Hearing With Both Ears
JOHN M. CONLY is a former New York and Washington newspaperman, now on the staff of High Fidelity Magazine. “They Shall Have Music” is a quarterly feature in the Atlantic.
by JOHN M. CONLY
IN the antic world of audio, where Debussy is sometimes rated in decibels, and the Kreutzer Sonata in kilocycles, the last days of 1952 were marked by a sudden and almost maudlin concern over people with two cars. Down the years, it was discovered with a horrid shock, broadcasters, record makers, and phonograph designers had been ignoring this portion of the listening public. Their creative efforts had been bent wholly toward amusing and edifying the one-eared, or monaural, musiclistener. However, thanks to modern science, it was not too late to rectify this awful error.
All at once, the word (and a pretty tiresome word it can be) was binaural. Nearly all the most bone-crushingly crowded exhibits at the New York Audio Fair, where the latest homemusic gadgetry is shown each autumn, were binaural demonstrations this time. WQXR, New York, the nation’s biggest good-music station, within a week delivered two binaural broadcasts and within a month had talked an advertiser into sponsoring one every week for a year.
Two tape-recorder and three discrecord companies joined the act at once, offering binaural equipment and recordings. And the word was heard across the Atlantic. Earl’s Court, site of the nineteenth British radio exposition, also acquired aural tridimensionality: a tambourine tinkled its detectable way across an apparently empty London stage; a ghostly bagpiper paraded past; a motorcycle started up and racketed away into almost palpable distance.
Indeed, no spot was inviolate. A New York manufacturer reported a request from Woods Hole marine biologists for binaural recording equipment to be used underwater.
Why so many people, all at once and independently, exhibited this sudden burning interest in binaural (or stereophonic) sound is hard to say. Certainly the theory had long been available, and previous experiments had been many. The underlying principle is fairly simple. It is based on the fact that a pair of ears constitutes a directional instrument. When a trumpet plays from the right side of a concert hall stage, its sound reaches the right ear of a listener in the audience a fraction of a second before it reaches his left ear, and with a slightly different quality. The left ear hears it a little less loudly, being blocked off by the listener’s head. It also hears it with a larger admixture of reverberation from the hall’s left wall, and in the process of reverberating the sound will have lost some of its top treble and some of its purity. Even with his eyes closed, the listener can turn his head to face the trumpet with some precision, if he wants to.
In common sound reproduction, this auditory perspective is lost. Engineers often use more than one microphone to pick up a broadcast or a recording session, but the outputs of all are blended and transmitted over one channel, or onto one tape. Nor can reproducing the result through more than one loud-speaker in the home restore the perspective, since all the speakers will emit exactly the same sound. None will advance the flute’s tones a little ahead of the French horn’s, or vice versa, as would be necessary to yield a sense of presence in the hall. However, it is possible to incorporate aural perspective in reproduced sound, and the method is obvious. It consists simply of using two microphones and duplicating every stage of the recording and reproduction. Each of the microphones feeds its own amplifier, tape track, recording cutter, reproducing amplifier, and loud-speaker. The playback loud-speakers, in the last stage, are spaced apart, more or less as the microphones were at the beginning, and yield to the listener just about what the individual microphones picked up. One delivers the flute a little louder and sooner than the Other does, and the horn a little softer and later. If everything else has been done properly, the result is soundperspective.
The earliest experimenters in binaural sound reproduction used two microphones, spaced apart the thickness of a human head, and listened to the resultant sounds through earphones. This was uncommercial, but it furnished binaural effect unsurpassed even now. Loud-speakers cannot do as well, since concerts are not normally listened to through two 15-inch portholes in a wall. But, at that, they can be surprisingly good. Also, when loud-speakers are used instead of earphones, the number of channels needn’t be limited to two (except by economics).
Actually, history’s most ambitious experiment in stereophonic reproduction was made in 1933 by Bell Telephone Laboratories, for the benefit of a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences. The Bell scientists used a three-channel wire system to transmit a concert played in Philadelphia by the Philadelphia Orchestra to Constitution Hall in Washington. Three microphones picked up the sound along the edge of the stage in the Academy of Music. Three giant tweeterwoofer loud-speaker systems, positioned to correspond with the microphones 138 miles away, delivered the music in Washington. Alexander Smallens conducted, Leopold Stokowski worked the tone controls from a box in Constitution Hall. Five booster amplifiers, apart from those in the terminal cities, were placed along the transmission line to keep ihc fidelity high. The scientists and dignitaries present pronounced the whole thing a delightful success. It must also have cost an astronomical sum of money.
There were numerous smaller experiments. In 1926 a Hartford, Connecticut, radio station, with FCC permission, used two wave-lengths for a short binaural broadcast. At least one phonograph maker tried synchronized or dual-grooved discs. Some multitrack film recording was done, too. But not until magnetic tape and FM radio came into being was there any real prospect of getting stereophonic sound out of the laboratory. FM enters the picture partly because most FM stations are also AM. By dint of separating the transmissions for their FM and AM, and feeding one with a “left ear” and the other with a “right ear” microphone, they can broadcast stereophonic sound. Anyone with an FM receiver and a separate AM radio — even a tiny portable — can space the two according to the station’s instructions and get at least a taste of auditory perspective.
In stereophonic broadcasting and recording (as in all other kinds), magnetic tape is the basic tool and all tape can be used for twin-track recording. Now two tape-recorder companies, Ampex and Magnecord, have put out two-channel recorders, the latter even offering a portable model. None of the binaural models costs anything like twice the price of its monaural equivalent, although the recording and erasing heads, and the amplifiers, have had to be installed in duplicate.
Naturally, having two-track tape recorders to work with, someone was bound to begin making binaural discrecordings in marketable quantity. To date, only one person has done so, although several labels are involved. This pioneer is Emory Cook, recording engineer and equipment maker best known for his series of spectacular “Sounds of Our Times” discs. He has produced three records under his own label (Cook Laboratories, Stamford, Conn.), another for Atlantic Records, and one for Polymusic. Three more companies are more or less committed to affiliate, the terms being that Cook attends their recording sessions and duplicates the product on binaural tape. They retain the option of publishing the two-track recordings, but if they don’t, Cook can. And even if they do, Cook does the disc-cutting for them. The repertory, thus far, is limited. Cook himself has printed stereophonic records of a grandfather clock’s ticking (this is his test record, for loud-speaker and pickup cartridge alignment), of a huge theater organ in Richmond, and of the Hufstadter singers, in very highbrow selections — baroque music on one side, very modern on the other. Polymusic has printed a piano recital by Jesus Maria Sanroma. Atlantic has printed the most successful two-track disc to date, selections by a better-thanaverage jazz band, taped in a small room abaft the 52nd Street night spot where it regularly performs.
Cook-engineered binaural discs have two bands of grooves, one starting conventionally at the outside edge, the other midway to the central blank area. They can be played by a single tone-arm, provided the arm has twin pickup cartridges, 1 1/1 1/6 inches apart and with independent vertical motion, so that they may individually ride the warp of the record. Such an arm is being manufactured by Livingston Electronics, Livingston, New Jersey. The arm is not nearly so tricky as it sounds. The only critical factors, in making it work right, are the distance between the arm pivot and the turntable spindle and the fore-and-aft alignment of the two cartridges, which naturally must play exactly the same fraction of any note at exactly the same time. (If they don’t, the result is interesting but not musical.)
All these complications and hardships are set down mainly to whet the appetite of the faithful, for the overriding fact is that, when stereophonic reproduction is successful, it is simply beyond comparison with single-channel sound. The writer of this column had opportunity to discover this for himself, while helping to prepare an exhibit for the 1952 Audio Fair, aforementioned, and a saddening experience it was. Its terminal scene involved a return to a living room virtually lined with musical masterpieces engraved on discs — and all of them irreparably monaural!
The experiment itself, having been performed by magazine editors, not engineers, was deplorably unprofessional. In fact, the only professional touch was lent by a very competent lady pianist with red hair. The microphones were dissimilar, one being an Altec Lansing, the other an ElectroVoice. The playback speakers were different, one being, again, an Altec Lansing, the other a Barker Duode (British). Neither was mounted properly; indeed, one was fastened to a baffle taped to a cardboard packing case. Heart of the procedure was a Magnecorder dual-recorder. The site was no cunningly acousticized studio, but a dignified Berkshire Hills living room.
Results, under these conditions, should have been depressingly inconclusive. The two mikes were spaced ten feet apart, six feet off the piano’s starboard quarter, so to speak, and tested for volume level. Then the pianist went to work, and in due course the twin-track tape was played back. Listeners, including a small, hostile, and articulate group of displaced wives, were instantaneously overwhelmed and converted. Beyond the wall against which the ill-housed speakers were propped, there suddenly came into being, aurally, a room with a grand piano in it. There is no other description of the phenomenon. The piano seemed just between and behind the loud-speakers.
Lessons were learned. The loudspeakers had to be spaced at least as far apart as were the microphones, and they could not he angled in, to make the sound converge; they had to be faced straight out from the wall, in parallel. Later, when transplanted to another room, the reproduction was much less vital and convincing.
It must be pointed out that music of small proportions, thus far, has fared much better in stereophonic reproduction than has more massive matter. A string quartet, aurally re-created between two loud-speakers in a living room, is convincing. A symphony orchestra is not; if it is to be made so, someone must learn the technique of microphoning from the tenth row in the auditorium, to provide a little vista between the imaginary orchestra and the actual confines of the living room. An intimate, three-dimensional condensation of the New York Philharmonic will never be quite believable.
The economics of home stereophonic sound are not unduly oppressive, if stereophonic discs are to be forthcoming. The Livingston twoheaded arm, by itself, costs no more than other precision phono-arms (and can be used for monaural discs). When two channels are used, very little power is needed for aural satisfaction. In the instance reported, two 12-watt Newcomb amplifiers — which have good, flexible controls—were used. They cost $59 each. The pickup cartridges were ordinary Pickerings.
The Altee coaxial speakers eventually chosen, excellent 12-inchers, cost $89 each. The total is less than is spent on many a fancy monaural system.
The future of binaural reproduction depends in part on the attitude of music lovers, who may be tired, by now, of novelties, however impressive. It also depends on broadcasters, record makers, and equipment manufacturers. The tape-recorder people are off to a bad start already: binaural tape recorded on Ampex cannot be played back on Magnecord; a copy must be made. The Ampex twintrack recording heads work side by side; those of the Magnecorder operate one in advance of the other. In dual-track discs, fortunately, Emory Cook seems to have established a firm guiding standard.
For disc-recording companies, there is, of course, a strong temptation in the binaural technique. Monaurally speaking, they are about at the end of their repertoire, seeking out obscure chamber works of Telemann and Varese. Binaurally, there is plenty of opportunity for someone who wants to break new ground with a good recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
For home-music enthusiasts as yet undisturbed by the discovery that they own two ears, 1952 produced rather few novelties, although the total pickings in equipment were never so good. The biggest splash was made by a new line of Altec Lansing speakers — one mentioned above — all coaxial, all less expensive than their honorable predecessor, all certain to succeed. Two eclectic phono-pickup cartridges moved from the professional to the home market — the Weathers FM capacitance cartridge, which will track at 1/500 of a pound, and the Fairchild moving-coil dynamic, for which is claimed the highest stylus-compliance ever achieved. Several miniature speakerand-cabinet assemblies have been developed to challenge the R-J and the Electro-Voice and Permoflux midgets. Most impressive are the Kelton-Lang, a $50 two-unit job with truly big range, and the Sound Workshop “baby,” a breadbox-sized, carefully tampered bass-reflex enclosure to be sold at a ridiculously low price. Among amplifiers the major addition was the new Newcomb line, with eight models ranging in price down from $269 lo $40 — all with phono-equalization controls, except the 10-watt models.
The period under review here was a time of important artistic undertakings in the record industry, as will appear below: —
Bach: Christmas Oratorio (Ferdinand Grossman conducting soloists, Vienna Symphony and Akademie Kammerchor; Vox: three 12″ LPs in album with text). The seasonal implication in its title is no reason to neglect this work. Its deep, devotional drama is good every day in the year, and it is gorgeously set forth here. Let contralto Dagmar Herrmann-Braun’s rendition of “Prepare thyself, Zion!” (first record-face) establish the verdict.
Bach: Clavier Ubung (Ralph Kirkpatrick, harpsichord; Paul Callaway, organ; Haydn Society: seven 12” LPs, sold separately or in album). This mammoth project actually began because a Washington advertising executive and keyboard fanatic, Day Thorpe, never had heard a harpsichord recorded right, and wanted to. He involved Callaway, Kirkpatrick, and eventually the Haydn Society, in the venture. Six months and thirty miles of tape later, he decided he was satisfied. Among items in the ClavierÜbung (“Keyboard Exercises,” an inadequate title if ever one was) are the Italian Concerto; the six Partitas “Opus 1”; the French Overture; the Goldberg Variations and four duettos (for harpsichord); and ten great Chorale Preludes in missal order (for organ). Both performers come off extraordinarily well; the amateur engineers easily licked the dreadful reverberations of Washington Cathedral, luckily for Callaway, and gave Kirkpatrick’s instrument the fullest harpsichord sound yet recorded.
Beethoven: Quartets (Budapest Quartet; Columbia: twelve 12″ LPs, sold in three albums or separately). Concert Hall Society finished its Beethoven Quartet series, by the Pascals, just in time to meet this onslaught. If the quartets be taken as a unit, the Budapests outclass anybody. The Pascals play with equal devotion and less tension, which is sometimes important, but are recorded remotely. In the middle period works — Opus 59, the “Rasumovsky” quartets, and Opus 74, “The Harp” — the Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet (Westminster) is richer, more colorful. But once into the late quartets, Beethoven’s most sublime writing in any form, the Budapests are unassailable, almost beyond criticism in their communion with this loving, terrible music. Columbia’s recording has shrill spots but is mostly irreproachable.
Beethoven: Violin and Piano Sonatas (Artur Balsam, piano; Joseph Fuchs, violin; Decca: five 12″ LPs, with complete score and notes in performer-autographed album). When 2500 of the autographed sets have been sold (says Decca) the contents will go on sale singly. Again, as a unit, these are beyond compare; individually a few are menaced by Busch-Serkin, Casadesus-Francescatti, and Horszowski-Szigeti (Columbia). Best buy, when they become singly available: the combination of the magical No. 10, Op. 96, and No. 2, Op. 12, No. 2. Fuchs and Balsam are a superb Beethoven team.
Borodin: Suite fromPrince Igor (Walter Susskind conducting Philharmonia Orchestra; M-G-M: 12″ LP). This includes the overture and Polovtsi March as well as the dances — and recorded fidelity which puts it ahead of the competition.
Boyce: Symphonies Nos. 2, 3, 5, and 7 (Karl Haas conducting London Baroque Ensemble; West minster: 12″ LP). Herewith Westminster completes its meritorious recording of this eighteenth-century English master’s eight little symphonies. Very fine in all respects.
Menotti:Amahl and the Night Visitors (Chet Allen, Rosemary Kuhlmann, and other members of the original TV cast; Thomas Schippers conducting orchestra and chorus; RCA Victor: 12″ LP in album with libretto). Television was never like this, aurally. The echo-chambers and other TV-audio gadget-mishmash are pleasantly absent; every note and word is beautifully heard, and Amahl emerges an entrancing thing. Another Christmas item good every day in the year.
Mozart: Concertos and Chamber Works, performed at the Casals Festival at Perpignan, 1951 (Pablo Casals, cellist and conductor; various other artists; Columbia: ten 12″ LPs, in two albums or separately). Difficult recording conditions (apparently) kept the ten works in this cycle from being an overwhelming success; at that, most are still the best recordings of the works available. Most notable: the orchestra’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; Marcel Tabuteau in the Divertimento No. 11; Dame Myra Hess in the lyrical Piano Concerto No. 9; Horszowski in the Concerto No. 27.
Mozart: Serenade No. 10 in B Flat (William Steinberg conducting Los Angeles Woodwinds; Capitol: 12″ LP). Deft, delicate, and delightful; wonderfully crisp sound.
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C Major (Josef Krips conducting Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra; London: 12″ LP). While this surpasses in almost all respects a new Decca (Deutsche Grammophon) Furtwängler version, it lacks the majestic first-movement authority of the Bruno Walter or Mengelberg (Columbia; Capitol) playings. Otherwise it is tops, and handsomely recorded.
Anna Russell Sings? (Anna Russell, comedienne; Harry Dworkin, piano; Columbia: 12″ LP). Hilarious advice, with examples, for would-be concert songstresses. Very, very witty.
Benny Goodman Jazz Concert, 1937-1938 (Benny Goodman, his orchestra, various jazz virtuosi; Columbia: two 12″ LPs). Picked up “live” at sundry dance dates, this is even more zestful than the ‘38 Carnegie Hall concert — and yields a clue to how jazz is best recorded.