I happen to prefer the CD remaster of the Suppe Overtures, but I hear your point. What follow are
one man's opinions, based on a lot of listening and bit of knowledge about how classical recording
evolved over the decades.
There is a very strong temptation in a stereo classical recording to over-produce the sound. If you
add in a bunch of mics you get a lot of "inner detail" that some reviewers are nuts about. The
problem is, when there is a complex and/or loud part, the dissimilar time arrivals and the "bleed"
causes the stereo image to collapse into something I call "wide mono." Many microphones became the
preferred technique for all of the major labels by the early 70s.
Then there was a reaction against this, a "return to basics" mentality in the early digital era and
in the short-lived direct-to-disk fad. Old techniques were emulated, but I don't think with full
understanding. For instance, several parties tried to emulate the Mercury 3-spaced-omni technique,
but used instrumentation-style microphones. I think they had a mistaken belief that a documentary
approach would produce a "You Are There" feeling. It turned out not to be true, because key to the
Mercury technique is a clear understanding of the presence peak of a non-flat microphone, and
focusing that peak to make up for upper-mid and treble dissipation in a real-world acoustic space.
This allows the mic to stand off far enough to capture the entire orchestra, in other words an
accurate front-to-back depth and an accurate illusion of height based on the acoustic space (in the
case of Mercury, you're going to hear more of these "ghost dimensions" in the better acoustic spaces
like Rochester, Watford and Cass Technical School in Detroit. You will hear less of it in
problematic spaces like Northrop and especially in Ford Auditorium in Detroit). Anyway, you can't
use three razor-flat B&K instrumentation microphones in real-world acoustic spaces because, when
they're stood off far enough to get an accurate balance of instruments (not be overwhelmed by the
front row), the resulting sound is dull and boomy.
I'm not a believer in using a 2-mic crossed-matrix array to try and capture a symphony orchestra. I
just don't believe that setup is capable of capturing the full spread and depth of the orchestra.
However, the Decca technique of using a crossed pair in the center and outriggers on the sides does
work and produced many good recordings. You get more hall ambience and a bit less presence that way,
but when you're working in Kingsway Hall and the other great spaces where Decca mostly worked,
that's just fine.
I've often wondered about applying the Mercury technique, including using the real-deal Schoeps M201
microphones (they need restoration, but they're still alive), with a modern high-resolution digital
recording rig. Will people like it without the "thickening" of magnetic tape? Was that part of the
secret with Mercury and RCA (both used the same kind of Ampex tape machines for most of the
best-liked recordings, and RCA used somewhat similar but usually more microphones). Decca also used
Ampex tape machines for their early stereo recordings. How much of the beloved sound is
tape-related? I don't know the answer. I tend to think the love is more mic-technique related but a
modern all-digital version might require some mastering EQ nip and tuck to thicken it out a tiny
Unfortunately, we discuss this in a time where there is very little budget to make proper classical
recordings and we don't live in an age of giants as far as conductors and orchestras go. Part of
what you might dislike about modern classical releases is that fact that most of them are really
nothing more than forever-playable broadcasts, recordings of live performances (something totally
different from a recording session). In the best cases today, a major orchestra records a live
performance and then the union rates allow for a short after-concert "patchup" session. Rarely have
there been carefully heard playbacks, so the patchup decisions are made on the fly by an overworked
producer or producer/engineer. Keep in mind that Mercury, RCA and Decca session books will clearly
show that a major symphonic piece could have taken 2-3 full days to get on tape. Sessions went even
longer in the 70s (perhaps not to better ends). That's unheard of today. Also today, the market is
flooded with junk, b- and c-list orchestras recording on the cheap for the likes of Naxos. None of
it appeals at all when compared to the great recordings from the "golden age." It's the Wal-Marting
of classical music, if you will. Just like journalism, just like book authoring, music-making and
recording are crafts. When there is not money and time to allow for craftsmanship, record companies
and consumers (and what used to be called newspaper readers, and book buyers) get what they are
willing to pay for.
-- Tom Fine
----- Original Message -----
From: "DAVID BURNHAM" <[log in to unmask]>
To: <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Monday, November 17, 2014 6:41 PM
Subject: [ARSCLIST] Recording technology
> I'm aware that I'm an old guy now and when I say I believe that the art/science of capturing the
> sound of a symphony orchestra hasn't advanced in over 50 years, I usually see knowing nods from
> much younger listeners who think that I'm just nostalgically attached to ancient technology. But
> then I prove my point, usually by pulling out the SACD Mercury Living Presence recording of the
> Light Cavalry Overture or the Poet and Peasant Overture and play it on my fairly high quality
> sound system. Well to add to that, I would invite anybody who believes there has been any
> improvement in over 50 years to listen to Reiner's recording of "The Pines of Rome". I don't know
> the date on this but Reiner has been dead for over 50 years. I would say it is not possible to
> get a more realistic orchestral sound on a recording. The organ is very richly captured and the
> crescendo at the end is breathtaking - no overloading, no distortion, the sound just keeps getting
> louder long after you think it has hit the peak. Now I'm only talking here about capturing the
> sound with mikes, of course the medium has improved since then, measurably if not audibly.