Most audiophiles are familiar with Tubular Bells, the classic 1973 album from multi-instrumentalist and composer Mike Oldfield. For the uninitiated, you are in for a treat. Also known as the theme to the 1973 feature film The Exorcist, the song spans two parts, which were side A and side B of the vinyl record back in the day. An aspect that makes this recording so incredible is that not only was Oldfield a youthful 19 at the time of the recording, but he also literally played every instrument on the album. Still, that is not all, Tubular Bells was the first album to be released on the newly formed label, Virgin Records, born out of Richard Branson’s classified Mail Order service that had already morphed into a brick-and-mortar store. The original store apparently was a fun twist to retail, offering a place to listen to records and relax with friends, and earned a reputation as an industry disruptor.
Sales of the album initially were slow, but that all changed when the movie The Exorcist was released in December 1973. The recognition catapulted Tubular Bells into the top ten of the UK Albums Chart for one year after that, during which it reached number one for one week. Furthermore, on the USA side it reached number three on the Billboard 200, plus number one in Canada and Australia. It has gone on to sell more than an estimated 15 million copies worldwide.
Originally produced by Tom Newman, Simon Heyworth, and Mike Oldfield the legacy continues with the 50th anniversary limited edition from the SDE Label. #10 in their exclusive series, the limited edition was sold over a two-week period to5,000 dedicated immersive collectors, and now is only available from third party resellers, typically at accelerated prices.
However, with all of this in mind, this is more of an observational review about the different mixes that are on the Blu-ray, and even have a listen to the 2003 edition. But before I do that, I want to remark that this was a limited edition that is already sold out and its availability is slim to non-existent. Super Deluxe Edition was able to release this Blu-ray due to the spatial audio mix that was completed by mixing engineer David Kosten. Furthermore, it is apropos that this is his first commercial Atmos project, effectively bringing everything in full circle from then to now.
Kosten’s Atmos journey really began when he sat in on the Atmos mixing of the album “The Future Bites” by mixing guru Steven Wilson. Truly this stuck with him, soon realizing how many of the projects he had worked on could benefit from the spatial aspects of Atmos. An album like Tubular Bells that is rich with layers and multiple parts is perfect for Atmos, as has already been the case for 5.1 surround over the past couple of decades, and even quad going back some fifty years ago.
The SDE 50th Anniversary Blu-ray edition offers five different versions in total, including three unique immersive versions, the original 1973 Quad mix in DTS 96kHz / 24-bit, the 2009 5.1 DTS 96kHz / 24-bit Surround mix, and the all new 2023 Dolby Atmos spatial mix. Additionally, the original stereo mix and new 2023 stereo mix are included as high-resolution 96kHz / 24-bit audio presented on an easy to navigate menu system. I can’t be clear enough that each of these mixes are truly unique, and for completists It is worthy to also obtain the 2003 5.1 surround DVD-A which includes newly recorded parts.
Having become a quad fanatic after discovering my own enthusiasm for surround music, I continue to be on the hunt for amazing quad mixes. Naturally Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon ranks up there, but it may come as a surprise to some readers that I think Tubular Bells may even trump that Parson’s classic quad mix. Simply consider that some 100 parts were creatively recorded to a 16-track master reel, making mixing both the stereo and quad mixes a feat of engineering acrobatics. Oldfield truly took on a serious challenge when producing this classic album!
Clearly for purists undoubtably the quad mix is the most authentic version, offering up an aural palate of what Oldfield intended the album to sound like at that moment in time. Given mixing automation didn’t yet exist, by no means is the quad mix a direct expansion of the stereo mix. There are discernible balance differences between instruments, some which served as adjustments due to their placement in the back channels. There are too many adjustments to cover here when it comes to placement of parts, but what is important to note is that the quad mix is fully enveloping from the moment it starts. There is an excellent use of reflective reverb from the front to the back and truly cool ear candy of parts playing off each other from the left front to the back right channels, among other quad mania.
Next on the SDE exclusive Blu-ray is the 2009 surround mix. This is the version that started Oldfield’s 5.1 surround remix campaign on DVD-V that went on to cover several of his earlier albums and led him to compose and release “Return to Ommadawn” in 2017, which effectively concluded the surround series. For the past decade this version has been my go-to Tubular Bells surround experience, and it offers very good transitions, along with smoothing of parts that stood out on the quad version. I certainly considered this the best version I had heard at that time. For my ears, the 2009 5.1 mix cleaned up a lot of balance issues while also altering the placement of several parts that one may or may not find appealing. Since it was the first immersive version I heard, I had no aural imprint, and was delighted with the mix at that time.
Now, when I inserted the SDE Blu-ray and became fully immersed in the new Dolby Atmos mix, I was completely astounded. I truly felt that my ears had reached nirvana and that this mix held truer to the original version when it came to balance and placement of instruments, all while elevating the aural experience by providing improved transitions and fantastic clarity. In fact, the starting point for the Atmos mix was the original stereo version. Kosten first recreated the original stereo mixes as close as possible, going on to generate stems that were used for the Atmos mix. However, along the way he was met with some difficulties when he discovered that important parts were simply missing from the multitrack masters that were challenging to overcome. These included the actual tubular bells used on the album, which he ended up finessing from the stereo master, thankfully ingenuity and technology came to the rescue!
Kosten has generously utilized the height channels, giving rise to bells, guitars, and plenty of other parts. Back-channels fire with organ, piano, voices, among many of the other 100 parts integrated into the two-part album. The depth accentuates the spatial nature of the Dolby Atmos mix which fully encompasses the sweet spot. I felt that dynamics were improved, and overall tone was vivid. If it isn’t clear yet, the Dolby Atmos mix has now become my go to version and given the musicality of this mix I will certainly be following Kosten’s immersive remix work.
I still must comment on the 2003 edition of Tubular Bells, even though it is truly unique compared to the original 1973 version. First, readers may have seen posts and reviews from other listeners noting their preference for the Tubular Bells 2003 remake. Let’s be clear, for years Oldfield wanted to re-record his original master, but couldn’t for at least 25 years due to his label contract. So, finally in 2003, he issued an updated version, reworking many of the parts. There are simply too many to describe in full here, but these include a more defined and richer bass, alternate guitar parts, bombastic crescendos, modernized reverberation, and use of digital delays. I can say this drastically changes the piece, and for long time listeners of the original version, the remake likely won’t sit too well. There are aspects that I really do like, and other aspects that flat out don’t work for me. On the other hand, if I just consider the surround mix, I can absolutely say it is a fantastic 5.1 surround version. I find it much more interesting than the 2009 5.1 mix and without any reservations, I prefer the overall balance between the parts, which include both decreasing and increasing specific elements, plus I especially find myself enthralled with the heightened dynamics. Yet, while some collectors wished the 2003 version had been included on the SDE edition – I simply disagree, and note once again that these are unique versions and should remain separate. Thus, no true comparison between these versions is really possible, and the SDE Blu-ray offers all the various editions a collector of the original 1973 version would ever want.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the two stereo mixes included on the Blu-ray. These are available in both LPCM 48kHz / 24-bit and LPCM 96kHz / 24-bit codecs. Given how Kosten diligently remixed the new stereo version to match the original, some may find it difficult to easily distinguish the difference. Modern audio technology has inevitably come in handy, and the new mixes have been cleaned up nicely, offering a level of transparency that wasn’t possible in the analog realm. Distortion and hiss have been moderated and brilliance and richness elevated. Of course, after experiencing the Atmos immersion, I find it painfully flat to listen to a wall of sound – especially one as detailed as Tubular Bells.
No matter which is your preferred mix, enjoy the various versions found on the limited SDE Blu-ray. If this is still not in your collection, find a copy before prices become unreasonably high. For me the Atmos mix is worthy of the admission price, and the inclusion of all the other mixes absolutely makes this edition a must have.
- 2023 Dolby Atmos new mix
- 2009 5.1 surround mix (reissue)
- 1973 quad mix, available for the first time in digital form
- 1973 original stereo mix
- 2023 new stereo mix.
Released May 26, 2023.
Blu-ray limited edition featuring Dolby Atmos 48kHz / 24-bit mixes, DTS 5.1 96kHz / 24-bit surround mixes, and LPCM 96kHz / 24-bit stereo mixes. Also available via streaming sites as the 50th Anniversary version.
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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.