Early stereo recordings

The last presentation was by Robin Lim on the subject of early stereo recordings.  We are so used to stereo sound now – either through loud speakers or headphones – that we forget that there was a time when sound was in mono only.  We also think that it is a fairly modern invention: modern in the sense of 60’s when stereo records appeared.  It was an example of technology being ahead of its market in that, although the recordings existed, few people could afford the means to play them.

In fact Robin revealed, stereo existed at the end of the nineteenth century in France.  This was at the Paris Electrical Exhibition in 1881.  Separate telephone lines were used to convey the two tracks and a company was set up to exploit the technology which survived until after the Great War.

Leopold Stokowski – Picture BBC

But it was in the ’30s that stereo started to make its mark and this was linked to parallel developments in being able to store sound for playing later.  An example from this era was Leopold Stokowski playing an excerpt of Die Walkerie by Wagner from 1932.  The recording was surprisingly good but with a degree of background noise.  Nevertheless, the vigour of the recording and the balance between the two speakers was excellent.

An Englishman, Anthony Blumlein, perfected the single track system and with developments in America, the modern stereo record was born.  From 1934, a recording of Sir Thomas Beecham playing part of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony and the quality of the recording was outstanding.  Some modern filtering had probably been applied by even so, it was eminently listenable to.  Sir Thomas once said ‘The English do not like music but they absolutely love the noise it makes!’

Film music on the other hand was developing rapidly and soon had 8 tracks on which to record.  We heard Stokowski again with the Russian dance from the film Fantasia which was made before the war.

During the war, the Allies listened to German radio and were surprised to hear recorded

Walter Gieseking.  Picture: Pininterest

music of high quality being transmitted.  When the war ended there was a rush to find out how the Germans had done it and they had indeed made great technical advances.  Unfortunately, a lot of the recordings were in the Russian sector and most disappeared after the war.  One at least survived and this was Gieseking playing Beethoven’s the Emperor concerto with the Berlin Radio Orchestra, and the sound and playing was simply outstanding.  Indeed, one had to remind oneself that this was a recording from the war and not a modern cd.

Robin also touched on ‘accidental stereo’.  This is where in the early days two recordings were made as a kind of insurance in case one of the machines failed.  Modern technology has enabled these two be blended together to give a stereophonic effect.  Apparently discs were sent to Elgar after the recording was done and he kept them and they have survived.  This has enabled the two recordings to be blended and as an example, we heard an extract from the ‘cello concerto.  We also heard Elgar conducting a version of ‘Oh God our help in ages past’.  This was made in February 1928.  The sound was authentic but the stereo was not so evident.  Even so, a remarkable achievement.

It was a fascinating evening, in which Robin married the development of a technology with the sound it produced.


Before the meeting we had a brief agm.  All the officers were reelected en bloc.  The Society made a small surplus in the year.  The chair thanked all those who opened up, did the refreshments, prepared the programme and also the members who continue to support us.  Over 2,000 people have visited this Web site.  New members are always welcome.  Copies of the programme are in the Oxfam music room, the Tourism Information Centre in Salt Lane and the Collector’s Room in Endless Street.

Next meeting on 17 October.

 

 

 

 

 

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