Mercury Living Presence Recordings

Mono Days
Rudolf A. Bruil - Page first published 2001 .


Mono Days


















 A Mercury advertisement with the first Living Presence releases. Before the Living Presence label was born, Mercury had recorded with the Louisville Orchestra and had obtained tapes from abroad and these recordings were issued in the 10000 and 15000 Series.





Other labels looked with envy at the success of Mercury's 'Living Presence' recording. It prompted Columbia records to advertise in the Schwann catalog of September 1953 for their 'Pictures' recording with Eugene Ormandy as 'the greatest high fidelity recording ever made'.


In the 78 shellac-era Mercury bought recordings in Eastern Europe, The most famous example is the recording of the Violin Concerto of Khachaturian performed by David Oistrakh and Alexander Gauk. This recording was release on 78 RPM Mercury disnc and also on LP.
It is interesting to read that Mercury bought recordings from Herbert Rosen in Germany and read the paragraph on Ernst Lumpe's Pseudonymous-Pages with details. Scroll down to the paragraph
The Role of Rosen


In the nineteen fifties, the days of mono recording, Bob Fine - who then was employed by Reeves Sound Studios - had proposed a technique that employed just one single microphone covering the entire orchestra. The same technique was used by other recording engineers and technicians, a/o. by Us van der Meulen when recording on a Philips Miller Optical Sound Recording System Bach's St. Matthew Passion conducted by Willem Mengelberg in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, on Palm Sunday 1939.
See also:
Willem Mengelberg, Bach and the Philips-Miller Recording System.


The use of one microphone is certainly also a reason why the Mercury technicians recorded the orchestra seated on stage, so that the sound produced by the instruments in the back of the orchestra was reflected and acoustically amplified by the walls, as compared to their loudness when recorded in a much larger space (as was later done by Philips c.s. placing the orchestra in the hall). He said that, if you are serious about recording serious music, this is the way to go about it: position the microphone at about 25 feet above the orchestra in the middle of the front-line of the orchestra. In that way you will pick up all instruments in their natural position.
After having recorded with various brands of microphones, Bob Fine finally opted for the Telefunken U-47 omnidirectional microphone.


In the beginning of 1951 there was only one recording of the orchestral version by Maurice Ravel of Modest Mussorgsky's now so popular "Pictures at an Exhibition" available on disc. It was the performance of the New York Philharmonic under Arthur Rodzinski on Columbia ML 4033. The Mercury team choose that same score for the recording of their own first ever classical LP production (Mercury was initially a pop label) in the performance by the Chicago Symphony with Rafael Kubelik conducting. The reference number is 50000. The recording was made on 23 April 1951 with a single U47 Telefunken microphone.

On its release in the fall of 1951, it made a sensational entry in the world of the serious music lover as well as the HiFi-fanatic, and in one blow it established Mercury's reputation. Howard Taubman, music critic of The New York Times, wrote in his review that these recordings do sound as though you are in the living presence" of the performer. The sound is so lifelike that "you are there". From then on "Living Presence" became Mercury's quality slogan that distinguished the label from its competitors and from then on it adorned all following Mercury-issues.


MG 50000 was reviewed in High Fidelity Magazine, Volume 2, Number 2, of September-October 1952. One important phrase written by critic C.G. Burke:

"Brass timbre has seldom been more sucessfully engraved than in this bold statement wherein everything is unambiguous and the phalanx is overwhelming."

It should be noted that what was considered as "high fidelity" in the 1950s differs significantly from what was practice in the 1970s and differs from what top quality reproduction is today even though the term "high-fidelity" is practically no longer used.
The reproduction equipment in 1951 consisted of cartridges with a relatively limited frequency band, made by Pickering, Fairchild, General Electric. They were mounted in relatively heavy arms designed by Audak, Weathers, Gray Research, Fairchild, etc. Most high-fidelity turntables were sturdy too and were branded Rek-O-Kut, Bogen, Scott, Garrard.

For amplification tubes were used. Top gear was manufactured by McIntosh, Fisher, Scott. At the end of the chain were big loudspeaker systems with large woofers manufactured by Jensen, Klipsch & Associates, Bozak, Altec Lansing, Jim Lansing. These systems reproduced a warm sound with good reproduction of the lower mid frequency band and tangible mids. The Mercury disc of Pictures at an Exhibition was a revelation when played back on top level systems of those days. However. even if the tape recorder had a wide frequency band, the cutter on the lathe would not handle frequencies above 15.000 Hz. (15 Kilocycle).


Transferring the original tape of Pictures at an Exhibition to the digital format could have needed some adjustment. Specifically in view of the nature of the Pulse Code Modulation which increases the dynamics of old recordings. That is what can be heard on the Compact Disc with Kubelik's Pictures at an Exhibition. The increase of dynamics is even more obvious in the transfer of Kodaly's Peacock Variations (Dorati/Minneapolis). These mono transfers make it clear that Wilma Cozart Fine wanted to the transfers as close to the original recordings. The adjustment of treble and /or bass was the custom in the 1950s. Playing these old mono recordings as transferred to CD could benefit from adjustments of variable treble and bass; that is to say, if your modern preamplifier has these options.


The actual reason for this anomaly lies in the choice of microphone. There is an important paragraph in the booklet that accompanies the MERCURY LIVING PRESENCE 2ND COLLECTOR'S EDITION as critic and researcher Eduard Reichenbach pointed out to me and that paragraph I had not read before. Mike Gray gives the answer for the fierce sound characteristic of the Peacock Variations recording when he writes:

"But there was one piece of information that Bob Fine did not share with the record buying public - or with the competition - and that was the Schoeps M201 microphone. Designed in Germany by Karl Schoeps the 201, like the U-47 had selectable pick-up patterns. Fine used it exclusively in its omnidirectional mode. Where it differed from the U-47 was its sound — more “exposed” than the “fatter” sound of the U-47, it was flat between 20 Hz to about 2 kHz, from which it rose slowly to a peak of 7 dB at 10 kHz."

It is further stated that the Schoeps M201 did not fare well in smaller auditoriums like that of Minneapolis. The starightforward transfer of the Peacock Variations to the Compact Disc format did not help either.


The quality of an enterprise depends on its people: from management, producers and technicians right down to the workers in the pressing plant and the shipping department. Those who set the tone were Irving Green (founder), John Hammond (who was known because he had recorded 'Dumbarton Oaks' with Stravinsky for Keynote in the days of 78 RPM), David Hall (producer), Claire Van Ausdall (supervisor), C. Robert Fine (chief engineer and technical supervisor), Harold Lawrence (musical supervisor), Robert Eberenz (assistant technician; he restored the tape machines for the CD-transfers) and George Piros (cutting engineer). Wilma Cozart (recording director) joined Mercury when Rafael Kubelik was still at the head of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Several recordings with the Chicagoans had already been made. The last recording of Kubelik appeared on MG 50013, not conducting the orchestra from Chicago, but the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Smetena's Wallenstein's Camp. If that was a Living Presence recording or a recording bought a Czech source is not known to me. When Kubelik left the Chicago Symphony in 1953, the orchestra was no longer available for Mercury but now was contracted by RCA.

Rafael Kubelik

Rafael Kubelik in his late thirties.
Edited picture, the original taken from the cover of Decca LW 5213 with Janacek's Sinfonietta played by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.


David Hall of Mercury

David Hall setting up the mike for a 1954 session of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.
Photo Herman Leonard. (David Hall wrote the liner notes for a number of early Everest releases of classical music.)


Mercury started its classical catalog when John Hammond and David Hall were sent to Eastern Europe in 1948 to acquire the recorded sound archive of Czech radio as John Hammond writes in his autobiography.
David Hall became the producer of Mercury's classical line. Working with Bob Fine and Bert Whyte, he was very much a part of the team that devised Mercury's pioneering recording techniques. David Hall stayed at Mercury until 1956. He wrote best selling books on recording and high fidelity. The first was published in 1941, long before Mercury was founded. He did much to build the market for classical records in which Mercury ultimately found a secure niche (as his son Peter Dobkin Hall wrote to me). Later David Hall became involved with Bert Whyte's Everest label. Though writing was only one of his specialties, many covers of many different labels are adorned with liner notes from his hand.


The microphones were suspended along the frontal area of the orchestra at a fair distance above the musicians. In all events microphones with omnidirectional characteristics were used. Height and distance between the mikes were carefully chosen as to cover the orchestra as a whole.
After listening to the result of the positioning of the microphones, adjustments -if necessary- would be made by the producer and the technician who at the end determined the definitive position of the microphones: height, angle and distances.
The loudest passage in the music was indicative for the maximum recording level.

After everything was found in order, nothing would be altered. No use of supporting microphones was made, nor were limiters and filters applied. Mixing of the three channels to two-channel stereo was not done at the recording site but eventually later when the lacquer master was being cut. The performance was recorded on three tracks on 1/2 inch tape and later on 35 mm magnetic film as used in the motion picture sound studios. This 35 mm magnetic strip was spliced together with the actual film (rushes) and synchronized.


Originally the Mercury people recorded an orchestra as it was seated on stage as can be heard in early mono release and later in the early stereo recordings. Philips and Decca, when recording the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for instance, generally would do the same in the early years, but later would take the seats out of the large hall of the Concertgebouw and put the orchestra right there, in the stalls area (in the middle of the hall). In this way the acoustic space of the stage is not recorded. Mercury recordings have this natural soundstage as if you were sitting in a chair in the concert hall facing the stage. This is especially evident in the recordings made in Minneapolis and Detroit. The recordings made in London show the different acoustics of a larger space.

Mercury Living Presence Advertisement


Antal Dorati was the conductor of the Dallas Symphony from 1945 until 1948. In 1949 he accepted the post of conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Wilma Cozart had been his secretary. She suggested that - when the Chicago was no longer available - the orchestra from Minneapolis with conductor Dorati could fill the void. That is how Dorati was contracted by Mercury when Wilma Cozart had joined the record company.


The contract with the Minneapolis Symphony is significant for the continued success of the Mercury label. It was not common that a small label hired such a big and rather expensive orchestra, especially when the contract was exclusive.
It is that performance which is transferred next to Byron Janis' piano version on the same CD (434-346-2). Just as the grand piano is detailed, well balanced with natural dynamics, the orchestra also has a strong and firm sound. The recording was made on April 21, 1959.


Now also M 54 and M 56 Telefunken microphones were used. The M54 and M56 were selected because of the extended frequency band and the ability of picking up delicate sounds as well as powerful crescendos.
In Dorati's 'Pictures' the recorders are 1/2 inch tape machines which were especially manufactured for Mercury. (The covers of recordings made on 35 mm film are identified by the perforated tape.)

At left an advertisement from 1957 showing Antal Dorati and the single microphone.
Below at left a special Living Presence Sampler (OLD-6) from the mono days featuring conductors Rafael Kubelik (Chicago Symphony), Antal Dorati (Minneapolis Symphony), Paul Paray (Detroit Symphony), Howard Hanson (Eastman-Rochester Symphony), Frederick Fennell (Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble), in various excerpts of compositions by Chabrier, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Brahms, Hanson, Wagner, and Holst. Price 98 c.

Mercury Living Presence Sampler Record


Next to discipline it is the artistry of not only the musicians but of Staff and Producers which can lead to exceptional quality of sound and performance. And: it is not enough to produce something remarkable just once or occasionally. A reputation of true quality only will be established if there is some continuity.
Mercury would not have become the exceptional label that would have set an example that inspired so many labels at the time and continues to inspire modern labels as Telarc, Reference Recordings, Sheffield Lab, etc., if after this loud introduction of Kubelik's 'Pictures' nothing noteworthy had been produced.

Some 350 recordings, more or less in the same vein, were going to follow, first in mono in the Olympian Series, and when stereo arrived, Mercury 50000 was replaced by a completely new recording. Not with the Chicago Symphony with Kubelik, because he had received such a bad press from the music critics that he had to make way for Fritz Reiner who became the new conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And Reiner was under contract with RCA. Enter Antal Dorati.





Audio&Music Bulletin - Rudolf A. Bruil, Editor - Copyright 1998-2012 by Rudolf A. Bruil and co-authors