Decca Stereo and the Los Angeles Philharmonic: A Marriage Made in Hollywood

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-- PART II: THE SOUND (Part 1, coming soon) --

By their very nature, recordings are no more than small slices of time; yet through them we can hear more than what happened on a set of days as a musical performance was created. Taken together, records offer insight into the evolution of a way of preserving music.

By the time it moved into Los Angeles in 1967, Decca Stereo was nearly a decade and a half old. By this time, most of its classical mixers had been thoroughly indoctrinated by Kenneth Wilkinson in the classic Tree-and-Outriggers technique he had honed from his own first stereo sessions in May of 1958. Thanks to the expansion of mixing capability made possible by a new generation of field mixers, first introduced in 1964 with STORM (Stereo Remote Mixer) and continuing with the Gendec mixer, Decca’s balance engineers had at their fingertips an unprecedented amount of control over the number of microphones used, their equalization, and even placement in the stereo soundstage.


---above: Gordon Parry (left) and John Culshaw, 1967

For Wilkinson himself, these new mixers opened the way to add new details to his basic technique, mainly by increasing the number of microphones he could pan-pot into exact sectors of his left-to-right stereo panorama. There had been, of course, notable exceptions to Wilkinson’s style. The most surprising of these came from his old colleague Arthur Lilley, who before being posted to Tony D’Amato’s Phase Four team had created the sound for John Lanchberry’s La Flue Mal Garde in 1962 by using four M-50s fronting the orchestral string sections, with another quartet of microphones highlighting winds, tympani, horns, and percussion.

With the advent of new mixing channels, it was becoming increasingly difficult for a single balance engineer to control every change in level a producer might ask for in the moment-to-moment “orchestration” of a classical session; and while two engineers—one for the “stage” and one for the orchestra—had been common at operatic sessions since the early 1960s, by 1967 two-engineer teams were making more and more frequent appearances at many major orchestral sessions as well. It was in Vienna, of course, that Decca’s most ambitious opera records had originated, and it was in Vienna that Gordon Parry had served most often at the mixing desk, first in mono in the 1 950s, and then in stereo on dozens of records supervised by producer John Culshaw and his junior colleague, Erik Smith.

From his early days at Decca in the mid-1950s, Parry contributed formidable musical knowledge (along with his just as formidable enthusiasm) to Decca’s epoch- making Ring cycle, and then to Decca’s style of recording. “Gordon motivated people,” was how one member of the LA re cording team put it years later, and it was he who in some ways became the “driving force” behind the Los Angeles records. Yet there were always other hands at work in Los Angeles, most notably those of James Lock, whose work in tandem with Parry produced what many associated with the Royce sessions describe as a true team effort. To Parry’s enthusiasm Lock brought technical adeptness and sophistication, and the ability to ferret out and fix problems on the recording stage that led one engineer close to the sessions to assert that, in the end, “Jimmy was LA.”

Making a Home in Royce:

There was no question, at least in Gordon Parry’s mind, that Royce Hall was not an ideal recording site. By the end of the 1967 sessions, and as the tapes recorded in Los Angeles were later evaluated in London, Decca’s A&R and engineering staff had reached the same conclusion: As it then stood, Royce Hall was too dry for acceptable recording. Parry himself had noticed that Royce’s shell-less stage area and the auditorium’s drop ceiling were soaking up much of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s already darkly burnished sound, and even with the first 20-foot stage extension built by Jim Klain, he was convinced the orchestra was “still [being] hemmed in by the stage acoustic.” While this was acceptable for Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy in 1967, which had its own built-in acoustic help, it would not be satisfactory for the music of Bruckner and other German composers that Mehta would certainly want to record there in the years to come.

Electronic Solutions:

The first and biggest challenge for Decca was to move the orchestra as far into the auditorium as it could, a feat that Jim Klain accomplished with a series of ex tensions that shifted the entire ensemble, and on occasion a chorus as well, into the more ample ambience of the auditorium it self. In addition to these steps, however, Parry and his “co-partner” on the mixer, James Lock, also had at their command several electronic means to enhance the ambience of Royce Hall. In 1967, this enhancement took the form of two KM-53 omnidirectional “air mikes” strategically placed far from the orchestra and equalized to fit into the overall soundstage. In later years, there would be more creative, even more elaborate fixes.

=== NOTES ===

1 Until its renovation in 1984, Royce’s Auditorium had a mere 1.3 seconds overall reverberation time. By contrast, Walthamstow and Kingsway in London had periods of 2.0 and 2.3 seconds respectively, and EMI’s purpose-built Abbey Road a period of nearly two and a half seconds.

2 Where to generate even more reflected sound. Decca would cover the remaining seats with reflective plastic.

3 By adding two dB to the treble, cutting 10dB from the bass, and inserting each mike hard left or hard right into the soundstage.

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---above: Inside the Studer multitrack back-up recorder, 1969.

Making Space

Parry’s and Lock’s deployment of air mikes in Los Angeles lasted just one year. In their place, there came another solution to the Royce’s dryness, one that did not originate in the auditorium at all, but from beneath its stage. There in a small basement Green Room, Lock and Parry would install a pair of Tannoy loudspeakers and two KM-53 microphones that from 1968 until the mid-1970s would provide the “space” Royce’s volume itself could not furnish [The use of space mikes was restored during the 1975 sessions.]. In Los Angeles as in Vienna, Parry believed that if echo had to be used at all, it should be done at the sessions, where its effect could be judged from piece to piece, and where choices about its use could be made and altered as conditions dictated.

Under normal circumstances, echo was used only to enhance the microphones which furnished the “big picture” of the orchestra; though just what type of micro phones those were naturally depended on the piece of music being recorded. In 1968, for instance, seven of 20 micro phones deployed for Strauss’s Also sSprach Zarathustra received treatment: Three principle wind mikes, the Tree’s left and right pickups, all of which were brought into the mixer at roughly the same overall loudness, and the bell and harp, which were mixed in at much lower levels. For Ein Heldenleben, there was a new set of key mikes, beginning as before with the wind pickups and left/right Tree mikes, but this time adding the solo violin, two horn mikes, and the harp. And for some pieces, such as the small ensemble of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, there was no distinction be tween overall and detail microphones, leading the crew to add Green Room echo to each of the eight microphones deployed for this work.

Making Impact

To the unpracticed eye, and perhaps to the uninformed ear, Parry’s use of 20 microphones to record Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra in 1968—when only three had sufficed to make the classic Reiner/Chicago version just 12 years earlier—may seem like nothing more than technical and musical overkill. Yet Decca’s technique in Los Angeles was neither new nor unprecedented; classical recording throughout the 19605, stimulated by both consumer demand and by mixing and manipulating devices designed for opera recording, had for everyone except Mercury become an inexorable quest for greater and greater immediacy and impact. Of course, the quickest way to get immediacy was to put microphones close to the instruments you wanted to hear; yet by this standard alone, we ought to be celebrating the wonders of Ormandy in Philadelphia in the 1960s, not the wonders of Decca in Los Angeles.

To celebrate what Decca did in Los Angeles, and to understand how even the less-than-wonderful records created there were made, we need to look at how Dec ca’s team, led at first by Gordon Parry and Jimmy Lock, and later by Kenneth Wilkin son and others, handled two factors which, aside from the hall, could make or break their records: the microphones and the mixing.

The Microphones

If there was one routine common to all Decca sessions, it was the absence of a routine. In recording orchestral music there was, of course, the Tree and its Outriggers, though even in this fundamental choice, there were sessions in Los Angeles that had no Tree at all, but instead a panorama of six Neumann M-50 microphones running from left to the right across the front of the orchestra for general coverage and to high light the first and second violins, violas and celli.

Yet if there is a remarkable consistency in the choice of M-50s for these positions, which today are still occupied by micro phones identical to the ones used then, there was much less consistency in the wide variety of pickups placed at other locations on the stereo stage. At the earliest Los Angeles sessions these microphones would commonly be Neumann KM-53s, KM-56s, and M-64s, along with an occasional M-49, whose lower sensitivity made it ideal for fronting the orchestral brass section. By the middle 1970s, however, Decca was using Neumann’s new generation of microphones, including the KM-83 and 84 and the KM-88, in practically all spot microphoning positions.

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As in 1970, when Parry and Colin Moorfoot recorded Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces.

83s and 84s were also tried experimentally as Tree and Outriggers in 1975, operating simultaneously at the same positions as the normal M 50s and fed to spare channels on a multi-track Studer A-80.

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There was always a variety of reasons why a particular microphone was chosen for its place in the spot microphone mix. And while pickup patterns and sensitivity necessarily had their place in these equations, it was above all the way a microphone sounded in relation to the instruments it was directed towards that determined where it was to be used. There was no question, of course, that each of these microphones did indeed have a distinctive sound, but it was a sound that was the beginning and not the end of the pick up process. More often than not, the final sound of a microphone in a mix depended on the equalization applied to it, whether to lightly brighten a woodwind pickup by a decibel or two and reduce its bass content by the same degree, or to change with more drastic sonic surgery the sound of percussion microphones using much more severe treble boosts and bass cuts to accommodate their more specialized and distinctive role.

The Mix

The subject of equalization takes us directly into mixing, and thus to the final stage of producing a stereo sound picture. By 1967, Decca’s stereo sound was no longer governed exclusively by where a microphone was placed in a hall or whether it was assigned on the left, center, or right on a three-to-two channel mixer. The choice of where a microphone was to be heard, as well as what its sound would be like, now rested in the mixer.

In combination, these two factors—the ability to alter the sound and its stereo placement—were an irresistible temptation to produce flawed results: One only has to hear what the same combination, albeit with different microphones, halls—and a far different philosophy—produced at RCA and Columbia during exactly the same years. Yet the final result of a Decca session, while more often than not betraying the use of many microphones, usually did not sound over-processed or “made in the mixer”; instead it revealed an attractive combination of immediacy and space that was the hallmark of the Decca sound.

It was rare for any outside observers (aside from the musicians themselves) to be allowed to peek behind the scenes as Decca engineers and producers created this sound. It was even more rare for some one to become not simply an auditor but a kind of colleague, recording the identical music from the same performances while the Decca crew recorded their own. Precisely this arrangement occurred twice in Los Angeles. The name of the invitee was Dr. Keith O. Johnson; the invitation came from none other than Gordon Parry.


Above: Decca STORM mixer, with Tannoy and “Voice of the Theatre” monitors, 1969

Parry was introduced to Johnson through his own involvement with a Los Angeles- based rock band. Johnson was invited to bring along his Ampex three-track recorder and some modified Sennheiser mikes to the Royce sessions, make some tapes, and hear what they sounded like.

There was, indeed, a “world of difference” between the “very, very distant” sound of Johnson’s three-tracks, recorded with Mercury-like faithfulness, one mike to a channel, and what Parry was doing. “Everything Decca did was new to me,” Johnson recalls, but what surely must have been most novel of all was “how good the sound was with the number of mikes” Parry had on stage. Here, of course, was the key to Decca’s extraordinary ability to seem at the same time both close to and a comfortable distance away from an orchestra:

this illusion was founded on an overall pick up from a small set of orchestral and wind mikes, and on just the right number and type of spot microphones, whose placement in the mix provided the liveness needed to tell the ear (when the eye could not see) just where an instrument stood in an orchestral texture. [With mixes always destined directly for two stereo tracks. That Decca routinely used multi- track backups in Los Angeles after 1969—even made SQ-Quad therein 1973—never altered this principle.]

Part of the reason for Decca’s success, of course, was owed to Roy Wallace’s superbly designed modular STORM mixer. And even if the Tannoy monitor speakers sounded awful to Johnson, Decca’s crew knew exactly how to hear in and through them to the sound they wanted.

How It All Fit In

If there is one reaction common to everyone who worked in Los Angeles from 1967 to 1978, it is that what Decca did there was nothing special or Out of the ordinary. These words can have multiple meanings, and we must recognize that every record made in LA, as with every record made elsewhere, was not always destined for greatness. Like his colleagues, Gordon Parry found Los Angeles a delightful place to work. Yet when asked, he declines to single out any Los Angeles record he made as better than any of the others. And it is Parry who most clearly asserts that “that particular repertoire with that particular orchestra in that particular place” might have been far better done by Mehta in the city and with the orchestra Parry knew best, that is, in Vienna.

Whatever they may have felt about it, Decca’s work at other times and in other places employed exactly the same tools and techniques—and aimed for the same results—as what they did in Los Angeles. Details such as air mikes, multitrack back up recorders, stage extensions and micro phone equalization, both on the console and on a separate graphic unit, were found both in London and elsewhere in Decca’s domain. If the Los Angeles recordings con firm anything, they confirm this consistency, and it is through their slices of time that we can enjoy and appreciate not only what Zubin Mehta and his orchestra accomplished there, but what Decca did there, too.

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A Ho(l)st of Planets

There can be few better comparisons in the early 1970s between the styles of a Decca and an EMI than their recordings of Holst’s gigantic suite The Planets. It was these two versions—highly regarded by collectors—that represented twin peaks of achievement in the golden age of analogue recordings.


---above: Zubin Mehta conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Hoist offers those who seek to capture his vision several extraordinary challenges: a large orchestra, an organ and in the final movement, a wordless female chorus. Yet rather than using all these forces together at once, Holst employs them selectively, sometimes forcefully and sometimes tenderly, in keeping with the characters he has set Out to depict.

What’s remarkable about the depiction of Holst’s music by EMI’s Christopher Parker and Decca’s Jimmy Lock and Olin Moor- foot is how many characteristics they share. a conclusion we should expect from separate confrontations with the challenges of

[Mehta ‘s on Decca SXL6529 and London CS 6734. Previns with the London Symphony]

the same piece of music When differences do occur, they occur in the details, created not just by two different venues in UCLA’s Royce and London s Kingsway Halls, but by the capabilities of equipment philosophies for using it, and by the mixing and disc cut ting processes that each company followed in making records. We expect, of course, to see Decca using more microphones (four to be exact) than EMI, yet we can also see it we look and listen closely a surprising correlation between main string and wind mikes between percussion and other detailed pick ups, that bring the sound of these recordings, made with orchestras laid out in almost the identical configuration, surprisingly close together.

There were, and still are, other ways to record this music as we can hear when we listen to Holst from Ormandy or Bernstein or from an earlier day with Karajan on Decca or Sir Malcolm Sargent on EMI What they tell us is that there was indeed a gold en age of sound, and that we are no longer in it.

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ALSO SEE: Decca Digital (1978!!!)

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Updated: Thursday, 2016-12-22 17:21 PST