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The Quality Of Tape: The new transfers of Decca’s Ring recordings

sarumbear

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On the latest issue of the Sound on Sound magazine there is a piece about the legendary Decca recordings of Wagner operas from the 50s. I found the following very interesting and wanted to share with the members.

The new transfers of Decca’s Ring recordings demonstrate that, in the hands of an expert technical team, tape recording in the 1950s and early ’60s offered amazingly high fidelity. In particular, the recorded bandwidth far exceeded that of any contemporary playback system. “When I’m de‑noising, I can see all the frequencies in the spectral editor,” says Philip Siney. “When the percussion gets going, the harmonics go way above 20kHz. There’s a line whistle from the television at 45kHz that’s clearly visible! And on the bass side, I was surprised because I haven’t had to add anything at all. What’s fed to the subwoofer is completely how it was off the analogue tape. The frequencies go down to 20Hz, it’s incredible. And at the time, they were listening on Tannoy Canterburys. They wouldn’t have heard any of this!”

“You can hear all sorts of thumps from Solti on the rostrum,” adds Dominic Fyfe. “And the street that the Sofiensaal was on had trams that ran up and down. If it got in the way of your musical appreciation, we’ve taken that out. But other things, studio noises and so on, we’ve not gone over the top in just removing everything.”
 

DVDdoug

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The "bandwidth" doesn't surprise me. I don't know when 20-20kHz became achievable but by the 1960s studio equipment was getting very good. Consumer audio was way-behind. And some pro tape machines ran at 30IPS. I have lots of CDs from the analog days and most from the 1960s (or later) sound pretty good! Most recordings from the 1950s (or earlier) aren't that great.

I know they used to reduce the deep bass during mastering (and they still may do this for vinyl). I've read about The Beatles engineer (and maybe The Beatles themselves) complaining about the lack of bass and complaining that American records had more bass. I also read about the re-mastered (or maybe remixed) Led Zepplin recordings where the bass was retained, whereas the original CD releases had come from the same master with limited bass that was used for the original vinyl.

The Beatles did a lot of layering and the engineers were concerned about noise build-up. I don't really notice tape noise on Beatles CDs but I'm not really trying to hear it either.

I'm sure I've heard some CDs where you can hear the tape kick-in but I don't know of one offhand. I even remember some vinyl records where I could hear the tape hiss kick-in (when listening on headphones).
 

MaxwellsEq

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Analogue tape uses a high frequency bias at > 100kHz to avoid magnet hysteresis. A recently developed technology recovers this frequency to improve remastering (which I think is a stroke of genius and a game changer). See https://www.plangentprocesses.com/

So very high frequencies survive on analogue tape. But, there's no guarantee that the studio console was accurate above 20kHz (I don't recall ever testing a console or tape machine above 20kHz) and the studio monitors definitely were not. So there's no guarantee that what's stored on the tapes is properly balanced.
 

AdamG247

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The "bandwidth" doesn't surprise me. I don't know when 20-20kHz became achievable but by the 1960s studio equipment was getting very good. Consumer audio was way-behind. And some pro tape machines ran at 30IPS. I have lots of CDs from the analog days and most from the 1960s (or later) sound pretty good! Most recordings from the 1950s (or earlier) aren't that great.

I know they used to reduce the deep bass during mastering (and they still may do this for vinyl). I've read about The Beatles engineer (and maybe The Beatles themselves) complaining about the lack of bass and complaining that American records had more bass. I also read about the re-mastered (or maybe remixed) Led Zepplin recordings where the bass was retained, whereas the original CD releases had come from the same master with limited bass that was used for the original vinyl.

The Beatles did a lot of layering and the engineers were concerned about noise build-up. I don't really notice tape noise on Beatles CDs but I'm not really trying to hear it either.

I'm sure I've heard some CDs where you can hear the tape kick-in but I don't know of one offhand. I even remember some vinyl records where I could hear the tape hiss kick-in (when listening on headphones).
I read somewhere, can’t remember where. And correct me if I am recalling incorrectly. With Vinyl anyway, deep note bass content used up a greater amount of space of Vinyl capacity. To get more tracks on each side the amount of bass had and was routinely reduced/minimized. The bass notes required deeper and wider cuts, therefore taking up more space and thusly reducing the run time available. I don’t remember the specifics but iirc deep bass notes used up 2 to 3 times the space/storage/run time for a side. I very well could be recalling this incorrectly however.
 
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sarumbear

sarumbear

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I read somewhere, can’t remember where. And correct me if I am recalling incorrectly. With Vinyl anyway, deep note bass content used up a greater amount of space of Vinyl capacity. To get more tracks on each side the amount of bass had and was routinely reduced/minimized. The bass notes required deeper and wider cuts, therefore taking up more space and thusly reducing the run time available. I don’t remember the specifics but iirc deep bass notes used up 2 to 3 times the space/storage/run time for a side. I very well could be recalling this incorrectly however.
You remember correctly. Similarly in stereo recordings lower frequencies were blended to create a mono bass as stereo bass accentuated the grove issue you mentioned.
 

DSJR

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Decca used to use their own tape alignment curves one of their mastering engineers (and a now old friend) told me (he did a lot of the 1950's recordings for their 1990's mid price CD issues) and he had doubts as to how third parties would get the precise sound balance the producer signed off. Some of these recordings do sound amazing still he showed me and he was always careful to never eq or process the hell out of the transfers he did, only once or twice where the tape was damaged or on one piece, where the tape was spiced too close to the beginning of a quiet introduction, leaving a 'plop' just as the music started.

Now maybe today, with a fully serviced tape machine set up very carefully, maybe you can get stupendous hf response, but in Decca's mastering rooms where the resident Studers were used all day (and evening?), the 15khz alignment tone was adjusted when mastering until the heads were so worn there was no more adjustment. Only then were the heads re-lapped or replaced. Most tapes I believe, were 15IPS 1/4" reels, but maybe some were half or even one inch at 30IPS, I don't know... Got to say I'm fully against no-noise style of noise reduction as it's so often done heavy-handed or at least used to be.
 
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anmpr1

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The article is a bit weaselly. I only read what was offered on their Website, so maybe the entire article (in the magazine) explains all the facts in detail. I certainly don't want to disparage an outfit like Decca, or their 'visionary' producer Culshaw [/sarc]. I might have it all wrong, so I don't want to do that.

From the article:

It is easy to forget that in 1958, when this project started, recording opera in stereo was still in its infancy, and recording complete Wagner operas in the studio was almost unheard of.

What does 'almost unheard of' mean? Did someone do it earlier? And then why casually insert 'in the studio' into the argument? Is obfuscation intended? Why mix and match those words, using disjointed phrasing, unless the author's intent is to gloss? Is it too much for the author to list actual recordings, when they were made, and who made them?

The idea was to create in sound what was demanded in the score, so that you could listen at home and imagine the characters moving about on an imaginary stage, and so on. Nothing like it had been done before. When they did Rheingold in ’58, no Wagner opera had been recorded complete in stereo.

Nothing? I guess it depends upon what 'like it before' means. Kielberth's '55 Bayreuth was recorded in stereo, but canned by Decca's brass. It was an actual performance, so listeners at home didn't have to 'imagine characters moving about on an imaginary stage'. The author's 'and so on' is risible, within an historic context.

Scuttlebutt on the cutting floor had it that Culshaw, the article's point of fawning, used his political influence to opportunistically trashcan the first stereo recording, because he didn't want the competition. If that is the case, then what a bad joke it's become.

As far as the actual recording? One ought to check The Golden Ring video program, which is certainly worthwhile viewing. How the engineers spliced tapes from multiple takes in order to 'create' a 'complete' opera. Really, a 'pop' recording. And although it's difficult to tell from the program, watching the tape splicing doesn't look like the tape is running at either15 or 30 ips, but more like 7 ips. Again, it's difficult to tell from just watching. However, I wonder what generation of dub was used for the actual completed 'master'?
 
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sarumbear

sarumbear

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As far as the actual recording? One ought to check The Golden Ring video program, which is certainly worthwhile viewing. How the engineers spliced tapes from multiple takes in order to 'create' a 'complete' opera. Really, a 'pop' recording.
You hit the nail on the head. Opera is the pop phenomenon of the 16th - 18th centuries. I like this bit from the opera history wiki. Replace "opera" with "pop" and it is still true :)

As a multidisciplinary genre, opera brings together music, singing, dance, theater, scenography, performance, costumes, makeup, hairdressing and other artistic disciplines. It is therefore a work of collective creation, which essentially starts from a librettist and a composer, and where the vocal performers have a primordial role, but where the musicians and the conductor, the dancers, the creators of the sets and costumes, and many other figures are equally essential. On the other hand, it is a social event, so it has no reason to exist without an audience to witness the show. For this very reason, it has been over time a reflection of the various currents of thought, political and philosophical, religious and moral, aesthetic and cultural, peculiar to the society where the plays were produced.
 

voodooless

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But, there's no guarantee that the studio console was accurate above 20kHz (I don't recall ever testing a console or tape machine above 20kHz) and the studio monitors definitely were not. So there's no guarantee that what's stored on the tapes is properly balanced.
Well, obviously not. Besides not knowing what the technology could do above 20 kHz back then, people don't hear it, so you have no way to properly mix the content anyway ;)
 

Blumlein 88

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The article is a bit weaselly. I only read what was offered on their Website, so maybe the entire article (in the magazine) explains all the facts in detail. I certainly don't want to disparage an outfit like Decca, or their 'visionary' producer Culshaw [/sarc]. I might have it all wrong, so I don't want to do that.

From the article:

It is easy to forget that in 1958, when this project started, recording opera in stereo was still in its infancy, and recording complete Wagner operas in the studio was almost unheard of.

What does 'almost unheard of' mean? Did someone do it earlier? And then why casually insert 'in the studio' into the argument? Is obfuscation intended? Why mix and match those words, using disjointed phrasing, unless the author's intent is to gloss? Is it too much for the author to list actual recordings, when they were made, and who made them?

The idea was to create in sound what was demanded in the score, so that you could listen at home and imagine the characters moving about on an imaginary stage, and so on. Nothing like it had been done before. When they did Rheingold in ’58, no Wagner opera had been recorded complete in stereo.

Nothing? I guess it depends upon what 'like it before' means. Kielberth's '55 Bayreuth was recorded in stereo, but canned by Decca's brass. It was an actual performance, so listeners at home didn't have to 'imagine characters moving about on an imaginary stage'. The author's 'and so on' is risible, within an historic context.

Scuttlebutt on the cutting floor had it that Culshaw, the article's point of fawning, used his political influence to opportunistically trashcan the first stereo recording, because he didn't want the competition. If that is the case, then what a bad joke it's become.

As far as the actual recording? One ought to check The Golden Ring video program, which is certainly worthwhile viewing. How the engineers spliced tapes from multiple takes in order to 'create' a 'complete' opera. Really, a 'pop' recording. And although it's difficult to tell from the program, watching the tape splicing doesn't look like the tape is running at either15 or 30 ips, but more like 7 ips. Again, it's difficult to tell from just watching. However, I wonder what generation of dub was used for the actual completed 'master'?
The first LP's in stereo happened in late 1957. It would be middle of 1958 before most companies were offering any stereo LPs. Stereo recordings had been made prior to that at least as early as 1950 in some numbers though not available to purchase. The earlier one you refer to was a recording of a live performance and it was felt not good enough according to those involved. Too many extraneous noises. Were there some internal politics involved? Who knows and there almost always is. I don't see that as reason to take this Culshaw result to task. Nor call his comments risible in any reasonable historic context.
 

Blumlein 88

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Well, obviously not. Besides not knowing what the technology could do above 20 kHz back then, people don't hear it, so you have no way to properly mix the content anyway ;)
/sarc on What an oversight. You don't think they should play things at half speed and master for up to 40 khz? I mean humans may mutate to have better hearing or more likely future genetic manipulation may create humans with hearing to 40 khz. Don't they need to be considered for any recording made? /sarc off
 

anmpr1

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The earlier one you refer to was a recording of a live performance and it was felt not good enough according to those involved.
Well... that was one excuse given. I first encountered that argument when, pretty much like everyone else, I became aware of the Bayreuth recording. Which was when Testament released the discs. Years later. Which raises another question--why was the thing in the can for so long? I mean, how much milk was that Solti cash cow supposed to give?

But I never did, and still don't buy it. Think about it... live mono recordings were nothing exceptional. Most were not sonic gems, but they were readily available. From a marketing angle, there was no reason that a unique stereo version of a live recording (unique because it was the only one in existence)--even one that might not have been a sonic firework, couldn't have been successfully marketed. And every reason to believe it could have been a money maker. At least as far as Wagner opera is ever a money maker.

Look, I wasn't there at the round table discussion, but reports suggesting hurt and offended egos along with corporate shenanigans based on politics and greed are, to me, a much better explanation than casually reporting that the recording wasn't 'good enough', so we're just going to chunk it.

In fact, the recording is not bad at all, certainly within the context of a live Bayreuth performance, and definitely in the context of period monophonic releases that it would have competed with.

At the end of the day what do we have? If these sordid tales from the crypt are true, then my estimation of Solti, Culshaw, and Decca is not very high. Judy would find them guilty of a crime against high art, and Dread would have executed them on the spot.

As far as the article goes? Whenever you read anything like this you have to ask yourself, "What is the point?" If the point is simply to advertise a new remaster, you don't expect any of what we are discussing to be mentioned. Why would it? On the other hand, if the point of the article is to 'set the record straight' within an historical context, then you expect all angles to be discussed.

In the case of Sound On Sound magazine, my guess is that what is being offered is simply their take on a paid advertisement--either direct monetary, or in-kind. In fact, that is, by the way, one reason you read 'record reviews' in hi-fi magazines. Aczel once mentioned that if he didn't write reviews, the free records would stop. Maybe that was just him? I'd be interested to know just how wide spread the freebies spread across the spectrum.

In any case, the article is not meant to be a serious discussion of the issues involved. Reminds me of the scene from that Christmas movie, when the kid deciphers the secret code, discovering that it's just a reminder for him to drink his Ovaltine.

crummycommercial.jpg
 

Blumlein 88

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Well... that was one excuse given. I first encountered that argument when, pretty much like everyone else, I became aware of the Bayreuth recording. Which was when Testament released the discs. Years later. Which raises another question--why was the thing in the can for so long? I mean, how much milk was that Solti cash cow supposed to give?

But I never did, and still don't buy it. Think about it... live mono recordings were nothing exceptional. Most were not sonic gems, but they were readily available. From a marketing angle, there was no reason that a unique stereo version of a live recording (unique because it was the only one in existence)--even one that might not have been a sonic firework, couldn't have been successfully marketed. And every reason to believe it could have been a money maker. At least as far as Wagner opera is ever a money maker.

Look, I wasn't there at the round table discussion, but reports suggesting hurt and offended egos along with corporate shenanigans based on politics and greed are, to me, a much better explanation than casually reporting that the recording wasn't 'good enough', so we're just going to chunk it.

In fact, the recording is not bad at all, certainly within the context of a live Bayreuth performance, and definitely in the context of period monophonic releases that it would have competed with.

At the end of the day what do we have? If these sordid tales from the crypt are true, then my estimation of Solti, Culshaw, and Decca is not very high. Judy would find them guilty of a crime against high art, and Dread would have executed them on the spot.

As far as the article goes? Whenever you read anything like this you have to ask yourself, "What is the point?" If the point is simply to advertise a new remaster, you don't expect any of what we are discussing to be mentioned. Why would it? On the other hand, if the point of the article is to 'set the record straight' within an historical context, then you expect all angles to be discussed.

In the case of Sound On Sound magazine, my guess is that what is being offered is simply their take on a paid advertisement--either direct monetary, or in-kind. In fact, that is, by the way, one reason you read 'record reviews' in hi-fi magazines. Aczel once mentioned that if he didn't write reviews, the free records would stop. Maybe that was just him? I'd be interested to know just how wide spread the freebies spread across the spectrum.

In any case, the article is not meant to be a serious discussion of the issues involved. Reminds me of the scene from that Christmas movie, when the kid deciphers the secret code, discovering that it's just a reminder for him to drink his Ovaltine.

View attachment 232808
We aren't in a position to know all the details that went on and obviously therefore not in a position to pass judgement on much. I'm not one to judge morality or ethics of bygone eras based upon how things are today. I'm not an expert in the time period to know what moral or ethical sensibilities were in effect at the time. Such a hard core reaction to an article about this seems way over blown to me. I don't even see the point of it honestly. Sound On Sound is probably the only magazine in that field which is holding any credibility. All others I know of are only puff pieces that in fact are nothing other than commercials for the labels and gear companies. Sound on Sound can be that part of the time too.

One thing that comes to mind is the success of Stereo was in no way assured in 1957-58. You were asking people to buy two channels of everything instead of one. It could have turned out like 5.1 surround which has survived, but never been more than a niche which never became a dominant format for music. So if you have a couple recordings you might be hesitant to put your less than best foot forward for your first stereo release of something like the Ring. So saying it wasn't bad in context of being a live recording in a mono world is rather faint praise for something being considered in the very dawn of stereo releases.

As for your opinion of Solti, Decca, and Culshaw, their reps don't hinge on this one recording. They earned a solid rep over a longer period of time.
 

anmpr1

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The suspects involved in the suppression (or, if you prefer, the forgetfulness) of the first stereo Ring was not as simple as I remembered it. But I'm a simple thinker, and an allowance must be made for that. Yet what I wrote was not far off from the truth--at least the truth as reported by those involved, when they were alive. Perhaps the best synopsis is Mike Ashman's notes from the Testament release, and ought to be reviewed by anyone interested. After combing through them we discover:

Culshaw was not interested in pushing the first Decca stereo recording. In fact, he actively lobbied against it. Why? He told producer Kenneth Wilkinson that he just didn't like Bayreuth, and found live recordings 'messy'. Wilkinson recounts how they recorded the cycle using what we'd call 'minimalist' miking technique--with overall very good sound quality. Co-engineer Roy Wallace reminisced how he fully expected the cycle to be released, as he had essentially finished the edits, but Culshaw (who had returned from the States after a stint with Capitol) was frankly uninterested. Culshaw, as a 'modernist' (Wallace's words) wanted to produce his own studio recording in stereo, and that was that.

But there were also legal reasons against the release. Corporate shenanigans between Teldec/Decca and Columbia/EMI over claimed exclusive Bayreuth recording rights, along with dealing with the personalities of Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner. Walter Legge (Columbia's chief producer) wanted complete control over the venue's live recordings, and held close exclusive contracts with principal singers--a situation that complicated matters greatly.

Could all of this have been worked out if Culshaw had given a thumbs up, and if Legge had been on board? One can, of course, wonder about sub rosa motives, or just take it at face value. Or mix and match.

However it was, it's out there for anyone who cares.
 

anmpr1

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So saying it wasn't bad in context of being a live recording in a mono world is rather faint praise for something being considered in the very dawn of stereo releases. As for your opinion of Solti, Decca, and Culshaw, their reps don't hinge on this one recording. They earned a solid rep over a longer period of time.
I didn't mean it that way, for sure. What I meant was that the recording was (still is) very good, certainly for a live recording, and certainly of a quality that any record company would have been proud to release at that time--especially given that everything else out there was monophonic. At least any record company that wasn't under the thumb of Culshaw (and now it's said, Walter Legge). I give Solti a pass since I can't find anything to indicate his opinion otherwise, and thus owe his musical spirit an apology for including him in the sordid mess.

So we have Culshaw and Legge to thank for keeping a wonderful recording down. Did they redeem themselves with their other productions? I'm all for rehabilitation, but given the seriousness of their aesthetic crime, would have deferred final judgement to Dredd.

In any case, after Culshaw left the scene, one can still rightly wonder why Decca didn't make much of an effort to uncover and release the recording. I'm sure legal wrangling was still a factor.
 

julian_hughes

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It's a nice coincidence seeing this thread today. Today on my Qobuz subscription I listened to some recordings I didn't know and one had a lot of hiss. Otherwise it sounded great and I really enjoyed it. It was mono which I usually don't like, but this was so good I didn't even notice for a while. When I read the accompanying booklet I found out that it had been taped off the radio by a recording enthusiast who use pro recording equipment to capture live broadcasts from 1951 to 1996. His collection is amazing: https://www.wyastone.co.uk/all-labels/lyrita/itter-broadcast-collection.html
 

Leporello

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On the latest issue of the Sound on Sound magazine there is a piece about the legendary Decca recordings of Wagner operas from the 50s. I found the following very interesting and wanted to share with the members.
Amazing, YASRR (Yet Another Solti Ring Remastering) coming.
 
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