Dire Straits: Brothers in Arms.
DIRE STRAITS’ 1985 megaplatinum masterpiece Brothers in Arms is the album that truly ushered in the CD era, fulfilling the initial promise of the shiny 5-inch disc in terms of both commercial viability and sound quality. Spearheaded by Straits mastermind guitarist/vocalist/producer Mark Knopfler, co-produced and engineered by Neil Dorfsman (Sting, Paul Mccartney), and recorded at AIR Studios in Montserrat, the fully digital BIA recording took full advantage of those heady DDD times. For starters, witness the wide sound-staging of the Latin beats and wafting flutes in “Ride Across the River,” the sprightly synth-organ melodies on the extended intro and verses of “Walk of Life,” the lilting vocal harmonizing on “So Far Away,” and the mesh of Mtv-ready messaging and abject guitar muscle of Knopfler’s Gibson Les Paul Junior-into-laney amplifier crunch on “Money for Nothing.”
Why did BIA have so much resonance? As Knopfler told me, “Everything reached critical mass with Brothers in Arms. The reputation we built through touring and how we made our records finally met up with the sonic quality of the new CD technology.” Naturally, there are quite a few Brothers in Arms listening options. My absolute favorite version—and one that remains a personal demo-disc benchmark—is the 5.1 mix done by Chuck Ainlay with Knopfler’s approval at British Grove Studios in London for the 20th anniversary 2005 DSD SACD and concurrently released 24-bit/96khz MLP DVD-A, as mastered by Bob Ludwig at his own Gateway Mastering Studios. In 2006, the BIA 5.1 mix won the Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound Album.
I asked Ainlay what his goals were for this 5.1 mix when he sat in on one of the hi-res audio panels I hosted at CES 2018. “It’s one of those records you can’t change because it was recorded so well to begin with,” he acknowledged, “but I wanted to expand it a little bit so it would feel warmer. I wanted to make the surround mix more dynamic, and sound bigger than the original.”
On the CD front, the original 1985 Redbook standard disc, as manufactured by Matsushita in Japan, is an of-era marvel as bright and open as can be, but the subsequent 1996 remaster is more in line with what our ears became attuned to with the format. Given the other options available for hearing this album in its most optimal state, however, these CDS are collectible talismans at best.
When it comes to the LP versions of BIA, I must admit I never once played the original 1985 Warner Bros. LP I own—i only bought it at the time to maintain a complete collection of the band’s catalog on wax. But there’s no reason to ever taint that virgin vinyl since I also own Mobile Fidelity’s 2014 2LP Original Master Recording version. Slotting two songs per the first three sides (and three on Side 4), all presented at 45rpm via the precision cutting of Mofi’s GAIN 2 Ultra Analog System, the album is given the space it needs to breathe. Elements like Omar Hakim’s deft cymbal work and the Brecker Brothers’ seductive trumpet and sax on Side 2’s “Your Latest Trick,” Knopfler’s
1937 National Resonator guitar strumming on Side 4’s “The Man’s Too Strong,” and the thrust of Tony Levin’s bass lines on Side 4’s “One World,” all have that much more impact.
Given the overall quality of Ainlay’s impeccable award-winning 5.1 efforts, either the SACD or DVD-A of BIA is your best bet for appreciating the true promise of the burgeoning digital era. That special surround mix only serves to reinforce just how good Knopfler’s vision was (and is) for the sonic valleys and farms comprising the full aural landscape that is Brothers in Arms.