Mercury's early pop records stereo weirdness

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by keoki82, Aug 17, 2012.

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  1. keoki82

    keoki82 Active Member Thread Starter

    Location:
    Edmonton
    Listening to a clean original pressing of Dinah Washington's SEPTEMBER IN THE RAIN tonight. It's a beautiful record, but the mixing drives me crazy. It's like 2.0 sound, without even a phantom center. These tunes were recorded late '50s, obviously to two-track. Dinah is hard left, I mean, almost in the kitchen, while most of the band is far right. The weird thing is the violins are with Dinah, but the echo chamber on them bleeds clear across to the right, giving the illusion she is surrounded by an orchestra.

    Her vocals are bone dry. Such a bizarre mix for this period of music. Sarah Vaughan's early stereo stuff (also Mercury), features the same bizarre mixing.

    I have an early stereo LP of Don Gibson - THAT GIBSON BOY - on RCA that seems to have the same lack of phantom center and no reverb on the vocals.

    Is this because stereo was new and perhaps labels patched mics into one channel or the other without using a mixing board first?

    Curious to hear thoughts on this.
     
  2. saturnsf

    saturnsf Forum Resident

    Location:
    San Francisco, CA
    I've got the same Dinah and Sassy Mercury LPs and yeah they sound nutso. Apart from the stereo separation (and the background vocals) they're pretty decent though.
     
  3. keoki82

    keoki82 Active Member Thread Starter

    Location:
    Edmonton
    Oh yeah, the fidelity is awesome. but they should have fired the mixing engineer.
     
  4. keoki82

    keoki82 Active Member Thread Starter

    Location:
    Edmonton
    When Mercury produced THE TWO OF US - the Dinah Washington/Brook Benton combo album, they had one vocalist in each channel on the duet numbers. Drives me nuts. Thankfully I have the mono pressing of that LP.

    Any other early stereo artists suffer this fate? Please share!
     
  5. MLutthans

    MLutthans That's my spaghetti, Chewbacca! Staff

    Location:
    Marysville, WA
    We've got apples and oranges going here.

    In some cases, it was a conscious, artistic decision, to go for "wide stereo." For instance, Fine Recording (as in C. Robert Fine of Mercury Living Presence fame) had 3-track tape as far back as 1955, yet for their early Command Records titles, producer Enoch Light WANTED to have that super-wide, super-separated stereo sound, and resisted having anything in the center position for several years, finally caving in and rolling out Command's "Dimension 3" process in 1964. Fine also recorded some of Mercury's early pop music stereo output (although much was recorded in Chicago at Universal and other studios, as well).

    ....and Robert Fine was never worthy of being fired! Remember: An engineer works at the behest of the producer in charge. If that producer wants obscenely wide stereo, the engineer provides it.

    Some of this type of recording may have been done to allow for mono and stereo mastering from the same tape, as RVG did. Along those lines, RCA was doing some pop recording in Webster Hall in NYC on "twin track" tape for mono release, with some instruments isolated on one track and some on the other, allowing for use in mono mixing after the fact. Some of these "twin track" recordings have since been released as "in stereo" recordings, but they are not always very satisfying as stereo goes. There are some Perry Como things (Catch a Falling Star, I think, is on one of the NIPPER'S GREATEST HITS discs), and a couple of Sauter-Finegan tracks on "The Best of Sauter-Finegan." Those tracks are interesting as a curiosity, and some work better than others in terms of stereo listening. ("Paradise" by Sauter-Finegan is a nice listen.)

    Matt
     
  6. keoki82

    keoki82 Active Member Thread Starter

    Location:
    Edmonton
    The frustrating part is that it's not every song, either, which gives the albums an inconsistent sound. Some (but few) tracks are beautifully balanced.

    As a side note - what a wonderful vocalist - do we have a Dinah Washington appreciation thread around these parts?
     
  7. keoki82

    keoki82 Active Member Thread Starter

    Location:
    Edmonton
    Thanks for your input, Matt! Always appreciated.

    So do u suppose Mercury even bothered to use a mixing console on the session dates that appear so hard left/hard right in stereo?

    The only elements with reverb on this record are the violins in the left, bleeding over to right (creating a minimal phantom center). Dinah is bone dry, also left; rhythm section, vocal chorus and violas/cellos are all hard right, also bone dry.
     
  8. keoki82

    keoki82 Active Member Thread Starter

    Location:
    Edmonton
    I'll remember that - the engineer carries out the producer's wishes, always! ;)

    But Dinah & Sarah were recorded in NYC even though Mercury was based in Chicago, weren't they?
     
  9. MLutthans

    MLutthans That's my spaghetti, Chewbacca! Staff

    Location:
    Marysville, WA
    Sure, there was a mixing board in play. The only way their wouldn't have been is if it was a 2-mic recording, which the Dinah Washington stuff was not. I'll dig out my "What a Difference" disc and chime back in shortly. It's been a while...

    Matt
     
  10. keoki82

    keoki82 Active Member Thread Starter

    Location:
    Edmonton
    Enjoy. She's wonderful...
     
  11. MLutthans

    MLutthans That's my spaghetti, Chewbacca! Staff

    Location:
    Marysville, WA
    One more thing, while I'm loading Dinah's disc: Keep in mind that this was an extremely problematic era for the recording industry, i.e, how do we produce stereo product while not negatively impacting the mono product? -- at a time when mono was basically the only game in town, and stereo was a distant, experimental afterthought. Engineer Bill Putnam wrote that there were to be absolutely no scenario in which a mono recording would be impacted by work on the "stereo side" of things. Mono was the concern, and if you got stereo, too....cool!

    Matt
     
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  12. apileocole

    apileocole Lush Life Gort

    Many Mercury pop recordings were like that, vocal hard to one side. Brook Benton from that era, for instance. Some instances where there's a lead off to one side can be changed if there's a reissue; assuming for example a three track recording where the vocal is on one track and was mixed to one side during the reduction to stereo, one could remix to center the vocal if desired. If it's stuck that way, better to leave the sound clean than to narrow the image though, in my humble. Many still sound great even if the "mix" is odd.
     
  13. MLutthans

    MLutthans That's my spaghetti, Chewbacca! Staff

    Location:
    Marysville, WA
    Another thought: In these very early stereo days, the engineer was hired primarily (exclusively?) to do the mono recording, so he may not have even been taking directions from a producer in any grand sense where the stereo was concerned, but just finding a way to still get stereo out of the mono session. Many ways to skin that cat.

    Matt
     
  14. keoki82

    keoki82 Active Member Thread Starter

    Location:
    Edmonton
    The exhaustive ADD set of THE COMPLETE SARAH VAUGHAN ON MERCURY from 1986 uses a mid-side style reduction to lessen Sarah's hard-left vocals on tracks where needed, suggesting the reissue was either using the 2-track album reels, or the work tapes (if surviving) were also 2-track.
     
  15. keoki82

    keoki82 Active Member Thread Starter

    Location:
    Edmonton
    Further to this, some tracks appear in MONO on the 23-CD set that I have mixed to stereo on the original LPs, suggesting the reissue used the best possible sources that could be located. This may suggest that Sarah's sessions were only caught to two-track; if so, the same is likely for Brook and Dinah.
     
  16. MLutthans

    MLutthans That's my spaghetti, Chewbacca! Staff

    Location:
    Marysville, WA
    Just listening to the title track of "What a Difference...." and it may be a simple two-track recording. (MAY is the operative word.) There are several more recent masterings that move the vocal to the center, but the violins are more centered on those, too, so I think it's just a matter of narrowing the mix, not working with a separate, isolated vocal track, but I may be wrong.

    Roughly 10 mikes on this one. The liner notes vaguely outline the use of 8 of them, but there are clearly a couple of mikes not listed, including Dinah's and the celli, so....more than 8, and we'll leave it at that. Capitol around this time was able to do at least 10 for mono, so 10 at Fine was certainly reasonable.*

    I generally like stereo, but there's a strong case for this one being better in mono, I suspect. If the vocal were centered and the stereo was full-width, that would be great, I suppose, but that vocal being off to the side a bit odd.

    Matt

    *Here's a shot of the board at Fine Recording in 1961, two years after the Dinah recordings. Looks like 12 inputs at that time. http://www.preservationsound.com/?p=3939
     
  17. Vidiot

    Vidiot Now in 4K HDR!

    Location:
    Hollywood, USA
    I agree with Matt above. The late 1950s was a primitive, early time for stereo, and a lot of producers and engineers were very concerned with mono compatibility, plus there was not always a consensus on how best to balance the instruments, rhythm section, and lead vocals. And I'm not a fan of the lopsided mixes with the vocals on one side and the instruments on the other -- some of which are just 2-track tapes intended to be mixed-down to mono.

    I'm convinced that some of the early Atlantic recordings actually used stereo mikes on lead vocals, judging by how the vocal image "wanders" in terms of balance. Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife" is a good example -- his voice definitely does not stay locked dead center in the mix.

    I think producers and engineers went through a period of stereo experimentation throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and things only really started settling down at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. Still, it's interesting to reflect on how good some of the early stereo mixes are during that period, particularly by RCA.
     
  18. keoki82

    keoki82 Active Member Thread Starter

    Location:
    Edmonton
    Interesting side note - I'm playing the MONO pressing of THE TWO OF US (Brook + Dinah), and the MONO mix of ROCKIN' GOOD WAY has an edited ending that shortens the length but adds different banter between the two vocalists as the track fades out. This must have been how the original 45 single sounded. Subsequent releases on compilations that feature a STEREO mix are different.
     
  19. keoki82

    keoki82 Active Member Thread Starter

    Location:
    Edmonton

    Matt, you're awesome.

    :)
     
  20. keoki82

    keoki82 Active Member Thread Starter

    Location:
    Edmonton
    Agreed - RCA has fine sounding stuff from that period, even in C&W. With the exception of that Don Gibson album I mention above, most of Chet Atkins' stereo mixes featured the percussion center with vocals; this provided a more natural sound. Owen Bradley at Decca, by comparison, had only the vocalist center, with rhythm section hard right & everything else hard left. The weirdest part is that he put reverb on the 3rd track (vocalist), but left the instrumentation bone dry for much of his production.
     
  21. MLutthans

    MLutthans That's my spaghetti, Chewbacca! Staff

    Location:
    Marysville, WA
    Definitely, yes. Look at Capitol -- they were so flummoxed by the mono ---> stereo transition that they did completely independent mic setups for a couple of years. "Don't mess with mono!" -- and in the process they kept working at improving the stereo and (more so, in my view) getting the stereo and mono systems to be unified in a way that could produce acceptable results for both formats, which the early Capitol system could not do.

    Here's the blurb by Bill Putnam, presented at an AES convention in 1980:
     

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  22. keoki82

    keoki82 Active Member Thread Starter

    Location:
    Edmonton
    Back to Mercury, in the Complete Sarah Vaughan reissue, the mid-side reductions still sound "stereo" but are much narrower. I prefer the narrow stereo, however, because her vocals don't get buried under the orchestra. Obviously MONO was still priority for these messy stereo session captures.
     
  23. keoki82

    keoki82 Active Member Thread Starter

    Location:
    Edmonton
    Bill Putnam explains it succinctly - studios were still producing mono product even though stereo technology was available at the time.

    "The producer heard the MONO mix only, unaware of the stereo."

    Makes sense now.

    What bothers me is that modern reissues of material from this era usually default to a stereo mix, if available, even though the mono mix is superior. Anyone who loves this era of music deserves to hear the mono LPs.
     
  24. MLutthans

    MLutthans That's my spaghetti, Chewbacca! Staff

    Location:
    Marysville, WA
    Yep! In some instances, that's no longer the case (Motown, for instance, has become pretty mono-friendly over the years), but all too often, it is.

    By the way, from that site I linked a few back, here's the rate card for Fine Recording for 1959, same year as the Dinah Washington recording. Note the line of red text along the bottom margin in context of what's been posted in this thread:
     

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  25. goodiesguy

    goodiesguy Flying High

    Location:
    New Zealand
    Wow, those prices are really cheap (Per hour i'm guessing?)
     
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