Part 4: Stereo Comes Home

Previously: Music in the Night

By the early 1950’s televisions were finding their way into many American homes. Hollywood had to find ways draw people back to theaters that people just could not get at home. Films such as The Robe, Shane, and Julius Caesar, as well as many others used new processes, both visual and aural. Among those lures was stereo soundtracks.

Fred Astaire and Janis Paige in Silk Stockings (1957)

At the same time, improvements were being made to existing technologies found in homes. Advancements in radio and phonograph records were being developed, expanding on experiments that had been conducted in the 1930’s.

Records: Early stereo disk experiments used two systems: the single groove system used by Blumlein and Bell Labs, and a two pickup system used by others. In the early 1950’s, a sound engineer named Emory Cook (1913–2002) marketed records that used a two pickup system. For each piece there were two monophonic bands on the record, each to be tracked by its own pickup. One example is of Willis Page conducting New Orchestral Society of Boston performing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony from 1954. The timing between the two channels seems to be a bit off. The two channels are fairly close so the distance between the styli is probably correct, but perhaps one stylus is just a little bit ahead of the other in terms of what it is playing. I heard that problem on every sample of the system I found on YouTube. Obviously, proper alignment of the two styli is critical to this system.

Cook Binaural recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1954)

Cook had previously experimented with recordings out in the field that were known for their fidelity such as this record from 1952 which he recorded along the New York Central Railway. He was lucky: if I tried such a recording I would have had people coming up and asking, “So what are you doing?”, ruining the recording.

Cook’s Rail Dynamics (1952)

Cook wanted accurate sounding recordings — “HiFi” before the term came into use. He knew of single groove stereo recordings but the technology of the early to mid 1950’s limited the audio quality that could be obtained with single cutting and pickup devices.

Cooks two-pickup system did not have much of an impact, nor did stereo tapes which were first released commercially in 1955. Experiments in England by two companies, London and Decca were being conducted in the mid 1950’s but they used much of the same technology that had been used experimentally before. In the US, RCA and Westrex worked on a different system that used the two sides of the groove for the two channels rather than modulating the bottom of the groove as had Blumlein. This gave the Westrex system compatibility with monaural records. While the older system could play monaural records it would only play the audio on one side as the bottom of the groove, where the other channels audio would be, contained no information. The Westrex system would play audio on both sides — it was just the same signal with a monaural record. Several companies were fighting it out on the minor details with the final winner being a system developed by Columbia records. This system used lateral modulation of the groove — each side of the groove had the audio for one channel.

Limited edition stereo discs were released in late 1957 with major developments in equipment and disk availability in 1958.

More detailed information is available here.

Radio: In the early 1950’s many owners of AM stations were starting FM stations, more as a hedge against the future than for any short term goal. With the growing interest in stereo, and having not much else to do with their FM stations, the concept of using two radio stations to broadcast stereo programming was revisited. That was before the FCC implemented the NRSC curve in 1990 and there was not as much electrical noise on AM as there is today so it was not a bad match to have the left channel on an AM station and the right channel on the FM station. Many people would use two different radios to accomplish this, but there were some receivers built to accomplish this in one unit.

May I introduce the Bell 2445. My father bought one of these units in 1964. I had it through 1983. By that time it was having many problems so I got rid of it.

Before you play the video, let’s look at the front panel.

Notice that it has a separate tuner for AM and FM. If you look at the selector knob (second from the left) you will see that it has a position for AM-FM. That is why the two separate receiver sections. It allowed you to play AM for the left channel and FM for the right.

Just to the left of top center you will see a position marked AUX-MX (we called it Aux-Mix). We assumed that AUX meant “auxiliary” but we had no idea of what MX stood for, but now I know it means “multiplex.” In other words, FM stereo. The reason for such an unusual arrangement was because this unit was designed before an FM standard was adopted in the U.S. Our unit did have FM stereo — not that we knew what it was. The FM stereo circuit was an add on that was inserted in the left (as viewed from the front) rear portion of the chassis with two little cables that came out and plugged into the auxiliary jacks.

I would love to have mine back.

There were fourteen differing systems considered by the FCC. Of those, systems by Zenith and GE were close enough that they were virtually identical. The FCC decided on that system in April 1961, effective July 1, 1961 (at midnight local time of stations). The first station to use the new system was WGFM in Schenectady, New York.

For more information look here.

The system adopted by the FCC was important in one respect: it was compatible with mono radios.

In later years an AM system was adopted. By that point music had all but abandoned the AM dial. With increased noise from modern technology and the implementation of the NRSC curve in 1990 that limited the highest frequency to 9.5 kilohertz, there was not much reason for AM stations to get the stereo equipment or consumers to buy the radios.

An AM/FM combo station I worked at in the mid 1980’s went stereo on the AM. On January 1, 1985, I was simulcasting. I knew the chief engineer had an AM stereo receiver in his office. I got it out and used that as the monitor. However, as was the case with most consumer gear, the frequency response was much lower than what the station’s AM air monitor provided, although the monitor in the studio was monaural.

Today it seems that, despite advancements in technology, interest in high quality audio is waning. That is too bad.

Part 4: Stereo Comes Home Read More »

Part 3: Music in the Night

Previously: Hollywood Experiments With Stereo

The earliest known experiments with “tape” recording were done by Alexander Graham Bell with a system he patented in 1886. While it used a tape, it used a stylus as did Edison’s invention and others. Rather than use a cylinder or a disk, the groove was etched into a long piece of tape covered with wax that went from one reel to another.

Valdemar Poulsen (1869-1942) was a Danish engineer and a very intelligent man. In fact, he is responsible for two inventions that play a part in our story. In 1903 he invented a means by which a steady, continuous radio signal could be generated which made possible the transmission of audio and later television. Prior to this discovery, wireless transmissions depended on the generation of a gigantic spark, using a “spark gap” transmitter, that could be picked up at a distance but were limited to signals such as Morse code. Poulsen’s other invention was the magnetic recorder in 1898. As with spark gap transmitters, it could only record signals such as Morse code. It used piano wire at a speed of 84 inches per second — modern audio tape recorders use speeds starting at 1-7/8 inches per second for logging purposes doubling to 30 inches per second for studio use (1-7/8, 3-3/4, 7-1/2, 15 and 30).

Valdemar Poulsen Photo: Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation

In 1924, German engineer Kurt Stille (1873-1957) developed an audio recorder for office dictation. As with Poulsen’s device, this used steel wire as the medium. While it recorded sound it was not of broadcast quality.

It took another German, Louis Blattner (1881-1935), to further develop Stille’s invention. Blattner, who lived in England, was a movie producer interested in a way of synchronizing sound with motion pictures. His developments garnered interest at the BBC. They obtained several Blattnerphones. These were deemed acceptable for voice but not for music. One of the main reasons for this was poor speed regulation. The Blattnerphone used a 6mm steel tape running at 5 feet per minute. This steel tape did allow for early experiments with tape editing. Among other recordings, a Blattnerphone was used to record Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war against Germany in 1939.

With war, development of something as frivolous as a means of recording good quality audio was not considered a high priority. Allies were unaware of work done by the German company BASF in the mid 1930’s. During the latter part of the war, however, the United States military did use wire recordings to play back sounds to cover the real movement of men and materiel — but those devices were not known for their fidelity.

WWII US Navy wire recorder Photo:

Jack Mullin (1913-1999) was an officer in the US Army Signal Corp. He also enjoyed classical music. German radio stations would play music throughout the day and night. He was perplexed, though. Mulling knew what live music sounded like on the radio. He also knew what music played from discs sounded like on the radio. As far as he knew at the time, those were the only two options. This music sounded as though it was being played live on the air — even in the middle of the night.

Mullin knew of wire recorders – he was in the Signal Corp — but he didn’t know of tape recorders and the audio quality that was possible. The only thing he could think of was that the Germans were able to have musicians play live even in the middle of the night. Mullins knew that Hitler could get much of what he wanted but there were practical limits. Surly there were more important things for the German government to be concerned with than to have world class musicians play on the radio at all hours of the day and night.

After the war Mullin was part of a team tasked with finding a reported high-frequency device that would disable allied aircraft. He never found any trace of such a weapon but a British officer told Mullin of a device called a Magnetophon. Before returning to the United States, Mullin took a side trip to a German radio station in Bad Nauheim. It was here than he first saw the device that made possible the music in the night.

Along with the devices, Mullin found reels of the tape that contained the recordings. Not only did the recordings sound  like the musicians were live, they were also in stereo although they could not be broadcast that way.

Here is one such recording made in Berlin in 1944. In the quiet passages you can hear German anti-aircraft firing in the distance. If possible, listen to this recording though good speakers or even headphones. It is remarkable that this recording is from 1944.

Mullin arranged to bring back some Magnetophons to the United States. He worked to improve the devices. When he was satisfied with their quality he put on demonstrations of the new medium. This lead to tape being first used on network radio on the Bing Crosby show on October 1, 1947

Next: Stereo Comes Home

Part 3: Music in the Night Read More »

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: Gary Wayne

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

Part 2: Hollywood experiments with stereo Read More »



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..


Stereo part 1: Accidental and early disc experiments Read More »


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.