Delivering a whirlwind of sonic diversity, all created during an era defined by tumultuous social confines, Alan Williams has written “Currents” which is a collection of songs that emerges from the separation and embodies the dual essence of power. These compositions delve into the profound impact dynamics wield on personal narratives, where external forces mold internal landscapes, and the gradual erosion of joy battles weariness. Williams considers that amidst the chaos of disparity, emotion emerges as the canvas of our shared humanity, beckoning us to glimpse ‘the me in you and the you in me.’
His latest work follows on the heels of several previous albums that are well regarded by audiophiles and music connoisseurs. Currents is available in multiple formats, but of greatest interest to readers here is the stand-alone Blu-ray that offers both vocal and instrumental mixes of the album in 96kHz / 24-bit 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio and 5.1 LPCM, plus Stereo LPCM versions. Additionally, in a less common twist, there are on screen editions showing either Lyrics or Insightful Commentary, which aided in literally filling the Blu-ray to capacity. This left enough room for one alternate take in both stereo and surround, instead of the original three that were planned, alongside five additional visionary music videos.
Arising from the thriving musical crucible of New England, Alan Williams unfurls his brilliance as both a solo artist and the creative force behind the folk-rock trio, Birdsong at Morning. His artistic journey took root in 2020 when he reissued his inaugural and renamed opus, "Evidence Unearthed," bursting forth in a CD/Blu-Ray package with a newly mixed 5.1 surround sound and stereo version. The album's inaugural strains, reminiscent of the 70’s folk-rock era, captivated hearts with the opening anthem "Tell All the World." A saga as riveting as the music unfolded, as the album's genesis traced back a quarter-century, breathing anew with updated vocals and resplendent strings.
Diving deeper into Williams' melodic treasury, one will find the previously released CD/Blu-Ray editions of Birdsong at Morning's ethereal voyages "A Slight Departure" and "Signs & Wonders." Each of these reveals a sonic marvel enhanced by stellar recording and the immersive embrace of surround mixing.
Now, "Currents" elevates further up the ladder of sonic odysseys, emerging as the next epoch in Williams' continuum, resonating with an even richer tapestry of style, arrangement, and instrumentation. Amidst his harmonious crescendos, the heartstrings of orchestral embellishments evoke dramatic hues. On this album he dauntlessly fuses genres crossing from country rock to folk, progressive rock to new wave, and other styles in between, crafting an inimitable aural tapestry that beckons the soul.
When I first learned of Williams through his work with Birdsong at Morning, I became immediately enamored with the sonics of the release. Not only as an audiophile, but also having been an audio engineer, I was most curious about his process for recording. I reached out to Williams and he shared that he uses a cross platformed based tool called “Nuendo,” which is an updated version of his first digital audio workstation Cubase. At that particular time Nuendo included surround mixing options that were not yet written into the industry standard ProTools software utilized at many recording studios. He continues to note that the studio where strings were tracked happens to use Nuendo, making it very easy to import/export song projects. However, the various Birdsong basics were tracked at either Avatar in NYC or Woolly Mammoth in the Boston region, and those studios both use ProTools, and the files must be imported, and the project recreated in Nuendo. But I digress to drive home the process and how it has changed for the Currents release. With the pandemic in full swing, the drummer Ben Wittman recorded his parts in the basement of his house using yet another digital audio workstation tool called Logic. The drums were recorded using a guitar and vocal guide tracks that were locked to a sync click. And subsequently exported and then imported into Nuendo for the next phases of tracking, editing, and finally mixing.
The astonishingly pristine sound quality is all accomplished "in the box" using Nuendo and the set of plug-ins offered by Universal Audio and their Apollo interface/processing. It may come as a surprise to audiophiles that Williams home studio has always been thrown together going through various incarnations. To my ears, he makes it all sound amazing, and he noted that if he waited until he could afford a perfectly tuned studio, he would still be waiting and none of these albums would exist.
Pressing play on the Currents album, "Think of the Night" is a resounding overture that engulfs the listener in explosive waves. The grandeur of a colossal drum kit commands the auditory realm, while Williams' compelling lead vocals dominate the forefront. Acoustic guitars and strings swirl from the rear, creating an intoxicating panorama.
Transitioning seamlessly, the immersive allure of "For My Heaven" paints an atmospheric canvas. Acoustic guitars and shakers cocoon the senses, paving the way for a sudden crescendo of electric guitars and backing vocals that spring forth from behind.
Embarking on a playful new wave popish escapade, "Giving You a Warning" stands as a polished rocker, its lyrical whimsy and vocal flair reminiscent of The Cars' iconic Ric Ocasek. The surround mix envelopes listeners in vocal echoes, drum ambience, and electric guitar riffs that spread out across the room.
"Fall From the Sky" transports us to the serene realms encountered in "For My Heaven," with a discreetly placed ticking clock evoking a captivating dimension from the right rear speaker. One of my favorite tracks, "Season of the Lottery," unfurls in all its 'progressive' glory. A dazzling guitar solo extends an invitation to sonic nirvana. Williams' harmonies embrace the listener, enveloping them in an aural embrace that defies convention.
The title track, "Currents," takes center stage, boasting an unparalleled sonic spectrum. Oceanic echoes resound from the rear speakers, orchestrating an auditory voyage. The middle segment tantalizes, as drumbeats cascade across the soundscape, and Williams' voice dances with telephonic inflections, traversing speakers in a mesmerizing choreography.
I wanted to further understand how Williams embraced high-resolution audio, and he unequivocally replied that he absolutely hears a difference between 44.1kHz and 48kHz, specifically at higher bit depths, 24-bit versus 16-bit. Although the difference going up to 96kHz isn’t as distinct, it is a non-starter for Atmos which utilizes a 48kHz sample rate. Williams further expands on the immersion aspect, in terms of opening up mixes, hearing detail, or exposing flaws, when working in 5.1 that is when things get interesting. It is not necessarily revealing flaws, rather elements that might have been overwhelmed in a dense stereo mix. The "flaws" are more in terms of arrangement conception where too many elements are competing within an area of the frequency spectrum. Surround mixes provide enough space for competing elements spread out in different places in the soundstage so that they at least have their own spatial "area" even while sharing similar frequencies.
Still setting aside the surround mix for the moment, many seasoned mixers will advise newbies to get the stereo mixes completed before moving on to the immersive surround or Atmos mixes. This is because it is much easier to open a mix than it is to consolidate it. In short, problems that require plenty of creative time to solve in stereo may not even be problematic in immersive mixes. However, it all leads back to the very basics where Williams tends to approach recording with a focus on getting excellent sounds from great musicians. He comments that both elements of the equation are essential, and he has been fortunate to get to work with some truly excellent musicians.
For those who wish to venture further into the recording process, Williams created a video series known as the Deep Dives that was inspired by his fascination with cinema along with a documentaries series of the making of "classic albums." In this series aging rock stars talked about why they wrote a song, along with segments during which multitracks were played back in the studio while producers and engineers soloed various tracks to demonstrate the recording process. During the various segments of the Currents Deep Dive series found on YouTube he reveals his own creative recording processes, offering a real insight to the many layers of the album. Not only is this a great series for budding musicians, engineers, and producers, but sheds a spotlight on the details that audiophiles may find interesting to discover.
For connoisseurs who reveled in the auditory sorcery of Williams' preceding 5.1 surround releases, the trajectory of "Currents" stands as an unequivocal imperative. This Blu-ray is a must have for folk-rock collectors, surround enthusiasts, and those seeking amazing sounding albums. Looking forward, the question lingers, will Williams' next endeavor embrace the realm of Dolby Atmos, amplifying the immersion even further?
Released December 9, 2022.
Take a Deep Dive into the making of Currents
Blu-ray featuring 96kHz / 24-bit DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 5.1 surround, along with 2.0 LPCM stereo mixes. Also available on CD, as a download, and via popular streaming platforms.
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About the Author
Wesley is a lifelong music enthusiast. He started his career in the recording industry in New York City as an audio engineer, producer, and studio manager. Subsequently he toured across America as a guitarist with the short-lived band Land's Crossing. After many years in the technology sector and amassing a substantial vinyl and CD collection, he delved into immersive audio and created Hi-Res Edition to share with other listeners about the sound quality and discrete mixes available on many formats. He recently upgraded his system to 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos and continues to seek out and share about the best sounding releases.