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Wilma Cozart Fine is Mercury

Rudolf A. Bruil - This page is an adaptation of an article in Dutch from 1995.

Page first published 2001.



Wilma Cozart Fine

Wilma Cozart Fine with porta phone communicating during one of the recording sessions of The Civil War.

On September 23, 2009, I received a message informing that Mrs. Wilma Cozart Fine had passed away peacefully in her home. She was 82.

It is often stated that good sound recording and reproduction have nothing to do with the appreciation of music. In essence this may be true, but it does not exclude the many music listeners and musicians who can admire good sound at the same time and think it is an important ingredient of the live performance and of a recording.

Wilma Cozart Fine loved music as well as the technical aspects of sound recording and reproduction. She must have had an inborn interest which started to develop during her early stay with the Dallas Symphony and conductor Antal Dorati and gradually evolved to a high, professional level during her Mercury years. No doubt her marriage to C. Robert Fine was also instrumental in this.

Although I met Wilma Cozart Fine only for an hour or so, in 1995, in our conversation, I felt that she was purposeful, and, being a very good communicator, she knew very well how to get her message across. But at the same time she had a friendly gentleness.

Although Mercury Records consisted of many more devoted people - David Hall, Claire Van Ausdall, C. Robert Fine, Harold Lawrence, Robert Eberenz, and the valuable George Piros, and others - Wilma C. Fine remained the important link to the glorious past of Mercury Living Presence sound recording.

The remastering of more than 100 recordings for the transfer to CD, in the years 1990 till 1995, was a work of precision. Re-releasing the recordings was a prestigious project undertaken by Philips. It differed essentially from the mastering of the SACD releases several years later for which the original Westrex and Western Electric equipment was not used and Revox equipment was used instead. The transfer to SACD was not done by her.

Wilma Cozart Fine (March 29, 1927, Aberdeen, Mississippi – September 21, 2009, Harrison, New York) was already a legend during her lifetime. She will be remembered as an expert producer of quality recordings and as an inspiring human being. - Rudolf A. Bruil



50 Years 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.


The utmost 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.

"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.

The grand piano has extraordinary presence and you can clearly imagine that you are almost able to touch the black lid, while seeing the keyboard from the side and part of the bronze frame with the strong, tensed strings, and you hear the wooden construction. As if you were there.

It is also a question of microphone placement, of choosing the right position of the instrument in the studio or concert hall and of using top quality tape recorders, playback amplifiers and monitor loudspeakers. But to mix the three channels down to two-channel-stereo when the signal is transferred to a DAT recorder while preparing the CD reissues, that takes as great a skill as the initial transfer to the lacquer in the nineteen fifties and sixties. Obviously Wilma Cozart Fine has the ability to concentrate in abundance. The Mercury Compact Disc with 'Pictures At An Exhibition' is the eminent proof.

At left: 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.

Advertisement in Schwann Long Playing Record Catalog of December 1951, announcing the first releases in the Olympian Series. MG50000, with Pictures At An Exhibition (Mussorgsky-Ravel). MG50001 with Music for Stringed Instruments, Percussion and Celesta (Bartok) and Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra with Piano Obligato (Bloch). Rafael Kubelik conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

proudly announces
a new departure in the art and science of
orchestral recording




On a few pages short examples of music will start playing automatically after the download is ready, but only if Microsoft Internet Explorer is your browser. Mozilla Firefox, Safari, and Google Chrome do not have the facility to let you hear sound in the background.






The label or term 'Mercury Living Presence' originated from music critic Howard Taubman's review of the orchestral recording of Mussorgsky's 'Pictures At An Exhibition' (orchestrated by Maurice Ravel) made years earlier.

Taubman wrote in the fall of 1951 in The New York Times about that recording, that "one feels oneself 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 "Living Presence" adorned practically 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:

"Acoustically in the foremost rank of orchestral records. With one gigantic sound, Mercury attains a status she has never had before. Brass timbre has seldom been more sucessfully engraved than in this bold statement wherein everything is unambiguous and the phalanx is overwhelming. (...) the brilliant music in Ravel's orchestration acquires a singular emotional force in this triumph of engineering wherein nothing is lost and everything is in proportion." - C.G. Burke - High Fidelity Magazine September-October, 1952

In the summer of 1950 Wilma Cozart accepted a positon with Mercury, as is stated in many articles.
When it became known that the youthful Kubelik was to leave the Chicago Symphony - because of a conflict with the orchestra - the Chicago Symphony would no longer be available for Mercury to make recordings with. It was announced that from the summer of 1953 on Fritz Reiner was going to be the conductor and he was contracted by RCA. After her appointment with Mercury Records, Wilma Cozart immediately proposed that Mercury should hire the Minneapolis Symphony with Antal Dorati who had been recording for RCA Victor in the past. She knew Dorati from the time she was his secretary with the Dallas Symphony and also when she had moved to the orchestra of Minneapolis.

Recording projects with Antal Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony were immediately undertaken: MG 50004 (Borodin, 2nd Symphony, and Stravinsky, Firebird Suite) released in June, 1952; MG 50005 (Berlioz, Roman Carnaval, and Ravel, Alborada del Gracioso) released in December of that same year; MG 50008 (Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5) released in November, 1952. MG 50009 (Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade) released in September, 1952.

At the same time recordings with Kubelik were being made. Kubelik's Brahms for instance was released in December 1952. The last recordings of Kubelik/Chicago for Mercury were made on 3-5 April 1953: Mozart Symphony No. 38 “Prague” (issued on MG-50015) coupled with Symphony No. 34 which was recorded from 4-6 of December, 1952). Schoenberg's Five Pieces op. 16 and Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Weber were issued on a rather late release (MG-50024).
See also the separate page MONO DAYS
and check James Lacy's Complete Living Presence discography.



Wilma Cozart 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.'
The performance of Mussorgsky's original piano version of 'Pictures At An Exhibition' by pianist Byron Janis was recorded decades ago (December 25 - 29, 1961) in New York, in the Ballroom Studio of C. Robert Fine - Bob for insiders - who married Wilma Cozart four years earlier. Today this recording is as modern as it was then, because the sound quality and the total image are a showpiece (in the best sense) of what is possible in recording technique, and will remain so for years to come.

This edited image is from an advertisement of Audio Devices, Inc., promoting their audiotapes, audiodiscs and audiofilm in 1955. The caption:

"Robert C. Fine, President, and Al Mian, Chief Mixer, at master control console of Fine Sound Inc., 711 Fifth Avenue, New York City."

The first paragraph in the ad reads:

"In professional circles Bob Fine is a name to reckon with. His studio, one of the countries largest and best equipped, cuts the masters for over half the records released each year by independent record manufacturers."


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 the LP issues and for the transfer to CD done by Wilma Cozart Fine. The first CD release does not have the 35 mm banner either. Apparently the 35 mm film recording was only discovered much later and was the basis for a new transfer to LP by Speakers Corner.

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.


Wilma Cozart Fine: "Bob handed the specifications to Ampex. You know, he was a technician and an inventor. Already in 1955 he experimented and compared the quality of 2 and 3-track stereo. He said that only recordings made with 3 channels could provide a good stereo-image."
Those of you readers who have witnessed the rise (and decline, I should say, in some sections) of the high-fidelity scene through the years - or have read about the often painstaking trials that led to the extraordinary achievements in the sixties when the analogue sound reproduction was at its peak if you owned top quality playback equipment - may know that especially in the beginning of the stereo era, some amateurs used a center-channel, that is to say that a third loudspeaker was placed in between the stereo pair to reproduce a signal that was the subtraction of left and right channels. Others experimented with a 'mid-speaker' that radiated the addition of the left and right signals, but at a precise adjusted level.

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.)


One of the earliest proofs of Bob Fine's stereo technique is on CD as well. It is Mercury 432 005-2 with Zoltán 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!

In November 1953, Robert E. Blake, Don Gabor's recording technician, already recorded in stereo for the Remington label. The orchestra was the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra directed by conductor Thor Martin Johnson. The orchestra performed with the Helsinki University Chorus. RCA and English Decca (London) followed in 1954.

However, Bob Fine's stereo recording is unique because of the use of three microphones and the specific placement to record the performance on three tracks (channels) in order to fully capture the original orchestral balance.


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.


I read 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 the 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 also a signal to noise ratio of 96 dB.


Despite the fact that analog formats have a S/N ratio somewhere in the region of 80 dB or even lower, 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.
If, when using a digital format, microphones are positioned above the front of the orchestra and 7 feet high, the Bob Fine way, instruments far away in the back of the orchestra get a less precise result when playing softly (low recording level). In that case the addition of dither to the signal will help.


Many modern recordings are made by close miking of all the sections of an orchestra, a band or an ensemble. Many technicians understandably do use more than the three channels used by the Mercury team. Today they are likely to use 24 channels for recordings of large orchestras and will adjust the various channels for obtaining the original orchestral balance and will monitor the balance of the sound meticulously.
This is specifically the case if there is a great difference in level between the loudest and the softest passages in the music. The soft passages should be recorded in close-up.

Check what is the difference between the linear format and a high resolution digital format here: History: 25 Years CD.

There you can also read about the analog approach (miking) in the early days when technicians started recording in the digital format.
And: in the days of analogous recording, valve amplifiers were used in recorders. mixing consoles and steering amplifiers. Naturally the playback system consisted also of valve amplifiers and the big loudspeaker systems had large woofers with a relatively high resonance frequency. If today one wants to make recordings like Mercury did, analogous tape machines have to be used for the recordings. When ready they can be converted to the best digital format.


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.


This recording was made in Studio A at Fine Recording Studios in New York City. The dimensions and acoustical properties of this former ballroom make it ideal for stereo recording techniques. Its generous volume of 76,000 cubic feet provides the natural reverberation so necessary for an authentic spatial effect; and the hardwood floor, plaster walls, and irregular pattern of reflection surfaces - candelabra, fluted columns, chandeliers and grillwork - result in a brilliant sonority characterized by smooth frequency response throughout the audio spectrum.




The cover of the Dutch Mercury edition of "Spanish Fire" MDY 135 376 (from US Mercury stamped matrix PPS 6025) with the explanation of the f:35d Perfect Presence Sound Series..



The covers of spectacular sound recordings of so called popular music were often of a higher quality than the musical contents engraved on the disc, especially in the case of this Mercury Perfect Presence recording of Clebanoff "Strings Afire", made in Hollywood.







SR 90139 with Rossini Overtures - Antal Dorati conducting the Minneapolis Symphony - shows small variations in the basic setup with 3 microphones.









SR 3-9018 Antal Dorati conducting the New Philhamonia Orchestra in Tchaikovsky's Four Suites For Orchestra.














Click on the Image for More Info


The technique 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.
When preparing a recording it takes time to position the microphones in such a way that the sound balance of the orchestra is captured as desired. First the microphones were put in the right position: the distance above the orchestra and the angle were determined.

The 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 of 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 where the orchestra was playing were taken into account. And finally the nature of the work plays an important part in the game.
The 'Organ Symphony' of Camille Saint-Saëns asks for a completely different microphone placement than the Minute-waltz of Frederic Chopin.

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.


There was 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.
The Perfect Presence Sound Series recording "10 trombones like 2 pianos" (PPS 6001) was done in Hollywood by recording engineer Mel Chisholm and recording director David Carroll. They followed a different set up.
"Spanish Fire" (PPS 6025) was another of those recordings made in Fine's ballroom studio in New York. The cover explained the technical ins and outs of f:35d Perfect Presence Sound stereo recording. It also mentioned the advantages of 35 mm film:

1. Film cuts the background noise of a recording to an irreducible minimum. There is no tape hiss.

2. No flutter: film is used on a specially designed recorder which guides it throughout its closed loop sprocket guide path across the recording head.

3. The recording width of film is nearly three times that of conventional one-half inch tape. This allows much more space for each channel in stereophonic recording and eliminates the danger of Crosstalk between tracks.

4. The 5 mil thickness of film as against 1.5 mils for tape means less danger of print-through in storage.

5. Better transient response and a greatly extended frequency range are made possible due to the faster rate of speed (18 inches per second or 90 feet per minute) for film, and its closed loop path and the low impedance head assembly.

It is clear that in some cases artists and technicians were not always creating beautiful music. Many times they were merely challenging the limit 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.


The various 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.
For the recording of the set of the complete Symphonies of Tchaikovsky with Dorati, they used Mercury's 3-microphone technique, yet the aural perspective is not always the same. Even though the typical 3-mics approach was executed, there are differencies in the quality of recordings, specifically after Mercury had been acquired by Philips and the relationship was put into practice in 1962. C Robert Fine left Mercury then. Wilma Cozart Fine left Mercury in 1964.


After 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 Lauterslager.
In this time of change, the recordings of various Tchaikovsky symphonies were made. In the 1950s Philips had mono recordings with Paul van Kempen (Nos. 5 and 6) and Van Otterloo (No. 4). There even was a mono Pathétique with Antal Dorati conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra on Philips' sublabel Fontana CFL 1019 (re-released in 1962 as 697010EL). On top of that Philips recorded No. 5 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch in the 1960s. It looks as if Philips' A&R department does not have a consistent policy for Tchaikovsky. But that was going to change when a complete set was planned with the newly contracted Igor Markevitch.


At the same time Mercury had started recording the Tchaikovsky Symphonies in stereo also in London in 1961.

Tchaikovsky Symphonies 1-3: LSO, 26-31 July 1965.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.4, London Symphony Orchestra, 12 June 1960. Gramophone catalog states the release in July 1962 on AMS 16118 (MMA 11168 mono).
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5: LSO, 23 June 1961. Gramophone catalog lists this recording as released in November 1962 on AMS 16125 (MMA 11175 mono).
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6: LSO, 17 & 18 June 1960. Not issued on MMA.

In the US most of the symphonies were issued as individual releases. And the 'old' Dorati recording of No. 4 with the Minneapolis Symphony remained also available. Symphony No. 5 was released on Mercury SR 90255, No. 6 on SR90312, and Symphonies Nos. 1-3 on SR-2-2-9015.

In September of 1966 the complete set of symphonies with the London Symphony under Dorati became available on Mercury SR-6-9121.
In the mid 1970s, these same recordings were issued in Europe on the Philips label. It was also a 6 LP box set but here with reference 6747-195.

Apparently there was a conflict of interest as the Philips engineers had beem recording the symphonies with Igor Markevitch. The first Markevitch recording was listed in the Gramophone catalog already in October 1962 (Pathétique).

In my perception symphonies 4, 5 and 6 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.


Most striking however is the stereophonic perspective of the original Mercury 3 LP boxed set with Tchaikovsky's Three Suites for Orchestra (SR 3-9018, Antal Dorati and the New 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..." in the mid nineteen nineties 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 stereo recordings made in the US and in England.


The positioning of microphones depends for a great deal on the quality of hearing of both 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.
It is of course possible that the microphone placement of one recording session differs slightly from the positioning during the next session. The recordings of the Rossini Overtures conducted by Antal Dorati on SR90139 is an example of this. There is a discernible difference between Side One and Two.


Everest, Command and Cameo






The liner notes of early Command recordings explain Bob Fine's microphone technique:



That same Byron Janis CD with Pictures At An Exhibition carries two encores. One of them is recorded on the 35 mm film recorder made by Westrex. Westrex had modified the machine mechanically and electronically to Robert C. Fine's specifications, in such a way 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. 

Since dialogues in movie theaters have to be understood, originally these film recorders had a frequency-characteristic that could not be identified as high fidelity. So they had to be modified in order to achieve the desired characteristics: an extended frequency range and perfect linearity, with the benefit of an increased signal to noise ratio of the 35 mm sound film.

If this correction is not made, the sound on LP gets that slightly "glassy" character as often heard in Everest recordings.
Also the attention paid to the cutting of the discs and the use of the best cutting-lathe played a mayor role in achieving excellent dynamics and a detailed sound quality, though not every reviewer was always pleased with the clear and often bright results. But those who owned quality-equipment enjoyed practically every first release bought of any Mercury recording. One should not forget that quality cartridges of quality brands like General Electric, Fairchild and Ortofon in the mono days generated a different sound appropriate for the way recordings were made and records were cut. And later the many stereo models with the newly devised elliptical styli, translated the modulated groove in the early stereo years in a completely different way than modern high end cartridges do with their ultra fine line tips often generating a somewhat slender sound.


Everest initially used 35 mm film for recording and explained the advantages on the inner sleeves: thicker tape, less print-through, wider tracks, higher dynamics.
When Everest stopped their high quality productions, the Studio with 35 mm recorders and consoles were sold. Bob Fine acquired the 35 mm recorders and had them brought up to date for high fidelity. How come that there is a distinctive difference in the sound characteristics of a Mercury Living Presence recording (and of early Command recordings as well) if compared to the early Everest stereo releases?

These differences are caused by the choice of microphones and microphone placement. There are also the differences in the electronics of mixers and amplifiers used when cutting a lacquer. These are: frequency characteristics, signal to noise ratio, dynamic capabilities, phase characteristics, and distortion values. Remember: Bob Fine had the recording characteristics of the 35 mm machines changed by Ampex.
Every record label has its own "sound". In RCA and Decca (London) recordings a slight phase shift can be noticed as if the signal is somewhat weaker in the lower-mid/mid section. Everest recordings show a less chiseled transient.


Command recordings however have fantastic sound because of the application of exact the same microphones, the perfect placement of the microphones, and the electronics for microphones, recorder, and cutting lathe.
And C. Robert Fine and George Piros were responsible for each and every recording as is printed on the inside of the early Command Classics gatefold issues.


Often these differences are also brought about by the unfortunate application of the Dolby Noise Reduction System. Mercury did not use a noise reduction system.
As said, a 35 mm sound film recorder was originally designed for the recording of speech to be mixed with the music and voice over recordings and finally put on the sound track of the film.
The frequency characteristic and the dynamics were mainly designed to reproduce the dialogues so they could be well understood by the audience even those people sitting in the last row.

C. Robert Fine had the electronics of his 35 mm recorders modified for recording music in high fidelity. To what extend Bert Whyte had already corrected the characteristic is not known to me.


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.



More Questions


Invited on behalf of Polygram Classics & Jazz by press officer Dorien van Londen I was in the privileged position to meet Wilma Cozart Fine in Holiday Inn Plaza Hotel in the center of Amsterdam. We had been talking already for quite a while. But I wanted to know more about Mercury's past and the transfer of the tapes to CD.


In Mercury's special recording van Robert Eberenz just has put on a new reel of 35 mm tape into the recorder.

RAB: Was this recording technique patented by Mercury? The label Everest also used 35 mm film recording, and Command did the same.

WCF: No, there were no patents. Everest was Bert Whyte's label. He started an audio shop and later on he became a journalist. He died in 1994. My husband and I were good friends of Bert Whyte.

RAB: How about other labels and the competition?

WCF: We came already in the nineteen fifties with 'Living Presence' and only sometime later RCA with 'Living Stereo'. We were so busy with producing that we actually paid hardly any attention to other labels. And there were the big labels: Columbia, RCA, American Decca.

RAB: Did Mercury have their own plant where the records were pressed?

WCF: Yes, we had one for pop. Classical LP's were pressed at RCA's factory. We cut the lacquer and they manufactured the matrix.

RAB: I admire so much that you have mixed the three tracks manually towards two channels during the cutting of the record. I myself made audiovisuals and had to mix the tape with speech and the tape with music manually and synchronize it with the images. I had to start a fade-in at the right moment and finish the transition to the following image on preselected moments in the music, sometimes slowly and at times very quickly. If I made a mistake I had to start the whole program of 20 minutes all over again. I can imagine how intense your work must have been.

WCF: Yes, we never mixed the channels to a master tape, but always directly to the cutting lathe. A tape would introduce extra hiss and we did not want that.

RAB: As the transfer was in progress you could change the stereo-balance. Did you do that?

WCF: I had to prepare myself well and I had to note beforehand which passages needed small adjustments. Too much correction is not good. That would disturb the natural sound balance of the orchestra.

RAB: Was there more than one lacquer cut from the same recording so that two masters were made, possibly with a small difference, and RCA used both of them?

WCF: No, only one lacquer was cut. Of course things did go wrong sometimes. You know, the groove with a high level of dynamics need more space. It can be done by the cutting machine automatically. We did it manually. I would say to the technician who was cutting the lacquer: 'Here comes the loud passage' and he then varied the distance between the grooves. It could happen that we were busy and that I had still three more minutes of music on the tape and he had already reached the final groove. And then everything had to be done from the start. But we also have cut lacquers that contained a maximum of information, almost 30 minutes for one side.


The Scully Lathe - Margin Control

scully Cutting Lathe

In High Fidelity magazine from December 1956, an article, written by audio journalist Fritz A. Kuttner, describes the history and the uniqueness of the Scully Lathe designed by John J. Scully (who originally was from Ireland) and his son Lawrence Scully.
At the end of the article Kuttner explains the workings of the Variable Pitch Control:

Until quite recently, recording lathes cut a fixed number of lines (grooves) per inch of diameter on every disk: 96 lines was most frequent for 78s, and for LPs it varied between 200 and 280 lines. Once the number of given lines for a given recording had been selected, it had to be maintained consistently from beginning to end. A certain "feed screw" was mounted into the lathe assembly, which moved the recording head steadily forward at the pitch selected. ("Pitch" is the distance the screw would advance in one revolution.) For soft music and little bass on the tape, the grooves were more widely spaced than desirable, with the result that the cut was uneconomical.

With high volume and strong low frequencies, the fixed pitch was too narrow to accommodate the passage in full, the engineer had to reduce volume and bass in order to prevent the stylus from overcutting the grooves. This meant serious loss of quality and fidelity which could be compensated in part only by expensive playback equalization controls. For years the Scully toiled on the problem, and by 1950 they had solved it: pitch variation at any given moment from 70 to 400 lines, or from 105 to 600 lines, or even from 140 to 800 lines per inch. Instead of several interchangeable feed screws with fixed pitches, a highly complex and smooth-working mechanism was devised and introduced into the machine, and today the engineer may set the advancing speed of the cutting head differently from moment to moment.

He can cut out a violin solo played in softest pianissimo at 600 or even 800 lines per inch, three times narrower than one could a few years ago; ten seconds later, when the whole orchestra's tremendous outburst with blaring trombones and tubas would have destroyed any master disk made by the earlier method, the engineer turns a knob and widens the groove distance to 70 or 100 lines per inch - and a smooth cut will engrave all the vigor and grandeur which had to be throttled away until recently. Inclusion of this device raised the price of the Scully lathe to $7.300. To record makers it was worth it.

If the variable pitch feature was to work at full efficiency, the operator of the machine had to develop a fantastic timing accuracy: every low bass note, every slight increase in volume had to be anticipated by about two seconds - the time it takes the turntable to complete one revolution. If the pitch was not widened by the lathe operator sufficiently ahead of time, the stylus might still overcut the previous groove and destroy an otherwise perfect master disk. The knowledge of the musical score and of the performance essential for efficient operation of the lathe might exceed the capacities even of a veteran orchestral conductor.

There also was the additional difficulty of precisely estimating the amount of additional groove-spacing desirable for any musical passage forthcoming from the master tape. In an effort to solve these problems Scully got to work with W.R. Dresser, an electronics engineer, and after long experimentation came up with an answer: automation.
On the recorder used for mastering playback, a second monitoring head is mounted before the actual playback head.
From the supply wheel the tape is led, via a system of rolls and guides, to this "monitoring station" set one or two seconds head of "cutting time". Here the volumes and frequencies are measured, and by way of a complex system of amplifiers, potentiometers, feed motors, and adjusters, the variable pitch control is continuously activated and adjusted to whatever pitch width is needed next. An "excursion control" and a "return control" (a time delay network) see to it that the new pitch is exactly right for the following passage and that it returns to a lower level with a sufficient amount of delay to protect the preceding groove from being cut into.

Note: Mercury Records and the Detroit Symphony were among the first users of the fantastic Scully lathes which were exported to countries worldwide. Many Mercury lacquers were cut using the new technical possibilities instead of the Reeves-Fairchild thermodynamic Margin Control as used in the early mono days.

The picture of Lawrence J. Scully, son of founder John J. Scully, has been taken from High Fidelity magazine, December 1956.
The images of a 1950's Scully lathe (courtesy Aardvark Record Mastering) have been edited.

There are only a few Scully Lathes in operation today. One is operated by ManMadeMastering in Berlin, Germany.


Taken from the cover of Bert Whyte's AUDIO Magazine, October 1970 Edition


Splicing the Takes

When a reel is full, a new reel with unrecorded tape is inserted. To make splicing possible, the performers will start playing several bars earlier in the score. The recordings will overlap.

This same procedure is followed whenever a mistake in the performance has been made: noise, false note, or whatever. The performers will start playing at a point much earlier in the score. Now there is enough overlapping to make a perfect splice.

Just after S1 a mistake in the performance has been made.
So at S1 of take 1 a splice should be made to continue at S2.
But there is a problem. The perforation at S1 of take 1 and S2 of take 2 do not coincide. See the drawing. Unfortunately the splice cannot be made at S1.

However both the music signal and the perforation do synchronize much earlier in the recording, at S3. There the splice will be made in order to avoid an incorrect transition. This means that a new take has to start much earlier than is the case with 1/2" audio tape.

The 35 mm brown recording film was not transparent of course but was visualized for better understanding. (Diagram drawing by R.A.B.)

The Mercury people were always proud of the "simple" way they made their recordings. The liner notes of MG 50038 say:

" This recording was done at Orchestra Hall, Chicago, on January 8 and 9, 1954, using a single Telefunken microphone hung approximately 15 feet above and slightly behind the conductor's podium, the orchestra playing in normal concert set up throughout these recording sessions. Fairchild tape machines were used for the recording sessions; and the processing from tape to disc was done through Fairchild tape machines, McIntosh 50-watt amplifiers and the Miller cutting head, employing the Fine-Fairchild margin control system of variable pitch and variable depth of cut - thus assuring a 100-percent reproduction in disc form of the recording captured originally on magnetic tape."

Note: Zoltan Kodaly composed The Peacock Variations for the 50th anniversary of the Amsterdam (Royal) Concertgebouw Orchestra and the work was first performed in 1939, Willem Mengelberg conducting.

Did you record more than one take and did you splice them?

WCF: Yes, the disadvantage of the Westrex-recorder that we used on location was that it could handle spools with a maximum of 10 minutes. In case the orchestra made a mistake, we stopped and the recorder was prepared with a new reel with magnetic film. The orchestra had to continue in the same tempo. No difference should be noticed. Sometimes we started all over again if the mistake was made in the beginning of the work. That amounted to a lot of tape. A tape that contained a mistake could not be used a second time.
Or we just continued after a mistake, but then a few bars earlier in the score in order to have enough length to make a perfect splice. You know that 35 mm sound film is transported via sprocket wheels. The music and the position of the sprockets on both takes do not always coincide. That is why we needed more tape in order to be able to make the splice much earlier at a spot where music and perforation were identical.

RAB: I first came in touch with 'Living Presence' many years ago as a student on a summer job when I was traveling to New York. On 1600 Broadway I bought the 'Peacock Variations' by Zoltan Kodály with Antal Dorati as conductor.

WCF: With the Chicago Symphony. That was in mono. We did not do mono-recordings in this series of CD's.

RAB: No stereo-version was made in later years?

WCF: No.

RAB: I thought it was very well done. One could hear a big orchestra in quite a natural way. Everything was there in the right perspective.

(I told Wilma Cozart Fine that I bought several Mercury LPs: Brahms' Second Piano Concerto with Gina Bachauer and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (SR 90301), Rachmaninoff's 1st and Prokofiev's 3rd with Byron Janis and Kyril Kondrashin (SR 90300), and Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony with Dorati (SR 90258). We talked about how in the 3rd movement of Brahms' Second Concerto you could almost see the strings of the cello, and how beautifully Janis played the second movement in Rachmaninoff and the variations in Prokofiev. Exceptional were the sections of Brass and percussion in Prokofiev's 5th Symphony. But all instruments are all there in the right proportions. Nowhere there is an emphasis on a single instrument in particular or on some specific aspect of an instrument. These works are also available on CD.)

RAB: Not long ago I bought a Nixa LP with Vaughan-Williams' 8th Symphony, out of curiosity and I was amazed by the excellent recording. Now I do read in the notes of Polygram Classics & Jazz that you and the 'Living Presence' team made this recording in England in 1956.

WCF: Nixa was a subsidiary of the Pye factories. We made various recordings for them. Later the contract between Philips and Pye ended and Pye was purchased by EMI. EMI releases the recordings that we made for Nixa.

RAB: Apart from the Sviatoslav Richter-recordings for Philips, did you make recordings for other labels?

WCF: Yes we made a number of recordings for the Italian publisher Ricordi. They too do not belong to Philips. The specialty of the releases of the Mercury-recordings on CD is that we restored the old equipment and used it, I do not know how EMI does it. They do not have our equipment.


Microphone Placement

Just three microphones are sufficient to capture singers, orchestra and chorus in the recording of the La Scala production of 'Lucia di Lammermoor' for Ricordi. The microphones are hanging at precise determined distances above the orchestra and in front of the singers and the chorus. The chorus is positioned a few feet above the orchestra in order to not obstruct the sound of the voices by the orchestra members and to keep the sound sources in perspective. The orchestra however has a wider spread. Hence in the recording the chorus will be 'narrowed down' slightly to the center of the sound stage. Note that this is an example of the actual microphone placement in use by the Mercury team and it differs from the early trials in 1955.

See also CINERAMA and Trinaural Microphone Placement

The production team (Wilma Cozart Fine, Bob Eberenz and Harold Lawrence) are following the score while listening to the recorded takes of the day. The team is hardly distinguishable because of the bright light. It is the recording of the performance of Rossini's comic opera 'La cambiale di matrimonio' (The Bill of Exchange of Marriage) in July 1959, in the Teatro Grande of Brescia (Italy) with Renata Scotto, Rolando Panerai, Renato Capecchi, Nicola Monti, Mario Petri, Giovanna Fiorino, I Virtuoso di Roma, and conductor Renato Fasano. SR2-9009.

As for every production also here three Altec loudspeaker systems were the reference for monitoring the recordings. (Photo by Leonida Barezzi, taken from the Ricordi mono release MRO 109-10 from 1960.)

This picture illustrates once again that the stereo recordings were three channel recordings. Today they can only show their full blooded Living Presence sound and space on 3-channel SACD releases, if the original tapes, recorders and mixing panel were used as used by Wilma Cozart Fine preparing the CD releases..

This forest of microphones as used by some Philips recording technicians, stands in clear contrast to the "simple" microphone placement applied by Bob Fine and the Mercury team.

The Philips microphone system technique consists of two basic microphones plus a number of supporting microphones. Levels were carefully adjusted to capture the original orchestral balance in the beautiful acoustics of the "Grote zaal" (large hall) of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Such extreme multi miking was not every Philips engineer's microphone technique in the days of analog recording. Yet the results are very positive with depth and a wide image, if the record is played on a quality system.

The fact that in this recording the orchestra is seated on the stage instead of in the hall, make the listener perceive the orchestral balance as in a live concert performance.

The edited picture above is taken from the cover of Philips LP Ref. 6500 429 from 1972 with Josef Krips conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Mozart's Symphonies Nos. 41 (Jupiter) and 35 (Haffner).
Leader/concert master/first violinist is Herman Krebbers who is seated at Josef Krips's left.

It is sometimes suggested that the Decca Tree, the configuration for microphone positioning as used by the Decca engineers, was somewhat identical to the microphone placement as used by the Mercury team. This picture (taken during a recording session of an opera in Vienna with Sir Georg Solti conducting shows however that the complexity is more or less akin to the Philips microphone technique in the recording of the Concertgebouw Orchestra with conductor Josef Krips.

The Decca engineers use many microphones as well. The "tree" is in the center of the orchestra hanging over Sir Georg Solti's head. There are microphones for left and right and one positioned further back center, and there are a number of supporting microphones. The left and right halves of the orchestra are covered by more microphones positioned in front above the orchestra, two for the left and two for the right section. Then there is the mike in the center hanging somewhat further away in the back of the orchestra, high above the players. Its signal is obviously fed to both the left and right channel.

It is often stated that by using the tree configuration, the specific Decca sound was realized. But most people forget that a great deal of the character of the recorded sound was achieved by the special recording equipment the Decca engineers had built. The characteristic differed from the electronics used by other companies. This is especially noticeable in the sound recordings of the piano.

The above picture was taken from a promotional record release for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - German Decca SX 21 178-M with other photographs as well.

There are additional close-up microphones in the Decca setup. There are of course more microphones placed in the back to capture the voices of soloists and chorus which also have to blend in. All signals are fed to a Decca mixing console built by their own engineers. Signals are meticulously adjusted in order to attain a natural orchestral balance. This not only shows the complexity of the DECCA appraoch, but also is proof of the 'simplicity' of the Mercury method, and the logic of it.
Drawing first published in 'Het Beste uit AudiOpinie', 1995.

Already in the mono days English Decca used at least three microphones instead of one as Mercury (and also Philips) did. And the orchestra is not situated on stage with the division by stairs and on different levels. Sitting in the hall is more practical. Acoustically this means that the reverberation time is approximately the same in all directions. One microphone captures the left section of the orchestra. Another does the same for the right section. And the rear of the orchestra is captured by a third microphone. The use of more than one microphone makes it possible to adjust and blend the instruments in the back of the orchestra and give a different perspective in case one microphone is used. The sound picture can be heard in many a Decca mono recording.

The picture above is of the Decca recording session of September 11th, 1946. Eduard van Beinum is conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra performing "Le sacre du printemps" (The Rite of Spring) of Stravinsky which was pressed on 4x 12" Decca shellac records, reference K1727/30. This recording was never issued on LP. In 1951 Decca released the early recording of Ernest Ansermet on LXT 2563.


Yes, they (EMI, Ed.) actually would need you to do it for them. When beautiful tapes that were made with valve recorders and amplifier stages and mixing consoles are re-released, one can hear that they have been replayed on modern equipment that work with transistors and so they have lost their original, beautiful character. In what state where the 1/2" tapes and reels with 35 mm magnetic film?

WCF: Some had to be restored. Splices had to be renewed and bits had to be re-recorded.

RAB: You had to mix the three channels once again for the CD-releases. How did you go about it?

WCF: First I listened to the LP's, many times, so my memory came back. You know that as a writer, that when you are absorbed by the writing process you cannot be reached by other people. It takes a lot of concentration. I listened of course to the sound balance and the stereo-image on the LP. I wanted that the CD did not differ from the LP.

RAB: What was the most difficult mix?

WCF: That was the Balalaika-recording. It was difficult to get the naturalness of the plucking of the strings right.

RAB: CD is a completely different medium. How do you perceive it? Do you think it has its restrictions?

WCF: Yes, my husband always said that the sampling rate was too low. But the CD's are closer to the masters, the original tapes, than the LP's.


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.

For the transfers of the tapes to the PCM format (44.1 kHz - 16 bit) the original equipment was used, except for a modern DAT recorder which replaced the Scully cutting lathe.

Diagram drawings by R.A.B.

Decca Classics 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) --- Paul Paray's Symphonie Fantastique --- The Civil War recordings, etc. etc. A second "collector's edition" and a third were later issued. 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 what microphones were used.


 The second Mercury Living Presence CD Box


Early Stereo Catalog


'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 from the 1950s and early 1960s lack the full dynamics and warmth of the monaural issues. We all know that this is true for all labels, classical, pop and jazz, specifically in the first years of the stereo era. That is true for stereos of the Riverside and Blue Note labels. However English Decca made already superb registrations in those years. In contrast the first Philips HiFi Stereo recordings do not have the appropriate dynamics, specifically in the lower and mid low register. This applies also to the early HMV ASD and Columbia SAX pressings.


Many a music lover did not like the stereo LP too well in the beginning. 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, conductor and violinist Rudolf Barshai, and pianist Vasso Devetzi; and the ones made in England for Philips with pianist Sviatoslav Richter and conductor Kyril Kondrashin.
About conductor Antal Dorati, a 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).
Antal Dorati (at right) is presented a Golden Record for Tchaikovsky's 'Overture Solennelle/1812' with guns and bells.
Antal Dorati (at right) is presented a Golden Record for Tchaikovsky's 'Overture Solennelle/1812' with guns and bells. (Picture taken from Dutch record magazine "Luister..." - 1963)

The mixing down of the three tracks to two stereo channels was done by Wilma Cozart Fine. Here she is seen at the stereo mixing console in the early days of stereo recording.

Antal Dorati (1906-1988) in the early years of the Mercury label (photograph taken from an advertisement in a Dutch publication from 1955).


And about 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 in 1963).
On the occasion of the two millionth copy a special box, the size of the LP, containing the CD-transfer, facts about the Mercury label and the recording, plus a DIY field gun was issued by Philips in Baarn (The Netherlands) in a limited edition.

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.

We could have talked about the French programs (Ravel and Debussy) of conductor 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.

There are many subjects, but my interview time was over, we shook hands and parted heartily, and afterwards I realized that I forgot to ask her why the recording of Byron Janis of 'Pictures At An Exhibition' only got its first time release on CD and was never issued on LP before. The answer can be found in the Mercury documentation accompanying the sample CD Wilma Cozart gave me. When Janis's recording had been taped it had been scheduled for release later, but then the tape was mislaid and discovered only years later.
Without Wilma Cozart Fine the re-release on CD of the many original analogue recordings would not have been possible in this original way.

Page 2 of Schwann Long Playing Record Catalog of November 1958 has this advertisement with the heading: For the Best in Stereo Insist on Mercury - Living Presence Stereo.


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.

The first Mercury stereo records feature The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra.

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.

The advertisement in Schwann of November 1958 (at left) shows a different list and numbering:

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.

Two hundred and eighty eight releases later Gershwin's Concerto and Rhapsody in Blue were re-released together with Cuban Overture (conducted by Antal Dorati) on SR 90290 under the heading 'Curtain Up'.

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.


The catalog is expanding rapidly.

The advertisement at left announces an important recording issued in a box with reference number SR-3-9000. It is a 3-record set, with Cherubini's Medea featuring Maria Callas, and 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 some 8 months later, in December 1959, on Columbia SAX 2290-2.

The mono edition was already available in March on 33CX 1618-20.

The first single classical LP album was MG 10000 with the Russian recording of David Oistrakh playing Aram Khachaturian's Violin Concerto with Alexander Gauk conducting, originally released on 78 RPM on the SSSR label (CCCP in cyrillic).


"Philips 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 Electronics Company" ever 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. But the main reason for not operating on US soil were the trade restrictions that existed between the USA and many countries. They were there to protect American interest and those of other countries. If the US would not permit foreign companies to establish themselves on the US market, than US firms had difficulty to operate in Europe. The only thing to do was to sign a contract with an American company. For Philips records the company to have a contract 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. To begin with 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 available in the UK and were now issued on the Philips label in the United Kingdom.
Sometime later international trade regulations changed and made it easier for foreign companies to set up a business in the US. Also the brand name Philco was bought by Philips and that name was no longer an obstacle. For the electronics division Philips had founded North American Philips Company (Norelco). Later they bought Marantz. Marantz .

Norelco advertisement for the F.R.S., Full Resonance Speaker (the famous 9710 M full range dual cone loudspeaker unit) in High Fidelity Magazine of 1956.


Now the people from Dutch Philips were looking an independent record company in the US that had all the necessary facilities. In 1961 they bought Mercury Records Inc. That resulted in the appearance of many a Mercury-artist on the Philips-label outside the USA (violinist Henryk Szeryng, guitarists The Romeros, harpsichordist Raphael Puyana, violoncellist Janos Starker). Many a Mercury-tape was released as a Philips product. Several sound recordings made in Europe by Philips appeared in the nineteen sixties in the US on the newly acquired Mercury-label: pianists Clara Haskil (Mozart) and Cor de Groot (Rachmaninoff), in simulated stereo, and singer Gérard Souzay, while recordings of Van Beinum and Grumiaux continued to be issued on the Epic label, though Haskil with Beethoven appeared on American Philips. It was all rather confusing. But it showed that the acquisition of the Mercury label was probably an incentive for the Philips record company to make recordings on a much larger scale than before and on an international level.


The contract of Mercury with EMI in Great Britain, Germany and other European countries expired in 1963. That was an inconvenience. By 1965 Mercury records had disappeared completely from the British market. Only a selection of Mercury recordings were released in Great Britain on the Philips label whereas in Europe the Mercury label continued to exist and many records were pressed by Philips and several subsidiaries from Dutch matrixes (and in some cases from matrixes made in Chicago by George Piros with PFR written in the dead wax, P for Philips). They were of course pressed in factories in the Netherlands (Baarn), Germany and France.




Now that Philips had settled in the US, Philips products could be marketed as Mercury products like the simple and affordable, plastic, monaural phonograph (gramophone) and a more luxurious stereo record changer also with built-in amplifier and loudspeakers as advertized on 12 inch inner sleeves of Mercury pressings.


In Europe many a Mercury taped performance was first issued on the Dutch and French Mercury labels. They were later reissued in the Philips 839 series and by 1969 on the Fontana label. Some ten years afterwards a new series of Mercury-records were pressed in the Netherlands on high grade low noise (silent) vinyl from new, Dutch plates, the covers were adorned with a special gold seal stating 'Golden Imports', specifically pressed for the US market where the Mercury label continued to exist for some time.
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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.


In 1967 the last recording by Mercury technicians was made and Mercury Living Presence became history. But after so many years Wilma Cozart Fine gave new life to the 'Living Presence' recordings.
Mercury is the god of commerce, travel and thieves. But he is also eloquent. That is why Mercury became the messenger of the gods. Wilma Cozart Fine is Mercury.






1. Not Pictures At An Exhibition was the first classical LP on the Mercury label. The first release on the Mercury label was a 12" LP with reference number 10000. It contained the Russian recording of Khachaturian's Violin Concerto played by David Oistrakh of which Bob Fine obtained the rights in 1950. The technical quality is bad, but Bob Fine makes more than the most of it. That was not the first time Oistrakh could be heard on record in the United States and in this concerto. The same performance was already available on 78's on the USSR-label (CCCP in Cyrillic) according to 'The Gramophone Shop Encyclopedia of Music', 1948 edition, New York. The conductor is Alexander W. Gauk.
I own a set of this shellac-edition made in the former USSR, ref. 14151/2/3/4/5. Wilma Cozart Fine: 'You are the first person I meet who has these records.'
2. The lacquers originally made for pressings by RCA bore the stamped initials FR, in a later stadium other lacquers were made with handwritten matrix numbers for pressings done by Columbia (CBFR) and lacquers with PFR in the dead wax were made for the early Philips pressings in Europe. Numbers with prefix RFR were of the Vendor Series. (The Columbia-pressings were generally of a lesser quality.)

3. Although I praised the company for their standard of quality when I had my conversation with Mrs. Wilma Cozart Fine, I only later discovered that my assumption was not correct as I encountered many low grade pressings, mono and stereo; especially the Wing pressings often were abominable. This of course does not apply to the CD transfers.

4. The various recordings made by the Mercury recording team for Ricordi with Sciutti, Scotto, Bastianini, Capecchi a.o., and with I Virtuosi di Roma, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and La Scala in Milan were released in the US by Mercury.

5. Byron Janis told in 'Q & A with Riz Khan (CNN), December 26th 1997, about how revolutionary the visit to Moscow in 1960 was and about the immense success. Janis, who was struck with arthritis in 1973 and had to give up a promising continuation of his career, announced that he was going to write his autobiography. No doubt this is of interest to the many owners of the vintage LP's as well as to the music lovers who bought the CD-transfers of his outstanding performances of Rachmaninoff No. 1, No. 2 and No.3, the Tchaikovsky B Flat Op. 23, his Schumann, and his solo recordings.

6. This article is a translation and an adaptation of 'Wilma Cozart Fine is Mercury' as it originally was published in 1995 in Dutch and in 1998 in English.

7. John Johnson, who was employed at 'Fine Recording' in New York City for 8 years, from 1958 to 1966, sent me some interesting, additional information as my interview time with Wilma Cozart was too short to deal with all the details.
In those years John Johnson did the mono disc mastering on the Mercury classical records. That was in the beginning of the stereo era when both a mono and a stereo plate were cut and when recordings were released in the two formats. He also mastered some of the stereo-discs (when George Piros was not available) and did a number of the EMI stereo issues which -as we know- were cut at a lower level, the "trademark" of British EMI.
When C. Robert Fine was involved in the recordings for the Command Records label, also John Johnson was hired. On the cover of many a Command disc is mentioned "Mastering George Piros (stereo) John Johnson (monaural)". Charles E. Murphy was responsible for the art direction of those Series.
Robert Fine's studios, "Fine Sound" and later "Fine Recording", did all the classical work for Mercury, for Command and for many other labels and for advertising agencies.
Johnson: "In the nineteen fifties, Bob Fine (when he had left Reeves Sound Studios) had set up a recording and mastering operation in upstate New York."
Bob Fine invented Perspecta Optical Sound Recording System as an affordable technique if compared to the costly VistaVision recording.
John Johnson: "Fine sold Perspecta, possibly to Loews, in exchange for setting up a very good operation on Fifth Avenue in NY. Unfortunately, Fine only owned 49% of the studio complex and when he was forced out, he started around 1955 his famous Fine Recording which was located in the Great Northern Hotel on 57th street. In the 1970's this operation went out of business and Bob Fine operated as a free lance consultant for a few years prior to his death."
Like so many people who worked with C. Robert Fine, also John Johnson states that "the man had a very inventive mind but was not a good business man."

8. Although the name is officially C. Robert Fine (1922-1982), Bob Fine is sometimes mentioned as Robert C. Fine, like in the advertisement of Audio Devices, Inc. published at the beginning of this page.

Rudolf A. Bruil - Page first published 2001

(Images edited and all original drawings made by R.A.B.).


Audio&Music Bulletin - Rudolf A. Bruil, Editor - Copyright 1998-2015 by Rudolf A. Bruil and co-authors