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views for hobbyists
Rudolf A. Bruil - Page first published 2001
CHOOSE A SUBJECT:
Wilma Cozart Fine
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.
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.
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 it 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 "Living Presence" 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.
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 made.
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).
AUDIOPHILE CD WITH BYRON JANIS
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.'
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 the LP ossues and for the transfer to CD done 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.
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."
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 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 Johnson it performed with the Helsinki University Chorus; see the link on top of this page). 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.
DIGITAL RECORDINGS AND 3 MICROPHONES
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.
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.
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.
Check what is the difference between the linear format and a high resolution digital format here: History: 25 Years CD.
can also read about the analog approach (miking) in the early days when
technicians started recording in the digital format.
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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.
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.
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
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.
1. Film cuts
the background noise of a recording to an irreducible minimum. There
is no tape hiss.
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
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.
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 wax
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.
September 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.
Most striking 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 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..." 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.
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.
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Everest, Command and Cameo
35 MM SOUND FILM CHARACTERISTIC
same 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
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 AUDIO Magazine, October 1970 Edition
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Splicing the Takes
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The Transfer to CD
Mercury team used a Scully variable-pitch recording lathe designed by
John J. Scully
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Early Stereo Catalog
the CD's are closer to the masters, the original tapes, than the LP's.'
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.
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).
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.
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.
EARLY STEREO CATALOG RENUMBERED
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.
Two hundred and eighty eight reseases later the Concerto and Rhapsody were re-released together with Cuban Overture (conducted by Antal Dirati) 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.
NEW STEREO RECORDINGS
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.
AMERICAN COLUMBIA AND BRITISH COLUMBIA
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.
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.
ELECTRICAL MUSICAL INDUSTRIES
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.
ELECTRICAL MUSICAL INDUSTRIES
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.
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.
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.
OR CHOOSE ANOTHER SUBJECT:
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