Stereo

A Journey Into Stereo Sound (LP): Decca 1958

Yes, judging by those early stereo sampler LPs, it really was all about hearing a train go past from one speaker to another. Then a racing car going in the opposite direction.

Early stereo attracted a premium price in Britain.

This Golden Guinea inner sleeve has an over-sticker because of a 1963 reduction in purchase tax took the price below the magic guinea ( 21/- or £1.05). Stereo set you back another 5/7d, or 30%.

A premium was originally charged in the USA, but this 1963 Cameo-Parkway inner sleeve proclaims “Why pay more for stereo?”

Why stereo?

Like most recording innovations, classical music first felt the need for stereo. The spacial separation of instruments is wide in a concert hall, and they wanted to reproduce that. The idea had been around since the 1880s but the ‘invention’ dates to 1931 and Alan Blumein of EMI. Initially, his aim was talking pictures where he had been irritated by actors voices not following them around the screen. He patented most of the ideas, including how to cut a stereo signal onto a disc using the two groove walls at right angles to each other and 45 degrees to the vertical. In 1934 he successfully recorded Sir Thomas Beecham conducting Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony at Abbey Road, and they produced a few trest discs, but it was not ready for commercial application.

Leopold Stokowski was experimenting with stereo in 1931 with Bell Laboratories, but there was no way they could cut enough information onto a shellac disc. In 1932 he tried recording an orchestra using eighty microphones, fed to two sets of speakers in a listening room. The results survive.

Stokowski was an innovator, as every stoner who has grooved to Disney’s Fantasia will attest. Apart from everything else, he cemented the shape or seating plan of the modern orchestra, which had been evolving, but was not then set in stone. He played with various plans but settled on the now “standard” line-up:

A seating plan from 1951. Conductors will make changes.
The organ at the rear is based on somewhere like the Royal Albert Hall. Last time I saw an organ used it was an electric one and placed to the right of the harps.
A more recent arrangement of the orchestra

It is this line up that makes the classical hifi enthusiast want to hear violins and double basses to the left, and clarinets, trumpets and trombones to the right.

The great innovation was Disney’s Fantasia in 1940 which Stokowski recorded in “Fantasound.” It was a complex multitrack stereophonic system pre-dating stereo, which was recorded onto 35mm film, the only medium that could then maintain separation. Stokowski said it was recorded over Class A telephone lines between Philadelphia and Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. They recorded one extra piece, Debussey’s Clair de Lune which was not used. The recorded music filled 420,000 feet of film, of which less than 3% was utilized in the picture.

It was a staggering achievement, but few cinemas were equipped to play it and most copies were mono. Stereo was restored on its 1958 re-release.

Film remained the best way of recording stereo, until the introduction of magnetic tape. Most people first heard stereo in a cinema with Cinerama audio, from 1952 onwards.

Von Karajan had recorded in stereo in Germany in 1944, using magnetic tape. Both RCA and Decca were recording in stereo on tape by the early 1950s, with Stokowski right there in the middle again. Audio Fidelity produced the first commercial stereo LPs in the USA in 1957, with the majors coming into the field during 1958.

Fritz Reiner … Chicago Symphony: New World Symphony. RCA Red Seal Living Stereo 1958
One of the first three major label stereo releases

The complexities of the new system are indicated by Decca ffss stereo recordings. Copies were released on both Decca and London, with all the discs pressed in England. However, the sleeves on London discs were printed in the USA.

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5. Clifford Curzon / Vienna Philharmonic, London & Decca, stereo 1958

This London ffss long-playing record was recorded stereophonically under an exclusive trademark ffss on the front cover.

Decca warning

So far the concept was the natural width of a classical recording. This went through to jazz in stereo where musicians’ place on the stereo soundstage equates to where they were on stage.

The change came with Enoch Light, who had the concept that stereo could be used to highlight sounds in a different way, not based on a theoretical positioning of musicians on a stage. Enoch Light believed that stereo could be taken beyond its classical origins of natural positioning, and excite the general public:

Enoch Light Stereo wasn’t getting across to the average person. I figured that separation had to be emphasized to attract their attention – not ping pong as such but separation used as part of a musical continuity.

To get his concept across, Light formed his own label, Command (which was distributed by Pye in the UK). He formed a band around Terry Snyder, a phenomenal percussionist. They recorded standards, and it took them so long to sort it out that they ran ten times over budget in producing Persuasive Percussion credited to Terry Snyder & The All Stars in 1959, the first of a series of albums. It was swiftly adopted by hi-fi stores as THE demonstration album of choice, doing for stereo what Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms was to do in popularizing compact disc. It was also one of the first albums with a gatefold sleeve. Just compare that sleeve design with the tried and tested classical sleeve images above.

This is the most unusual record you have ever put on your turntable. It is a unique mixture of entertainment, excitement, beauty and practicality. It will show of all the marvellous potentials of your stereo equipment – potentials you may not have realized were there before – and at the same time enable you to adjust your equipment so that you will get the best possible performance from it.
Original sleeve notes to Persuasive Percussion.

Enoch Light needed a gatefold sleeve for the listening instructions:

As the bells come in the horn tone should stay constant, should not fluctuate. And then when the sweep of the Chinese bell tree is added, you should be able to identify the different timbre of the two types of bell.
Enoch Light, sleeve note to Taboo on Persuasive Percussion.

You could sit your friends on the sofa in the conversation pit with a dry martini, and read it out to them before you gently placed the stylus on the record. Hands up if you can distinguish the bells!

Listening to it now, it’s odd (it’s all on YouTube). As it opens, bongos start on the right speaker, then move across to the left speaker …

Persuassive Percussion: Command USA 1959

Persuasive Percussion was an enormous hit; a Sergeant Pepper’s (before ever there was one) for the hi-fi crowd.
Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever, 2009

I hadn’t even heard of it before I read Greg Milner’s book. The original had sold half a million copies in the USA by 1961. It then continued at sales of 150,000 copies a year right up to 1965, easily passing the million mark. Surprisingly few British music fans have heard of it. That’s because we were far slower at adopting stereo. It was released in Britain, and is now available on CD (Volumes 1 and 2 on one disc). It is seminal because the studio and recording desk was now an instrument in its own right.

Persuasive Percussion Volumes 1 &2: Sepia 24-bit mastered CD, 2011

The series went to four volumes of Persuasive Percussion before switching to Provocative Percussion for more. on Persuasive Percussion 2 they used three different line ups behind Terry Snyder. Orchestra, Jazz and small group. They got as far as Rock-A-Bongo-Boogie which was an original Enoch Light composition in a sea of cover versions:

Notice particularly the “dirty” quality on the guitar’s tone. It’s done on purpose and that’s the way it’s supposed to come out.
Enoch Light, sleeve notes to Rock-A-Bongo-Boogie, on Persuasive Percussion Vol. 2

However, in spite of a low profile, I discovered that Enoch Light does have a specialist UK following. I was in a secondhand record store which had large dance / drums ‘n’ bass sections. There were a couple of Enoch Light albums at £12 and £14. Neither are listed in Rare Record Price Guide. I asked about them, and Enoch Light & The Light Brigade are greatly prized for sampling. Enoch Light went on to pioneer Quadrophonic in its turn.

Discotheque: Enoch Light & His Orchestra, Command 1964 USA, Pye Command 1965, UK

Not only that he had a strong taste and style in sleeve design. By 1964 he was trumpeting his ‘Dimension 3’ recording process. Discotheque is one of the most sought after ones by samplers, because you can hear his approach applied to more potentially useful material like I Want To Hold Your Hand, Watermelon Man, Night Train, Ya Ya, and C’mon and Swim. Oh … and Hello Dolly.

Ping Pang Pong The Swinging Ball: Creed Taylor Otrchestra, HMV LP 1960

Ping pong stereo was not a dirty word. This is by the Creed Taylor Orchestra, recorded by Am-Par in America (American Broadcasting Corporation – Paramount, usually known as ABC-Paramount), and reissued by HMV in the UK in 1960.the sleeve urges us:

Prick up your ears, and prepare for a breathtaking journey in stereo, a journey that may originally have started with a ping pong ball bouncing from speaker to speaker, but which now embrace a rich world of melody and rhythm.

Creed Taylor had founded the Impulse! jazz label. He was a great producer ( Desafinado, Girl from Ipanema) and was instrumental in establishing Verve’s jazz series, then CTI as a jaz zlabel.

Discussion in Percussion: Mike Simpson & Orchestra, Mercury LP UK 1961

Percussion was then the way to go for all the audiophile labels. Mike Simpson’s Discussion in Percussion in 1961 is very artificial, a couple of horn notes one side then it jumps to the other for the next phrase. The drum sound is HUGE.

per-cus-sive jazz: Peter Appleyard, Audio-Fidelity LP 1960 (UK reissue 1966)
The stroboscopic centre, 331/3 rpm at 60 cycles

Audio-Fidelity had started the stereo format in 1957, but they were well into the percussion demo disc too. They were upfront – this is doctored sound indeed.

To appeal to the hifi fanatic, their central label was a stroboscope to test your turntable’s speed accuracy and a long technical blurb assured that frequency response ran from 16 Hz to 25000 Hz … i.e, beyond the future compact disc in both directions. So you could test for an accurate 33 1/3 rpm by shining a fluorescent light on it at 60 cycles! Except that Europe is 50 cycles and the USA is 60 cycles.

Like Enoch Light, all of these discs are valued and sought after for sampling. There’s an awful lot of drumming and it’s beautifully recorded. This is a collector market sector that the price guides have not yet realized.

Piano and drums

There are recordings of solo piano where you’re literally hearing it as if sitting at the keyboard ; left hand keys to the left, right hand keys to the right.

In classical concerts the piano is normally placed to the left of the conductor, in front of the first violins. It may be placed centrally for a major soloist, but the pianist will invariably sit at the audience left end. So that’s where piano tends to be on a stereo recording … left speaker. I had to help switch grand pianos every Saturday night as a stage hand (variety shows all week, classical on Sunday … different tunings). I once asked a piano tuner why pianos were almost always audience left (i.e. stage right, looking out). Simple, he said. The clever work is mainly right hand so that’s what you want in the audience’s view. He added that most theatres had the lighting / sound board on the other side, so the piano slipped easily into the wings opposite.

Take a listen to some classic stereo jazz recordings like Kind of Blue by Miles Davis . The piano is on the left, and the drums on the right NOT the centre preferred in rock stereo recordings. Dave Brubeck on Take Five and Time Further Out reverses it … piano on the right and drums on the left. Both were recorded by Columbia, and my impression is that they are reproducing their normal stage positions. If you try setting up on a narrow stage, there’s very little room for the standing soloists in front of either the piano or the drums, so it seems sensible to place them at the opposite sides with space in the middle. However the Time Further Out CD has a live recording of It’s A Raggy Waltz as a bonus track, and the drums have shifted to the centre. It’s Carnegie Hall, so space is a not at a premium but more importantly it’s two years later in 1963 by when everyone was placing drums centrally on record.

Rock producers in general placed drums and bass centrally in the soundstage, which is what most rock bands do, with the other musicians in front on stage … everyone has to hear the drummer. This causes problems as drums leak into the vocal mics in front of them, which is why nowadays you may see a perspex drum cage around the drummer. Or you can seat him at the side.

Levon Helm on drums, opposite Richard Manuel on piano

The Band were an exception, in that they in 50s jazz style tended to place drums stage left (i.e. audience right) and piano stage right (audience left). Having a singing drummer meant that he needed to be in the front line.

Because modern stage sound systems have ultimate control, the sound engineer can place instruments in the soundstage, and this should relate to where the musicians are located on stage. I have seen some bizarre concerts where the sax player is standing stage right and the main sax sound is emerging from the stage left speaker. That’s simply inept.

Electronically-processed stereo

Those words rarely excite enthusiasm. It is artificially treating a mono recording to give a stereo effect. It’s also known as fake stereo, pseudo-stereo or mock stereo. Capitol Records had a more high flown name for it, Duophonic from June 1961 with the slogan Duophonic: For stereo phonographs only.

Songs For Swingin’ Lovers: Frank Sinatra.
This 1956 mono LP was re-issued in Duophonic stereo in 1961
“A Capitol best-seller now available for stereo phonographs”

All the labels had a go at it as a way of continuing sales of mono back catalogue, as well as re-processing rock material that was deliberately recorded in mono. RCA Victor were the first. They had a fat back catalogue of Toscanini and sales were slipping. Jack Somer worked for them, and was set the task of transforming Toscanini into stereo, starting with Beethoven’s 9th … how often does that appear as a recording test / benchmark? As in deciding the length of CDs on the basis of fitting it onto a disc. It took him a year to produce three albums in what RCA called “Enhanced stereo.” The critics in general panned them. It didn’t stop the record labels turning with glee to earlier popular and rock material in mono, and tarting it up in stereo.

Britain embraces stereo …

Pye Stereo: on a Pye International Herb Alpert LP. You needed to explain what it was.

Britain only got serious about stereo around 1966 to 1968, so ten years behind the initial surge in America. Yes, it was available. It just didn’t catch on.

Boston Tea Party (EP): Arthur Fiedler & Boston Pops Orchestra, RCA 1958
You can see why British youth did not flock to buy Living Stereo

Labels raced to compete with their Easy Listening and light classical catalogues. Capitol had FDS – Full Dimensional Sound. They insisted that they were natural without ‘attenuated high frequencies or booming bass.’

Decca had Phase 4 Stereo. EMI had Studio 2 Stereo. CBS had Super Stereo. Philips / Fontana / Mercury had Living Presence Stereo.

Living Presence Stereo: Sampler, 1968 Fontana

The “simplified diagram” of how stereo was recorded is worth looking at again. That’s the simplified diagram?

These were all quality pressings, but a great number of them were sold as samplers at budget prices … 14 shillings. Less than half the price of a standard LP. Even the mid-range series like Pye’s Golden Guinea sold at 21 shillings. Remember that both Decca and EMI still sold some hardware and wanted to promote new turntables. In CBS’s case, they had a stack of this sort of material already on sale in the States.

Thrill to The Sensational Sound of Super Stereo: CBS 1966
A move to convert British buyers to stereo

You can’t say these discs are anything other than eclectic. From Dance of The Hours to Louie Louie, with a side excursion to Making Whoopee.

Marching With The Beatles: The Band of The Irish Guards, Columbia, Studio 2 Stereo, 1966 plus other Studio 2 Stereo discs.

The collectability of these EMI Studio 2 Stereo discs is around zero. They’re charity shop fare, and most secondhand shops would reject them out of hand. Marching With The Beatles? Genre? Easy Listening / Military Bands / Pop Music. Discogs have twenty-eight on sale from 50p to £9. This would be one of the very few that a shop might not bin, because anything with a Beatles connection will find a buyer. That’s right, anything. Even this. I picked up a couple of Ron Goodwin Studio 2 albums, mainly because I took the kids to see his Christmas show with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra several times. (OK, I admit one was bought new at the concert and is signed).

Moog! Claude Denjean and the Moog Synthesizer. Decca Phase 4 Stereo Spectacular 1970

Decca called their system Phase 4 Stereo Spectacular, just to double up on EMI. I’ve illustrated it with a rarity at the front … a disc that actually is mildly collectable. Not that it’s in Rare Record Price Guide. Yet. One is on sale at $110, but the main advertised price is between £10 and £20. Discogs Median is a mere £3.80 (Highest £9.81), but that may because there is a knee jerk rejection of any Phase 4 discs by anyone other than charity shops. Out there are Moog enthusiasts who will seek out anything with their favoured instrument on it. Let’s just say that Moog is more collectable than Accordion.

Digital!

In these days of analogue affection, it’s difficult to recall that from around 1979 to 1984, LPs proudly boasted that they were from digital recordings, which takes away some of the point.

The sleeve is all in English with ‘Pressed in Germany for EMI’ but the HMV logo on the disc itself is in German, and the 33 symbol is German.

Stereo on 45

Introducing the Exciting Stereo Sound of Franck Pourcel: EMI Columbia EP, 1968 SSEP1

By 1970 stereo singles were common. Go back to 1968, and EMI released a 7″ EP stereo sampler. It looks as if they were testing out 45 rpm stereo, but the reverse of the EP advertises Franck Pourcel’s stereo LP catalogue. The prominent price, 5/- (five shillings) comes at a point where EPs were already a fast-fading format, but those that survived were between 12 and 13 shillings. Singles were about 7 shillings, and the budget EPs with six cover versions by anonymous artists cost the same as a single. In other words, 5 shillings was an ultra budget price, on EMI’s premier Columbia label. So who was it directed at? The hi-fi stereo Franck Pourcel fn probably didn’t know where to find the 45 rpm switch on the record deck.

Originality?

In spite of all the playing around with arrangements, these stereo samplers went time after time for elaborately orchestrated cover versions. Original pieces are few and far between. I spent some time sampling them and “Easy Listening” is the wrong name. I often spend 30 or 40 minutes mid afternoon relaxing to music, and none of this is relaxing. I found a whole album of Persuasive Percussion mildly exhausting. It continually pants for attention … listen up! there are two separate speakers! Go back to those first classical stereo discs with a natural soundstage and they’re far more relaxing.

Nevertheless, the stage was set … the “Never mind the music, listen to the separation!” era was staggering to a ping-pong end. But now stereo was a creative tool, and rock music was ready to up and run with it.

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