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views for hobbyists
Rudolf A. Bruil - Page first published 2001
CHOOSE A SUBJECT:
Living Presence: 1951-2001
In Roman mythology Mercury is the god of commerce, manual skill, of travel and thievery.
But he is also eloquent and is the bringer of tidings.
concentration is essential when mixing the 3 channels of the original
Mercury recording tapes to two channel stereo in order to achieve that
perfect stereo-balance and a real to life sound at all instances, for
all instruments. Because "real to life" means: dynamics that
are detailed and frequencies that are harmonious in all registers -
as is the case in the recording of 'Pictures at an Exhibition'
played by pianist Byron Janis on Mercury CD 434 346-2.
Wilma Cozart Fine at the Western Electric mixing console and surrounded by a host of components as she poses for the camera at the occasion of the release of another batch of CDs containing transfers of legendary Mercury 'Living Presence' tapes. Connoisseurs can easily spot the modular Audio Suite (designed by Mark Levinson) which is one of the few preamplifiers in the world today that can boast of extreme neutrality.
or term 'Mercury Living Presence' originated from music critic Howard
Taubman's review of the recording of 'Pictures at An Exhibition' (Mussorgsky).
Taubman wrote in the fall of 1951 in The New York Times, that this recording
sound as if you are in the living presence of the orchestra". From
then on "Living Presence" became Mercury's quality slogan
that distinguished the label from its competitors and adorned all following
Mercury-issues. MG 50000 was reviewed in High Fidelity Magazine, Volume
2, Number 2, of September-October 1952. Critic C.G. Burke wrote:
In the summer of 1950 Wilma Cozart accepted a positon with Mercury,
as is stated in many artciles.
AUDIOPHILE CD WITH BYRON JANIS
Fine: 'Not so long ago a dealer called and told me that he had some
trouble in selling a pair of Thiel high-end loudspeakers. The
client had been listening to all sorts of music but was unable to decide
if he would buy the speakers. Until the dealer played this CD and the
client went home with the speakers and the CD.'
In recent years Wilma Cozart Fine has transferred over 200 Mercury tapes that date back from the years when analogue recording was an art as well as a science. She mixed the many legendary tapes to a DAT recorder from which the CD-masters were made.
In order to make this possible it was necessary to restore the original recording and mixing equipment, Ampex 300-3 stereo tape recorders (using 1/2 inch tape) , the 35 mm Westrex machine, and the Western Electric mixing console. All were used at the end of the nineteen fifties and the beginning of the nineteen sixties, the early stereo days.
The 35 mm film with the recording of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Byron Janis and Antal Dorati was lost and a tape copy of this recording was used for the first transfer to CD by Wilma Cozart Fine.
Naturally the recorders and mixing console is valve-equipment. Although the transistor had been invented decades before, this was the only quality equipment available. In the process of restoring, not only the circuitry had to be checked, but the heads of the recorder should have the precise gap and should function with the right bias and equalization in order to read the signal to the max. The restoration of the equipment was not without difficulty. It took about six months to compete. The Ampex machines are special machines with three heads and three channels, with three head amplifiers. They were built specifically by Ampex for Bob Fine.
Fine: "Bob handed the specifications to Ampex. You know, he was
a technician and an inventor. Already in 1955 he experimented and compared
quality of 2 and 3-track stereo. He said that only recordings made with
3 channels could provide a good stereo-image."
Making the first stereo recording in 1955. Picture taken at a recording session of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in Orchestra Hall (former Church of our Prayer).
In the foreground at right is David Hall (producer) conferring with Howard Herrington (orchestra manager). Also in the foreground are instrumentalists (violinists, and a cellist) tuning their instruments and warming up.
In this first stereo setup three Neumann U-47 microphones were used and it looks as if they were arranged in the configuration of the "Decca microphone tree". However the microphone in the middle was independent and was for recording in mono on a separate tape recorder with 1/4" tape. Another recorder with reels with 1/2 inch tape was used for stereo.
This and similar experiments finally led to the typical microphone placement used by the Mercury team in the days of recording classical music in stereo.
(Image submitted by Peter Dobkin Hall.)
the earliest proofs of Bob Fine's stereo technique is on CD as well.
It is Mercury 432 005-2 with Kodály's 'Hary Janos Suite', 'Dances
of Galanta' and 'Maroszek Dances', and Bartok's 'Hungarian Sketches'
and 'Romanian Folk Dances', all performed by the Minneapolis Symphony
Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati. The recording date: November 1956.
So a stereo-recording is only then true to life if the sound stage is picked-up by three microphones. This means in case of an orchestra: one microphone for the left section, one for the right section and one for the players sitting right in the middle in front of you.
DIGITAL RECORDINGS AND 3 MICROPHONES
on the internet a discussion between technicians telling that they were
using this basic setup but were not pleased with the result. They concluded
that the original 3-microphone setup has its flaws. They forget that
digital format of 16 bit and 44.1 kHz. sampling frequency is completely
different from analog. Yes, the digital format has a dynamic range of
96 dB and the same signal to noise ratio. Despite the fact that the
analog formats have a S/N ratio somewhere in the region of 80 dB, the
resolution is much higher if compared to the CD. The digital format
of the CD is a linear format where with decreasing recording level the
resolution is decreasing as well. Many modern recordings use a more
close miking of all the sections of instrument of an orchestra, a band
or an ensemble.
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1/2 Inch and 35 MM Sound Recording
||The diagram shows the microphone setup and the 35 mm film sound recorder with 3 tracks. In the cutting room the various takes were spliced. Each recording had a minimum number of splices which makes the recording all the more natural. Nowadays, with the digital technique up to 400 (or even more) splices are not uncommon in a recorded symphony. (Diagram drawing by R.A.B.)|
Frederick Fennell's admired Gershwin album.
of microphone placement is in essence as simple as it is effective.
But it took a master technician like C. Robert Fine to devise it in
concordance with the laws of nature covering the audible frequency spectrum,
maintaining a frequency characteristic as straight as possible, while
not disturbing time and phase.
position also depended as a matter of fact on the acoustic energy generated
by a 100 piece orchestra, by a string quartet or by a single performer
as in the case with Byron Janis playing Mussorgsky in the Ballroom Studio
in New York, or performing Chopin in the large concert hall in Moscow.
Also the specific acoustic properties of the hall were the orchestra
was playing were taken into account. And finally the nature of the work
plays an important part in the game.
Of course the Mercury-people were experienced technicians and producers. They had knowledge of the music itself, the instrumentation and the score, which all added to their method of recording. This 3-microphone technique was specifically used for classical, and symphonic music in particular.
PERFECT PRESENCE SOUND SERIES
also a series with excellent sound recordings of popular orchestral
music for which the technicians chose to apply multi miking, using a
variety of microphones: Telefunken (U-47) and RCA (44 BX, BK 5, KM 56).
But now the slogan "Perfect Presence Sound Series" were added.
One of these outstanding recordings was "Frederic Fennell conducts
Gershwin" on PPS 6006, from which the notes about Studio
A at Fine Recording Studios in New York City are shown on the left.
Wilma Cozart was the recording director; Harold Lawrence was the Musical
supervisor; Bob Fine the technical supervisor.
1. Film cuts
the background noise of a recording to an irreducible minimum. There
is no tape hiss.
It is clear
that in some cases artists and technicians were not always creating
beautiful music. Many times they were merely challenging the limits
of the possible through perfect phase in microphone placement, the use
of specific tape recorders, the cutting of the lacquer in such a way
as to achieve great dynamics, and finally through a perfect pressing.
Many of those recordings had demonstration quality and were especially
loved by the high fidelity crowd.
DIFFERENT STEREO IMAGES
methods of microphone placement result in different sound and different
images. Dutch technician Hans Lauterslager, who worked as a recording
engineer with 'Philips Phonographische Industrie' (later to be Phonogram
and Polygram respectively before it became part of Universal Music),
talked in 1988 in Dutch record magazine 'Luister...' about his experience
while working with the Mercury recording team in London making recordings
for Mercury and Philips in the early nineteen sixties.
ISSUES WITH TCHAIKOVSKY
the take-over the responsibility for productions lays in the hands of
Harold Lawrence, Robert Eberenz, and Claire Van Ausdall, and of Philips
producers and technicians. Among these is recording technician Hans
Mercury had started recording the Tchaikovsky Symphonies in stereo in London in 1961. It is interesting (and at the same time strange) that Philips sometimes mentions a different year of recording.
Symphonies 1-3 : LSO 26-31 July 1965. Philips stamped in the dead
In the US most of the symphonies were issued on separate discs. except for No. 4 of which the old Dorati recording with the Minneapolis Symphony remained available. No. 5 was released on Mercury SR 90255, No. 6 on SR90312, and Symphonies Nos. 1-3 on SR-2-2-9015.
of 1966 the complete set of symphonies with the London Symphony under
Dorati became available on SR-6-9121.
In my perception the earlier recorded symphonies do not sound as good as the 3 first symphonies which were recorded in 1965. Most striking is the aural stereophonic perception and naturelness of the sound of Symphony No. 1. If you own the Mercury set of the symphonies or the complete Philips set, you should be able to hear how beautifully (for example) the third movement in the 1st Symphony is executed, both by the orchestra and the Mercury-technicians.
however is the stereophonic perspective of the original 3 LP boxed set
with Tchaikovsky's Three Suites for Orchestra (SR 3-9018, Antal Dorati
and the Philharmonia Orchestra), or the lack of it. The inlay states
that Hans Lauterslager and Harold Lawrence made the recordings. You
can hear that the Mercury 3 mike technique was not achieved to the full.
Lauterslager said in Dutch monthly record magazine "Luister..."
that the Mercury setup was too time consuming and would require a longer
recording session. Though Harold Lawrence reported that the three microphones
were positioned at three carefully calculated spots, the listener can
easily hear the difference in sound when comparing the recording of
the Suites to other, earlier Mercury recordings made in the US and in
England. The positioning depends for a great deal on the quality of
hearing of the technician and the producer. By then the talented Robert
Fine did not work for Mercury any longer. The Philips management
apparently found Fine's way indeed too expensive, just like other aspects
of the final product. The pressings from plates coded RFR were now done
in the Chicago factory. They were of lower quality as many later Mercury
SR and Philips PHS releases showed.
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Everest, Command and Cameo
35 MM SOUND FILM CHARACTERISTIC
CD carries two encores played by Byron Janis. One of them is recorded
on the 35 mm film recorder made by Westrex. Westrex had modified the
machine mechanically and electronically so that three heads were aligned
and three channels with electronics were built in. Certainly inspired
by the Cinemascope and Widescreen movie technique which
for their sound recording used 5 tracks on the film. In the movie theater
there were 3 speakers in the front (left, middle and right) and
there were two speakers in the back of the theater and some supporting
speakers on the side walls.
initially used 35 mm film for recording and explained the advantages
on the inner sleeves: thicker tape, less print-through, wider tracks,
Command recordings however have fantastic sound because of the application
of exact the same microphones, the electronics and the perfect placement.
C. Robert Fine and George Piros were responsible for that as is printed
on the inside of the early Command gatefold issues.
these differences are also brought about by the unfortunate application
of the Dolby Noise Reduction System. Mercury did not use a noise reduction
The use of 35-millimeter film was also chosen by the engineers of the CAMEO record label. But now 4 tracks were used. Above is the explanation taken from a cover of such a 4 track recording.
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The Scully Lathe - Margin Control
Taken from the cover of Bert Whyte's October Edition of AUDIO
Splicing the Takes
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The Transfer to CD
The Mercury team used a Scully variable-pitch recording lathe designed by John J. Scully and his son Lawrence J. Scully.
issued the "Mercury Living Presence - The Collector's Edition".
It is a boxed set of 50 CDs originally remastered by Wilma Cozart Fine,
plus a CD with an interview with Mrs. Cozart Fine. The set contains the
Byron Janis recordings of the Rachmaninov Piano Concertos 1, 2 & 3,
Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.
1, the two Liszt Concertos, Prokofiev Concerto No. 3 --- Janos Starker's
Cello Suites of Bach, his Brahms, Dvorak, Mendelssohn, and Schumann recordings
--- The Kubelik 1951 recording of Pictures At An Exhibition --- The Dorati
recording of The Firebird (Stravinsky) and the recordings with Gina Bachauer
(Brahms, Chopin and Beethoven) --- Paray's Symphonie Fantastique --- The
Civil War recordings, etc. etc. I bought "my collector's edition"
from eBay seller soundcitybeaches in Canada, and the second 55 CD set
as well. The second edition has again many recordings by Antal Dorati,
Frederick Fennell, Howard Hanson, and to the delight of many, Paul Paray's
Ravel and Debussy recordings are included.
Several early monaural recordings do show the original sound the character
of which depends on the microphone used. See
CHOOSE ANOTHER SUBJECT
Mono, Stereo, 1812
'But the CD's are closer to the masters, the original tapes, than the LP's.'
That is certainly true for certain aspects of the sound. Many early stereo releases lack the full dynamics and warmth of the monaural issues. We all know that this is true for all labels, classical, pop and jazz, in the beginning of the stereo era. That is true for stereos of the Riverside and Blue Note labels. While English Decca made superb registrations in those years, the first HiFi Stereo Philips recordings do not have the appropriate dynamics, specifically in the lower and mid low register. This applies also to the early EMI ASD and SAX pressings.
Many a music lover did not like the stereo LP in the beginning too well. They knew that there was something wrong with the overall characteristic, even when big loudspeakers with large woofers were connected.
It can be heard how strange for example a piano (an upright most of the time) sounded on Blue Note and on early Riverside discs. The CD (Pulse Code Modulation - PCM) format gives to these old recordings much better dynamics. And the original recording of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony on Mercury can sound loud and played on certain equipment somewhat aggressive (depending on the pressing) as the Mercury people never applied a correction, nor did they use limiters and filtering. The reissue has benefited from the digital format.
I could have talked with Wilma Cozart Fine (who became a vice president of Mercury records in 1954 until her departure a short time after Philips had taken over the label) about many more subjects and details.
For instance about their journey to Russia and the recordings they made there with Byron Janis and the ones for Philips with pianist Sviatoslav Richter, conductor Kyril Kondrashin, conductor and violinist Rudolf Barshai, and pianist Vasso Devetzi.
About conductor Antal Dorati, the pupil of Zoltan Kodály, about Dorati's Hungarian programs and the always and everywhere emerging 'Pictures at an Exhibition' on many different labels (on an early Philips Minigroove as well).
About Frederic Fennell and the spectacular recordings of 'The Civil War', a sonic documentary about this dramatic and decisive episode in American history for which recordings authentic instruments were used (LPS2-901) with the Eastman Wind Ensemble conducted by Frederick Fennell, with Martin Gabel (narrator) and Gerald C. Stowe (military advisor).
the clear 'ringing' of bells and the thunder of canons in 'Overture 1812'
of which the first recording in mono in 1954 (MG 50054) did not make its
entrance unnoticed, and that the recorded stereo version of 1958 (SR 90054)
fully showed the strong points of Mercury's stereo recording-technique
and microphone placement. By 1963 over one million, and by the end of
the nineteen nineties two million, copies had been sold of this recording
(the photograph shows conductor Antal Dorati receiving his golden record
Before the mono recording of '1812' with Dorati was produced, Mercury had Tchaikovsky's '1812 Festival Overture' (Ouverture solennelle) and Richard Strauss' Don Juan in their catalogue, performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra and conductor Willem Mengelberg: Mercury 15000. These were original Telefunken recordings and generally Telefunken was issued on Capitol. But as Irving Kolodin pointed out in 'The New Guide To Recorded Music' (Doubleday & Company, New York, 1950), Mercury had negotiated with Czech Ultraphone and obtained their rights for the same recording. Overture 1812 was also issued on Eli Oberstein's Varsity 6925.
have talked about the French programs (Revel and Debussy) of Paul Paray.
About how the valve equipment was kept on the right temperature
- when the recording van was parked in a cold garage - in order to provide
the same sound quality at all times. Tubes do need at least one hour warming
up time. They also need a near constant temperature to function well -
as we all know. About the financial success and the decline of the label.
About the jazz recordings which also had a special sound quality,
but then different microphone placements were used. About the recordings
made in London's Watford Hall. About the fact that later re-released
recordings were well transfered to a master tape first from which the
lacquer was cut. And so on.
EARLY STEREO CATALOG RENUMBERED
In the September
1958 edition of Schwann Long Playing Record Catalog the record industry
introduced the stereo format of the LP for the first time ever. The listings
reveal that the presence of Mercury stereo recordings is somewhat pale.
Stereo recordings with Robert Fine and the recording team, though certainly
in the making, are not yet ready for release.
SR 90001 - Johan Halvorsen's Suite Ancienne Op. 31 (written to the Memory of Ludvig Holberg) with conductor Oivin Fjeldstad.
SR 90002 - Compositions by David Johansen (Pan Symphonic Music Op. 22); Edvard Braeien (Concerto Overture); Arne Eggen (Olaf Liljekrans); Jensen (Partita Sinfonica "The drover"); Sparre Olson (Two Edda Songs); with Odd Grüner-Hegge conducting.
SR 90004 - Johan Svendsen (Symphony No. 2, Norwegian Rhapsodies Nos. 2 and 3), Oiven Fjeldstadt and Odd Grüner-Hegge conducting. These must be very rare records.
SR 90001 with a Bizet Program (Suites from Carmen and l'Arlesienne) instead of the music of Halvorsen.
SR 90002 now contains Gershwin's Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue performed by pianist Eugene List and Howard Hanson conducting the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra instead of music by Norwegian composers.
Ravel's Bolero was originally a popular release on Mercury 18031, together with Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Italien; Paul Paray conducting the Detroit Symphony. But as of November 1958 that recording is listed as SR 90005 coupled with Ma Mère L'Oye and Chabrier's Bourrées; no doubt a better coupling commercially; in any case for the classical collector.
However, SR 90004 with the music of Johan Svendsen, remains for some time in the catalog.
Nevertheless the catalog is expanding rapidly. The advertisement announces SR-3-9000, a 3-record set, with Cherubini's Medea featuring Maria Callas, conducted by Tulio Serafin.
The mono set of this 1957 recording (originally done for Ricordi in Italy) had already been listed earlier.
The stereo-set is available in March 1959 in the US on Mercury. The recording is licensed to EMI since Mercury had an agreement with this British giant.
EMI releases the complete opera recording much later (in Europe) in December 1959, on Columbia SAX 2290-2.
Phonografische Industrie" (PPI) and "Philips Gloeilampenfabrieken
Eindhoven" could not operate on the US market as the American brand
name Philco could suffer from Philips and Philips Company. Industrial
products were therefor handled by North American Philips Company since
1954. To sell records on the American market it was too costly to set
up a distribution network, hire sales representatives, build a pressing
plant and have an advertising department. The best thing to do was to
sign a contract with an American record company. The company the contract
was signed with was Columbia Records Inc. Since 1954 Philips had an
agreement with Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) who also owned the
Epic label. Now most original Philips recordings were released on the
Epic label and a few on Columbia. Columbia recordings were released
on the European continent by Philips. When American Columbia and British
Columbia had split, the American Columbia recordings were no longer
no longer available in the UK and were issued on the Philips label there
60 YEARS MERCURY LIVING PRESENCE
Originally I gave this page the title "50 Years Living Presence". That was in 2001 when this page was first published. Now it is more than ten years later and the heading should read accordingly.
the last recording was made and Mercury Living Presence became history.
But after so many years Wilma Cozart Fine gave new life to the 'Living
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