”
I’ve got to be careful I don’t split the texture too much of the album in itself, because it is meant to (be heard as one thing). I get people writing me saying, “You know, we don’t need to hear everything” — and I think they’ve got a good point. It’s meant to be a mush. It’s like the way some people would complain about high definition. Because you are meant to listen to a song. So I have to be careful I don’t rip things apart too much. At the same point, there’s such deep texture within this record that it’s worth exploring that and listening to flavors. It is like cooking — it’s like having heightened flavors, and being able to taste everything, I think.
When the playback first started and the album began with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” I was thinking, “Well, this doesn’t sound all that transformative.” And then later on it’s like, “Oh, I really hear more of the spatial effect now.” But, I was thinking, well, maybe he’s doing that at the start because he doesn’t want to show off right away, and he wants to save some of the effects for later. Of course, you’re probably working on these one song at a time and not necessarily thinking about what’s the best approach at the beginning of the album. But with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” it does seems more centered, and then it expands for other songs.
Yeah, and I think in a funny way that reflects the way they made the album. It’s a weird thing, isn’t it? You are absolutely right, that “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is not the most expansive, immersive audio mix you’re ever gonna hear. You wouldn’t sell a stereo with it, as I would say. But I would say it — and you know this as you know me from before —I’m not actually that bright. I’m probably not doing that deliberately. I’m doing that because that’s what suits the song. And there’s something a little bit more chaotic about “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” as opposed to the other songs, just the way it’s performed and stuff, where it focuses you on the cracks a little bit more if you open it out.
People talk about “Pet Sounds” in the same terms as “Sgt. Pepper,” as we talked about before, and also “Dark Side of the Moon,” as ultimate sonic experiences or touchstones for people. But one difference is that those albums have a lot of sound effects that listeners might look forward to hearing in Atmos. With “Pet Sounds,” you’ve got one sound effect — at the very end of the album. But it is a lot of fun to it when it comes, finally, with the sound of the train and the dog.
It’s a very subtle record, actually. It’s funny. Actually Rob Dickens, who I used to work for, who used to be head of Warner Brothers, came up to me — he’s a massive “Pet Sounds” person — and he goes, “I was really disappointed in a way until I heard the sound effects at the end, and I then understood what you were doing. It’s not like when I went to a William Orbit playback and everything was flying around everywhere.” I was like, “But Rob, what do you want to fly around your head in ‘Pet Sounds’? What do you want me to pan constantly?” In the Atmos mix of “Pepper,” we put that strange tape loop at the end, going round and round with that strange reverse-forward speech thing that goes on with the dog whistle. When I did this, I was worried, with suddenly having the sound effects at the end, that people would listen and think, ‘He’s only just found out what the Atmos button does at the end of the album!’”
Everyone will have their opinions, as you well know.
It’s also an album that becomes more interesting the more you listen to it. But people will listen to the record, whether they’re listening because they want to hear the mix or listening because they want to disagree with the mix. The great thing is they listen again. You remember how good the songs are. And I love that aspect. I think that’s why I try and be courageous in what I do when I’m mixing, because I’m not deleting anything. When people say to me, “We don’t like what you do. We much prefer the original,” I go, “Great, go and listen to it.” That’s the whole point. It’s a celebration of an album. And of course I’m trying to improve the experience, but if people feel like I haven’t done that, then it’s better because they can go and have the experience again. I’m not taking anything away.
People will likely complain that there is not a Blu-Ray version of this particular Atmos mix, as there wasn’t for the last couple of Beatles projects — that it is online-only. Some people just really want the physical object. Are you of the mind that streaming is such high quality that it doesn’t matter what format the mix comes in?
Well, when it comes to Dolby Atmos, it is kind of the same quality. There’s almost sort of a religious aspect to thi,s where people don’t want to believe in streaming. And I understand why. Do I have a strong view about it? No, not really. I would love that people got what they want all the time. You know, it would frustrate me that someone couldn’t listen to the work I do because it was in the wrong format, or they didn’t believe it would sound good because it’s on a different format, which I don’t think is true. … In the Beatles’ case, I think we did 96/24 files (96kHz/24-bit), I’m not quite sure. But they want the higher-res formats as well, which was available on Blu-Ray.
So many people — us included — still ask, “How can I hear Atmos? Do I have to have 30 speakers in my home?” And still unbeknown to a lot of people, you can listen to an Atmos mix on headphones… and it’s not the ideal, but it exists. Do you have a feeling about what the practical ideal is that people can use to experience this, who aren’t necessarily able to buy a massive system?
Well, it’s hard for me to say (objectively), because I am involved in a company that I’ve been pushing very hard to make Atmos products so I can hear my music on them — basically in a sort of megalomaniac way. And that company is Sonos, and this year we released an Atmos all-in-one music speaker, which is really good. I mean, it’s used now as a reference in studios.
A lot of people listen to one unit and not a stereo pair of speakers in the home, and you can get a much better resolution and a much better immersive experience putting Atmos into a single box than you can in stereo. The reason why that is is that you have discrete channels … If I’m doing a stereo speaker, which I have done, you tend to split apart the mono, so the vocal gets (divided)… With an Atmos mix, you can recognize what’s in the center, put it in the center, and have your left and right and space around you. So I feel the technology can touch people where they live… And what I’ve done with that company over the last few years is, we have got to the stage — and it surprised me how quickly we’ve done it — where we really have got a good experience going where I can listen to the Atmos work I’ve done on a single box. And other people will make the same thing. And it’s better than stereo. It is a surprisingly good way in.
It’s a really good question, because it’s a question I get asked by every single artist… Mick Jagger came in to see me in the studio and we talked about Atmos, and I played him stuff. He goes, “Well, this is great, but how’s anyone gonna hear it?” And so that’s one of the bigger questions. But it’d be interesting for you to listen (on a single Atmos speaker) to see how far you think we’ve come.
The (all-in-one unit) is what I’m talking about right now. But the use in cars is going to be a big turning point. And that’s why it’s great to get this catalog material done, so there is access to it early on. I’m actually going over to look at some cars this week in Amsterdam. It makes sense for cars, just because of the way that cars are. You know where people are in a car. Does that make sense?
It was revealed that you recently did an Atmos version of “Live and Let Die,” which has to be the ultimate for people in terms of songs they’d want to hear from the Wings era or Paul McCartney solo in the format. Obviously when Paul does it live, he tries to make it immersive in his own way, with laser beams and smoke bombs going off and things like that. Was that fun to work on?
Yeah, it was really challenging, actually, “Live and Let Die.” Because I think it’s an eight- track… I don’t remember anything these days; I realize I’m sounding more like my dad, as time goes on. No, it is an eight-track (recording). And one of the problems with remixing brilliant music like “Live and Let Die” is the expectations not just of the public, but of myself, of what it’s gonna be like. I want to hear “Live and Let Die” in Atmos. I want to hear it blasting out. And it took a lot of work, but I think we got to a really good place. I was in Abbey Road the other day and I played it back to a bunch of people and they were like, “Oh my God, now I’m (committing) to an Atmos mix.” And for me, there’s an emotional point to it, because my dad worked with Paul on it, and it’s a brilliant arrangement. The use of piccolos… It’s just a brilliant piece. So it was an emotional challenge to do it, but I’m really happy with the end result, is the answer. And I can’t wait for you to listen to it.