Long live that Mercury Living Presence sound.
UMG/Decca Classics has just released the second official, limited-edition vinyl reissue box-set containing five classic Mercury recordings pressed onto 180gram vinyl. This “Collector’s Edition” includes original artwork, quality packaging, and excellent liner notes containing Michael Grey’s essay on the history of MLP and an article by Thomas Fine detailing the Fine microphone technique (originally published in Tape Op Magazine).
There have been volumes written about the legendary MLP sound, specifically the three-microphone stereo recordings produced between 1956 and 1967. So, I will limit myself to the specifics of this particular box-set. The two essays included in the box-set provide detailed information that any Mercury enthusiast, or novice, will enjoy. Both essays revolve around the same axis; the Mercury recording team, led by Robert Fine and Wilma Cozart, took great pride in the quality of their recordings, cutting no corners to achieve the sound they desired. (Listening to these new Mercury LPs, I realize how much pride recording engineers must have felt for their products during the early days of stereo.)
Mercury LPs have always been known for their wide dynamics and lively presence. When Mercury went stereo, Mr. Fine fed his three-microphones into Ampex 300-3, three-channel tape machines. Two individual machines were always employed for stereo, resulting in A and B tapes – both first generation, just in case one tape was damaged – and another pair of tape machines used explicitly for mono (using the signal from the center microphone alone). Once Mr. Fine had set the microphones to the desired location, typically hung on ropes, the orchestral dynamics and balance would be in the hands of the conductor. Thus, the three-channel tapes were actuallythe “master tape”. To realize a stereo LP from these tapes, the three-channels would be directly mixed down to the first generation lacquer (this is the 3-to-2 mixdown process that Mercury always employed). When this master lacquer was being cut, Wilma Cozart (the original musical producer) would perform the (three-channel-to-two-channel) mixdown as if a live event.
This is as good a time as any to mention that the LPs in this box-set have been sourced from the digital masters made by Wilma Cozart Fine. Yes, the original tapes still exist, but that would mean someone besides the original producer would have to perform the “live” 3-to-2 mix-down. Second generation stereo masters were made when the original LPs were cut, and these are what Speakers Corner used as a source for their reissues, but these contain an added amount of tape hiss because they are second generation (the additional noise coming from the source alone). According to Tom Fine (son of Wilma Cozart and Robert Fine), the reissue team, including producer Raymond McGill, decided that “it was better to use the highest resolution 3-2 mix from the original producer” for these new LPs, and that is exactly what they did.
In 1989, Wilma Cozart Fine started working with mastering engineer Dennis Drake to make digital masters of the Mercury recordings. After a year of research and testing, Cozart Fine finally found a digital recording chain that was up to her exacting standards. Cozart Fine used the first generation three-track source (either ½” tape or 35mm), played through the same Westrex mixing console she had used to mix the original LPs decades earlier. The analog signal was sent through a dCS 9000 analog-to-digital converter at 24-bit/44.1kHz, then sent to a Harmonia Mundi Acoustica digital buss (with a re-dither module by Weiss Engineering) with an output of 16-bit/44.1kHz sent to a Sony 1630 recorder and eventually stored on U-Matic videotape. Therefore, the digital mix was first generation; no post-production editing or outboard effects used in the entire process. At some point in time, the master 1630 U-Matic tapes were converted and stored on hard drives. These are the last stereo mixes ever made by Cozart Fine and these have been used for all Mercury Living Presence CDs and the first vinyl reissue; the Collectors Edition Box-Set #1. (Around 125 discs were released between 1990 and 1999.) 
After listening to these new LPs (and the Speakers Corner reissues), I can see why audiophile-quality reissues of Mercury Living Presence vinyl would be desirable. Although an original pressing captures that classic Mercury sound, there are noticeable weaknesses that have nothing to do with the recordings themselves and have everything to do with the quality of the vinyl technologies of the day (not to mention the poor monitoring systems). Of course, there will be analog freaks who will question the use of digital masters and I must admit that I love AAA recordings, but there is no replacement for the accuracy and authenticity of the mix. And the new LPs happen to sound incredible.
The LPs in this set were cut by Maarten de Boer (who also cut the first Collectors Edition box-set LPs) at Emil Berliner Studios in Hanover, Germany. All of the LPs in this collection benefit from an increased clarity, improved dynamic range, and a more developed lower register.
Vienna 1908-1914. SCHOENBERG: Five Pieces for Orchestra. WEBERN: Five Pieces for Orchestra. BERG: Three Pieces for Orchestra. London Symphony Orchestra, Dorati (cond.). [Wilma Cozart, recording director; C. Robert Fine, recording engineer and technical supervisor; Harold Lawrence, musical supervisor]. Mercury SR 90316
This is one of my favorite sounding Mercury recordings. Recorded onto 35mm magnetic film at the Watford Town Hall outside London, the sound is rich and dense. And on this new LP, the depth of information that Robert Fine captured is on full display. The 35mm film has incredible low noise floor (little to no tape hiss evident) and therefore all you get is the music. This LP has already been reissued by Speakers Corner – using the second generation tapes for the source – and the sound of that LP is spectacular with improved bottom end and a barrage of detail. The increased clarity of the new reissue gives you the tone, clarity, and detail that makes this recording so special. Although I found that the Speakers Corner version was a bit more developed in the lower register, the new pressing is not far behind. The textures are rich and sculpted and everything is heard with heightened clarity.
All three compositions on this LP will test the uninitiated. The Schoenberg piece is a great introduction to this modern, and often challenging, composer. The individual pieces are of a rhythmical nature and complex. Webern’s Five Pieces, are expressive miniatures; short, inventive, and angular. My favorite piece on this LP is the Berg composition. An extremely wide and deep soundstage is heard on Three Pieces for Orchestra, letting you experience the music as if you were standing on the podium next to Dorati. The percussion will thrill, but I just can’t stop falling in love with the rich and present textures of the harmonic instruments. This LP is a must have for any Classical lover; don’t let the experimental nature of these compositions scare you off. Listen to this LP a few times, especially the Berg, and you will be hooked.
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92. London Symphony Orchestra, Dorati (cond.). [Wilma Cozart, recording director; C. Robert Fine, recording engineer and technical supervisor; Harold Lawrence, musical supervisor]. Mercury SR 90523
The original LP of this recording was recorded in 1963, but wasn’t released until years later. Unfortunately, the pressing quality on the original is sub-par by any standard. The peaks are shrill, the strings thin-sounding, and the upper midrange bloated. The new LP reveals deeply textured instruments throughout the recording, especially in the lower midrange. The strings are romantic and smooth. The amount of detail and clarity of the soundstage make the original LP a joke in comparison. Dynamics are plentiful and this presentation far better suits Dorati’s gentle interpretation of this mostly upbeat symphony. The second movement is the real gem here, not only because of the warm sound of the string section, but because of Dorati’s steady hand. If you’ve only heard the original LP (the CD sounds great), you’ve never heard the complexities held within this recording.
Paris 1917-1938. MILHAUD: Le Boeuf sur le Toit. FRANCAIX: Concertino for Piano and Orchestra. AURIC: Ouverture. SATIE: Parade. London Symphony Orchestra, Dorati (cond.). [Howard Lawrence, recording director; Robert Eberenz, recording engineer and technical supervisor]. Mercury SR-90435
This Mercury is a collection of uncomplicated, light-hearted compositions by post-WWI French composers. The cover is cool, but the selections are unmemorable. And although the music is pleasant and never awful, I can do without this LP in my collection. However, I must admit that I listened long enough to hear that the original pressing pales in comparison with the new one. A widening of the soundstage and improved detail makes this pressing more enjoyable; from a sonic standpoint, that is.
SAINT-SAENS: Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 “Organ”. Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Paray (cond.), Marcel Dupre (organ). [Wilma Cozart, recording director; C. Robert Fine, recording engineer and technical supervisor; Harold Lawrence, musical supervisor]. Mercury SR 90012
Perhaps one of the first “full-range” stereo LP Mercury ever released, this recording of the “Organ” symphony is a sonic treasure. Mercury’s masterful recording techniques endowed this recording with spectacular full range frequency response, outstanding dynamics, and the stereo spread fully developed. Paray’s reading is lovely, and DuPre’s organ virtuosity unrivaled. We compared the new pressing with a few original LPs to hear the difference and this new pressing is not only quieter, allowing you to experience all the details, it sounds fuller, and with improved bottom-end providing the organ the depth it requires. Because this pressing is so clean, the soundstage is more developed than the original, and this is a good thing, as you can experience the realistic instrument placement that Fine was able to capture; the unrestrained power of the orchestra. The performance on this LP will make you fall in love with this symphony.
CHADWICK: Symphonic Sketches. Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, Hanson (cond.). [Wilma Cozart, executive producer; C. Robert Fine, recording engineer and technical supervisor; David Hall, musical director]. Mercury SR-90018
Perhaps the most bizarre, and frightening, LP cover in the Mercury collection, this Mercury is a fine recording of the American composer, George Whitefield Chadwick’s most well-known piece. Delightful music, but not much depth here. The saving grace is the second movement, the “Noel” section – a romantic theme that stays its course. Slow moving chords showcase the improved dynamics and rich tonal palate on the new LP, especially on the English horn solo which is heard with a most natural location within the orchestra. The soundstage is deep and wide on the entire LP. Hanson knew Chadwick personally and his thoughtful treatment of the composition is perhaps the best on record. Great sound throughout, immediate and never washed out. The original sounds thin and narrow. The sonics on this new reissue, like the Sessions/McPhee LP, are far superior than the original pressings in terms of clarity and dynamic stereo presentation.
SESSIONS: The Black Masters (Orchestral Suite). MCPHEE: Tabuh-Tabuhan (Tocatta for Orchestra). Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, Hanson (cond.). [Wilma Cozart, executive producer; C. Robert Fine, recording engineer and technical supervisor; David Hall, recording director]. Mercury SR-90103.
Originally written in 1923 for a small orchestra, The Black Maskers Orchestral Suite (1928), was intended to be incidental music for a performance at Smith College. The music was rearranged 1928 by the composer for a larger orchestra and with the eight original episodes condensed into four. On this lovely recording, the first thing you notice is that the instruments are located in a realistic perspective within the orchestra; the trumpets, the bass flute, the viola solo, everything is where it should be. As with all the other pressings in this collection, lower register information is richly textured; especially on the growling bass section at the start of the second episode and the powerful organ chords of the finale. These deep tones will test any system and on the right system, the organ is something to witness.
From the get-go, the McPhee recording shows off an expanded stage. The composition, Tabuh-Tabuhan, is a complex piece based on Balinese melodies. Making up what McPhee calls the “nuclear gamelan”, the core of the ensemble consists of a celesta, xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel and two pianos. McPhee also added Balinese cymbals, two Balinese gongs, triangle, bass drum, and sandpaper to the instrumentation. These percussive instruments were placed in front of the traditional Eastman orchestra, along the front of the stage.
Improved dynamics, more detail and more depth than the original LP; this pressing is also cleaner sounding and perhaps, even more full-range than ever before. This composition is epic and the complex instrumentation stretches the soundstage far and wide. The McPhee sounds better than the Sessions with its dynamic charge and highly detailed orchestration, but I prefer the Sessions musically. This new pressing is so quiet (like all the LP’s in the set) that the sound on the McPhee is nothing short of spectacular. Fine did a wonderful job capturing the wide-ranging textures of the extended orchestra and the sound of Rochester’s Eastman Theatre itself. The McPhee has long been one of HP’s favorites, and I can now see why; it’s a thrilling and explosive piece. [Ed. Note: HP, obviously, agrees heartedly.]
*Many thanks to Thomas Fine for his invaluable help and information