The Copper Interview

Tom Fine: New Mercury Living Presence Analog Releases Part 2

[Tom Fine is a second-generation audio engineer, specializing in mastering and analog-to-digital transfers. The son of audiophile pioneers C. Robert and Wilma Cozart Fine, he grew up steeped in music and sound. His father owned Fine Sound and Fine Recording studios in New York City from the early 1950s to the early 1970s. His mother was director of Mercury Records’ classical division, and a corporate Vice President, in charge of the famed Mercury Living Presence recordings. These classic albums, most of them produced by his mother and recorded by his father, achieved state of the art high fidelity using 3 spaced omni-directional microphones feeding 3 tape tracks, which were then mixed to stereo directly in front of the LP cutting lathe (and, later, to a CD mastering chain). Since 2010, Tom Fine has been overseeing Mercury Living Presence remastering, working with state-of-the-art modern digital technology. He recently took a turn in the audiophile all-analog world.

The latest Mercury Living Presence reissues feature cellist Janos Starker: Bach’s Six Cello Suites and Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, to be released on 45RPM 200g vinyl by Chad Kassem’s Analogue Productions label. Tom Fine previously spoke with Copper about his parent’s work in issues #49, 50, and 51, and we are grateful for an opportunity to revisit with him about his latest works. Tom replied to questions posed by Copper’s John Seetoo, via email.]

[Part 1 of the interview appeared in Copper #73  Ed.]

John Seetoo: Unlike in rock music, where a splice edit can be made on a drum beat and echo used to cover it, what tricks need to be used to mask an analog edit in classical music? 

Tom Fine: This is an interesting topic. Mercury’s Music Director (and later head of the classical division), Harold Lawrence, was an amazing tape editor. He, and the artists, were very picky about what constituted a “perfect tape” and sometimes he employed note-by-note editing to get what everyone considered the best representation of the composition. You have to remember that all great classical music albums are productions. They’re not documents of a live performance. They are meant to be played many times over, so they need to be a somewhat idealized representation of the music, both in your sonic point of view (ie “the perfect seat in the perfect hall”) and in how the orchestra plays and interprets the music in accordance with the conductor. For difficult solo music like the Bach Suites, it’s just not possible to do complete perfect takes. So, Harold employed the full art and craft of tape editing. I would say his most interesting trick (and nerve-wracking, when the splice glue dries out or the splice otherwise fails) was adding a tiny sliver of tape in the middle of a splice to add just a micro-beat more space between notes. You have to keep the splice intact, in the correct order, keep it in the block while you clean the old glue off it, and then re-splice it perfectly straight so it plays without a hitch.

Here’s an interesting aside about splicing. The man who invented the tape splicing block, and many of the methods of tape editing used through the generations, was Joel Tall, originally a sound engineer and editor at CBS News. His splicing block was called the EdiTall, and his company was in Mount Vernon, NY, in lower Westchester County. He pioneered many tape editing tricks in putting together the famous Edward R. Murrow Columbia album I Can Hear It Now, in 1948. That album was one of the first hits on the new LP format. Tall left CBS in the early ‘50s to start his splicing-block company. Fast-forward to the present and I’m friends with Joel Tall’s nephew. There’s a nice online “museum” about Joel Tall and EdiTall, a lot of material donated by Tall’s daughter.

JS: How would you compare your past remastering of the Marcel Dupre box set referenced in your last Copper interview, with what you had to do on the two Starker albums? How does remastering a record with a polyphonic central instrument, such as the organ, differ from one with a primarily monophonic instrument like a cello?

TF: Well, first of all, listen to the Bach Suites. A cello can play a lot of tones at the same time. So, I wouldn’t call it a monophonic instrument like, for instance, an early Moog synthesizer. But you are correct in suggesting these are two different instruments and the recording acoustics were very different. The Bach Suites were recorded in my father’s studio in NYC, in what had been the ballroom of the old Great Northern Hotel on 57th Street (now the site of the Parker Meridian Hotel). In contrast, Marcel Dupre’s solo organ recordings were made in the massive Saint-Sulpice chapel in Paris and the slightly less massive St. Thomas Church in New York. A pipe organ wants the room air around it and uses the room acoustics and reflections to develop some of the sounds. For Starker, we chose to make this mix a bit more intimate, get the man right in front of you with the room around him. I felt that was the best way to hear all the technique and detail involved with Bach’s music.

For the Dvorak recording, I previously remastered orchestral recordings made in Watford Town Hall, outside London, so I was familiar with the room and orchestra sound. Because Mercury didn’t use extra “spotlight” or “filler” mics for concerto soloists, the balance to use is what the mics picked up. Starker was seated in the center near the conductor, slightly in front of the orchestra. My key balancing cues were placing the woodwinds and brass in proper balance and perspective vs. the strings, and then everything fell into place. In the case of the one Dupre recording with an orchestra, the for-the-ages rendering of Saint-Saen’s 3rd “Organ” Symphony with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Paul Paray, that too was a case of balancing the orchestra and then the organ naturally fell into place. By the way, my remaster of that recording is on Qobuz high-resolution streaming. I just re-listened the other night and was again very pleased with how that turned out.

JS: Are there different approaches, equipment, and protocols when working in analog vs. digital for your kinds of projects?

TF: Yes and no, and this is a good question. The key, absolute bedrock fact, with good remastering in either medium is getting as good a tape playback as is possible. Basically, if you get the tape moving properly over the heads and have equipment that can turn that magnetized ribbon into the most accurate possible magnetic flux and then electrical signal, you’re off to the races. Then it’s a matter of knowing what you can do and what you might want to do to get to the end goal of an excellent sounding commercial product.

In the digital realm, we can use tools like Plangent Process to correct some of the inherent flaws of analog recording. You can also fix problems with a tape, such as a slight dropout or noisy splice. I think the audience for state-of-the-art digital reissues expects this, getting closer to what was actually in front of the microphones. When you work all-analog, you’re limited to the tools available in that realm. Plus, cutting lacquers and pressing vinyl are arts and crafts in and of themselves. So, as my mother did with the original LPs and also with her CD mastering, which was done in a much more primitive stage of digital technology, I chose to keep the LP mastering chain as simple and direct as possible and shoot for excellence at each stage: restore the tapes to excellent playing condition, get an excellent playback and 3-2 mix, and then rely on Ryan and Chad’s plant manager, Gary Salstrom, to know their arts and crafts and get a vinyl platter that sounds as much like what came out of the tape machine as is possible. When I played the test pressings, I was amazed at the results. Ryan made 192-24 digital recordings off the same mastering console as fed the lathe, and I think the LPs sound amazingly similar. He did a great job getting that lathe to etch into lacquer all the sound qualities and subtleties on the tapes that we heard and liked.

The big problem with LPs is there are so many ways to play them back. I can’t tell you how anyone’s turntable or cartridge is going to sound and they are more audibly variable than high-quality digital gear, in my experience. They’re as varied as speakers and headphones, so every person’s system is truly their castle. All I can say is, these LPs did achieve what Ryan and I were going for and they do sound like what came out of the tape machine and the mastering console. And Gary’s plant presses a damn quiet platter. Very impressive!

I do think the end goal for Mercury Living Presence has always, and will always, be the same no matter what the release medium or current state of the technology. The recordings were made to faithfully capture and transmit the sound of the orchestra and the intentions of the composer, conductor, and musicians. The point of the 3-spaced-omni recording technique is to let the orchestra balance itself, let the conductor control the dynamic range, and let the performers sit naturally in the overall acoustic of the room or hall. In making a release master, we’ve never messed with after the fact EQ or dynamics control, what you hear is what the mics captured. That aesthetic is important because I think it puts more control of the production in the hands of the musicians and conductor, and less in the hands of technicians like myself. This keeps the overall product more about the music and the performance than anything else. I can’t emphasize enough that “hearing into the score” aspect of Mercury recordings. For instance, with the Dvorak Cello Concerto, listen to how the flute interacts with the cello and listen to how melodies and themes move around the different sections of the orchestra, and back and forth with the cello. In all Mercury orchestral recordings, notice how the stereo image doesn’t fold down to “wide mono” when the full orchestra plays a loud passage, as happens when too many mics are used.

JS: Is Acoustic Sounds your “go to” label for vinyl releasing in the future for all analog projects you plan to remaster, and what other projects does Tom Fine plan to work on in the future?

TF: Well, these first 2 albums need to sell well, so make sure to tell your friends about them! If they succeed in the marketplace, Chad and I hope to do more. We had very successful premiere listening sessions at the recent NY Audio Show. Robin Wyatt, of Robyatt Audio, was kind enough to set up a great-sounding vinyl playback system and host groups of about 30 people. We held three sessions, packed rooms each time. For the gear-heads reading this, here’s a good description of Robin’s setup and one of our listening sessions.

I also want to mention that, earlier this year, I remastered in the state-of-the-art digital realm all of the Mercury Living Presence recordings of violinist Henryk Szeryng, for this new Decca Classics box set.

Discs 30-36 are MLP albums. I worked again with Jamie Howarth and John Chester at Plangent Process. I think we got a really nice sound on all of these albums. Individual titles will be available in high resolution, I’m told.

Right now, in the studio, I’m finishing up a big oral history transfer project for a Western US state university. And I have to turn in my latest equipment reviews for TapeOp magazine and music reviews for Blackgrooves.org (Indiana University) by the end of the month. Then I’m looking forward to some down time through the holidays. Hopefully these new Mercury reissues sell well and there’s a market for more in the future. In a perfect world, I’d like to remaster the entire Mercury Living Presence catalog, bringing high-quality modern versions to today’s audience. I’d also love to do more mastering work outside of classical music. I love all kinds of music. Basically, I’ve been listening to recordings from the first day I figured out how to turn on a radio or put a needle into a groove. When it comes to sound and music, I’m a voracious omnivore.