The Copper Interview

Tom Fine, Part 2

[Tom Fine is an archival/recording/mastering engineer, and if if his name sounds familiar, it’s likely because he’s the son of Robert Fine and Wilma Cozart Fine. One of the rare husband-wife teams in music production and recording, Robert Fine ran the Fine Sound and Fine Recording studios, and Wilma Cozart Fine was the VP of Mercury Records, known for producing the legendary Living Presence series. Tom spoke with John Seetoo for Copper, and shared details of growing up in an intensely-artistic environment, and of his own career. Part 1 of the interview appeared in Copper #49 —Ed.]

John Seetoo: A number of well known records from a wide range of artists in different musical genres were recorded at Fine Recording Studios, among them: Quincy Jones, Buddy Rich, Judy Collins, Janos Starker, Rev. James Cleveland, and Lighting Hopkins.  Can you take us through the process of how a project might have come to Fine Recording through the technical and decision making process to the final product?

For example, what factors determined which room and what formats and equipment would be used on those sessions, given the relatively customized nature of Fine Recording’s setup?  One would imagine that the decision to use 35 mag or conventional 2 track stereo or early multi track formats were not technical aspects that most producers at the time were familiar with.  Did Fine Recording give producers and artists demonstrations for comparison, or were the decisions more predicated on budget and schedule restrictions?

Tom Fine: I don’t really understand your question, but here’s a stab at it …

A recording studio, especially in those days, was set up to serve client needs. So the client determines the budget and the budget determines how much time and gear can be thrown at the problem. When he owned Fine Recording, my father was known for having an excellent-sounding and very reverberant main studio (Ballroom Studio A, which was literally the former Ballroom in the Great Northern Hotel on 57th Street). This was a good place for large-ensemble recording. Quincy Jones had worked with my father since the early 50s, when he was an arranger for Mercury’s Emarcy jazz imprint. When Quincy formed his own big band in 1958, he recorded his first two albums at my father’s studio. He also produced numerous sessions for Mercury at Fine Recording. Both of my parents knew, liked and very much respected Quincy Jones.

The Jimmy Cleveland who recorded at Fine Recording was the jazz trombone player, so make sure we’re talking about the same person here. Cleveland made one of his solo albums for Mercury at the studio and was also a member of Quincy Jones’ band.

Many famous musicians recorded at Fine Recording, and before that Fine Sound. It’s worth mentioning that my father had two studios in Manhattan. When Loews/MGM bought the rights to PerspectaSound, in 1952, they bought 51% of Fine Sound, which at that time was based at my father’s home in Rockland County NY. In just over a year of operation, Fine Sound had already become one of the largest independent disc-mastering facilities in the U.S. My father would engineer recording sessions at various NYC studios, mainly Fulton Sound and Reeves, as a freelancer, then master the discs at his studio “upstate”. He also spent a fair amount of time inventing and prototyping PerspectaSound. Anyway, when Lowes/MGM bought PerspectaSound, they moved Fine Sound Studios into the majority of space of what had been WMGM’s broadcast studios, at 711 Fifth Avenue (now the Coca-Cola building). The studios were originally built as NBC’s first network studios, before Rockefeller Center. They had been completely rebuilt by WMGM in 1949 (interesting article about the studios under WMGM was published in 1949 in Audio Engineering magazine). Fine Sound was in business until 1957, when my father got into a lawsuit with Loews after Loews sold the building to Columbia Pictures. Columbia Pictures wanted to take over one of the two Fine Sound recording studios for a screening room. The Fine Sound business model didn’t work without two working recording studios, plus a sound-for-picture mixing studio and disc-mastering facilities. Therefore, my father sued to block the breakup of his studios. He lost, including losing the rights to his invention, and had to start over. In 1957, he found out that the Great Northern Hotel’s ballroom was available for rent, and he established Fine Recording. The studio opened for business in 1958.

Back to the client lists … Fine Sound played host to many jazz recording sessions for Verve/Norgran (Norman Granz), Mercury/Emarcy, Kapp and other labels. Just about anyone who recorded for Verve did a session or more at Fine Sound in the 1950s, or was recorded by my father at either Fulton Sound or Reeves in the very early 50s. Fine Sound was also where many MGM movies, cartoons and shorts were mixed for PerspectaSound release. And, it was the highest-volume independent disc mastering facility in the country in the mid-50s. Fine Recording carried on as a major disc-mastering facility, and grew into a very large studio complex. The Ballroom became Studio A, the former service kitchen was Studio B. Up on the 8th floor was sound-for-picture Studio C and later second sound-for-picture Studio D. The disc-mastering rooms were on the penthouse floor, as was my father’s office. There were also optical film developing and editing facilities, and a large tape-duplication plant in the building’s basement.

JS: The remote recording truck was considered to be a breakthrough for rock music recording when the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead equipped trucks with multi track recording equipment for concert and location recording outside of the conventional studio setup.  However, Fine Recording apparently had its own version of remote recording using film recording gear as early as 1961, with hi fi recordings of the Russian Folk Orchestra in Moscow, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Bach organ virtuoso Virgil Fox.  What do you recall of these setups and how they did they differ from other concert recordings at the time, both in terms of techniques and sound quality?

The Fine Sound recording truck.

Robert Fine inside the truck, around 1956. Ampex 300 3-track deck is on the right.

TF: My father’s recording truck (always owned by him personally) was built in 1952, originally for location sound recording for Jerome Hill’s documentary about Albert Schweitzer. Starting in 1952 and up through 1965, the truck was used to make all of the Mercury Living Presence classical recordings. It was equipped for mono recording until late 1955, when Mercury purchased a 3-track Ampex 300 machine to make stereo recordings. The truck carried 35mm 3-track film recording equipment after my father purchased Everest’s studio in 1961, until 1963. The truck was set up as a mobile “machine room.” The monitor/control room would be inside the recording venue, usually the conductor’s office. The truck was retired around 1967 and donated to the fire department in Bob Eberenz’s home town of Oradell NJ. It was eventually passed on to the Oradell Explorer Scouts chapter, and was used up into the 1970s.

It’s important to note that when my parents were making classical recordings, these were not recordings of live concerts. They were actual recording sessions, with as many retakes as were necessary to get the performance desired by the artist and producer. They were made in performance venues, but the orchestra was often set up in a way optimum for the recording rather than on-stage as in performance with an audience in the room. Sessions would take place over several days, and several albums worth of material would be recorded. The tapes would be taken back to the label’s headquarters or the studio and edited, then records would be cut from the edited master tapes.

The kind of trucks built for the Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead were very different from the little GM van my father used. But he kept up on the mobile-studio scene throughout his career and was good friends with Dave Hewitt, who was a mobile studio pioneer for The Record Plant and then on his own. When I was a teenager, I got a tour of the Record Plant Mobile from Dave Hewitt himself. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

JS: Given that Fine Recording was on W. 57th Street in NYC, the film and television circles were a relatively small community in New York compared to Hollywood during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  One of the few other Hollywood decision makers of that era based out of New York was Matty Fox from Universal, who also had an office on W. 57th Street.  Did Fine Recording ever do any work on Fox’s projects, and if so, do you recall which ones?  Fox was one of the first financiers to recognize the earnings potential of film libraries for television.  If not with Fox, are there any film or tv projects that come to mind of particular note, and why?

TF: Never heard mention of Matty Fox by my parents. Never heard of him until now. Fine Recording did a lot of sound-for-picture work, everything from hundreds if not thousands of TV commercials to industrial films (including classified work for various military and intelligence contractors) to feature films (including the 6-channel soundtrack for “War and Peace”) to special projects like the World’s Fair, Expo67 and Hemisfair.

JS: In that same vein, Robert Fine held a number of patents and some of his innovations involved what are described as early forms of video streaming and pioneering use of SMPTE code to sync lock and eliminate crosstalk on multi track recording and playback machines.  Do you have any insights as to the genesis and development of these platforms, which are now standard in the industry some 40 years later?

TF: Not sure which patents you’re referring to. The only thing my father invented related to SMPTE Timecode was the Vidimag machine manufactured by Magnatech. That machine used special sprocketed videotape to let a film-based facility do sound production for videotape. A work picture was recorded onto the VidiMag tape, the sprocket motor sync’d up with the other film machines at the facility, and the master soundtrack recorded onto the Vidimag tape. The master soundtrack was then laid-back onto the videotape master, using SMPTE timecode that was laid down with the work picture. This was a very specific solution to a very specific problem, so not many machines were made and it was not something that put a lot of money in the bank. My father also invented PerspectaSound and several related patents, as well as a cassette-based instructional kiosk system. He also came up with something he called Vidcom, which used a form of slow-scan television technology to store high-resolution images on cassette tapes. The images could be transmitted as audio-frequency signals via radio (for instance, mug shots to police cars) or the telephone (for instance, newspaper photographs), and would be displayed on a high resolution CRT monitor. Copies were made with a Polaroid industrial macro-lens camera attached to the CRT monitor. This system, invented in the late 60s, was ahead of its time and didn’t catch on.

Regarding my father’s patents, there was another interesting invention among them. He developed, and he and Bob Eberenz built, a system that would etch an optical soundtrack onto the edge of 35mm full-coat magnetic film. This was developed at the request of the old-school film editors who hated “scrubbing” magnetic film over a head to hear cut and cue sounds, indicating the places they’d make their splices. They had been able to see these sounds on the optical soundtrack and thus could edit soundtrack films without listening to them, very quickly! My father’s invention re-purposed the cutting stylus from the Philips-Miller sound recorder (Google it, it’s an interesting piece of machinery). Mr. Miller, the inventor of the machine (which Philips licensed and commercialized), was my father’s first employer. This was a case where my father had learned about a 1930s technology, stored the knowledge away and then re-purposed the then-obsolete idea for a new use. He even obtained a few Philips cutter-heads, and mounted them on Magnasync magnetic film recorders. He never commercialized the product beyond Fine Recording because it was a “secret weapon” to lock in lots of film-sound work, as the editors requested the hybrid magnetic-optical output.

In general, my father was a very creative guy who liked to tinker with existing technologies, figuring out how to make them do different things or solve new problems. One of his heroes was Thomas Edison. He was particularly proud of his patents.

That mobile recording truck really WAS mobile!

[The conclusion of John Seetoo’s in-depth interview with Tom Fine will appear in Copper #51. In part 3, Tom discusses other aspects of his parents’ careers, and tells us more about his own. Thanks to John and Tom for an informative and interesting interview!-–Ed.] [Header photo is of C. Robert Fine at the Westrex recording console at Fine Recording Bayside, Queens, which was originally the Everest Records studio. All photos courtesy of Tom Fine.]