AES Section Meeting Reports

New York - October 6, 2015

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Benny Goodman's January 16, 1938 concert in Carnegie Hall was one of the most important musical events of its era. The recording of the concert, first released in 1950 on Columbia LPs after being transferred to tape, was an immediate hit and has never been out of the catalog since. It is, simply, the largest selling jazz album of all time.

Our two speakers unraveled the mysteries and misconceptions about how the concert was recorded and what source was used for the initial 1950 LP release. Further, when Columbia reissued the concert on CD in the 1980's, it appeared that the original transcription disk recordings made in 1938 had been lost, so the first CD issue used the 1950 tapes. In the 1990's, Phil Schaap, backed by the resources of Sony (who now owned the Columbia catalog), finally tracked down the original disks and produced a reissue from them in 1999. That reissue was controversial, as many of the problems of reproducing 1930's era transcription disks were not dealt with as well as they might have been.

So matters stood until recently, when Seth Winner, one of the most experienced historical transfer engineers around, came into possession of what is now believed to be the only set of original lacquer coated instantaneous recordings of the concert. He surmises that they were possibly ordered by Albert Marx, a record producer and friend of Benny Goodman, but they were made for Goodman himself. The band was picked up by a single RCA 44A bidirectional ribbon microphone that was left in its usual position above the stage after being utilized to broadcast the Sunday afternoon concert of the N.Y. Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra. This microphone was able to capture the band as well as the natural ambience of the hall, including the very enthusiastic audience reaction. Martha Tilton's vocals were picked up by a Western Electric 618 microphone on a stand.

These mics were fed to the CBS control booth console where the vocal mic was also fed to a public address system. The console fed existing Telco 8 or 10 Kilocycle radio lines to CBS, and finally over to engineer/musician Raymond Scott at Universal Recording in the RKO Building at 6th avenue and 51st Street. There the signal was fed to two cutting lathes, which alternated between one and another, using a key switch which insured that there was no loss of program when one machine stopped and the other one started. The Presto recording blanks that were used to record the concert were 12-inch in diameter—as the ultimate user of the discs was intended to be Benny listening at home--and their speed was set to 78 rpm, the standard playback mode for consumer use at the time. (At the time various studios could record off the radio networks' telephone lines for a predetermined fee. According to various printed sources, Albert Marx had ordered the Harry Smith Recording Studio to also tap into the line in order to make two complete sets of discs of the event. As of this date, neither of those sets has ever been found. )

A total of 28 sides were cut onto 14 discs. Many of them ran much longer than the optimal length of 4 minutes; the Universal engineers wanted to cram as much music as possible onto each disc. They also wanted to capture each tune on its own disc. (Two works that exhibited this problem were "Stompin at the Savoy" and "I Got Rhythm"; both sides had between 5-1/2 to almost 6 minutes on their respective sides!) This was not always possible due to the running time of the tunes; in the case of "Dizzy Spells", it was necessary to switch from one cutter to the other during the tune. The final 24 seconds of the tune comprise the only material on one of the disks. (BTW, the "bleed through" heard at the start of that disc in the unmodulated grooves proves that this set of disks is not a copy or a dub; if it was, the engineer who was responsible for making a "dub" would have removed those unmodulated grooves in the final product being made for the client.)

In a case of poor remastering concerning the 1999 production, 41 seconds of music was excised from "I Got Rhythm". When Seth compared that transfer to the original Columbia release and his own remastering, he discovered the omission after Vincent (and George Avakian) alerted him to that fact; he played the restored section from his work at this presentation. Several tunes were performed with such a wide dynamic range that the Universal engineers rather heavy-handedly made sudden dips concerning the signal level being fed to the cutters, especially at the end of sides. The above-mentioned "I Got Rhythm" selection suffered from this problem; Seth was able to demonstrate how he was able to restore the recording back to its proper dynamic range. A number of other selections played during the course of the meeting had been treated in the same manner.

Side 8 of the set which contains Buck Clayton's solo during the "Jam Session" was damaged due to a playback stylus gouging a groove in the middle of the disk. This was due to some clumsy handling when dubs were being made of this set, shortly after the event took place. The result was a "skip", that was not recoverable. In the 1950 LP edition, in order to get around the problem, part of the solo with the offending problem was completely excised. In the 1999 edition, the skip was still present; as a result, an additional measure was removed to make the passage sound "correct". Seth demonstrated how he fixed the skip and then removed the residual thump perfectly using Cedar's manual Declick and Retouch plug-ins that are part of the Sadie Disc Editor.

In the case of the discs that contained more than five minutes of material on them, the inside grooves were very close to where the glued labels had been attached; in one or two cases, the labels were sitting over the inner grooves of their respective sides. Seth had to remove all or part of these labels in order to properly track the inside grooves. (After all, who plays the labels?)

Seth's tools for his restorations included a "proper archival photo preamp" designed by Gary Galo and D. Michael Shields. The device featured a comprehensive selection of EQ curves which enabled him to best match the undocumented playback curves of the original discs. For disc playback he used a Shure V15 TypeVx and a Stanton 500AL cartridge; several different sized styli were employed, resulting in 3 different complete sets of digital files of all 28 sides. The discs were cleaned with the Keith Monks Record Cleaning Machine. The raw/untouched transfers of each side first were digitally converted to 96 kHz/24 bits BWF (Broadcast Wave Files), and then processed using CEDAR's Cambridge Restoration Suite. The files were preserved utilizing the Sadie Disc Editor; final editing and remastering was done in the Sadie Editor with the help of Cedar's Retouch, Background Decrackler and Manual Declick plug-ins.

Vincent Pelote provided detailed historical background on the musicians and musical selections. He described earlier restorations and we heard direct comparisons between the earlier transfers and Seth's work. The differences were truly "night and day." Noise attributed to the original discs in the 1999 restoration by Phil Schaap were totally absent in Seth's work. Schaap had not used any noise reduction and his playback equalization choices came into question. It is surmised that he also lacked the proper cartridge and stylus combinations to most effectively play the original discs.

We heard all or part of many tunes from the concert and our audience members peppered the speakers with many questions throughout this very enjoyable evening.

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