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 Posted:   May 21, 2020 - 6:44 AM   
 By:   OnyaBirri   (Member)

It seems that there are some misconceptions around here regarding the audio quality of 1950s recordings.

I would agree with many here that some of the actual 1950s soundtrack recordings recorded on scoring stages may be lacking in sonics.

However, many 1950s orchestral recordings made in recording studios specifically for LP release are considered to be some of the best recordings ever, in particular those recorded for RCA, Mercury, and Capitol. These albums are prized by audiophiles and often go for big bucks.

Just thought the distinction is worth mentioning.

 
 
 Posted:   May 21, 2020 - 6:52 AM   
 By:   villagardens553   (Member)

There's a nice anecdote in Vic Flick's book Guitar Man (google books) about the recording of John Barry's first film score, Beat Girl (1960). Flick said the JB7 went into this large scoring stage in Beaconsfield and immediately knew that it would not work, as is. Flick said they made adjustments and recorded the score. However, two days later they re-recorded the score for the album at EMI Studios.

 
 Posted:   May 21, 2020 - 7:54 AM   
 By:   Lukas Kendall   (Member)


Most 1950s film scores at scoring stages come to us from 35mm mag which has developed some wow and flutter. I think that's the reason. The few 1950s scores preserved on 1/2" tape (much more stable) sound fabulous.

Lukas

 
 Posted:   May 21, 2020 - 11:15 AM   
 By:   johnonymous86   (Member)



However, many 1950s orchestral recordings made in recording studios specifically for LP release are considered to be some of the best recordings ever, in particular those recorded for RCA, Mercury, and Capitol. These albums are prized by audiophiles and often go for big bucks.

Just thought the distinction is worth mentioning.



As a budding amatuer audiophile, could you give some examples? Would be really curious to hear.

 
 
 Posted:   May 21, 2020 - 11:46 AM   
 By:   OnyaBirri   (Member)



However, many 1950s orchestral recordings made in recording studios specifically for LP release are considered to be some of the best recordings ever, in particular those recorded for RCA, Mercury, and Capitol. These albums are prized by audiophiles and often go for big bucks.

Just thought the distinction is worth mentioning.



As a budding amatuer audiophile, could you give some examples? Would be really curious to hear.


Virtually any symphonic RCA Living Stero release from the 1950s.

Virtually any symphonic Mercury Living Presece stereo release from the 1950s.

Many Capitol mono LPs from the 1950s with a jazzy or orchestral focus or backing.

 
 
 Posted:   May 21, 2020 - 1:36 PM   
 By:   OnyaBirri   (Member)


As a budding amatuer audiophile, could you give some examples? Would be really curious to hear.


If you want an amazing sounding film score from this era, get the WB LP of Spellbound, conducted by Heindorf, with Hoffman on Theremin. Avoid the Stanyan reissue, which adds reverb and has a muddier sound.

 
 
 Posted:   May 21, 2020 - 9:05 PM   
 By:   jskoda   (Member)

However, many 1950s orchestral recordings made in recording studios specifically for LP release are considered to be some of the best recordings ever, in particular those recorded for RCA, Mercury, and Capitol. These albums are prized by audiophiles and often go for big bucks.

This is true, but I'd say generally film scores in the 1950s weren't given the same level of care as the classical releases. The record companies would mostly take what were very well-recorded full stereo masters from the studios (if they even had access to original masters) and squeeze them down to mono and rush them out to capitalize on the film release publicity. They were mostly seen as a promotional item for the film.

 
 
 Posted:   May 21, 2020 - 9:16 PM   
 By:   OnyaBirri   (Member)

This is true, but I'd say generally film scores in the 1950s weren't given the same level of care as the classical releases. The record companies would mostly take what were very well-recorded full stereo masters from the studios (if they even had access to original masters) and squeeze them down to mono and rush them out to capitalize on the film release publicity. They were mostly seen as a promotional item for the film.

You miss the point.

It has zero to do with whether it was "classical" music or "film" music.

It has everything to do with whether it was recorded in a recording studio or on a soundstage.

Film music recorded in a 1950s recording studio would sound great.

Classical music recorded on a soundstage would likely sound OK at best, lousy at worst.

 
 
 Posted:   May 21, 2020 - 9:57 PM   
 By:   Chris Malone   (Member)

It’s an interesting topic. There are several factors that come to mind for this, basically me thinking aloud about this particular era. I’ve listed what I think is probably the single biggest factor first:

Recording Format

For motion picture music, three-track 35mm full-coat magnetic film was the format of choice for decades since its general introduction in early 1950 (with some studios adopting it a little later). This format enabled music to be perfectly synchronised to on-screen images without any speed variations that were (and are) inherent in tape recording and playback.

35mm magnetic film is now known to be chemically unstable over time. Shrinkage and warping are most common issues and this leads to the wow and flutter, which can sometimes be addressed now. But it also results in a loss of overall fidelity with treble frequencies the first to be compromised and, in the worst case, irrecoverably lost.

A transfer of the original 35mm magnetic film music recordings from, say, “The King and I” made today—assuming they are still extant and can be prepared for transfer—will likely be afflicted with wow and significantly reduced in fidelity. The Capitol Records album tapes prepared back in 1956 from that same (A/B sets of three-track) magnetic film (but in 1956!) will continue to be playable for decades to come without any appreciable difference in fidelity. The original album for “The King and I” still sounds pretty amazing to me, especially tracks like “The March Of Siamese Children” recorded using The Newman System miking.

By contrast, popular music has, largely, been recorded to magnetic tape. ¼”, ½”, etc. tape has been demonstrated to be very stable, aside from the necessity to ‘bake’ some manufacturers from about 1973/74 to 1985 or so. A tape recorded in, say, 1956 should basically sound just as good now as it did then.

Studio Space and Equipment

The studio scoring stages were not necessarily acoustically designed for creating a good balance. Rather, they were often repurposed ‘shooting’ or ‘silent’ stages and seating layouts often reflected necessities for obtaining a balance where the aim was (and still largely is) to make a recording that best serves the eventual blend of dialogue, music, and effects rather than the music alone.

As cinemas/theatres were, at the time, large venues with big space, film music was often recorded pretty dry and it was the cinema/theatre that basically provided an acoustic space for the music to reverberate in rather than the recording having echo added for home listening.

The reason Cine-Tele Sound (CTS) Studios in London were so successful, in particular from the early 1960s, is that they basically combined: a good acoustic space; state-of-the-art equipment; the mentality of operating like a pure music recording studio; good engineering know-how; and the needs of recording film music (projection and magnetic film recording as well as simultaneous tape recording for soundtrack albums).

Purpose

It’s also worth re-emphasising that in recording music for film, it’s primary job is to serve the film. There wasn’t really a soundtrack album market in the 1950s like there was just 10 years later and, most certainly, today. Most of the time, I think they were just thinking about the film not about whether they were going to make an album of the music. If they did, like “The King and I”, they either transferred the 35mm mag to tape and then worked with the tape or re-recorded the music at another venue. They may have even taken a little more time to get things just right knowing that the same recordings would find their way onto records.

It seems they were also relatively economical in doing take after take. I can imagine that in making a pure music album, great care would be given to performance, to balance, to engineering. And this might take considerable time to achieve the goals everyone wanted. (I guess the additional role of the album ‘producer’ was not really something that was involved in film music recording.) What amazed me about a lot of Paramount scores from the 1950s was how the cue sheets indicated many cues as being take 1 or 2. As long as everyone thought the music worked, they just moved on to the next cue.

Chris

 
 Posted:   May 21, 2020 - 11:32 PM   
 By:   Traveling Matt   (Member)

Fascinating, Chris, thanks for sharing.

I take it optical film is an entirely different situation? If so why would studios not have recorded optically, or at least transferred to optical after the sessions? Was the format too valuable and necessary for film production?

Also I've always understood tape to be less "archival" than film, and if cost were no issue the proper archival practice would be for the studios to do an optical "film out" after getting their digital files back from the labels. Indeed Intrada's notes on Back to the Future mention the significant deterioration since 1985, and presumably that score still only exists on those original tapes (and now our CDs). Would the best archival method, cost aside, still be to transfer magnetic film/tape to optical?

 
 
 Posted:   May 21, 2020 - 11:51 PM   
 By:   Chris Malone   (Member)

Optical film soundtracks had the distinct disadvantage that it required developing prior to playback whereas magnetic film could be played straight away so that a composer, director, etc could establish how the music worked in their film. In the optical era, acetate reference discs were often cut simultaneously so that instant playback was possible.

Magnetic film also has a greater frequency bandwidth than optical and a better signal to noise ratio—optical can tend to pop and crackle like dirty vinyl. But having long runs of consistently good sounding magnetic film was an issue, certainly early on.

Tthe aberrant thing now is that, in long term storage, optical film generally doesn’t shrink and warp like magnetic film. So, it’s possible that an optical track will sound pretty nice now! Depending on the studio, anything from prior to about 1951/52 will almost certainly have been originally recorded optically.

The Paramount Westerns Collection, for example, had tracks that were originally optical and later archived by the studio to magnetic film so it ended up with a bit of the “worst of both” worlds! Not their fault, just what we know now.

Doing optical film outputs of picture elements for archival reasons is kind of a different thing because it’s just picture. And 35mm picture elements hold up predictably as far as I know, it’s not anything I’ve had direct experience with. For sound recorded on magnetic film, it’s the very nature of the combination of magnetic particles stuck to the chemical film backing that makes it unstable over time. Tape, and specifically analog ¼” or ½” tape, is far more reliable, stable, and future proof (most of popular music history is recorded/mixed to it).

In the case of something like the score for Back to the Future, it may have been necessary to ‘bake’ those tapes. Other formats, such as Digital Audio Tape (DAT) and some other digital tape formats are very sensitive to dropouts and anomalies so perfect storage is necessary. But nothing is truly perfect forever.

If I had a time machine, I would go back and take a split-feed from the mixing console and record all these beautiful scores from the dawn of film scoring onward on ½” three-track analog tape. I’m sure we would all be stunned at how good something like The Big Country, Psycho, Ryan’s Daughter, Star Wars, etc would sound. But it’s just wishful thinking.

Chris

 
 
 Posted:   May 22, 2020 - 6:58 AM   
 By:   Rozsaphile   (Member)

Very informative surveys from Chris. The following bit is worth emphasizing. It's been stated before, but not often enough.

As cinemas/theatres were, at the time, large venues with big space, film music was often recorded pretty dry and it was the cinema/theatre that basically provided an acoustic space for the music to reverberate in rather than the recording having echo added for home listening.

It explains why many soundtrack recordings sound unnaturally "dry" in home listening.

 
 
 Posted:   May 22, 2020 - 8:07 AM   
 By:   jskoda   (Member)

Well, the thing is the Living Stereos weren't usually done in recording studios at all but in the Boston and Chicago symphonic halls, that had great acoustics, of course. But the aim of the recordings was different. It was to reproduce the sound of a live performance, and they didn't use many mikes. And it was a simpler process--one company involved from beginning to end.

The movie studio recording stages (I'm thinking mostly of MGM and Fox) had fine acoustics too, but the goal was different. They were miking each section of the orchestra so they could raise and lower the levels to come up with the final mix needed for the scenes.

For sound quality, how the records sounded in the end had way more to do with how much the movie studios cooperated with the record companies, I think. The Capitol KING AND I and CAROUSEL albums sound as good as the better Red Seals, probably because Fox gave Capitol all the session masters to work with, and may have even had Newman/Darby at Fox cooperate in preparing the album. These are the high water marks for how all of the albums could have sounded.

But in the very same year, Captiol's "stereo" HIGH SOCIETY from MGM sounded lousy even though we know now beautiful-sounding full stereo tracks existed. They just never made it to Capitol for some reason.

 
 
 Posted:   May 22, 2020 - 9:12 AM   
 By:   OnyaBirri   (Member)

Well, the thing is the Living Stereos weren't usually done in recording studios at all but in the Boston and Chicago symphonic halls, that had great acoustics, of course.

But all of those amazing-sounding 1950s Capitol orchestral albums by Sinatra, June Christy, Nat Cole, Stan Kenton, Ellington, Gleason, Baxter, and others WERE recorded in studios.

So film-centric listeners who dismiss 50s recordings as being lo-fi should check out some of these albums, especially the mono versions, which often have breathtaking sonics.

 
 
 Posted:   May 22, 2020 - 10:07 AM   
 By:   jskoda   (Member)

Yes! Especially check out those Steve Hoffman Nat King Cole SACDs. They make it sound like he's right in the room with you. Not done by "enhancing" anything, but just reproducing what was always on the original tapes.

 
 
 Posted:   May 22, 2020 - 3:06 PM   
 By:   Chris Malone   (Member)

The lack of reverb on many of those scores recorded in Hollywood, in particular, helped in editing. It’s easy to cut to another piece of music when there isn’t a big echo sustain over something.

However, I think it was sound pioneer/legend Murray Spivack who came up with the concept that everything heard in the film should come from the same plane of existence. So, as the dialogue is recorded pretty closely, the music should be as well in order to be intelligible and fit in the same space. That was the thinking in Hollywood at least.

Also, when you have three channels/tracks to record on, the groupings of instruments to these tracks were allocated to service the film. Right up through the late 1970s the split out of instruments to each track—with some exceptions specific to studios and/or exhibition format—rarely reflected anything that would make good stereo listening on home records. I talked about this on the Jason Drury interview—I think he kept it in there. It can be a challenge sometimes when we do scores like Breakfast At Tiffany’s for home listening versus the lush and wide stereo on the original album recording. You’re getting things like all the string section on channel one, all the woodwinds and percussion on channel two, and brass on channel three. Or stuff like the entire orchestra on one channel, a vocal soloist on another, and a chorus or harmonica or other solo instrument on the third. All tightly isolated so that there were options during dubbing/re-recording to almost completely eliminate, say, the woodwinds from a passage of they wanted to.

So, I think it all boils down to many technical principles and decisions that were made to service filmmaking as the number one priority. The fact that the recording medium of 35mm magnetic film does deteriorate and some recordings have either not been protected early enough or are just the subject of bad luck is also a critical factor. Of course, we are sometimes lucky!

It’s kind of an apples and oranges thing when comparing, say, a late 1950s Living Stereo album, designed specifically for home listening, with a late 1950s Hollywood scoring stage recording.

Chris

 
 
 Posted:   May 22, 2020 - 3:43 PM   
 By:   OnyaBirri   (Member)



It’s kind of an apples and oranges thing when comparing, say, a late 1950s Living Stereo album, designed specifically for home listening, with a late 1950s Hollywood scoring stage recording.

Chris


Ummm... This was the whole point of my thread.

People making generalizations about 1950s audio quality based on soundstage recordings.

Was that not clear in the first post?

 
 
 Posted:   May 22, 2020 - 3:51 PM   
 By:   Chris Malone   (Member)

Sure! It’s just interesting to me to think why this is.

Chris

 
 Posted:   May 22, 2020 - 5:23 PM   
 By:   ZapBrannigan   (Member)

I can't add anything, but I really appreciate this thread. It lays out some tech and audiophile history that I didn't know. I archived it as a text doc and bolded Chris Malone's posts. There's some good stuff here.

 
 
 Posted:   May 22, 2020 - 6:12 PM   
 By:   Rozsaphile   (Member)

The lack of reverb on many of those scores recorded in Hollywood, in particular, helped in editing. It’s easy to cut to another piece of music when there isn’t a big echo sustain over something.

Also, given the movies' need for extensive editing and mixing, I imagine they would have wanted a maximum of tone (and minimum of room ambiance) in the master. In those pre-Dolby, pre-digital days noise and distortion accrued at every subsequent stage.

 
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