Later recordings and private recordings from the 80s
I'd like to play a few snippets from recordings I treasured in the 80s, at around the time I took over at Harbeth, and which were used as test material during the development of the original HL Compact and HL5 speakers.
First, the influence of those early Decca recordings, and concert recordings made by and for the BBC shaped my internal reference of what was 'right' from my early teens to late twenties (I was 29 when I took over at Harbeth). I have no interest in revisiting the issue of whether they were 'right' or not. The tributes paid to 'The Decca sound' have endured and even grown with time. And as the simple analogue equipment used to make those glorious recordings was skipped at least forty years ago, we can see that the sound was not equipment related, but skill driven. Skill in the selection of halls and studios with great acoustics, and the careful positioning and choice of microphones relative to the performers to achieve the optimum balance between the glorious warmth and bloom of the acoustic space, clarity and diction (critically important in opera) and relative loudness (the 'balance') of the performers. [Must remember to write about Culshaw's grid]
So, right or wrong, the sound from those early recordings built my internal reference and when I started to develop loudspeakers, I drew on that exposure to select reference recordings to challenge my designs. I've said before that cast away on a desert island, I could still continue working if I had just a few of these references and here are a few snips.
First, speech. Good quality reproduction of speech is critical because we innately know how a human voice sounds. And of course, in a broadcast environment, specifically my exposure to local radio, speech (not music) dominates the programme output. So speech has to be the starting point, and if speech doesn't sound right, then in my opinion, the design should be abandoned.
Speech example 1: The speech test I inherited from Dudley Harwood, Harbeth's founder - this had been in use within the BBC during the 70/80s. It is not technically perfect, but doesn't need to be. It is at least consistently imperfect and its limitations become familiar to the listener with repeated use.
Speech example 2: BBC news summary, made at BBC World Service, announced by Brian Empringham, about 1990, recorded with U47 microphone at about 30cms; recorded to 1/4 inch 15ips on Studer A80. I own the copyright on this recording.
Speech example 3: A digital recording I made outside of myself and eldest son in the late 90s. We were either side of a BBC 4038 ribbon microphone (designed by Dudley Harwood) which with its figure-of-eight put us both equally on axis. I applied a slight bass-down shelf in the post production. At the time I considered this ribbon mic to give the best reproduction of Adam's voice. It's still in production some fifty years later.
By the late 1980s, I had settled upon a personal selection of musical test pieces which even listened to for just a minute two gave me useful information about a speaker under development -
Music example 1: Gulda - piano, Philips digital studio recording (details to follow). This was one of my favourite test tracks at the time of the original HL Compact/HL5 development.
Music example 2: (Edited) An all-digital recording I made of a young pianist at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon around 1995. I used two B&K omni microphones. Steinway Concert D piano, lid open, no audience in the hall. For me, I very much like the way the acoustic around the piano is reproduced, the microphones sufficiently far away to capture the liveness of the hall and the huge dynamic range of the piano. Listen to the incredible sustain between the notes and the slightly 'sour' effect of the modulation of the decaying notes beating against the structural resonances of the piano body - a subtle wa-wa effect. Fabulous instrument.
I think the recordings above pinpoint what I look for in a recording, a performance, music and finally in the speakers. I'm hunting for resolution, warmth and clarity: and the extremely rich harmonics of the piano and the wide dynamic range should really grab the attention. Most speakers (and that included all polypropylene-cone based speakers I've heard) are hopeless at resolving the microtones in speech and piano; the energy being converted to heat and never released as sound within the cone's molecular structure. Once you know how these recordings can sound (on the Harbeth Radial™ cone) conventional speakers layer the detail under a blanket of fog.
In 1958, during the first year of the stereo LP, the Decca Record Company released Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes. This English opera, sung in English andset in Suffolk on the east coast of England amongst a poor fishing community is a dark tale as opera can be. But the recording is still one of the greatest - perhaps the greatest operatic recording. The warmth and body is outstanding. The use of the stereo sound stage (about which I'll write another time) is full left to full right and with fantastic depth. If you only every buy one opera recording, may I humbly suggest that this is the one. Reproducing the voices and orchestra laid out in front of you between and beyond the speakers is unlike any other performance - for me anyway.
Anyway, you can sample the double CD on Amazon here.
To give you just a taste of the layered sonic spectacle that the composer/conductor, cast, sound engineer and producer John Culshaw achieved, I suggest these clips. The clip MP3 quality is a mere shadow of the CD.
I'm delighted to find that this fabulous recording is available on CD. I'd give up all hope of it being available. The LP was one of the very first I bought in the mid 70s. It was recorded in (about 1961 - I'll check) in a church, and the overall sound is truly fantastic, as is the use of stereo. It's a play, set to music and featuring many children telling the story of Noah and his arc.
There are not many recording's that I'd say are mandatory to show-off your system's capabilities; this is one of the very few. You can buy a used copy on Amazon (as I have just done) for about the price of a couple of pints of beer.
Highly recommended. Amazon here. Treat yourself. Then amaze yourself at how within just a couple of years of the launch of the stereo, the recording technique had been perfected.