A Fine Art: The Mercury Living Presence Recordings

It is perhaps the most cherished tale from hi-fi's primordial past: In 1951—when music was first being recorded on magnetic tape, when the use of much-improved microphones became a mix of science and art, and when Stereophile's founder, J. Gordon Holt, was still a little nipper, years away from his first martini (though I wouldn't swear to that)—the team of Robert (Bob) and Wilma Cozart Fine began to build a legendary catalog of recordings of classical music. It eventually included the work of conductors Rafael Kubelik, Antal Doráti, and Frederick Fennell; the Chicago and Minneapolis symphony orchestras; the pianists Byron Janis and Gina Bachauer; and the cellists Mstislav Rostropovich and János Starker—all released with often wildly colorful covers under the still-evocative title of Mercury Living Presence.

By 1967, when all of the original members of the recording team had moved on and Bob Fine's trademark three-microphone approach was abandoned, the Living Presence catalog, counting the single-mike mono (1951–55) and three-mike stereo (1955–67) releases, numbered some 300 titles. With hi-fi best-sellers like the 1954 mono and 1958 stereo recordings of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (Mercury MG 50054 and SR90054), Living Presence also marks the one and, perhaps, the only time when audiophile recordings crossed over to become modest hits among mainstream listeners.

Twenty years have passed since Wilma Cozart Fine (who died in 2009) remastered over 100 Living Presence titles for reissue on CD. Now, improbably enough, the catalog's current owner, Universal Music, has launched a new reissue program under the Decca Classics banner with a budget-priced boxed set of 50 CDs ($169.98 list, available at Amazon.com for $92.91) made from Wilma Fine's 1990 CD masters, and a six-LP set in a numbered limited edition ($96.49 list, or $83.76 from Amazon) newly cut at Germany's Berliner Studios. The idea for these sets apparently came from Universal's Asian affiliates; the word from Universal is that if they sell, a second set of CDs will be released.

That the oft-told tale of Bob and Wilma Fine holds an endless fascination for audiophiles is a fact that their son, Tom Fine, managing editor of Beverage Digest and keeper of the Living Presence flame, is happy to repeat. While the mono Living Presence recordings will always have their cadre of devoted faithful, it's the stereo recordings that are the most famous part of the Fines' legacy. And while the audiophile press has published tens of thousands of words about the Living Presence recording chain over years, it's worth a short review.

"My father [who died in 1982] had started experimenting with stereo in 1954," says Tom Fine. "There are pictures of the truck, where my dad was taking along a two-track machine and experimenting with two microphones, but none of that was found to be adequate, because there was always a hole in the middle, or not good depth, or not good sides. They finally got a three-track machine in late 1955. The whole industry was very clear by 1955 that two-track stereo tapes were coming for consumers. So it was clear that labels had to build up stereo catalog.

"In the very early days [of Living Presence] it was a single Telefunken U-47 microphone that went directly to a Fairchild full-track tape recorder. But by 1953 my father had discovered the omnidirectional Schoeps M201 microphone, and he switched to using that as the single mike." (The Schoeps M201, first marketed in 1952, was 140mm long and 23mm in diameter.) "It was ideal for that use because it's a very sensitive microphone, and the way the presence peak in that microphone happens to work, it was perfect for backing it off to where he liked to put it and still getting the strings.

"The whole thing you are doing with this technique is you're basically using the presence peak on these European condenser microphones to make up for the fact that the treble frequencies decay faster than other frequencies in a venue, in a real space. And that's how you get the width and the depth but still the detail. To put it into visual terms, it's like you have a great depth of field to your lens."

The problem was that the Schoeps mikes were virtually handmade, and after a certain point, Dr. Karl Schoeps and his first employee, Dr. Wilhelm Kusters, wouldn't make any more in their small workshop in Karlsruhe, Germany. Bob Fine spent the next six years hunting down more M201s, of which it is rumored as few as 36 were made. Mercury required that the Living Presence team have six M201s—three and three backups—before they could go out on the road to record an orchestra. "At first, in recording for stereo, they tried two Telefunken U-47s on the sides [and an M201 in the center], but they only used that briefly," says Tom Fine. "They eventually settled on the Neumann KM-56s on the sides. And so pretty much everything made from 1956 to '59 has the two KM-56s on the sides and an M201 in the middle. And then, by 1959, they had three '201s with backups, so that's what they used the rest of the time."

From the microphones suspended above the orchestra—the height varied with the project, but averaged 12' above the conductor's head—the stereo signal would go to PULTEC MB1 preamps in the famous Living Presence truck, a Chevy panel van stuffed full of tapes and equipment. The left and right mikes would feed the top and bottom tracks of two three-track tape recorders. The center channel would feed the center track on the two stereo machines that were recording, plus the full-track (mono) machine. The tapes would be edited in three-track, so two tapes were made, an A and a B reel.

"Remember that mono LPs outsold stereo LPs until the mid-'60s, so you had to make sure you had a good mono master," Fine says. "I am often asked, why wouldn't you just make the mono master off the center track of the three-track tape? Too much crosstalk. You could do it off film, but you can't do it off three-track tape. You have to run a separate full-track tape.

"They used audio tape from Audio Devices. It was standard 1960s non–back-coated brown oxide tape. Strangely enough, both of my parents liked the quality of the hiss on Audio Devices tape better than [the hiss on] Scotch [tape]. That's why they used it."

The three-track tapes were recorded on Ampex 300-3 half-inch machines at 15ips. In addition to recording tape, some Living Presence sessions were recorded on 35mm magnetic film; these can be identified by what looks like a strip of film, with sprocket holes, running across the top of the album covers.

"Dad thought the film stuff sounded markedly better," Fine remembers. "It's lower noise, lower print-through, it's wider tracks, and a slightly faster speed so, theoretically, a slightly better dynamic range—and definitely a lower noise floor. My mother's opinion when she was making the CDs was that the film masters sound really good, but it's okay when I have to use a tape master."

The 3- to 2-channel mixdowns of sessions recorded on standard tape were done on a modified Westrex mixer. Wilma Fine mixed from first-generation session tapes, which would become the master from which the LPs were pressed; it's that detail that gives Living Presence releases such an alive sound. For the original LPs, the mixer directly fed the custom cutting chain at Fine Recording, in the Great Northern Hotel in Manhattan (the site of today's Parker Meridian Hotel). There, a Westrex cutter head on a Scully lathe was fed by modified McIntosh 200W tube amplifiers. The mono records were cut with a Miller cutter head.

"Back in the LP day, my mother would mix the 3/2 as the LP was being cut. I always describe her role as a human preview head, because she would sit there with a score, and she and mastering engineer George Piros had hand signals as to when to tighten and widen the margin. She'd be reading a few measures ahead, and give him a hand signal when a loud part was coming up or when a soft part was coming up. That's how he could cut 30-minute sides when he had to."

While Bob Fine was an independent contractor, Wilma was a Mercury Records employee: VP in charge of classical records, and producer of the Living Presence releases. Before landing the Mercury gig, she'd interviewed for a producer's job at RCA Records, whose Living Stereo series later became Living Presence's major competitor. According to Tom Fine, RCA had told her, "Women don't run sessions. Women don't edit tapes. Women don't make marketing decisions here." In 2011, Wilma Cozart Fine posthumously won a Trustees Grammy Award.

"She had very acute high-frequency hearing. Up until old age, if she was sitting in the living room listening and someone turned on the TV in the kitchen, she'd hear the high-frequency noise and ask them to turn it off."

By the mid-1970s, Mercury was no longer pressing Living Presence LPs in the US. The Philips label, which by then owned the Mercury catalog, began what it called the Mercury Golden Import series, which included Living Presence titles that had been remastered by Philips and pressed at their plant in Holland. "I'm not going to characterize how they were received," Tom Fine says, "but let's just say they weren't in the market very long. You could say those were the first reissues where the original team wasn't involved."

Several of the tapes that had been used for the Golden Import Series were digitized and used for some very early European CD releases. Tom Fine: "These were not well received either.

"The new LPs were cut from the digital masters made by my mother in the 1990s. This was done because no one from the Mercury team is alive to make a 3/2 mix from the master tapes. The 3/2 mix is much more important to the Mercury sound qualities than the medium of the release product."

Unbelievably—or maybe not, considering the often pathetic archival history of the music business—a few of the later CD reissues of Living Presence titles were made from the B reels because the edited masters had been lost, or the splices on the A reels were so bad as to be irreparable. All of the Living Presence tapes were catalogued in the mid-1990s, and since then have been stored together in a climate-controlled vault at the Berliner Studios, in Germany. Yet a number of tapes were lost after the initial LP pressings.

In 1989, Philips, then owned by PolyGram, asked Wilma Fine if she'd be interested in helming a full-blown reissue program of Mercury Living Presence CDs. "My mother said, 'Sure,' but she'd have to make sure that she did this digital thing right, because she was unimpressed with the early digital stuff."

Wilma Fine ended up taking almost a year to do it, working with engineer Dennis Drake at PolyGram studios in Edison, New Jersey, to decide what would work as a transfer chain. "The dCS analog-to-digital converter came out then, which I think internally used bitstream technology," Tom Fine says, "but it basically output 24-bit/44.1kHz digital. And then they would put that into a Harmonia Mundi Acoustica digital console that had a dither-down module that would take it down to 16 bits after it had been transferred, and put that into a standard AES/EBU signal that went to the Sony PCM-1630 mastering machine. I think she'd run two '1630s at once; that's why she had a digital bus. She never liked the Sonic Solutions system. She was still making '1630 masters up to the end.

"The center was always paramount with the Living Presence thing. The mono versions of the LPs were always made from that single center mike, and the sides would be matched to the center. You'd bring the sides up to add width and depth and height to the soundfield. I was in the studio a few times, and you'd look at the faders, and they were within a half dB of each other anyway—that's just the way the mikes were set up. Basically, what you're getting is what was on the tape. And that's what came from the microphones. The whole secret to the technique is having the ears to focus and set the microphones correctly. Other than that, there's really very little electronic trickery or manipulation involved."

Given the glorious sound that still emanates from these new CD and LP reissues—the ringing cavalry bugle calls in the first volume of The Civil War (Mercury 432 592-2) or János Starker's sensitive readings of J.S. Bach's Cello Suites (Mercury 432 757-2), to name just two examples—what will always remain most impressive and magical about the Living Presence catalog are the Fines' ears for repertoire and performances. Wilma, in particular, is perhaps best known for coaxing classic performances out of often temperamental artists.

"It was a realism," the Fines' rightfully proud son says today of his parents' sonic aims. "They wanted an honesty: the honest sound of the instruments, how they really sounded. They wanted a clarity to everything. They weren't as interested in sounding like you were in the tenth row as they were in hearing inside the music."

wozwoz's picture

The real treasures to go for are the SACD releases ... especially those made from original master tape direct to pure DSD. [ The 35mm film recordings are also superb, but not quite as clean, and proceed to SACD via hi-rez PCM. ]

The Starker Bach SACD (stereo) is one of my top 5 discs - it has unbelievable warmth and clarity, and by contrast, the CD layer on the same disc is comparatively drab.


elittle's picture

I've long been a fan of the Mercury Living Presence recordings, and find the story of Bob Fine and Wilma Cozart Fine to be fascinating. I've always thought that the story of the husband-and-wife engineering team responsible for so many wonderful recordings at the height of the golden age of classical music recordings would make for a compelling book. Does such a book exist? Are there plans to write such a book?

burphy's picture

The Romeros: A Flamenco Wedding Party, remastered Decca 26.11.2021.
I've never heard anything like this. Not even close.