When The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, the band's eleventh studio album, first was released in May 1966, response in the U.S. was surprisingly tepid. Though both "Sloop John B" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" soared to the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100, Capitol Records was unsure how to promote the album which represented an artistic zenith, and the beginning of a new era, for The Beach Boys. It peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 and was the group's first album since 1963 to miss a Gold certification. (The vagaries of the certification process led to a delayed Gold recognition in February 2000; a Platinum award followed just two months later.) Brian Wilson's rapidly maturing style - evident on both 1965's The Beach Boys Today! ("Please Let Me Wonder," "She Knows Me Too Well," "Kiss Me, Baby") and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) ("Let Him Run Wild," "Summer Means New Love") - found full flower on Pet Sounds: yearning, introspective, intricate, sensitive, bold, and alternately joyful and melancholy. U.K. audiences were quicker to appreciate Pet Sounds. It peaked at No. 2 on the Record Retailer chart, and both "Sloop John B" and "God Only Knows" hit that same peak on the U.K. Singles Chart.
Time and long-overdue respect and appreciation eventually caught up with Pet Sounds, and it's now wholly appropriate that the album has made its Dolby Atmos debut in a mix by English engineer Giles Martin. His father George, of course, produced The Beatles' Rubber Soul - the album which spurred Wilson on to create Pet Sounds. The Fabs, impressed by The Beach Boys' LP, would then craft Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in response. This is the fourth major mix of Pet Sounds, following Brian Wilson's original and Mark Linett's stereo and 5.1 surround mixes. (Both were most recently included on the 50th anniversary edition in 2016, along with the instrumental-only mix.)
The Second Disc was invited to experience the Dolby Atmos mix of Pet Sounds last week at New York City's Dolby Screening Room. Giles Martin was on hand, via video link, to introduce the program and answer questions. "People say it's a psychedelic sort of album," Martin commented in his opening remarks. "It's not. It's more of a classical record, and work[ing] on it, you suddenly understand the depth of the talent that goes into it...Pet Sounds was one of those things where you fall in love with it more from opening it out and exposing it [into the dimensions of surround]. Hopefully, I've done this justice." Martin referred to both the original 1966 mono mix (the only version available for decades) and Mark Linett's 1996 stereo mix in opening up the soundscape for Dolby Atmos. Martin stressed, "We're not taking anything away from any fans, but to get a chance to give different generations - as well as our generation - ways which you can look at something in a different way, or hear something in a different way, [is] a privilege."
Unlike traditional surround mixes (whether 4.0, 5.1, or 7.1, for instance), Dolby Atmos adds height channels, with neither horizontal nor vertical limitation. It doesn't simply send discrete audio to each speaker, but can produce up to 118 "sound objects," allowing an engineer to place audio to exact points within the sound field rather than assigning them to specific channels. These "objects" can be manipulated within the space to simulate a three-dimensional field akin to a circle, or bubble of sound, in which the listener is immersed. The original technology for cinemas has since been adapted for automobiles, earbuds, soundbars, and home theatre speakers.
As with his many remixes (both in stereo and surround) for The Beatles, Martin hasn't reinvented the wheel here. Instead, he's expanded the soundstage of what Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, and Bruce Johnston originally released in 1966, and in doing so, allowed listeners to hear the album anew and bask in the originality and splendor of the recording made with just a small number of tracks. (Read more from Mark Linett here about the process of creating the 1996 stereo mix.)
The Atmos mix emphasizes, and bring into sharper focus, key elements which have always been there. The exuberant and blissful "Wouldn't It Be Nice" gallops with an even more powerful gait, its harmonies truly enveloping and Carol Kaye's bassline rocking. The hymnlike "You Still Believe in Me" gains an even more churchlike atmosphere; Martin has retained the original's analog richness. Similarly, "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)" seems even more ethereal in Atmos as Martin's mix accentuates the haunting vocals. Dennis Wilson's drums and Hal Blaine's percussion on "That's Not Me" beautifully contrast in the soundscape with the precise, layered voices. The woodwinds stand out on the urgent "I'm Waiting for the Day," while Al Casey and Mike Deasy's guitars on the aggressive "Here Today" are presented with renewed energy.
Yet perhaps the most impressive tracks are the album's two instrumentals, both of which are rendered stunningly in Atmos. "Let's Go Away for Awhile" - which was said to have been inspired by Burt Bacharach but came out, purely, as the work of Brian Wilson - and "Pet Sounds," written with James Bond in mind, gain a presence and realism only hinted at in previous mixes. That lifelike feel extends to the closing round of vocals on "God Only Knows;" there's a closeness and an intimacy that's piercing. A beautiful, swirling cacophony is evoked on "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," with sheets of sound pouring over the listener; it's as dense as "Caroline, No" is starkly, deceptively simple.
In his post-album Q&A, Giles Martin likened the Atmos mix to shattering the mono version with a hammer; the shards hitting you provide the immersive aspect. It's an apt comparison. The recording still sounds natural (as Martin put it, "natural people doing unnatural things") as well as rich, detailed, spacious, vibrant, and genuinely immersive. Brian Wilson packed so much into his productions and orchestrations - befitting the eloquence of the lyrics by Tony Asher and Mike Love and the soul-searching depths of his own melodies - that it's never surprising to hear something new with each successive listen. Experiencing Pet Sounds in Atmos, it's impossible not to detect something which might have been missed before.
Pet Sounds is available in Dolby Atmos on Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Tidal. No physical release has been announced as of now. In any format, Pet Sounds remains a benchmark for the rock era; 57 (!) years later, it's lost none of its power to spark emotion. God only knows where we'd be without it.