Tom Fine: New Mercury Living Presence Analog Releases Part 1

Tom Fine: New Mercury Living Presence Analog Releases Part 1

Written by John Seetoo

[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.]

John Seetoo: How did you and Chad Kassem of Analogue Productions, Acoustic Sounds, and Quality Record Pressings (interviewed in Copper #33) meet, and what were the circumstances that led to your new collaboration?

Tom Fine: I’ve watched Chad’s companies for years. I have some of the earliest Analogue Productions reissue LPs, going back to the 1990s. In more recent times, Chad bought out the assets of what had been Classic Records. In the mid 1990s, my mother had made a few all-analog LP reissues for Classic Records, which now sell for decent coin on eBay. They were made the same way as the original MLP records – a “live” 3-2 mix from the first-generation 3-track edited master, directly to the cutting lathe, no EQ and no dynamics control. This, by the way, is also how she made the approximately 125 CD reissues she did in the ‘90s. For the Classic all-analog platters, she worked with Bernie Grundman, a lacquer cutting legend.

Anyway, when Chad bought Classic’s assets, I reached out to see if he had acquired any usable production parts from those 1990s LPs. He had not, but we began a long-running conversation. Earlier this year, Chad reached out to let me know he had gained release rights for those two Janos Starker titles. We talked about how he might proceed and, to his great credit, he opted to go the route of the highest sound quality. I was hired on as reissue producer and we were able to gain access to the first-generation 3-track tapes.

It’s important to know, these new LPs are only the third time Mercury Living Presence has been cut to vinyl directly from the first-generation tapes. Of course, all of the original LPs were made this way, the stereo records spanning from 1958 to about 1967. And then my mother made those 6 reissues for Classic Records in the 1990s. Otherwise, all other issues of Mercury titles on vinyl have been cut from either second-generation tapes or digital sources. It’s more of a production to work with the 3-track tapes, but that is how you get closest to the original recording session.

JS: I understand you did restoration work on the tapes at your studio. Can you detail the process you used at your studio and what challenges you encountered?

TF: These tapes are old and somewhat fragile. They contain many splices, which over time ooze glue and stick to adjoining layers of tape. I very carefully spool through the tapes and clean the splice goo so the tapes move smoothly through a tape transport. Some splices need to be replaced, which has to be done very carefully. I’ve now done this for a few dozen MLP tapes, so I know the drill. The key is patience; nothing can be rushed and everything must be done carefully and precisely. I guess that’s the key to all this reissue work – patience and precision. It’s definitely a specific skill set, a craft.

After I restored the tapes to good playing condition, I took them to Sterling Sound’s wonderful new facility in Nashville and worked with young lacquer cutting ace Ryan Smith. Ryan learned from the late George Marino, and has over the past decade or so made a long list of vinyl remasters that have been well received in the audiophile community. Sterling’s facility is purpose-built and really fantastic. The story of how Ryan ended up in Nashville is interesting.

Mastering Engineer Ryan K. Smith stands in his studio at Sterling Sound, Nashville. Behind him is a customized Ampex ATR-100 with a Mercury 3-track cued up and ready, and a Neumann VMS-80 lathe. Photo Credit: Tom Fine.

JS: Did you actually personally transport the master tapes on a flight to Nashville? Were there any issues due to the enhanced FAA and DHS protocols at the airports?

TF: Well, the DHS people couldn’t have been nicer. None of them had seen reels of magnetic tapes before. So, each tape got opened up and swiped with the explosives-detection swabs. They were careful about x-raying the tapes and no damage was done. I had more trouble with the jar of BBQ sauce I tried to take home with me. They wouldn’t let me keep it! Someone at Nashville airport got a nice bonus that day.

JS: Was Nashville where the 3 to 2 transfers were made? Can you walk us through the process from tape to cutting lathe masters, and what, if any, problems cropped up that you needed to resolve?

TF: So, when I got to Sterling, the first thing Ryan and I did for each album was listen to the tape in his room and on his system. Then we worked out a 3-2 mix. This went quickly, more so than I expected, because we basically agreed on each step. We compared the tape playback sound to the CDs my mother did in the 1990s and used her 3-2 mix as a guideline.

With the Cello Suites, we decided to take a slightly different approach to previous issues. We focused the mix more on Starker himself, a man in a big room, rather than a somewhat diffuse image of a cello spread across the full width of the speakers. I think this is a more modern use of stereophony, because speakers and headphones today are more precise with how they reproduce a stereo image. Back in the day, especially with an old console stereo system, the “full-width cello” image would have worked just fine. What we noticed on the tapes was how physical this music is, how Starker is leaning in and playing, it’s a real workout! I think our mix brought that out more by focusing more on the man and the cello front and center. This, in turn, brings out more of the subtle aspects of Bach’s wonderful music.

With the Dvorak Concerto, I went at the 3-2 mix the same way I’ve done all previous remasters of orchestral music. With a modern playback, these tapes reveal all sorts of inner details, you can actually see the orchestration as you hear it because of the precise and steady placement of individual instruments within the stereo sound-field. What I go for is a realistic balance of how the orchestra sounded in front of the microphones, with each instrument and section in acoustic balance and in its proper place across the sound-stage.

As for problems and challenges, the biggest thing with cutting LPs is getting your lacquer to sound close to the tape. Ryan’s superb cutting chain can do that. He’s got a custom 3-2 mixer, very simple and direct circuitry, which then feeds his mastering console and the Neumann VMS-80 cutting lathe. That was Neumann’s last-generation record-cutting system, so they had worked out a lot of problems that persisted when the original MLP records were made (early in the stereo era). You can cut greater dynamics with less distortion and background noise, and there is no drifting of the bass instruments toward the center. The double basses are clearly right there on the right side, where they were in front of the microphones.

Now, when you cut a lacquer, it goes right out to the pressing plant for plating. You can’t hear what you cut until they make test pressings. We did test cuts before we committed to a final mix, but lacquer quality varies these days (there are only two suppliers left in the world and each have had their share of QC problems), and thus each cut is a bit of a crap shoot. Ryan also had challenges. Because we were cutting directly from a 3-2 mix, he couldn’t use the usual preview-computer system, which automatically controls the groove margin and depth. These computer systems date from the mid ‘60s, so back when the original MLP records were cut, they were done “on the fly” too. Back then, my mother would read ahead in the music score and use hand signals to alert cutting engineer George Piros (another legend of the lacquers) when loud and soft parts were coming up. He would then open or close the groove accordingly. You do this in order to accommodate the wide and deep groove of loud parts, and tighten up the groove in order to preserve “real estate” during quiet parts, thus allowing for more time to be cut on a side. Ryan did this with a modern twist. We had the waveform display of the 1990s CDs on his big computer monitor screen, so he could see when loud and quiet parts were coming up. Anyway, Ryan did a great job “cutting without a net” and we ended up with nice, dynamic, fully trackable sides.

Ryan Smith inspects a freshly-cut lacquer on his Neumann VMS-80 lathe at Sterling Sound, Nashville. Photo Credit: Tom Fine.

A closeup of a Mercury Living Presence lacquer being cut on Sterling Sound’s VMS-80 lathe with SX-74 cutterhead. Photo Credit: Tom Fine.

JS: Mastering engineer Steve Hoffman (interviewed in Copper #36 and 37) is another die-hard analog guy who does his own tape splicing. He detailed with us the challenges he had in remastering Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, which had a section during the second verse where the tape had been stretched and was unusable. Have you encountered any similar problems so far in the analog realm, and if so, what methods do you deploy to fix them?

TF: Luckily, the MLP tapes are in generally good condition and haven’t been abused by previous playbacks and handling along the way. As long as the splices are cleaned up, they go through a tape transport OK. Ryan’s tape machine, a custom Ampex ATR-100 with Greg Orton heads and transformerless electronics by the late Mike Spitz, is gentle on the old tapes. He had previously remastered a series of RCA Living Stereo albums for Analogue Productions, so he has plenty experienced with fragile old tapes.

Most of the horror stories you hear about tapes “self destructing” are due to ignorance and misuse. For instance, old tapes should never be fast-wound, and I’ve heard stories of really ignorant protocols about baking tapes (a tape shouldn’t be baked unless you’re sure it needs to be baked and you’re sure it’s the type of tape and type of problem that responds to baking), and of course storage issues. Associations like AES and ARSC try to spread factual knowledge. Earlier this year I attended a superb AES Conference on preservation and archiving at the Library of Congress’s Packard Center in Culpeper, VA. My message to people who handle tapes is this: the factual knowledge is out there. Learn it before messing with old fragile tapes.

A Mercury Living Presence lacquer being cut in Ryan K. Smith’s mastering room (Nashville, TN). In the foreground is the customized ATR-100 tape machine playing the 3-track master. In the background is Sterling Sound’s Neumann VMS-80 lathe. Photo Credit: Tom Fine.

[Part 2 of John Seetoo’s interview with Tom Fine will appear in Copper #74—Ed.]

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