Stokowsky Cinerama Mercury Microphone Placement

It's Trinaural...!!!
Page first published on August 30, 2012.

Origins and development of the three channel stereophonic sound recording:

Monaural, Multi-Track, Binaural
and Trinaural Sound Recording.



The genesis of cinematography shows many instances of innovations, several of which concern the recording of sound and can be identified with a specific movie.

There is The Jazz Singer from 1927 introducing "the talkies". Another important achievement is Disney's Fantasia from 1940. Significant is also The Robe from 1953 that introduced Cinemascope to the world. And there is This is Cinerama which had been shown already one year earlier, in 1952.

All of these are American achievements. Here the denominator is sound. The Jazz Singer is a milestone not because of the good sounding Vitaphone process by which records were played simultaneously and, hopefully synchronously with the celluloid strip. Despite the limited frequency band of 4300 Hz., it sounded well. Sound on FilmVitaphone represented not the most logical sound technology available; that would have been the sound on film process, the sound track on the celluloid filmstrip next to the frames which guaranteed perfect synchronisation of sound and image and boasted a wider frequency band of up to some 8000 or 8500 Hz.



Sound on film was a process where a track is read with a photo electric cell. It had already been invented simultaneously by technicians in the US and in Germany. In the US it was J.T. Tykociner who developed sound-on-film, the optical sound track and on June 9, 1922, Tykociner publicly demonstrated for the first time a motion picture with a soundtrack optically recorded directly onto the film. See Wikipedia.

The Jazz Singer 1927 quotations from reviews
This is the entry for The Jazz Singer in Halliwell's Film Guide, published by Paladin Grafton Books, London, 1986.
The paragraph from the original review written by critic Welford Beaton for The Film Spectator, carries a warning: "If I were an actor with a squeaky voice I would worry".

It took almost two decades to fully develop and use that process commercially in two systems, one devised for Fox and the other for RCA.

However what made The Jazz Singer special was that it is the first commercial movie to present synchronized singing sequences and some synchronized speech. The Jazz Singer had spoken dialogues and the singing of a star, Al Jolson. It had the live registration of his performances, surrounding noises included. That was new. Many actors considered it to be a threat to their careers because people might not like their voices. (See also the AES Website.)



What Walt Disney demanded from the sound engineers for his film Fantasia (1940) was to "make the sound of a buzz follow a bee moving across the screen!" That could well be done by adding multiple sound tracks, three for the screen (for left, for center and for right) and another three for the reproduction of tracks in the hall (left wall, right wall and back wall). Six tracks in total.

Conductor Leopold Stokowski, narrator Deems Taylor and producer  Walt Disney in 1939 Fantasia
Leopold Stokowski (conductor and arranger), Deems Taylor (narrator) and Walt Disney (producer) in 1939. (Image taken from the inlay of the Decca 4 Phase Stereo 2-Lp box "Sixtieth Anniversary Concert".)

However the soundtrack for Disney's Fantasia was originally recorded on 9 tracks. These were mixed down to three tracks with sound information linked to the screen. And there were three more tracks (channels) for the reproduction in the hall. The sound recording was not done in real stereo yet, but it was possible to mix and accentuate music and speech by panning the signal on the mixing console from one track/channel to another. And the buzz followed the bee.



Cinertama logoThe system devised for Disney was named Fantasound. It gave the illusion of stereophonic sound by recording single tracks, simultaniously and if required independently, containing dialogue, music, and sound effects, and these were eventually mixed down to the desired configuration. Also a few early Cinemascope movies did not have true stereophonic sound. Mentioned examples are Julius Ceasar and Melba, both from 1953.
Only a true stereo recording provides a 3-dimensional sound image with a wide sound stage and depth. For that, one had to experience what Hazard Reeves had designed for Fred Waller's Cinerama format.

Five-channel microphone system for This is Cinerama 1952

Studio orchestra plays into five-channel microphone system for "This is Cinerama".
Image taken from High Fidelity Magazine of September-October, 1953. Edited by R.A.B.

The photograph above was taken during an actual recording session for the 1952 feature film This Is Cinerama. The orchestra is positioned in front of the 146 degree screen. It shows the setup arranged by Hazard Reeves. Five microphones (left, left center, center, center right, right) are hanging above the orchestra covering the complete orchestra and they capture a complete, stereophonic sound image. A sixth microphone is positioned above these mics.

That extra microphone captures a larger area.
Its signal can be added to whatever track the director wishes and it can be adjusted to the desired level. This signal comes in handy when editing the film so not all tracks have to be reproduced during the splicing.
These 6 microphones all had an omnidirectional pattern.



35 mm 7 track sound recording film
This image is a visualization of the seven tracks on the 35 mm recordable magnetic sound film with perforations . In reality nothing is shown on the magnetic film except for slight general wear by heads and sprockets.

In an article that appeared in 1953 in High Fidelity - the magazine for music listeners - journalist Hollis Alpert writes that the result of the recording sessions for Cinerama at the Oysterbay laboratory (as shown in the picture) where Cinerama was largely developped, was not satisfactory. He wrote that better results were achieved by recording the orchestra outdoors, positioned on the tennis courts outside. We can guess that the hall was probably too narrow and there obviously was much reflection causing some phase problems, and displaying a less spacious sound image.
At right is an image that visualizes the seven tracks with music and effects on the magnetic film. In reality no track is visible. Note that the tracks for the rear channel and the track with the signal for switching channels on the side walls may show lower dynamic levels.


Cinerama setup in movie theatre.
The sound was recorded on 35 mm sound film containing five tracks for the front loudspeakers, one track for the loudspeaker on the back wall, and one switching track for the loudspeakers on the side walls.

What is important, however, is that 2 microphones were placed to capture the left and 2 microphones captured the right section of the orchestra. And there was that one microphone placed center stage. These positions corresponded with the five loudspeakers in the front.

In essence the recording captured left, right and the middle part of the orchestra. That's why Hollis Alpert's headline in High Fidelity reads: It's Trinaural !!! The three loudspeakers in the rear were principally responsible for sound effects. It was obvious that the Cinerama system beats Disney's Fantasound and also the sound recording system used for Cinemascope.



C. Robert Fine had been chief engineer with Majestic Records and since 1948 he served as chief engineer of the Disc and Tape Recording Divisions of Reeves Sound Studios until March 1952 when - according to Audio Record magazine - he set up Fine Sound Inc. at Tomkins Cove, N.Y.
C. R. Fine must have witnessed Hazard Reeves and his engineers designing the complicated recording and reproduction processes for Cinerama, and maybe Fine himself was involed and did work together with those technicians.

Reeves Sound Studios mobile recording unit for Cinerama - Picture from High Fidelity of September-October, 1953
Mobile recording unit, by Reeves for Cinerama, with monitoring facility. Only real multiple
recording, so far, has yielded convincing stereophonic results.

Bob Fine invented Margin Control, making depth of cut possible when engraving loud passages in a lacquer disc. Through this technique the separation of the heavily meandering groove was allotted extra land. He also was a pioneer in music and sound effects. He devised a multiple setup whereby sound was electronically steered and was projected by a multiple loudspeaker set up. The system was called Perspecta Optical Sound Recording System. The sound could be directed electronically to whatever track(s) the engineer or producer wished and if necessary could whirl around from one speaker to another. C. Robert Fine also built a mobile location truck (akin to the special Reeves mobile recording unit for making recordings for Cinerama on location). C. Robert Fine used his recording truck all over America and when he was on assignment in Europe and Russia as well.

C.Robert Fine in 1955
Reeves Soundcraft logo with tape and address in New York
Robert C. Fine, President of Fine Sound Inc. and Al Mian, Chief Mixer, at master control console. Picture from an advertisment for Audio Devices in High Fidelity Magazine.
Logo and address of Reeves Soundcraft Corporation in the early 1950s.

The recordings of J.S. Bach's Sonatas & Partitas performed by Alexander Schneider and issued on Mercury MGL-1 (4x 12" LP discs) were made in 1949 when Fine was working at Reeves Sound Studios, New York City. In mono of course. Mercury was a client of Reeves.

The mono recordings of the same works played on the curved bow (Rundbogen) by violinist Rolph Schröder (Schroeder) in the Church of Günsbach in Germany for Columbia Records (SL-189, ML 4743/5) were recorded in the fall of 1951 when C. R. Fine probably had already registered his own business, but officially was still employed by Hazard Reeves.



In those early nineteen fifties not only the cinematographic world was buzzing. The record business was also exploring and developing new ways of recording music. Technicians inspired technicians and presentations inspired producers.

Cinerama is a combination of the words cinema and panorama. That inspired Donald H. Gabor of Remington Records. He named Remington's new multiple microphone recording technique - often using four (or even more) microphones - MUSIRAMA, a combination of music and panorama. The technique was devised by Robert Blake, who then was Don Gabor's recording engineer.

Remington Musirama label: music and panorama.
The Helsinki University Chorus during the recording session of a capella songs in 1953.
The label for the new Musirama recordings was announced in the same issue of High Fidelity of September-October, 1953. One month later, stereophonic recordings were made in Cincinnati's Music Hall of performances by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thor Johnson and by the Helsinki University Chorus. A picture of the recording session of the chorus shows that even five microphones were used.

Robert Blake made the earliest stereophonic recordings of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra with conductor Thor Johnson, and of the Helsinki University Chorus conducted by Martti Turunen in November 1953 in Cincinnati's Music Hall.
As far as I know, Robert Blake mixed the signals down and recorded on two track tape on the spot. A few of these recordings were issued on two track tape (binaural). It was probably Don Gabor's idea to make more stereo recordings to be marketed because the stereo tape recorder was becoming more and more popular. A few of these Remington recordings were issued by A-V Tape Libraries, New York. See Thor Johnson's profile and hear the Second Movement of Dvorak's 4th (8th) Symphony (recorded in 1953 in stereo).
The Remington Site.



Yet in those early 1950s a few companies were already thinking about the production of stereo records! Emory Cook was the engineer who devised a record with two engraved sections (bands) which were to be read by two cartridges mounted in a two-headed tonearm. Cook devised this binaural / duplex record and Livingston Electronic Corporation of New Jersey manufactured the necessary equipment: the Livingston Binaural Arm for two Fairchild cartridges, and a twin-channel amplifier. The advertisement below is from 1954. Although there were two channels, the system promised 3-D sound reproduction. Real stereo! That was in the days when amateurs made stereo recordings on reel to reel tape. Like every amnateur also Emory Cook used only 2 microphones. They were placed 10 feet apart and thus he could not influence (manipulate) the stereo image afterwards.

Binaural Arm and Twin-Channel amplifier by Licingston Electronic Corporation - Equipment for early stereo records - 1953

As so often is the case with new ideas, also Emory Cook's excellent recordings pressed in the Duplex Record format came in fact too early. Because of the complicated playback with two cartridges which were to be adjusted carefully, the Cook Binaural experience was in fact only for the technically oriented record buyer and audiophile. There must have been a few around as the number of releases with spectacular recordings was growing.

The term binaural is also used for the recording using an artificial head (dummy head) with two microphones located close to the ears or even in the cavity of the ears.

In order to sell enough material, Cook Laboratories issued the 12 inch duplex sound recordings also in mono, on 10 inch discs, and sometimes on 12" records depending on the length of the recording. But then they are not binaural of course and the label says "Sounds of Our Times". See the page about Emory Cook's Binaural Recordings.



Leopold Stokowski - Pioneer in the field of Stereo RecordingsIn the early days there may have been other pioneers who experimented with stereophonic sound, but it needed a musician with an imaginative mind to put ideas into practice. That man was Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Stokowski, who conducted the music score of the Disney film Fantasia, was always interested in the technical aspects of sound recording and reproduction, and the making of records. Already in 1933, when he was conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, an experiment was conducted by Stokowski and technicians. Stokowski's assistant conductor was Alexander Smallens (who later became known as the conductor of the many performances of Gershwin's opera "Porgy and Bess"). Smallens conducted the orchestra while Stokowski supervised how the sound was picked up by three microphones "spaced across the front of the orchestra".

An example of an Altec horn loudspeaker systemHowever there was no machine or system that could make a synchronous recording on three tracks and play it back later. Not in 1933. Therefor the solution was that the sound was transmitted directly via telephone lines to another hall where loudspeakers recreated the orchestral sound. The loudspeakers were high efficiency loudspeakers - like Altec's The Voice Of The Theatre - driven by simple 10 Watt valve amplifiers. In 1940 another, similar experiment was arranged but now the three tracks with music were recorded on optical film. See Leopold Stokowski, Dr. Harvey Fletcher and the Bell Laboratories Experimental Recordings.



Early trials stereo recording session for Mercury in Detroit.
Making the first stereo recording in 1955. 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.
(Image submitted by Peter Dobkin Hall.)

The vinyl Long Playing disc introduced by Columbia in 1948 could only bear one signal and various people were looking for the implementation of more than one signal on that LP. The only media capable of stereophonic recording and playback had been the the movie soundtrack, the tape recorder and the Philips Miller Sound Recording System. It was used in mono for the recording of St. Matthew Passion on Palm Sunday in 1939. See Mengelberg, Bach and the Philips-Miller Sound Recording System,

In the early 1950s C. Robert Fine was also making experimental stereophonic recordings. In the beginning he used two microphones. The picture shows his first stereo setup. Three Neumann U-47 microphones are mounted and it looks as if they are arranged somewhat in the configuration of the early Stokowski experiment or even the later "Decca microphone tree". That is not the case. The microphone in the middle was independent and its signal led to a second tape recorder with 1/4" tape. Another recorder with 1/2 inch tape reels was used for the two stereo tracks.



Stereophonic sound engraved in one track / groove (instead of two) on the long playing gramophone record became officially available for the first time in September of 1958. The stereo 45/45 format was invented by Alan Blumlein of EMI in the 1930s. Now Cook reissued his binaural recordings in this new stereo format and called it New Microfusion Process.

Visualization of 35 mm recording film with the three tracks for the Westrex recorder.
Visualization of the three tracks recorded by the Westrex 35 mm sound recorder.
In reality tracks are not visible.

By then Bob Fine had already added a third microphone, the microphone for center stage to fill up the hole in the middle, no doubt inspired by the Philadelphia experiments of 1933 and 1940 and the five microphone setup for Cinerama in 1952, but now without the phase problems and creating a wide and deep, coherent stereo image. This finally led to the typical placement of the three microphones used by the Mercury team during the early era of making stereo recordings of classical music, initially on 1/2 inch tape. Later 35 mm Westrex sound recording equipment was used.

A three microphone setup for making stereo recordings and the reproduction of these channels date from before World War II. The talk about Spread Spectrum Technologies today and their trinaural processor remind us of these stereo recordings, although the processor is fed by the two stereo tracks of any source be it tape recorder, vinyl LP, CD, etc.

True trinaural reproduction using three loudspeakers and the reproduction of trinaural reecordings through 2 channels.s.
Visualization of a "virtual center loudspeaker" for the recreation of a trinaural sound image. At left the original 3 track recording is reproduced using three amplifiers and three loudspeakers. At right the reduction of three channels to two tracks. It is evident that the distance between the loudspeakers in the real trinaural set up (at left) is much greater if compared to the reproduction with two loudspeakers. See my page about Loudspeaker Positioning.

The capability of the LP record is the registration of two signals, one for the Left Channel and one for the Right Channel. Note that also the Quadrophonic disc uses a two-channel stereo groove. Now the question was: How would it be possible to put the three signals in one stereo groove? If you play a mono record via two loudspeakers, the sound image will appear to come from the center, that is in the middle, half way the distance of the speakers, that is if these speakers are well positioned.

In order to make the three channel sound reproduction possible, a center image should be created. That is simply possible by adding the signal of the center channel to both left and right track. By adding the same signal you are creating a mono signal which will appear between the speakers. Adding this signal has to be done in a rather subtle way. Too much signal will deprive the reproduction of its depth and spaciousness. Only a very fine adjustment of the signal in the mix will give optimum depth and space. That is why Wilma Cozart Fine made such a significant effort when preparing the transfers of legendary Living Presence recordings to CD.

Playback of Mercury recordings via three loudspeakers.
The Mercury production team - Wilma Cozart Fine, Bob Eberenz and Harold Lawrence - during the playback via Altec loudspeaker systems of the three-channel recordings made in Teatro Grande in Brescia (Italy), 1959. Because of the lamp which shines over the score of the music, the producers and technician can hardly be distinguished.
(Photo by Leonida Barezzi.)

The basis is of course the recording made by Bob Fine and the Mercury team.
Bob Fine's "trinaural" setup can be considered unique, not only because his team used it al least for playback of the tape (as the picture at right shows), but mainly because it was based for a great deal on his own listening experience which instructed him how the microphones should be positioned to fully capture the original balance of the orchestra as it sounded in the hall where the performance took place and where the recording was made. By doing so he gave an answer to British electronics engineer and inventor Alan Blumlein's criticism on the binaural recording technique, its anomalies and restrictions.



Emory Cook recorded his binaural sound with only two microphones, spaced 10 feet apart. He advised to playback the records by spacing the speakers also 10 feet apart. That would give an authentic result. Cook said in an article in High Fidelity Magazine (October 1954):
I have a theory that most recording engineers are frustrated musicians. They want to put themselves into the records they make, from behind a forest of microphones and a 17-channel mixer, to 'create' something they can identify later, with pride, and say 'This is me!'

C. Robert Fine does not belong to this category. The meticulous positioning of the three omnidirectional microphones was C. Robert Fine's trademark and as he was an independent entrepeneur he also put this technique into practice when making recordings for a variety of other customers, including labels like Pye in Great Britain and Ricordi in Italy. Ealy, golden stereo Command  Classics label.And he worked for the Command record label which was originated by Enoch Light in 1958. He did this together with cutting engineer George Piros, producers Julie Klages and Robert Byrne, while continuing to make recordings for the Mercury catalog in the years before the Mercury Living Presence label was sold to Philips in 1962. John Johnson - who had been cutting mono lacquers for Mercury - now became responsible for cutting the lacquers for the mono discs of Command; in the early years of stereo monaural discs continued to be manufactured.

Covers of Command LP recordings.


Text and drawings (c) Rudolf A. Bruil. Page first published on August 30, 2012.


Audio&Music Bulletin - Rudolf A. Bruil, Editor - Copyright 1998-2013 by Rudolf A. Bruil and co-authors