Blumlein and the Birth of Stereo

This week it was announced that the 59th Annual Grammy Awards will see the EMI prodigy Alan Blumlein awarded a posthumous Grammy for his influential work on the development of stereo recording. Blumlein patented a number of inventions whilst working for Columbia Graphophone, later merged into EMI, and would have continued contributing to the technological development of radar, broadcasting and other communications industries were it not for his untimely death during World War II.

Blumlein's work in stereophony involved the pioneering use of two coincidently-placed microphones to produce what he called 'binaural recording'. It is noteworthy that Blumlein drew on his own experiences in the cinema, where he found the marriage of visual and sonic imagery to be lacking. The silver screen of the early 1930s was a backdrop against which he listened to and judged the spatial components of audio, growing frustrated with the lack of movement conveyed by these early cinematic soundtracks.

It is high time Blumlein's work is given due recognition. However, it is also worth remembering that Rome was not built in a day. Stereo blossomed over a period of many years stretching from the late-nineteenth century to the early 1970s. It was a technology relevant to both recording and playback media, one that benefitted from the input of numerous practitioners working across different industries and musical genres.


Other notable milestones include the Théâtrophone, which was first demonstrated in Paris in 1881 and put to commercial use across Europe in the following decades. Two carbon microphones transmitted a 'stereo' signal along telephone lines to various audience members who would hold receivers up to both sides of their head.

Conductor Leopold Stokowski's work with RCA, Columbia and other American companies is well documented particularly in relation to the so-called Fantasound system. His collaboration with Walt Disney made use of multi-microphone arrays to produce bespoke stereophonic recordings that were brought to mainstream audiences via the 1940 animated film Fantasia.

In the postwar years Decca, EMI and the BBC, alongside various European record labels and radio stations like ORTF and NOS, built on these microphone techniques to create a range of stereo images that continue to be used today on classical recordings, film scores and video game soundtracks. On the rock and pop side, the widespread adoption of stereo FM broadcasting meant that albums from the 1970s onwards were mixed primarily in stereo rather than mono. An audience beyond the small confines of hi-fi enthusiasts could now enjoy the latest releases in stereo on a daily basis, perhaps most significantly in the car where the importance of mix placement was enhanced by the positioning of the listener relative to the left and right channels.

Buena Vista Social Club

Though Ry Cooder's work with the Buena Vista Social Club has received criticism from some quarters, there is no denying the recordings he produced in the late-'90s and early-00's were beautifully crafted. The band was effectively a collective of current and retired Cuban musicians, most of whom have now passed away, who alternated with each other depending on the style, genre and requirements of each track.

The studio was EGREM, a dilapidated yet well-equipped facility in the heart of Havana. Cooder's engineer was Jerry Boys, an EMI stalwart who cut his teeth at Abbey Road in the mid-1960s. Tantalising glimpses of footage from the sessions can be seen in the Wim Wenders film Buena Vista Social Club, which shows a fantastically tuned live room being used to its full acoustic potential by the band. Classic German microphones by Neumann and Sennheiser are placed close, but not too close, to each instrument and voice. Boys dispenses with headphones and isolation booths. These are musicians who spent decades recording local radio hits and know how to perform into a microphone without artificial aids.

The overall sound is blended, mostly by the bleed between microphones and performers, and what I find most impressive is the sumptuously full bandwidth achieved by purely acoustic instruments. From the warmest lows of the double bass up through the honky mids of the decrepit piano, so touchingly played by the late Rubén González, and the haunting Spanish voices, to the highs of the laser-like trumpets and an incredibly satisfying percussion section, tracks like "Chan Chan" and the self-titled "Buena Vista Social Club" are a tribute to old-fashioned recording methods standing up for themselves in a digital age.

The icing on the cake is the use of a Studer reel-to-reel tape machine, which softens the record's transients like butter. However, this medium was chosen not because of some retro fetish but simply because the studio only had tape to hand. Boys, who worked in his teens as a tape op on sessions by Yehudi Menuhin, Manfred Mann and The Beatles, was the perfect candidate for the job.


Sir George

George Martin's career spanned an incredible diversity of musical genres from baroque, light classical, comedy, children's and novelty records, to pop, rock, psychedelia, trad jazz, jazz fusion and numerous other crossover styles. It's easy to forget this when remembering his role as the 'fifth Beatle'. His pre-1962 work at EMI's Parlophone is the subject of a part-time Edison Fellowship I will be taking up at the British Library in September. There are unexplored musical connections that take root during Martin's training at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and continue into his work producing the English Baroque Orchestra, Bernard Cribbins and others. More to follow...

George Martin Peter Sellers Sophia Loren Abbey Road Studios EMI Parlophone