Meeting Topic: Mercury Living Presence - A Technical History
Moderator Name: Greg Dixon
Speaker Name: Tom Fine - Tom Fine Audio Services
Meeting Location: Zoom Meeting, Seattle, WA USA
PNW Section hosted a November Zoom meeting with Tom Fine speaking about the classic Mercury Living Presence (MLP) recordings that his parents, Wilma Cozart Fine and C. Robert Fine, produced and engineered. Tom has consulted on the catalog since 2010 and remastered parts of it for digital and analog releases. Some 57 attended, more than 27 being AES members.
Tom Fine is a member of the AES, Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) and the Adirondack 46ers. He operates an analog-to-digital transfer and mastering studio in Brewster, NY. Recent projects have included consulting and remastering for Universal Music Group/Decca Classics, transferring 4-track Quad recordings of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, transferring hundreds of oral-history tapes for the state of New Mexico and Oregon State University, transfer and remaster work for audio used in a Netflix documentary about Nina Simone. Mr. Fine is a student of audio and recording history, and has published articles and equipment reviews in the ARSC Journal and TapeOp magazine as well as the AES Historical Committee website and Preservationsound.com. He also reviews music for Stereophile magazine, ARSC Journal, TapeOp magazine and Blackgrooves.org. He has also presented at several AES Conventions and events.
Tom presented a trove of photos illustrating the history of the Mercury Living Presence label with a focus on the technical. He began with the origin of the label in the late 1940s, and the key personnel. C. Robert Fine was always an independent contractor, even if wife Wilma was the VP of the Mercury classical division. Others included Harold Lawrence (music director/tape editor), Bob Eberenz (associate engineer) and George Piros (disk mastering).
Much of the talk was about the evolution of the gear and techniques. Microphones changed, as did techniques, as they moved from Neumann/Telefunken U47 to Schoeps M201 during the single mic mono era, and then in the stereo era from an M201 in the center with U47's on the sides to KM-54 and KM-56 on the sides to three M201's. Tape machines evolved from Fairchild mono to various Ampex units, and Westrex 35mm mag-film machines. The final MLP recordings by members of the original crew were made in 1967, and the final recordings under the MLP brand were made in 1970.
Lacquers were cut directly from the 3 track original tapes, mixed down in real-time to stereo (avoiding an extra generation) with a Westrex-based 3-to-2 mixer, to a Scully lathe with McIntosh power amps. Since this setup has no preview capability for the disc recording lathe, Mrs. Fine would read the musical score to cue the cutting engineer via hand signals as to coming dynamic range needs. Years later, she would remastered the tapes for CD using the same mixer, into a dCS converter - deemed the best available at the time. In more recent times, Tom Fine has remastered MLP titles for CD, high-resolution audio download, and vinyl (including all-analog vinyl remastering).
Several questions were asked at this time - some from Zoom chat, some direct in Zoom. The three mics were in one plane, unlike a Decca tree. The general technique for mixing 3 to 2 is to do the center first, then add the sides. Mercury lingo is that "binaural" is just their 2 mic stereo recordings. Much monitoring on site was through three Altec A-7s; the remote truck itself had three Ampex 620 speaker-amps.
Their famous remote truck was originally built for sound-for-film in 1952. Many photos were shown of how the original configuration of mono racks and tape machines evolved into 3 track tape. By 1962, a 35mm mag recording machine was often in the truck. Several stories revolved around the truck's groundbreaking trip to Russia in 1962. It was also shown recording civil war weapons at West Point (for the 1812 Overture recording), and made numerous trips to the UK and Europe between 1956-64. It was retired in the 60s and donated to the NJ Explorer Scouts.
The philosophy of a Mercury release was summed up by Wilma in a 1996 NPR interview:
-The music is what it's all about.
-We didn't use any control of the dynamic range.
-We just placed the microphones so they would reproduce the music as truly as possible and then recorded it without any change from what the conductor and the musicians were doing in their performance.
-When you hear one of these recordings you feel as though you are actually there.
Some history of the label's releases and formats was shown. The LPs are naturally long out of print. Most of the catalog was remastered for CD and CD box sets, and most of those are also out of print. After the Universal-Polygram merger, the MLP catalog fell under the direction of Decca Classics, and Tom was hired to do some remastering. Some LP reissues are available through Chad Kassem's Analogue Productions.
And, Tom had some news: Universal (UMG) is relaunching the MLP label in 2021 with a focus on streaming of the catalog, with a new website and Facebook presence expected. And April 2021 will be the 70th anniversary of the first MLP session in Chicago; expect a celebration!
A lively Q&A session finished the evening, ranging from mixdown techniques for 3-to-2 mastering, minimalist recordings vs dozens of mics for an orchestra, studio vs location recording, M-S and other mic techniques, and some Janos Starker stories.
For more information on this and other PNW meetings, see the PNW Section archives at:
Written By: Gary Louie