When a few of us here at Discogs started tossing around ideas for albums to feature in this new series about the joys of a headphone experience with vinyl, we knew we wanted to start with something iconic.
The Dark Side of the Moon immediately came up, but we were worried. It’s a short walk from iconic to stale, and Pink Floyd’s epic exploration of the human existence is one of history’s best-known albums. Surely this was the lowest-hanging fruit ever.
We tried. I spent a week listening to a variety of albums to find an alternative, including a lot of Pink Floyd’s catalog. Wish You Were Here made a very compelling case for itself; “Welcome to the Machine” left me feeling cold, isolated, and lost — exactly how it’s supposed to make you feel.
And then I finally put on The Dark Side of the Moon, and the thud of a beating heart that begins the album sounded exactly like a mic drop.
There’s just no getting around it: The Dark Side of the Moon is an album exquisitely crafted for the listening room inside your head, creating a world within a word that, nearly 50 years later, still inspires. Low-hanging fruit, it turns out, is often the sweetest.
The record has long been hailed as an audio demonstration of the highest order, the one you played to show off your new speakers. Engineer Alan Parsons, whose reputation was on the rise in 1973, worked hard to make the sonics equal to the music and it sounds spectacular playing in your living room on a conventional stereo.
But listening on a decent headphone system is a different beast entirely. For this story, I used a pair of the high-value House of Marley Exodus headphones ($200), which offer an exceptionally smooth, clear sound and deep, tight bass combined with elegant looks. Plugged into an iFi ZEN DAC, the Exodus headphones bring DSOTM alive to such a degree that it almost feels renewed — even if you’ve heard it hundreds of times.
“Speak to Me,” the opening track, sets a high bar both conceptually and sonically. A collage of sound and words, it uses bits and pieces from seven of the album’s 10 songs to create a tidy encapsulation of lyricist Roger Waters’ themes. It culminates with the sound of helicopter blades circling wildly around your head before rising into a snippet of Clare Torry’s gospel freakout from “The Great Gig in the Sky” right before dropping into the tranquil opening of “Breathe.” It’s how a psychedelic record should start.
“Breathe” is the song that establishes the basic template favored by the band, Parsons, and mixer Chris Thomas throughout the album. For example, whenever guitarist/singer David Gilmour is playing broken chords, they’re positioned in the lower left of your (hopefully baked) brain, while the upper right channel often features keyboardist Richard Wright and a second guitar part with a much different sound.
Not every song is built this way but it’s consistent enough to establish a central soundscape. Keyboards, guitars, and Richard Parry’s saxophone are frequently planted solidly in the middle of your forehead on featured solos — and synthesizers are all over the place — maintaining a nice flow of build-and-release tension. Thick layers of background vocals are meanwhile laid across the entire soundscape, providing a kind of cloud on which everything floats.
This template is the foundation of the album’s aural universe and it’s certainly not revolutionary thinking. It’s more about the execution. Pink Floyd, with three of the four members putting in time on synthesizers, provide Parsons and Thomas with truckloads of texture that are then expertly recorded and precisely placed to create a feeling, a mood. A state of mind.
And then there are times when it all descends into madness.
“On the Run” is a sound collage of the highest order, a densely orchestrated exploration into the fear of death inspired by Wright’s profound issues with air travel. Guttural synths fly left and right, punching through snatches of voices; what sounds like a second keyboard gradually morphs into the sound of a plane going down; and running footsteps travel around your skull chased by lunatic laughter.
It’s pure mayhem that’s brought to a halt by the most famous alarm clocks in rock history erupting to signal the beginning of “Time.” It’s undiluted studio artifice, gimmicky even, but like everything else, it works. The rest of “Time” is an engineering and mixing tour de force, balancing left, right, and middle in such a way that the song’s quiet menace is enhanced.
The fun continues throughout the album’s second side — if you consider existential dread fun.
Overt headphone effects are used more sparingly, the most famous being the lunatic laughter of Peter Watts that crawls around your head during “Brain Damage” and the rhythmic cash register samples on “Money.” But many of the choices are more about the song’s composition, as when Gilmour uses three different guitar sounds on “Money,” each occupying a different space; it’s almost like they’ve merged music composition with visual composition.
What’s interesting is that this epic journey through existence, both corporeal and otherwise, plays it straight for the closing track, “Eclipse.” There isn’t much trickery here, just a solid wall of sound — or maybe a monolith of sound if you’re into Stanley Kubrick — that quickly builds to an overwhelming climax before the heartbeat returns as it all fades to black. It feels like a church service ending.
It’s easy to just twist a bunch of knobs and create stereo effects in studio. Happens all of the time. Even good records, such as the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Axis Bold as Love, boast effects that are more gratuitous than necessary; the mono version of that album is actually more direct and engaging.
But what Pink Floyd, Parsons, and Thomas achieved with The Dark Side of the Moon is a perfect studio album, where effects are used to amplify not just the experience of listening but the actual meaning of the songs. It all works as a whole, and the fact that it still works 47 years later is remarkable. There are many different kinds of headphone experiences, some of which don’t lean on hard panning or electronic effects, and this series will certainly explore some of those. The Dark Side of the Moon, however, is the pinnacle of a very particular kind of headphone experience, and its longevity speaks both to its music and its mastery of the studio.
This is the first article in our series exploring the headphone experience. Published in partnership with House of Marley.