Stereo at Sixty

Written by Bill Leebens

We’ve heard a lot about anniversaries in 2017, with it being the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper, the Summer of Love, the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, and much more. One anniversary that’s received zero attention to my knowledge—-is the 60th anniversary of the first single-groove Stereo LP, manufactured by Audio Fidelity in October of 1957.

Stereophonic sound reproduction is not new: two-channel sound was demonstrated as far back as 1881, when paired telephone receivers transmitted performances of the Paris Opera to nearby rooms where performances could be heard using a receiver for each channel/ear. In recent years, “accidental stereo” recordings from as early as 1929 have been unearthed by archivists and record collectors: performances where two or more microphones and cutting lathes were run simultaneously. When properly paired together and synced precisely, a stereo image emerges. As you can imagine, the task of syncing multiple 78 rpm records was not easy; recent compilations of such accidental stereo recordings utilize sophisticated software to synchronize the recordings and eliminate variances in speed  or pitch. A review of one collection of “reconstructed recordings” can be seen here.

1931 saw development of stereo recordings on both sides of the Atlantic: Fletcher and Keller at Bell Labs developed binaural electrical recording equipment and made recordings with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, while Alan Blumlein at EMI submitted patent applications for stereo recording techniques. There was continued development in stereo recording techniques until that pesky war intervened.

And then, post-war: Magnecord recorders, based upon (cough) bounty-of-war technology developed by Magnetophon in Germany, were adapted to stereo recording so as to aid in NVH (noise-vibration-harshness) amalysis for General Motors, of all things. By 1951, Emory Cook had released stereo reel-to-reel recordings of trains, setting a standard for stereo demos that continues until today, sadly.  A few years later, Cook cut stereo discs with separate grooves for each channel, played back by a two-headed pickup arm reminiscent of a freak snake in a circus sideshow.

playback system—two mono cartridges, separate grooves for each channel.

Fast forward a few years to 1957 : Westrex, an offshoot of Western Electric, demonstrated a single-groove 45/45 cutting lathe for LPs. Unlike the Cook system, it required a single, newly-developed  stereo cartridge to trace two channels at 45 degrees to one another in a single groove. Most major labels were offered development units and pondered their course of action; Audio Fidelity, a tiny NYC label dedicated to sonic spectaculars (those damn trains again!!) and titles designed to capitalize upon trends and current events, raised a stink until they got the ear of Westrex.

What happened then is characteristic of the sensationalist nature of the label. Westrex, trying to appease the squeaky wheel, cut masters of a disc of Audio Fidelity stereo recordings in October of 1957. Side one had the Dukes of Dixieland, a featured act of the label; side two had—you guessed it—trains and sound effects. Westrex intended the masters to be test-cuttings, representative of what could be done, but not really de-bugged and ready for release. There were noise issues and phase aberrations that they thought would render the record unacceptable for general release.

Sid Frey at Audio Fidelity didn’t see it that way: he saw an opportunity for the little label to gain a big profile.

The first stereo disc, AFLP 1872, was issued in a simple black jacket with a stuck-on gold label, unlike the sensationalist/cheesy covers that became a trademark of AF. 500 copies of the demo disc were pressed, and in mid-December, Frey advertised in Billboard that AF would send a copy to anyone who wrote him on a record company letterhead.

Bingo: a star was born, and despite the disc’s deficiencies, the little label had beaten the big labels to the punch.

Audio Fidelity’s first stereo disc, in a funereal black jacket. And what is it about trains??

The 1959 Fawcett magazine Hi-Fi Systems featured “Man On the Go”,  a gosh-wow, hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show profile of Frey which was classic little guy vs. giants hype. By that time, Audio Fidelity had issued a couple dozen sonic spectacular stereo discs, and was an acknowledged leader in the rapidly-growing niche market.

This article is so gushy that it must’ve embarrassed even Audio Fidelity’s PR team.

The label never achieved the level of respectability of  Mercury’s Living Presence recordings, and they very rarely achieved Mercury’s level of artistic merit or, to put it bluntly, class. Google “Audio Fidelity album covers”, and you’ll get a sense of the hucksterism and soft-core porn in which the label indulged.

And yet, and yet: Audio Fidelity was around for decades, and issued an astonishing number of titles, as you can see in an amazing work of obsessive-fanboy data-gathering, seen here and here.

Radio Shack and other companies kept the Audio Fidelity demo discs alive well into the ’70’s.  Cheesy or not, hucksters or not—happy 60th Anniversary to the first single-groove stereo discs from Audio Fidelity!

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