Sunday, November 1, 2009

Hi Fi

Not long ago I read an obituary in the Wall Street Journal for Wilma Cozart Fine. I'd never heard of her. She was the person principally responsible for the fine sound quality of the Mercury Living Presence series of recordings issued in the 1950's and 1960's.

Now, I'd never heard of that Living Presence series, either. But the article intrigued me because it dealt with the recording techniques that were used and how, despite being produced so long ago on less sophisticated equipment than what is available now, the audio quality was first-rate even by today's standards.

It also mentioned that Ms. Cozart had personally remixed the master tapes for conversion to CD's. Naturally I had to look into this more, so I went to my favorite place for CD's, Amazon, and purchased a few.

Today I listened to their special sampler album called "You Are There!" Why that title? Because as Ms. Cozart put it, the recordings sound like you are in the living presence of the performers. And it is true. I used to think the fidelity of music recorded that long ago was lacking because the equipment was lacking, but such is not the case when you listen to these recordings. They are superb, and, when you close your eyes it is very easy to indeed imagine that you are there in the concert hall.

This particular CD consists of 22 pieces from various composers and artists. I know very little about classical music so looking at the titles or composers is of little use to me. But listening to them then made some of them familiar.

Like this one, from a Gounod, a composer I've never heard of (note: I found these on YouTube and they are not the Mercury recordings).

That piece is titled, Funeral March of a Marionette. Fitting.. I had no idea that's where the theme from that television series came from.

Then this one, which although I've never heard this exact number, reminded me of music from a popular movie. Play it.. can you guess which movie?

Didn't it remind you of the Wizard of Oz? That's not the exact music, of course, but methinks it offered some inspiration to the person who composed the soundtrack.

There's some great music on the CD and the audio quality is astounding. It is no longer in print but you can purchase a new or used copy at Amazon for as little as $1.94. It comes with a 156 page illustrated (in color no less) mini-book about the Mercury label and the recording techniques as well as the music. Mind you, I'm not trying to sell anything; I just wanted to make people aware of this.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that. I remember the label from when I was growing up. My dad was into that. I could never get into these compilations when I was younger because of all those hours/days/months spent in orchestra. If I saw Liszt - Piano Concerto No. 2 in A I would wonder why only the Allegro animato. Or I would be listening to Stravinsky's The Firebird and get really wound up if I did not get my fix of Berceuse. I could deal with the music ending, just don't follow it with an incongruous track by Beethoven. So, I guess my tastes have changed. My attention span is much shorter. I could build up this 70 minute collection over the internet for free in just a few minutes but why bother? I won't be able to the read the liner notes. The whole deal sounded so good I pulled the trigger twice and am having one copy sent to my dad. He'll enjoy it. Thanks. Your buddy, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

BTW, the disks were $0.01 each plus $2.98 for shipping.

Anonymous said...

I read that the Fines used optical film recording. I'm sure that they also used industry standard ribbon mikes such as the RCA BX-44. They are absolutely amazing. I know its possible to get them for cheap on Ebay, but since blowing on them the wrong way will damage them beyond all repair and aluminum does corrode I'm sure you will receive what you pay for. The new large diaphragm electrets are a good compromise. I noticed that Letterman went from ribbon to LDE a few years ago.

Rickie Miyake said...

Sounds like what you got was worth every penny, haha.. seriously, the recording quality is excellent on the CD. Downloading would not do justice because of the quality but also as you know, because it isn't legal anyway.

The microphone they used was a Telefunken U-47. For the mono recordings, a single mike was suspended 25 feet above the orchestra. Stereo recordings used three mikes, were recorded on an Ampex 1/2" tape deck and then mixed down by Ms. Cozart into stereo.

How do I know all this? Because that's what the book said that came with the CD - it is very interesting reading (assuming you are an audiophile). Let me know what you think of your purchase when it arrives!

Anonymous said...

I got my CD today from Lafayette, LA. Hey, that's my college roomie's home town. The sound was absolutely amazing. Really brought back some memories. The only problem was playing it. Huh? Blue ray machine is not backward compatible, DVD machine just looked at it strangely, and the tray to my old TEAC 5 CD carousel would not open. Mmmmp. So it was out to the garage and into the wife's car. Her car has a digital sound processor and a whole bunch of polypropylene speakers. I must say, I had a Proust moment from the first track. I could hear a noise I have not heard since the days of the Mount Saint Mary's Orchestra. The musical scores that the conductor uses are very tall because they score all the instruments. I could hear the conductor's baton scraping the tops of the sheets during quiet passages. I'll leave the dynamics alone. Nope, not say one word about the dynamic range that you never, ever hear in other recordings.
I saw the reference to the Telefunken U-47 in the text. Its an amazing microphone that still sells for 5 figures. I think Carson used a Neumann U-47. There are also references to the 201. I believe that is the Neumann 201 and I think there is a photo of three of them on the cover.

About half the tracks are recorded on 35 mm film. The book says that it was 35 mm magnetic film that was superior to their custom built three track recorder. I simply do not understand the three uses of "magnetic" film. I am sure it was optical. Those tracks are fantastic.

I've purchased three so far and may send out two more after dinner.

Thanks Rickie.

Anonymous said...

More on the use of the word magnetic. It was indeed 35 mm magnetic film. 1000 ft reels made by 3M are available on Ebay for $45.

I did not send for two more and darn it that place in Lafayette jacked their price to $1.94. I bet they got tired of packing up a brand new CD with a book and putting on $2.47 in postage on it for $2.99. Keep your eye out for deals like that Rickie.

Rickie Miyake said...

Hey, that's still a bargain price for that CD - it's cheaper than buying new release CD's plus you get that book with it, too.

That microphone really costs in the five figures?? Amazing..

I had a 5-disk Teac carousel, too! Did you get yours at Costco? I bought mine in 1995, although it has been gone for a while. Built like a tank. I would think a blu ray player could play a CD. Mine does..

Today I listened to another Mercury Living Presence CD, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Excellent dynamic range and they even recorded REAL cannons! Julie told me it was TOO LOUD, haha.. I said it has to be at realistic levels..

Anonymous said...

You are right about the price so I went ahead and bought them. The Teac was a Costco purchase. I have a feeling that the Beatle's White Album disk 2 is in there. It might be a simple thing of a disk getting loose inside. My dad had the Mercury 1812 on open real and also had it on something called Revere Cartridge.

The LP was supposedly the test of a system. In reality, even a close and play would play it and who the heck could tell what a French cannon is supposed to sound like and if the amp is clipping?