The Ringmaster is the next collection of music in the Sanctuary series from multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, and audio engineer Robert Reed. He has been working on this double album set for quite some time, and I assure surround enthusiasts that his hard work has taken his music and mixing to new levels. It seems that the years of experience with his band Magenta, and various side projects including Kompendium, Cyan, Kiama, and Chimpan A have benefited this Sanctuary project in a variety of ways, including audio fidelity, immersive mixes, and the overall composition.
The concept album has been split into two parts, with the first volume originally released October 8, 2021, and followed a few months later with the second volume on February 4, 2022. I held off on ordering the first volume, as my preference was to binge listen to the entire album. Ironically, this was not the intention of Reed, who separated the releases to allow time for the music of the first volume to be fully experienced by listeners before moving on to the second volume.
Now, with both volumes having been released, surround enthusiasts will surely want to get a hold of The Ringmaster Complete Edition, which includes Part One and Part Two, each containing 2 CD’s and 1 DVD-V featuring a 5.1 surround mix of the entire album in both DTS and Dolby Digital. Or up the ante with the Collectors Pack that adds in postcards, stickers, the Ringmaster story booklet by Les Penning, plus the exclusive “Robert Reed: Sanctuary Four Piano” DVD on which Reed performs tracks from The Ringmaster and the Sanctuary albums.
You may not believe me, but Reed has absolutely upped the ante on The Ringmaster. His surround mixes are typically excellent, yet on this release it seems as if he has taken everything he's learnt from his previous Sanctuary projects and advanced everything to a new level. The end result is very powerful, offering plenty of dynamics, steeped in crystal clarity, and completely enveloping the listener. Simply put, the entire Ringmaster double album is one of the best surround mixes I have ever heard!
The first album opens with brief narration embellished with melodic piano passages upfront and traditional choral passages by Synergy Vocalists Micaela Haslam and Heather Cairncross responding from the rear speakers. The sounds of Celtic melodies settle in from both the front left and rear left channels as an acoustic guitar plucks out counter melodic phrases in the back right.
Full orchestration crashes in across the front channels as “The First Guardian of Everywhere” begins, plus the choir elevates from the back channels. Even with the vast density of the music, nothing feels like it is stepping on any other part. I welcome the pure transparency, which allows for plenty of space and ease of melding of all of the parts. One can absolutely hear reflections of Mike Oldfield‘s characteristic sounds that Reed so lovingly has expended with his own brilliant musicality.
What makes the overall mix so incredible is the constant evolution as it moves from song to song, which incorporates playful movement of parts, as well as complete shifts in locations of instruments, providing fantastic ear candy. There is a delightful use of the reverberant space, which opens up the various instruments from the front into the rears and vice versa, immersing the listener into the complete soundscape that describes the story of the Ringmaster. As on previous releases, Reed plays the bulk of the instruments, from keyboards to guitars, bass, and more. However, he has continued to expand the addition of other musicians to accompany the numerous parts he performs.
Many progressive rock albums create a story, typically with lyrics. However, much of the storyline of the Ringmaster is told as instrumentals, with some narration, occasional lead vocals plus the Synergy Choir. The underlying story tells the tale of a minstrel transformed into someone who is capable of releasing the music trapped in and tormenting the minds of composers everywhere. Living in the weird, limitless, and fantastic minds of all who choose to dream of worlds beyond their own, the Ringmaster illustrates through musical journey that nothing can be ruled out and the fantasy may become the reality,
Reed selectively segues some songs into the next, while others fully stand on their own. He blends and moves seamlessly between traditional Celtic folk, Gaelic song, Welsh infused pieces, progressive rock, new age, and other international styles. This potpourri makes for a diverse set of music wherein something fresh is just around the corner, as one moves from one passage to the next. From the somber to the jubilant, from the complex to the laid-back, Reed has created a masterpiece that was recorded between July 2020 to August 2021 at Big Studio in South Wales. Additionally, modern technology has given way to remote connectivity, wherein Simon Phillips sat at his drum set at Phantom Recording Studio in the USA to complete his parts for the double album.
Even on the quietest pieces, such as The Gatekeeper, Reed finds a way to fully immersed the listener with acoustic guitars upfront playing chords under Les Penning’s melodic whistle that reverberates in deep space from the back channels, alongside tremolo mandolin and angelic voices. Even while the various instruments are placed into a very open space they are extremely direct with crystal clarity allowing listeners to even hear the subtlety of a pin drop.
Fantastic use of the surround space is exhibited on “A Sign of Sendlinger” wherein synthesizers swell in from the front, in turn opening up into the back channels. The distinct warm acoustic guitar is embellished by the vibrant vocals of Less Penning as this very airy piece floats all around the sweet spot.
As one would expect, the DTS codec is richer and more dynamic compared to the Dolby Digital version. I admit that these are both closer to one another, unlike other releases I have heard in the past. This similarity is obviously favorable for those who have not yet upgraded to systems that can decode DTS yet. Each are presented as 48kHz / 24-bit 5.1 surround. Still, my choice codec is the DTS version. However, I am still surprised that there is no stereo lossless version on the DVD.
The second DVD contains equally as much magic as the first, continuing with more inspiring music, compelling surround mixes, and fabulous musicianship. I remain incredibly impressed with the quantity of the high caliber material. This double album is truly a superlative release, and so very reflective of the storyline.
Now onto the second disc, the “Swan Feathered Girl” brings me back to portions of the classic Tubular Bells masterpiece by Mike Oldfield, to whom Reed has paid homage to on his Sanctuary series of releases. With its moderate rhythm and powerful bass part carrying the music forward, I find it super cool how parts pop up in the back left and right channels as the rhythm swings its beak across the front speakers. Dynamics once again are on distinct display, and a continual entourage of instruments gleefully march forward as they play on.
The magnum opus of this collection in my opinion is “The Hat,” which fires fully on all five channels, boosted by guitar solos, a celestial choir, deliberate drums, keyboard parts, strings, and a variety of other instruments, all completely immersing the listener. The soundscape is marvelously magnificent, dynamic, and delivers pure creativity with its effects that go on to paint an amazing aural picture.
An important note: listeners will need full range speakers all around to fully appreciate the richness, dynamics, and depth of this mix which places any part in any location, much like the quad era, yet incredibly musical while still being enveloping. Simply put, Read uses the entire surround space, filling every nook and cranny with musical bliss.
Not only does the powerful timpani and slightly distorted guitars create a massive sound on “The Talking Ducks,” but the voice box synthesis nicely emulates ducks quacking from both of the rear channels, absolutely accentuating this very immersive piece. The bass roundly fills out the bottom, strongly supporting the appearance of movement of the ducks as they quack all around.
One can even here stylings of Phillip Glass on the track “In Sight of Home” with the repetition of vocal and keyboard parts that continuously cycle forward. The 5.1 surround mix continues to completely immerse the listener with vocal parts moving between the front and back channels, along with instruments playing from all corners of the room. Along with guitars and keyboards “The Last Guardians of Everywhere” celebrates the musical journey as it combines both classical and traditional folk influences that culminates with the gentle ending of the “Song of Waiting Dreams” with its calm acoustic guitars, angelic vocal and synthesizer washes that dreamily fade into oblivion, closing out the album.
The Ringmaster Complete edition is highly recommended for fans of Robert Reed, Magenta, Mike Oldfield, and progressive rock collectors. Additionally, surround sound enthusiasts will not want to miss this release, as it is hands down one of the best 5.1 mixes I have yet to hear. The Ringmaster is perfectly named, it is musically and sonically top notch and fully surrounds the listener.
Released February 4, 2022.
Part 1 and Part 2, each containing 2 CD's and 1 DVD with 5.1 surround 48kHz / 24-bit DTS and Dolby Digital. Also available as CD sets, download, and streaming.
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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 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos and continues to seek out and share about the best sounding releases.