Thomas Fine is the son of Mercury Living Presence producer Wilma Cozart Fine and engineer C. Robert Fine. His description of the Mercury technique is based on firsthand accounts by his parents and associate engineer Bob Eberenz, along with the Mercury session books and truck equipment manifests, plus recording information printed on commercially-released albums.
The Mercury Living Presence recording technique, associated with C. Robert Fine, dates from the late 1940s (the first official Mercury Living Presence recording was made in April, 1951) and started out as a single-microphone method to make a full- range monophonic recording of a symphony orchestra.
Following service in the Marine Corps in WWII, Fine worked as the engineer at Majestic Records' studio in Manhattan. The studio was used to make 78 RPM sides for Majestic as well as other labels, including John Hammond's Keynote Records. Hammond and Fine shared recording ideas and experiences during those sessions; both were sympathetic to the philosophy of using the minimum number of microphones to achieve the desired sound pickup. The philosophy evolved into using a single Altec microphone, probably a 639 "Birdcage," on the Hammond-produced 1947 recording of Igor Stravinsky conducting his Concerto in E-flat (Dumbarton Oaks) (Keynote DM-1, later released on Mercury).
By then Fine was also doing sessions at Reeves Beaux Arts Studios in Manhattan. Majestic Records shut down in 1948 and Fine moved to Reeves as head of disc- recording operations. By 1949 Reeves was also recording sessions to the then-new magnetic tape. Hammond sold Keynote to Mercury Records in 1948 and headed Mercury's classical department. He and Fine continued to make albums of chamber-orchestra groups in New York, often using the single-mic technique. The LP era dawned at that time and disk fidelity continued to improve, making the clarity and natural balance of the single-mic technique all the more desirable. In December 1950 Fine made his first full-orchestra recording with a single microphone, documented as the first American orchestral recording, with a Neumann/Telefunken U47. The recording was William Schuman's "Judith" and "Undertow" ballet scores, performed by the Louisville Orchestra and recorded in Reeve's large scoring studio.
In April of 1951 Fine traveled to the Windy City to make Mercury's first recordings with the Chicago Symphony, under Rafael Kubelik. Having experimented with single-microphone recordings in New York studios, as well as other venues, Fine took along a Telefunken/Neumann U47 tube condenser mic, which was then relatively unknown in the States. From experiments and intuition, Fine opted to place the microphone slightly behind and above the conductor's podium. He then fine-tuned the placement based on listening to monitor speakers as the
orchestra rehearsed. For this session the recording was done remotely, via a dedicated telephone line at Universal Recording Studios. Engineering legend Bill Putnam acted as tape op. Despite the fact that telephone line noise and crackle can be heard, the recording translated to mono LP excellently. Kubelik's reading of Ravel's arrangement of [Modest] Mussourksky's "Pictures At An Exhibition" quickly became a hit for Mercury's young classical division. New York Times music critic Philip Taubman described the sound "as if being in the living presence of the orchestra." The Mercury sound then became the standard-bearer for classical music in the early LP era. The U47 microphone gained its own cult status, helped along by a feature article in the Saturday Evening Post magazine.
Bob Fine and Mercury producer Wilma Cozart watched keenly as stereo playback in the home came nearer to fruition. Fine was well aware of multi-channel sound benefits and recording techniques, having worked as a film sound mixer since the 1940s. Cozart was a firm believer in the benefits of stereo for classical recording and reproduction, given the ability to add greater width and depth to the sound and more precise focus to the orchestra and its players. Mercury began doing experimental 2-channel stereo recordings in 1954, but none of the results passed muster. Fine and Cozart thought the 2-channel mic setups and techniques, be it crossed pairs or spaced omni- directional mics, either left too much of a hole in the center or constricted the sides. It also didn't allow for full-width and full-depth results. Their approach was strong-center, since the mono recordings were so successful with a single center-focused microphone.
In 1955, the Mercury team decided to record in 3- channel stereo, feeding each track on a 1/2" tape directly from left, center and right microphones. The thinking was three-fold: 1) Preserve the "gold standard" commercial viability of their mono work by keeping the center single-mic approach for...