Brahms Symphonies on Direct-to-Disc Vinyl

New Berlin Philharmonic Release Captures Concert Sound

Brahms Symphonies on Direct-to-Disc Vinyl

Direct-to-disc vinyl recordings by major orchestras have always been rare, and the dearth of newly-recorded classical music on wax that followed the advent of CDs led to a decades-long gap between such releases. Naturally, then, ears perked up when the Berlin Philharmonic announced a 6-LP box set of D2D performances that used the Blumlein one-point stereo microphone technique. Conducted by Simon Rattle and available on Berlin Philharmoniker Records, Johannes Brahms Symphonies 1–4 is limited to 1833 copies, a number inspired by the year of Brahms’ birth. The album represents a return to the very roots of recording in a quest for the ultimate in direct reality. In a YouTube video that discusses the making of the record, Simon Rattle says, “It was maybe the most honest recorded sound I have heard of the orchestra. This was really us. This was that moment caught.” This marvelously idealistic project succeeded due to a combination of elements—the musicians, the recording studio, the recording equipment, proper microphone placement—and the result is a landmark in the history of recording.

The Music and the Musicians
Every musician dreams of a recording that actually reproduces concert sound. However, in the workaday world of commercial recording, with its financial restrictions and time constraints, this dream can seem remote. At the same time, the feeling that editing and modifications after the fact can patch things up, that things can be proverbially “fixed in the mix,” detaches the performers from the connection with the final result.

On direct-to-disc recordings, however, everything changes. With no editing possible, with no modifications during or after the fact, the musicians work at a high pitch of intensity, like a live performance but even more so, since any lapses are either there forever or require a complete retake. Direct-to-disc recording is musical intensity and concentration at their peak. It’s no wonder Rattle describes the experience as “completely terrifying and satisfying in equal measures.”

Terrifying, but the Berlin Philharmonic and Rattle, not to mention the technical staff, met the challenge superbly. The recordings were made in the Berlin Philharmonic’s concert home, the Philharmonie, with a direct-to-disc lathe transported to the hall from Emil Berliner Studios, so the musicians were working in a familiar and favorable acoustic environment. The engineering was done by Maarten de Boer and Rainer Maillard of Emil Berliner Studios. The playing is beautiful and highly expressive. Rattle’s approach to the symphonies is perhaps less turbulent than the exaggerated over-dramatization of some conductors, but there is plenty of excitement. And emphasizing the lyricism is a choice I find entirely justified since to my mind Brahms is pre-eminently a lyrical symphonist. Even with no editing, the orchestra is all but perfect, and their unanimity of ensemble is exquisite. This makes sense, as the Berlin Philharmonic has an association with the music of Brahms going back to the composer himself, and the four symphonies are a central part of their repertoire.

There were three “takes” of each side, an open rehearsal, and two live performances. Because, in retrospect, the best performance of the opening movement of Symphony No. 3 wasn’t successfully cut on disc, two analogue back-up tapes are the source for that movement. For a modest fee you can hear the music (though in a different, multiple-microphone recording) on the Berlin Philharmonic’s “digital concert hall” website. This option that may appeal to readers who want to decide whether to spend $530 for the vinyl box set.

The Sound
If D2D is the most direct method of recording and the closest to concert experience, the Blumfield stereo microphone technique used on Johannes Brahms Symphonies 1–4 is the most accurate and least artificial way to record direct to disc. In this microphone technique, the sound field at a single listening position is recorded by two microphones in a figure 8 pattern, with the microphones in nearly the same spot and the axes of the microphones crossed at 90 degrees. The microphones used here were a pair of Sennheiser MKH 800 Twins, each set to a figure 8 pattern. The Twin is a dual capsule microphone with a switchable pattern. Blumlein microphoning is very sensitive to microphone placement. In this case, the microphones were placed, after considerable experimentation, one meter behind the conductor’s podium and four-and-a-half meters above the ground.

This idea of how to record stereo was developed considerably before commercial stereo recording was possible. Alan Blumlein took out a patent on it (and also on stereo disc cutting and playback!) in 1931. But this original idea remains the most literally accurate method of stereo recording. Part of this accuracy is the absence of acoustical information that is not part of any natural reality and that requires the brain to do processing that is not part of natural listening. A spaced omni or multi-miked recording presents on playback an acoustic event full of artifacts requiring constant effort to interpret. Spaced omni recordings, for example, are full of random phase energy that would never occur in a real event. Real events have reverberation, but they do not have the results of hearing the natural sound from several points meters apart. By contrast, the playback of Blumlein stereo presents a real event that the brain can process at the basic level of natural sound listening. The sound presented on playback is directly interpretable by the ear/brain because it is natural in the sense of being something that was really there.

This perhaps reads like some cross between technobabble and amateur psychology, but it is the truth. And you can easily check it for yourself. Set up accurate Blumlein playback, with the listener close to the speakers and the speakers separated by 90 degrees. Dim the lights and close your eyes—you want to get rid of visual cues. And forget about listening for audiophile categories like “soundstage.” Quite soon, your brain will realize that what is being heard is a reality that can be interpreted as a reality directly, not the sort of “stereo” that intrinsically makes no sense but requires constant mental maneuvering to make it into anything resembling a real event at all.

The difference is striking. Blumlein stereo is real. Other kinds of stereo, pleasing or not, are not. Audio people are wont to say that stereo is an illusion. Of spaced or multiple microphones, this is true. But Blumlein stereo is a presentation of reality.

Modern multi-miked orchestral recording has perhaps habituated listeners to a type of sound that cannot really occur in actual concert listening. Instruments are presented with the tonal character of hearing them relatively close up, but with the overall balance among the instruments adjusted at best to approximate the ideal balance that occurs when one listens to the blended sound of a seat back at a suitable position in the hall. In reality, these two things cannot occur both at once. If one is close up, then one is inevitably closer to some instruments than others and those will sound proportionately louder. And the more distant instruments will sound softer as well as tonally more distant. And if one is out in the hall, the balance will be natural and correct but none of the instruments will have “close-up” sound.

Since Blumlein stereo presents the sound as it actually is at the point where the single stereo microphone array is placed, it is bound to happen that Blumlein sound will be different than the multi-miked sound, even when the latter is done ideally. The Berlin Philharmonic set, being recorded quite close to the front of the orchestra, presents the violins—firsts on the left, seconds on the right, strongly separated—rather closer in perspective than the winds in the center. This is not unmusical nor unrealistic. One would hear something very like this in a seat in the front rows. But it is different from multi-miking, which would typically bring the winds more forward. The spatial realism leads one to adjust rapidly, just as one would in real life, and to hear this as a natural balance, given where everything is. This is an experience which never happens with multiple microphones, which always produce a sound not truly natural and convincing, however pleasing it might be in tonal and balance terms.

The Philharmonie is by all accounts an acoustically superb hall. Designed by the renowned acoustician Lothar Cremer, it has a superb sonic reputation. The relative closeness of the microphone placement here prevents any sense of excessive reverberation, but the fine tonal character of the hall is in evidence. The records have excellently silent surfaces, and the sound is clean and undistorted. Truth to timbre is crucial in a recording, and this, along with spatial correctness, is a particular strength of Blumlein stereo. Here the timbre is indeed true to life: the microphone response is ultra–flat in the midrange broadly conceived—and the sound comes across as extremely neutrally recorded. And the microphone response extends far into the ultra-sonic range, to beyond 50 kHz. This is a fascinating and wonderful recording. The price perhaps seems high, but for something this distinctive and this close to the live concert experience, the cost seems justified.