Part 2: Hollywood experiments with stereo


Part 1-1/2 of this series told of Alan Dower Blumlein’s experiments with stereo in the early 1930’s. Those experiments, and those of the Bell Labs, used discs containing a single groove. There were intentional stereo recordings made in 1932, one of those being Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Philharmonics Orchestra playing Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus: Poem of Fire. It is unclear what type of disc that was: one source says it was a single groove disc while another said it was a two-groove disc utilizing two tonearms. This video purports to be that recording, but the fidelity and the lack of surface noise makes that questionable although I do hear some noise at after the four-minute mark. I do hear groove rumble but there are no significant surface noises that I would expect from a recording from that time. It is possible that it is the original recording but with modern signal processing. In any event, the name Stokowski would come up repeatedly in the development of music and recording methods.

While the Stokowski experiments with stereo were conducted, Blumlein’s work continued. His inspiration to explore stereo came from a night at the cinema with his wife in 1931. There was only a single channel soundtrack and the theater only had a single set of speakers. Blumlein was somewhat put off when an actor was on one side of the screen, but his voice was coming from the other. The scientist wanted the sound to follow the actor.

Early experiments with film included Trains at Hayes Station in 1935. The clip I included in part 1-1/2 was not dated. The source I read about that clip seemed to indicate that it was from circa 1933, but the following clip, Trains at Hayes Station, is described as the first stereo movie. This is a clip from that five-and-a-half-minute film.

Other experiments in stereo included a live performance in Philadelphia that was carried by high-grade phone lines to Washington DC. Again, Leopold Stokowski was involved in the event but that was to control the sound mix in Washington. Bell labs also demonstrated a stereo broadcast in Chicago using two radio stations. Both of those experiments were in 1933.

Leopold Stokowski

Stokowski became involved with the motion picture industry. In 1937 he made 8-track recordings at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia for the Universal film 100 Men and a Girl. The process used synchronized optical recorders. The results were then taken to Hollywood where the movie’s star, Deanna Durbin, recorded her vocals. This process allowed the various tracks to be mixed down as desired rather than on -the-fly while being recorded. The final product, however, was monaural.

Late in 1937, Stokowski was having dinner in Los Angeles at Chasen’s Restaurant when Walt Disney saw him. Disney grabbed a chair and pulled it up to Stokowski’s table. The young animator began telling the conductor of a new film short in the Silly Symphony series. The plan was to accompany a cartoon with a piece of classical music, specifically French composer Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The exuberant Disney won Stokowski over the conductor agreed to work on the project.

Chasen’s Restaurant Photo:

At that time, the music for cartoons was played to a pre-recorded “click track,” essentially a recorded metronome, so that both the musicians and the animators had a common framework in which to work. Stokowski first tried to work with the click track but was not happy with the results.  He was then allowed to record without the click track, but this required the animators to adjust their work to the sound track rather than working from a common framework. This made the project too expensive for just a short film, so the concept of Fantasia was born – but that work did not come until later.

By 1938, MGM was using multi-channel recording using optical tracks. This allowed dialog on one track, the music spread over two tracks, and sound effects on the fourth track. As with 100 Men and a Girl, this facilitated the final mix-down of the monaural soundtrack. One song from the film Love Finds Andy Hardy is said to be the first stereo recording of Judy Garland – although if this is stereo, I can’t say that I hear it.

The Wizard of Oz was recorded with a stereo soundtrack in 1939 but, due to the limitations in most theaters of the time audiences were not able to hear anything but a monaural soundtrack.

That brings us to 1940 and the film that is said to be the first movie released with a stereo soundtrack – the one briefly mentioned earlier, Disney’s Fantasia.

Fantasia was developed, in a sense, to make the expense of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice cost effective. As music was the main focus of the film Disney wanted to make the music sound as good as possible.

One problem with that was that Hollywood used what was called the Academy Curve, developed in 1938 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science – the Academy Awards people. The reason for the curve was tube amplifiers of the time had high frequency noise as did optical soundtracks. Details are available in the link so I won’t go into them here, but suffice it to say that the curve did not lend itself to satisfactory reproduction of classical music.

Disney worked with his engineers to develop a new system for movie soundtracks. This system used a number of optical sound cameras and microphones. It also used what today would be called surround sound. This system was called Fantasound.

To overcome the noise problem of optical soundtracks. the soundtrack was played from a synchronized separate film. In addition to the audio tracks, a separate control track was used. That track allowed soft passages to be recorded at a higher level to overcome noise but automatically reduced on playback to their appropriate levels. This gave the film a much wider dynamic range than a standard soundtrack could provide.

The Fantasound system was expensive. The full system was used in only two theaters, the Broadway Theater in New York and the Cathay Circle Theater in Los Angeles. The film did go on a road show but, in many cases, was shown in legitimate theaters as opposed to movie theaters as movie houses would have to close for a period of time while equipment was installed. The road tour system did not include the surround sound. The full system cost $85,00 and the simpler system cost $45,000 – in 1941 dollars.

Due to the expense and because the  United States was gearing up for the expected entry into World War II, not much became of the system although Disney, along with engineers William E. Garity and J.N.A. Hawkins were given Oscars for their contributions to the art of motion pictures for their work on Fantasound. When RKO films took over distribution of Fantasia, they cut down its running time and only included the traditional monaural soundtrack.

By this time many Hollywood studios were using optical multi-track systems for recording soundtracks but, as far as I can tell, they were not intended for stereo release although some have since been release in modern media. As with 100 men and a Girl, the multi-track recordings were used to facilitate the mixing of the final monaural soundtrack.

Next: Music in the night



If I find information to correct or add to an earlier post, I will bring it to your attention. In this case, rather than add it to the original post where it might get overlooked I decided to make a stand-alone post so the information can get the attention it deserves..

On December 27, 1931, Alan Dower Blumlein was awarded a patent for “Improvements in and relating to sound-transmission, sound-recording and sound-reproducing systems”. Just as the motion picture industry in the United States moved to Hollywood from New Jersey to try and get away from patents held by Thomas Edison, Blumlein’s experiments were done for Columbia Gramophone to try and find a way to work around patents held by Western Electric. Columbia Gramophone later merged with The Gramophone Company to form Electric and Musical Industries, more commonly known as known as EMI.

Unlike the “accidental recordings” done at the RCA studios in New York, these were intentional stereo recordings done on a single disc as was done later in experiments in the Bell Telephone Labs as described in Part 1 of this series. Like the Bell Lab experiments, Blumlein’s recordings used both lateral and vertical modulation of the groove although he seemed to have obtained better separation than did Bell Labs.

Here is a video giving an overview of Blumlein’s work, conducted at London’s now-famous Abbey Road Studio’s Studio 1, used by the Beatles thirty years later.:

Experiments of the new recording system were made in 1933 as shown in this video.

In January, 1934, recordings were made of three pianos arranged in an arc and of of the Ray Noble Orchestra, a popular dance band of the time. Here are some of those recordings.

As a side note, Ray Noble travelled to the United States in 1934. Union regulations prevented Noble from bringing his musicians with him so he hired Glen Miller both as an arranger and to put an orchestra together.

In total, Blumein obtained 128 patents during his lifetime. The last project he worked on was the development of an airborne radar system. It was during the testing of this system that Blumein was killed in a plane crash on June 7, 1942. Imagine what other things this great mind may have invented had his life not been cut short at the young age of 38.

Coming up in Stereo Part 2: Part 2: Hollywood experiments with stereo

Stereo part 1: Accidental and early disc experiments

On February 9, 1932, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra were in a studio in New York to make some records. For some reason lost to history, two separate recording setups were used beginning with the microphone continuing through to the disc-cutting lathe. No one thought about it until the 1980’s.

According to a 1985 article in the Chicago Times, Steve Lasker had a test pressing he had just received from a collector in Belgium. Lasker’s friend, Brad Kay, noticed that the master number on that disc was different than the number on the released performance owned by Kay. They thought perhaps that the test disc may have been an alternate take.

The two met again at a later date and listened to both the test disc and Kay’s disc of the released performance. As they listened closely, they noticed that the performances sounded the same. The same phrasing, the same mistakes, and so on. Knowing that no two jazz performances were the same they realized that the two discs were recordings of the same performance. They did notice, though, that there were acoustical differences between the two. They synchronized the two recordings on the two channels of a stereo tape recorder and discovered that they had a stereo recording, albeit an accidental one.

This led to further research on the part of Brad Kay and he discovered other “accidental stereo” recordings going back to as early as 1929 such as this recording of Igor Stravinsky’s Right of Spring as conducted by Leopold Stokowski.

It took until 1934 before progress was made on a disc that carried both channels on a single disc. Experiments by the Bell Telephone labs used vertical modulation of the grove for one channel and lateral modulation for the other. I find the lateral modulation seemed to give better separation than did the vertical. One channel almost seems mono whereas the other was only on one side.

Inasmuch as “accidental” stereo would not even be noticed for almost fifty years and the depression probably was not the time for anyone to pursue such a novel concept as stereo discs, stereo was to go nowhere for several years until until the industry that made the silver screen flicker thought they would give it a try..


Let’s raise a toast

Charles and Betty were on their honeymoon in 1932 in Phoenix, Arizona. In their hotel lobby, from a back room they heard a piano player play a song that the couple had never heard before. They immediately fell in love with it. The piano player said it was something he had written and the newlyweds asked him to write down the lyrics. The piano player obliged but did not write his name on the paper.

Twenty or so years later, Dave, a student at Stanford, and his friend Bob were driving down highway 99 from Stanford to Los Angeles. Dave thought he would stop by and see his girlfriend Katie in Fresno. Katie was not home at the moment, so her mother, Betty, thought she would entertain the two young men by playing the song she first heard on her honeymoon over twenty years before. The two men loved it.

A couple of years later, Dave, Dave Guard, and Bob, Bob Shane, got together with their friend Nick Reynolds and formed the Kingston Trio. Their first album, The Kingston Trio, was released in 1958. One of the songs on that album was Scotch and Soda — the song first heard by Charles and Betty in 1932. Bob Shane’s voice lent itself to the song so he had the honor of singing it. Since the piano player did not write his name on the paper with the lyrics, Dave Guard took credit as the composer although the group tried for years to find the original composer. It was released as a single in 1962 but the single did not sell that well — after all, it had been on an album for four years at that point. The song proved to be one of the Trio’s most loved songs.

I don’t know what happened to Katie. Betty lived until 1986. Charles lived until 2004.

Among other siblings, Katie had a younger brother, Tom. Tom liked to play baseball. He played it rather well, as Charles and Betty — Seaver’s — youngest child helped the New York Mets win the World Series in 1969. Tom passed away this week at age 75.


For as long as I remember my parents had a record of the original Broadway cast recording of Guy and Dolls on Decca Records. It was as thick as a dinner plate and twice as heavy. My parents did not get their first turntable until 1964. Before that the album would have been played on record players.

What is the difference between a turntable and a record player? Well, a turntable is a delicate piece of equipment, A record player takes a girder, attaches a railroad spike to it, and drags the spike through a record. Record players are not healthy to records or other living things.

Needless to say that Guy and Dolls album was pretty worn out. By the early ‘70’s, my mother thought it was about time to replace it. Decca Records, at least in the US, had been absorbed by MCA. Since it was the 1970’s, the record company felt that the album just had to be in stereo. To achieve this, the left channel was the straight recording. The right channel was an horrendous reverb. “What’s what’s what’s play play play ing ing ing at at at the the the Rox Rox Rox y y y.”

Other record companies made “simulated” stereo by shifting the phase a little bit between channels.

The problem with both of these methods was that if you combined the channels, you would not have the original mono mix. In 1972, Robert Orban patented a new process by which a pseudo-stereo signal could be obtain from a mono source. In essence, the signal was put through a “comb”, spreading different information out over the two channels. Orban’s goal was to be able to recombine the two resulting signals together and obtain the original mono signal. He was successful.

Robert Orban (Photo courtesy AES.COM)

But it still was not stereo. The ability to make something that sounded like true stereo would take until the digital age. DES, or “Digitally Extracted Stereo,” achieves some very amazing results.

Chuck Berry had the DES treatment with the recording from 1958:

DES can even be done on recordings from the 1940’s, such as this one by Peggy Lee:

…and even the 1930’s, as shown by Billie Holiday:

Some applications of DES are better than others, and some seem to have some digital artifacts, although it is hard to say if those artifacts are from the DES or from the encoding for YouTube.

I know that some people do not like stereo on early recordings, even if there was originally a stereo mix. I can understand that. I like stereo because it allows me to hear different things in the recording that get lost in mono. I have found that there are many subtle things that add to a recording, and I enjoy being able to pick them out.

While you can search for DES examples on You Tube, this site has quite a few without having to search for them. Listen to them, and remember that these were derived from mono recordings. I hope you enjoy them.

The Legacy of the Mitchell trio

Like many American families in the early 1960s my family enjoyed the folk music craze. We were weekly watchers of Hootenanny. One group that appeared on that show and several others was the Chad Mitchell Trio.

In their early days they were accompanied by a guitar and banjo virtuoso by the name of James Joseph McGuinn.

You may know him better as Roger McGuinn.

In the 1940s there was an Air Corp/Air Force pilot named Henry “Dutch” Deutschendorf. He and his wife had a son in 1943. That son became a musician. In or about 1965, the younger Deutschendorf replaced Chad Mitchell in what became the Mitchell Trio. Some of the group’s albums show the name Deutschendorf as composing some of the songs.

One of the albums had one of the best recordings I ever heard. The young Deutshendorf sang the song and played on it. That song was a Pete Seeger Composition called “Bells of Rhymney.”

By the way, young Deutschendorf had adopted the stage name of John Denver, which is how he was billed on the Mitchell Trio albums. I think you have heard of him. But have you ever heard him play like this? If you like good folk music, and you like a good song, and you like good guitar playing, then you will like this recording.

You can’t help but admire the musicianship of McGuinn and Denver.

What you know and what you don’t know

Years ago I had an opportunity to fill in at a Big-Band radio station in San Francisco. I was excited about being on a high-powered radio station in the big city. The problem was that I really did not know the music. At one point I played something by the Glen Miller Orchestra. Before the song ended I practised how to say the name of Miller’s vocalist/saxophone player, Tex Beneke. I said to myself several times, BEN-eck-key, BEN-eck-key, BEN-eck-key. I turned the microphone on and said Ben-ECK-key. A listener called up. “You’re a young kid, ain’t ya.”

A few years later I was listening to an oldies station in Seattle. The song “Dirty Water” played. The announcer came on and said it was by the STAND-dills. I was incredulous. How could anybody working at a large market station not know the that the song was by the Stand-DELLS? Then I remembered that Sunday evening in San Francisco thirteen years before.

Sometimes when you are young and just starting out, you are not going to be as smooth as you would like. You need to be easy on yourself — and just as easy on others.

I love music trivia quizzes, especially about music from the ’60’s. However, many times it is clear that the people who make some of those quizzes do not really know what they are talking about. I would think, though, that someone who takes the time to make such a quiz and post it on line would research to make sure their answers are correct. There are two quiz questions from over the years that really got my hackles up.

One question went something like this:

In what City does Bobby Bare want to sleep tonight?

A. Detroit City

B. Abilene

C. (A third city)

D. (Some other city)

I could eliminate two of the choices right away. Of the other two, I knew that George Hamilton IV had a version of Abilene and was not aware that Bobby Bare had a version.

That left Detroit City, but anyone who had ever heard the song knew that Bobby Bare wanted to be almost anywhere but Detroit City. Any song that starts out with “I wanna go home. I wanna go home. Lord how I wanna go home” tells you the person singing the song is someone the Chamber of Commerce wants to keep out of sight.

So unless the question really meant “Where is Bobby Bare stuck but is hoping he does not have insomnia tonight?” then Detroit City was not a good answer to the question. I chose Abilene hoping that Bobby Bare did have a version that I was not aware of.

I was wrong. I guess the person who wrote the quiz had never really heard the song, or it had been so long that he forgot what it was about.

Another question that bothered me was this one:

Which of these is the official (emphasis mine) name of a Beatles album?

A. Red Album

B. Blue Album

C. Green Album

D. White Album

E. None of the above.

In 1968, the Beatles released a two record album. It had an all-white cover on the outside (except for maybe some small black print here and there) with the name of the album embossed on the front cover. While the album is commonly referred to as The White Album, the name embossed on the front simply said The Beatles. I choose E, None of the above.

They said I was wrong and that the answer was D. They made an incorrect assumption.

I am sure I will make some mistakes from time to time here. I try and verify what I write, but sometimes I go by memory if I am unable to verify. Feel free to let me know if I get something wrong.

The Original That Became a Hit Because of a Remake.

Photo courtesy

Tony Orlando was a singer best know for his time with the group Dawn in the early 1970’s. He had a long career before that, having started with a doo-wop group when he was 15. He was hired by Don Kirshner to be one of the writers in the famous Brill Building. Orlando had two top 40 hits in 1961. By the late 1960’s, he was Vice President of a music publishing company.

In 1969, Orlando recorded a song called Make Believe as part of a studio group called Wind.

This is what they used as the B side.

What are they saying?

Lyrics can be a troublesome thing.

Sometimes, you just cannot understand the words at all. A classic example of this is the Kingsmen classic, Louie, Louie. First of all, Jack Ely was far from the microphone with his neck stretched which added a roughness to his voice making it hard to understand what are pretty innocuous lyrics that led the FBI into a two-year investigation of trying to figure them out. Second, the lyrics to the song are in something of a pidgin English making it hard for a listener to “logically” follow the words.

Other times, the words may be slurred to the extent that a listener may hear something other than what is sung. Jimi Henrix’ “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” falls in to that category.

There are times that you do hear, phonetically, what is being sung, but the music phrasing makes it hard to understand what the lyrics mean, such as in Dorothy Moore’s fantastic 1976 hit Misty Blue. To move some words around to make the point, I could never figure out if Ms. Moore meant “Good baby, listen to me” or “Baby, listen to me good.” An extremely minor point in a great record, but it always tripped something in my mind whenever I heard it .

Then there are times when there are words that sound the same but the timing of the song suggests the incorrect one. The opening theme of the 1960’s animated TV show, Top Cat, is one such case. Right after the beginning it sounds as though the lyrics are “Whose (belonging to TC) intellectual close friends get to call him TC.” If you have ever seen the show, you know that none of TC’s friends are intellectual. TC is the only one of the bunch. What they are really singing is this:

Who’s (who is) intellectual. (Period. Full stop.)

Close friends get to call him TC.

No big deal, but it does make things confusing.

And don’t get me started on those angelic choirs such as used in Disney movies in the ’50’s that are totally unintelligible.

A Song In Many Forms

A good piece of music can be done in many forms. Some may sound better than others, but a good song has enough that performers of different styles have something to work with. One particular song started when Hoagy Carmichael, the song’s composer, was walking along and started to whistle. He was so pleased with the melody that he wanted to write it down. He called the song Star Dust and worked on it for several months, polishing it and perfecting it as he went along.

Carmichael originally thought of the song as a somewhat mid-tempo little number. The first recording of the song was made on Halloween, 1927, by “Hoagy Carmichael and his Pals,” a group that included, among others, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.

Somewhere along the line, the two words in the title were combined into one, making it Stardust. Carmichael recorded a somewhat slowed down version of the tune in 1928, but the lyrics, added by Mitchel Parish in 1929, made the slower tempo de rigueur. In 1931, Isham Jones made a recording of the song as a sentimental ballad.

In the early 1940’s, RCA records wanted to use two versions of Stardust on one record, something of a battle of the bands. They wanted to use Tommy Dorsey’s version on one side. and Artie Shaw’s version on the other. The story goes that they first presented the idea first to Dorsey. When he heard Shaw’s version, he begged them not to go through with the idea as Dorsey felt that his version of the song paled in comparison to Shaw’s, arguably the best instrument version of the song.

Walter Winchell was was a crusty old journalist. If you have ever seen an episode of the old TV show The Untouchables, Winchell is the narrator. He was hard as nails and nothing got to him — except Nat King Cole’s version in 1957, considered the best vocal version of the song. This version bought Winchell to tears.

There have been over 1500 recordings of Stardust. It was considered the most recorded song in History until Paul McCartney’s Yesterday took the top spot. What ever version in whatever style you like, the song is a classic that will be played hundreds of years from now.