Berlin Philharmonic digital concert hall

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Berlin Philharmonic digital concert hall

It seems extraordinary to me that with the Berlin Phil, a fabulous concert hall and all the latest technical equipment, they just cannot get the sound right.

Unfortunately, of course, we have become accoustomed to hearing all our favorite music in mediocre sound. Permit me to muse on the subject:

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In 1957 the old, Great Northern Hotel on 57th and Madison in New York City was made available to recording engineer Robert Fine so that he might undertake some of the most important recordings in history and carry out experimental work.

In addition to creating the series of orchestral recordings known as, 'Mercury Living Presence', his brief was:

To finally determine if it were possible to record a full symphony orchestra with just two microphones. He was provided with unlimited resources, in the form of:

1. Some of the leading engineers and technicians of the day

2. A full armory of the most sophisticated and advanced recording equipment

3. And even a Symphony Orchestra.

Should he achieve his goal one of the major problems of the recording process would be eliminated!

In 1957 the old, Great Northern Hotel on 57th and Madison in New York City was made available to recording engineer Robert Fine so that he might undertake some of the most important recordings in history and carry out experimental work.

 

In addition to creating the series of orchestral recordings known as, 'Mercury Living Presence', his brief was:

To finally determine if it were possible to record a full symphony orchestra with just two microphones. He was provided with unlimited resources, in the form of:

1. Some of the leading engineers and technicians of the day

2. A full armory of the most sophisticated and advanced recording equipment

3. And even a Symphony Orchestra.

Should he achieve his goal one of the major problems of the recording process would be eliminated!

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Robert had already established his credentials with his single-microphone, monophonic recordings of symphony orchestras. They were renowned for their natural sound and good standard of balance.

The proposed investigation would be very important because, should it prove feasible to capture the full symphony orchestra with just two microphones, the conductors work could then remain unadulterated; whereas if more than two microphones were found to be essential to achieve perfect balance, the resultant multi-channel signals would need to be 'mixed down', albeit by a highly skilled balance engineer; the implication of which would be that the work of the conductor would be compromised; a most unsatisfactory situation.

To move directly to the result.

Following exhaustive trials, with all imaginable combinations, Robert concluded that the minimum number of microphones required for such a task was three. With only two, regardless of where they were positioned, left and right channels were clearly evident but there was a 'hole in the middle', created by the dominance of left and right. Therefore, for optimum results three microphones would need to be positioned left, right and centre of the orchestra.

Furthermore, as a result of Robert's findings, it became necessary to construct a three, track recording machine. The drawback was that, following completion of the live recording process, a balance engineer, in this case Robert or his wife to be Wilma Cozart, were obliged to mix the three channels, down to two-track stereo. The resultant tape becoming the ‘master’ recording.

Should there be too much signal from the centre microphone, during the mixing process, the stereo balance became unclear and the orchestra seemed to move. In fact, depending on how the signals were adjusted, there could be too much or too little left channel, too much or too little right channel - a tricky process indeed.

Despite the slightly disappointing result with the new, three channel recording process Robert and his wife went on to make some of the most successful recordings in history; even today their work is considered to be a benchmark by which others are judged.

The extraordinary technical advances of the subsequent forty-plus years have resulted in considerable changes to the recording process. Generally speaking, contemporary recordings are undertaken employing what is known as 'multi microphone' technique.

In the first stage as many as sixty-four microphones are scattered amongst the instruments of the orchestra; on occasions even that number is exaggerated. The conductor then provides his highly skilled directions in the three fundamentals:

  1. Balancing the instruments.

  2. Setting the tempo.

  3. Controlling the dynamics.

Unfortunately, all his work is then overridden by a balance engineer, who constantly adjusts the signals to what HE believes to be the correct balance.

In the preparation of the digital Master, engineers replace fluffed notes, thereby suggesting that the orchestra is super human, and make yet more adjustments to the recorded signals to arrive at a final 'balance'; by now a long way from the conductors’ original direction. Reverberation is added, to give the impression that the recording was undertaken in a huge concert hall or cathedral. Even the playing-time length is varied to suit the capacity of the CD. The resultant sound is technically correct but lacks the natural sound of a live performance.

The 'development', or 'progress'. of the techniques involved in recording a symphony orchestra have, in effect, been retrograde and today the majority of CDs sound like 'CDs'. They do not truly reflect the original sound of the orchestra, chamber ensemble, soloist; or, in the case of an opera recording, the soloists, chorus and orchestra. The decline, even 'death' of the classical music, recording industry is in no small way attributable to the industry itself, which has become more and more technical, when it should have become more and more musical.

Returning for a moment to the 1950s/1960s. At the same time that Robert Fine was so heavily engrossed in his endeavor, I was putting into practice a passion I had held from when I was a small boy.

Previously, on each occasion that I had the joy of attending a symphony concert, I was convinced that it was possible to record the event to a very high standard, near to the actual sound that I had enjoyed during the performance.

In 1953, following a five-year stint in the RAF, I joined the staff of the Philips recording studio in the West End of London, but quickly became disillusioned with the methods employed by the senior engineers and moved on; working as a sound engineer in film radio and TV studios. With each recording session I was able to see the errors of the studio managers, although, since I was a junior member of the team, there was no question of commenting and finally I could no longer continue with work that was so unsatisfying and I left the industry to set up a Hi Fi business in the south of London.

Until a couple of years ago I was completely unaware of the work of Robert Fine, and had given no thought to there being a potential problem in recording a symphony orchestra with two microphones, always in my mind was the dream of one day having the opportunity to put into practice a technique I had envisaged for as long as I could remember.

Through my passion for music I began to work, part time, with an orchestral impresario by the name of Adolf Borsdorf who, initially, negotiated terms, then accompanied the orchestras from Europe during their tours of the UK. I received no payment for very long hours and considerable stress but the joy of living and working with an orchestra for a couple of weeks was ample recompense and one day, following my continued persistence, I was granted permission to record a live concert in the Royal Festival Hall London. The concert was to to be given by the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Janos Ferencsik. An historic occasion indeed.

In the early morning, on the day of the concert, I stood at the back of the RFH and studied the stage upon which the orchestra would be assembled. Instinctively I knew exactly where the two microphones must be positioned so as to capture every instrument, from pp to ff. A commentators box, on the side of the stage, was made available to me and from there I would have an uninterrupted view of the orchestra and conductor.

The next task was to suspend the two microphones; to achieve that end I was obliged to clamber over the ceiling of the hall from where I then lowered the omni-directional microphones to their predetermined positions. That having been achieved I decided to confirm the original placement selection, during the rehearsal, by making small adjustments to the microphone positions, however, it quickly became obvious that the first choice provided the most satisfactory results.

Following the concert maestro Ferencsik and Adolf Borsdorf joined me in the commentators box to listen to the results of the recording. The general consensus was that the sound was a true, acoustic, mirror image of the concert. All three of us were amazed, we had never heard anything to compare with what we were then listening to. I would go so far as to say we were shocked.

The following evening there was a concert in another city and so it went on until the tour was completed. Thoughts of the recording faded until the same process was repeated during the tours of other orchestras and when the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra with their conductor Witold Rowicki and soloist Wanda Wilkomirska gave a concert in the Royal Festival Hall, I positioned the two microphones in the identical positions as on all previous occasions; those that had, by then, been fully tried and tested.

Forty seven years later a CD I had mastered from the recording of the Warsaw Philharmonic, concert was submitted to the German Record Critics' Association and, on the 5th November 2012, just a few days before my 77th birthday, much to my great delight, I received notification that the CD had won the prestigious prize for 'Best Historical Recording'. The comments of the jury spokesman confirmed my belief that I had achieved my dream of making perfect recordings of a symphony orchestra using just two microphones. Wolfgang Wendel wrote: Wanda Wilkomirska presents herself as one of the great storytellers on the violin. She plays one of the most important concertos of the 20th Century, and the recording technique is sensational. An unrepeatable constellation. (For the jury: Wolfgang Wendel).

The website of the German Record Critics' Association:

http://www.schallplattenkritik.de/bestenlisten/562-bestenliste-4-2012

Over a period of approximately twelve years I accumulated a small library of live concert recordings and during the following forty years derived great pleasure from being able to listen to and relive the experiences of the tours that had occurred so long ago.

In 2008 I began to become concerned that the recordings would be lost forever upon my demise and I set about the process of publishing them on CD.

The accolade of the prize has given me the courage to declare the existence of a collection of recordings, I have published, entitled the Virtual Concert Hall Series- on the Orchestral Concert CDs, (OCCDs), label. Each of the CDs has the acronym CNSTR, or 'Certified Natural Sound Technique Recording', prominently displayed, in the form of a logo. It is a nomenclature intended to describe, in expressive terms, the individual process employed in the production.

Maybe there are others, it is not possible for me to state categorically, but if there are they should be brought into the limelight to help highlight the difference between naturally-recorded two-microphone CDs and those with more technical interference.

NB Considering the comments of the judges, when awarding the 'Schallplattenkritik' prize, it is reasonable to assume that had there been a 'hole in the middle' it would have been impossible to achieve an even balance between the solo violin and Orchestra in the Britten concerto and some reference would have been made to the fact.

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Other reviews have confirmed that, as with all recordings in 'The Virtual Concert Hall Series', balance is a feature without fault; the collection of reviews on the www.occds.org website have been highly complimentary and sound is invariably a highlight of the review.

That is what is extraordinary - soud from more than fifty years ago being far more natural than anything Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall can achieve.

 

Fascinating.

Fascinating.

That Bruckner's seventh is tempting me, as the Brahms recordings.

Yes! I have a good listen,

Yes! I have a good listen, too. Absolutely amazing sound quality. Unlike so many modern recordings, you don't have to keep monkeying about the volume etc. You just play and it sounds perfect, everything in a very natural balance. I am tempted too.......

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