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ARSCLIST  June 2012

ARSCLIST June 2012

Subject:

Re: Mercury Living Presence

From:

Tom Fine <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Association for Recorded Sound Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 13 Jun 2012 07:06:54 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (136 lines)

Hi Mark:

Your results with the RCA Living Stereo SACDs speak for themselves. To my ears, there's no arguing 
with your methods as applied to those recordings.

Your argument about using new playback equipment vs. vintage makes perfect sense to me as a transfer 
engineer and a user of equipment. However, from the marketing and sales standpoint, it is a risky 
path that has backfired twice in the case of Mercury. Fans expect a certain sound, and if the modern 
equipment can't deliver that sound then it shouldn't be used. Read on, I'm not saying it can't, but 
some perspective and history is in order.

In the case of Living Stereo, I would say that there had been so many different reissues of such 
varying sound quality, and many of the famous recordings had been in print in one for or another all 
along. So fans wanted "something better" but not necessarily "the sound we remember," because many 
didn't own original LPs and thus didn't remember anything except poor-sounding previous reissues.

In the case of Mercury, these are not "corporate committee" products, they are essentially hand-made 
products from a small team of people who had a hand in every step of the original process and the 
reissue process. There is a certain sound and aesthetic to them that comes from doing them a certain 
way. It's what the buyers/fans expect (and a new generation of them are quickly buying up the entire 
production run of the CD and LP boxe sets, according to what UMG personnel have told me, plus the 
flurry of good reviews). Times when these methods were not followed and respected -- the Golden 
Import LPs, the SACDs -- resulted in poor sales, poor reviews and thus damaged the brand. I'm glad a 
few people bought and enjoyed the SACDs, they did not sell well otherwise and were taken out of 
print due to poor sales and the company's abandonment of that format. The early ones sound 
un-Mercury, the later ones got much better because the 3-2 mixes were properly done, respecting and 
honing closely to the original sound and balance. So one has to be very careful about how one 
approaches the Mercury catalog if one wants results likely to sell well and be appreciated. Selling 
well is a basic tenet of running a for-profit record company, so that should be Job One with a 
reissue. For Mercury, selling well and retaining the original "personality" are totally linked.

I actually think the 3-2 mix is more important the the playback equipment for the "Mercury Sound," 
although I have heard tests where Mercury tapes were played back through various modern electronics 
(circa 1989) and the sound quality changed enough that careful listeners would notice and may or may 
not be made uncomfortable. I don't think that's the case with all modern electronics, and if I were 
doing it today I would definitely investigate the options there. In 1989, there were not many of 
these options, and back then the big challenge was getting a digital transfer to sound good enough 
to proceed with reissues, so the focus was more on the digital chain and the digital mastering 
methodology. Also, Philips/Polygram and then Vivendi/Universal never put up the money for Mercury 
that BMG put up to do those RCA SACDs. I know the RCA SACDs have been in print in one form or 
another for a long time (now as a box set of the CD layers). I'd like to know if they ever recouped 
that production cost, overall. I'm sure some titles were profitable but with a big project like that 
the whole thing needs to be in the black. It's probably not possible to know since BMG got chased 
out of the music business due to lack of ability to make money in it, among other factors. I have 
read that the RCA Living Stereo catalog was considered a crown jewel by the family who controlled 
BMG, so cost may not have been an object in their thinking with the SACD project. Let's just say 
that Mercury's owners have always been frugal to a high degree, and leave it at that.

Anyway, there are certain things you'd have to do differently if you were starting from scratch with 
the Mercury catalog today. For one thing, the tapes are now 20+ years older and more deteriorated 
(not helped by super-dry archival storage). NO modern reissue program would play old tapes back on 
an Ampex 300 transport, it's too rough on them. If you're switching to a gentle modern transport, 
you just as soon compare different electronics -- modern tubed electronics, modern solid-state 
electronics, souped-up 1980s solid state electronics, a custom head assembly feeding Ampex 
electronics (that, in fact, is what was used to playback 1/4" tapes -- a Studer transport, a John 
French custom headblock with high-impedence heads and custom cabling, the same Ampex electronics 
rack as used with the 1/2" tapes -- this wasn't also used for 1/2" tapes because there was no budget 
to do that and no thought that the 300 transport wasn't doing the job based on reviews, sales, fan 
and retailer feedback, etc). Also, today you'd transfer in higher resolution, with many choices of 
good-sounding and excellent-sounding DACs, many choices of DAW setups and software, and indeed many 
choices of release media. So the whole pre-project decision making would be different, as it was for 
the BMG SACDs, which came 10 years after Mercury's CD program started. One thing I would absolutely 
do today is use the same 3-2 mixing method and respect very closely the balance decisions made by 
the original team, not try to put my own "perspective" or "signature" on it. And of course I'd play 
the tapes back with proper NAB EQ and with a proper 3-track head (believe it or not, this was not 
done in all cases with the Golden Imports, per an article written by Mike Gray for Absolute Sound in 
the late 80s or early 90s).

I think, given the budgets and equipment available at the time, combined with marketing goals and 
the general MO of the brands, both Philips/Polygram in 1989 and BMG in 2000 made the right choices 
for their reissue programs. Both reissues garnered very good press and enthusiasm from the sales 
forces. I think BMG was working in a harder business environment and as I said I'd like to know if 
the RCA SACD's were overall profitable (Mercury CDs were most certainly profitable, and continue to 
be with the new box set). To end on a positive note that I think few can argue with, it's a Good 
Thing to have all of this material in print, well-remastered and meeting the expectations of fans 
and collectors. I highly doubt there will ever be budgets again to undertake coherent, long-term and 
highly detailed high quality classical reissue programs like Mercury in the 1990s and RCA earlier 
this century. The fact that both programs have continued life as box sets (with another Mercury box 
set likely in the coming years, according to UMG executives) speaks to their continued popularity 
and the success of the reissue producers and engineers.

-- Tom Fine

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Mark Donahue" <[log in to unmask]>
To: <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Tuesday, June 12, 2012 9:44 PM
Subject: Re: [ARSCLIST] Mercury Living Presence


>I just want to make one quick comment about this idea that playing back 60
> year old tapes is best realized through playing them back on 60 year old
> machines.
> The reality here is that the ability to get the signal on to tape is a much
> easier task than getting it back off and the recorders of the day were much
> better at recording than playback. I remastered the entire Living Stereo
> series and was stunned as to how much information I could get off these
> tapes using state of the art modern analog playback. I then compared these
> to the transfers that were made with an Ampex 300 that was restored for the
> CD reissue project at RCA in the late 1980's and the differences were
> nothing less than astounding. Modern playback with low wow and flutter and
> an order of magnitude better performance in frequency response, noise and
> distortion revealed information that was on the tapes that had never
> actually been heard.
> As always, YMMV.
> All the best,
> Mark Donahue
>
> On Tue, Jun 12, 2012 at 1:21 PM, DAVID BURNHAM <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
>
>> One more point, a lot is said about the problems with not using the
>> original playback equipment.  I would just like to comment that I think
>> anyone would admit that a Studer A-80, (a popular mastering machine), has
>> far better flutter and speed consistency specs than an Ampex 300.  I think
>> ideal mastering will occur if the electronics with the original specs,
>> (which may mean using the original heads), are fitted onto a modern
>> machine.  In the notes of the SACD I'm listening to it says that the
>> mastered SACD was compared with the original tape played on Wilma Cozart
>> Fine's personal Ampex 300.  That should be fairly accurate.  I agree with
>> Tom Fine that if the SACDs had been made using the original sources on the
>> original playback situations, the final product would have been that much
>> better.
>>
>>
>
> -- 
> *************************************
> Mark Donahue
> Chief Mastering Engineer
> Soundmirror, Inc.
> Boston, MA
> [log in to unmask]
> www.soundmirror.com
> *************************************
> 

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