On 18/11/2014, Tom Fine wrote:

> Hi David:
> 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.

I would call it a "Hockney jumble" -- referring to those pictures David
Hockney made by shooting lots of Polaroid photos and sticking them

> 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 bit.

I believe there are now reasonably priced DSD converters on the market. 

It would be very interesting to hear a DSD recording fed by a good
microphone setup. (There may be some. I haven't heard any of the recent
recordings by companies such as Pentatone, and I don't know what mics
they use.)

> 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). 

Different, and very often better. Most musicians perform better with an

> 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. 

I don't think you can have bought many Naxos recordings. Their standards
are as high as those of any other company. 

And they have issued a great deal of interesting music which is not
available from any other company, while the former "major" companies
such as Universal repeat the same popular works over and over,
relying on cover photos of sexy young artists to increase sales.

> 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.

Don Cox
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