"We Are Stereo, Hear Us Roar!"

"Phase 4 stereo can only be described as a marvel of sound, a radically new and dramatically potent concept in the art of high fidelity reproduction . . . it stands for motion and an uncanny sense of spatial realism unapproached by conventional disc standards."

Uh huh. And we have a miraculous vintage tube amp out in the swamps, spanned by the Brooklyn Bridge, that we want to sell you!!!

Phase 4 Stereo, as described above in the liner notes to a newly released boxed set, was introduced by Decca Records and its American subsidiary London Records in 1962 and may have been a sonic bridge too far—at least to most modern ears. It revolved around a huge 20-channel mixing console (expanded early on from its initial 10 tracks) where each channel could be equalized or have reverb added, before being layered onto a four-track tape machine. A combination of Neumann, Telefunken, and Decca-designed and -built mikes were employed. The instrumental forces of Phase 4 were progressively enlarged and engineers got ever more gimmicky. Gain riding was widespread and instruments were spotlighted and moved left and right or backwards and forwards through an enlarged depth of field. The phrase, "kid with a new toy," comes to mind when listening to Phase 4 today. Everything was big and bright and impossible to ignore. It all screamed "We Are Stereo, Hear Us Roar!"

For audiophiles, this was music for testing out speakers or impressing the uninitiated with the ever- evolving miracle of stereo sound. After some initial successes with popular music, most by pianist Ronnie Aldrich, all pop music repertoire suddenly became fair game for a process that one reviewer in High Fidelity magazine said, "comes close to black magic."

The Phase 4 treatment was later applied to orchestral light classical recordings by conductors including Antal Dorati, Leopold Stokowski, and Charles Munch, all of which were assembled in an earlier 2014 boxed set, and remain the subject of much debate to this very day—"too contrived" being the most often heard criticism.

Those initial pop music recordings, however, which sold well and continued being released until 1974, have now been collected in a newly released Universal Music box, Phase 4 Stereo Concert Series which carries the subtitle, "Spectacular, Nice 'N' Easy."

Musically, everything on the popular side of the Phase 4 universe is exactly what most music aficionados mean today when they say (or perhaps hiss) "easy listening." Also known as "mood music," much of it also had a whiff of an Esquivel-like space-age bachelor-padness in its manipulated sound.

Instead of the work of the Boston Pops or the London Symphony Orchestra who appeared on the later Phase 4 classical recordings, the artists here are the aforementioned Aldrich, Mantovani, Stanley Black, Frank Chacksfield, Ted Heath, and Edmundo Ros, to name the most prominent. These "artists," whose names appeared on the spines of these Phase 4 LPs, were sort of hybrid arranger/conductor/envisioners. Most were English and led their own orchestras. It was their vision, often eccentric and tweaky, and the obsessions of series producer Tony D'Amato who adored sweeping motion and shimmering stereo imagery that made these recordings so distinctive and yet such an acquired taste.

Again though, it's easy to see the market for this stuff. If you can transport your ears back in time for a moment, imagine that while the kids were upstairs banging away on their Beatles records—or worse, Led Zeppelin or the Stones—mom and dad, from the Big Band generation who won WWII, were kicking back in the living room, cueing up vaguely-hip-sounding collections like This Way "In" (CD 6) and reveling in the sound of their hi-fi. For those who grew up in the era of 78-rpm discs and mono recording, much of the music in this 40-CD box would sound, at least for a listen or two, like otherworldly sonic wizardry.

Speaking of the Beatles, their songbook, which even Sinatra had to finally break down and mine for material, was obvious catnip for the Phase 4 performers. Chacksfield Plays the Beatles' Song Book (CD 17) is a textbook illustration of the Phase 4 method. " A Hard Day's Night" opens with low brass spotlighted up front playing the melody while an ocean of strings swells in the background. A tambourine, which seems to the most ubiquitous instrument in the entire Phase 4 arsenal of sound, bangs away on the beat throughout the entire piece.

The lush factor increases to Warp 11 on "Norwegian Wood," which opens with a strummed acoustic guitar and flute before embodying the other major trend in Phase 4 popular recordings—massive, string-driven mock pathos. Plucked violins mix with vibraphones and surprisingly raw trumpets before flutes return to play the final notes. Spotlighted tambourines chatter away throughout.

While the Exotic Percussion disc (CD 10), which is all kettle drums, cymbals, harps, and massed wordless vocals, is a fun ride best used to stun non-audiophile civilians and Hair Goes Latin (CD 38) is nearly profound in its weirdness, the best use of Phase 4 may well be film music. Given the fact that film composers have always been able to get away with lush orchestrations and simple, sentimental tunes because the music is meant to accompany a moving image, it is not that big a surprise that Film Spectacular 2 (CD 13) and Film Festival (CD 16), actually work well and are very listenable. The gimmicks somehow fade.

Like its classical predecessor, and most of the Universal Music's classical boxed sets these days, this set is nicely packaged in a square box, with minimal sleeves emblazoned with original artwork and a slick 103- page booklet.

As an illustration of Phase 4 methods here is the Ronnie Aldrich and his Two Pianos version of the theme to the Last Tango In Paris from a collection appropriately titled, Soft & Wicked:

COMMENTS
Jason Victor Serinus's picture

What a fabulous Easter present. As the first swells whirled up from my desktop, plastic lampshade coverings magically appeared, shrouding everything in a polyurethane glow. I breathed in the toxic fumes, and was magically transported to a world in which the smell of hard liquor had not yet been supplanted by incense.

TNtransplant's picture

30 or so albums, mostly Phase 4 stuff, Ferrante & Teicher, few Broadway original cast albums and, of course, Getz/Gilberto. (Was there a law to own this last one?) What I really want to know is when are the mono vinyl reissues coming out?

mdonohue's picture

Just wondering if you listened to the whole thing? Did you get paid extra?

dalethorn's picture

The thing is, while most Mantovani sounds less-than-inspiring on today's systems (or even audiophile systems of the 1970's), Mantovani pioneered the concept of the "wall of sound" that Phil Spector became famous for 10 years later. In Mantovani's case it was "cascading strings", and was designed to create the more-or-less wall of sound for "console stereo" LP playback in the early-mid 1950's.

hollowman's picture

The official Decca Classics YT channel has fair amount of info on Phase 4. E.g.,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mSselTZySM

It's interesting how Decca waited THIS long before releasing them on CD. Why the wait? Trouble locating orig. sources? Not enough demand for Phase 4? Maybe Phase 4 project not really that good compared to competition at the time and/or other Decca (not P4)?

I've always REALLY liked Decca/London from the early 1970s onward.
I'm not a purist -- I think spotlighting via fades/mike techniques is very effective, as used by Decca/London 1970s onward. Alas, P4, while interesting, is too unnatural. (calls attn. to itself).

hollowman's picture

For this new set, did Decca actually source the original 4-track Ampex tape?

PAR's picture

There is always a discussion point as to what constitutes the "master". For Decca and Phase 4 they regarded the final stereo mix as the master. This would therefore have to be the tape required and located for an authentic reissue as use of the 4 track would necessitate a modern re-mix down to stereo.

Incidentally the final stereo mix was recorded on an EMI and not an Ampex machine as was used for the 4 track.

hollowman's picture

That was my question.
Alan Parsons did that in 1987 for the CD release of AP Project's first album (TOMAI, 1976) -- tho' he had 24 track-tape from the Abbey Road sessions .
In 1994, MoFi released the Orig. Master Recording (CD and LP) of TOMAI from the 1976 orig. 2-track master. But the 1987 Parsons remix sounds better IMO (it also sounds different as Parsons felt it needed a little revamping--not much). The 1987 TOMAI was also released on Lp, and THAT version sounds the best of all (all else held equal).
Not sure why more artists/media companies don't source the orig. multitrack more often? Are they not usually preserved (erased, for re-use, etc.)
I know the BBC -- in early days of videotape and even into the late 1970s -- would erase programs (w/o backup preserv.) just so they could re-use the same tape for newer programs. Not sure recording studios / mastering houses follow this same practice.

PAR's picture

" Not sure why more artists/media companies don't source the orig. multitrack more often?"

The reasons can be complex. However the initial question for the re-issuing company has to be " Is the stereo master inadequate?" The answer to that is probably rarely, particularly when the additional time and cost of remixing are taken into account.

Furthermore in many cases ( particularly with major pop or rock artists) the multitrack tapes are neither in the possession of the record company nor, most importantly, do they have any right to them. So the idea of remixing not only involves time and cost but also a negotiation with the artists or their estates to do it in the first place and further involves their approval of the results.

For most companies with a regular programme of reissues those additional complexities may make such projects not economically viable except in rare instances.

NB: the multitracks are usually kept at the studios where the recording was made, but not always. Sometimes the artists retain them. And, yes, some will be lost or destroyed. Of course studio closures and other factors can make locating them an involved bit of research in its own right especially where they have not been accesssed for 50 years.

mmole's picture

"Thanks, Ron. I didn't know you were interested in music."

"Sure. I got all the Andre Kostelanetz records ever made. You like Mantovani? I got all of him too. I like semi-classical a lot."

mmole's picture

"This is my father's favorite room. He loves a fire in the fireplace. Even on the hottest summer days he'll come in here and turn the air conditioner down so it's very cold, light the fire, and listen to Mantovani."

jrmandude's picture

I'm holding out for the 200 gm vinyl of Captain and Tennille Play Motorhead