Steely Dan UHQR Series

By: Michael Fremer

September 13th, 2022



Originally Seen In:


Jack Pfeiffer: The Last Interview

From the archives: Michael Fremer talks to veteran RCA "Living Stereo" producer Jack Pfeiffer

(This feature originally appeared in Issue 7, Spring 1996.)

When I sat down at last January’s Consumer Electronics Show with veteran RCA producer Jack Pfeiffer, I had no way of knowing that I would be conducting the final interview he would ever give. Pfeiffer suffered a fatal heart attack on Thursday, February 8th at his RCA office where he’d worked in the Red Seal division for the past 47 years. He was 75.

Jack Pfeiffer was a pleasant man, soft spoken and easy to talk to. When my rather limited knowledge of the classical music world became apparent, he picked up the slack so I wouldn't feel too uncomfortable.

My reason for speaking with him had less to do with anything technical, and more to do with getting his take on the work being rediscovered and appreciated by a younger generation of music lovers 30-plus years later, and how, given the usual corporate bottom line mentality (yes, even then) such a dedication to quality could prevail. So yes, it was more People and less Mix and under the circumstances that’s fine with me.

Pfeiffer presided over RCA’s experiments with stereophony before a method existed for such recordings to be issued to the public. At a CES press conference, Pfeiffer explained that his goal in these recordings was to capture the right balance of direct to reflected sound in the auditorium. Music lovers are fortunate that Pfeiffer and the likes of Lewis Layton, Richard Mohr and the others were dedicated to providing listeners with the finest, most natural sound quality possible. 

It was the “golden age” of classical music performing and recording with artists and conductors like Jascha Heifetz, Artur Rubinstein, Van Cliburn, Vladimir Horowitz, Fritz Reiner, Charles Munch and the others stepping before all tubed, analog high-fidelity recordings gear in the hands of technically competent, music loving engineers and producers.

In the case of RCA and its “Living Stereo” program, the entire chain, from the recording engineers and producers to the mastering personnel and pressing plant operators, was dedicated to quality. That is obvious both from the sound of the original “Living Stereo” records and the reissues on LPs from Classic and Chesky Records and on the BMG “Living Stereo” CD transfers which Pfeiffer produced.

That these 30- and 40-year-old productions are still the measure against which modern recordings are held, and that for many listeners they remain unchallenged as among the finest sounding musical documents ever created, is testimony to the skills and care of all concerned.

To listen to a Heifetz violin concerto on a clean RCA original pressing (Heifetz recordings are unavailable for LP issue as of now) is surprisingly close to experiencing the virtuoso playing in a concert hall—especially in terms of tone and emotional communication. These are not moldy old recordings mired in noise, distortion and limited bandwidth and dynamic range.

Jack Pfeiffer was born in Tucson, Arizona in 1920, studying music and engineering at the University of Arizona and Bethany College in Kansas. After a stint in the Navy during World War II, he went to Columbia University and also played jazz piano professionally before joining RCA in 1949.

As you’ll read, during the pioneering years of stereo recording, Pfeiffer worked in parallel with the mono engineers, putting down on tape some of the finest performances of the classical repertoire ever recorded. When some of these Pfeiffer-produced “experiments” were issued, first on reel-to-reel tape, and then on vinyl, they created a sensation in and out of the audio community. They’re still doing it 40 years later!

Michael Fremer: So I come from the world of popular music—I do love classical music—but I can’t say I’m an aficionado like some of these other guys.

Jack Pfeiffer: Oh really?

Mike Hobson [Classic Records founder]: Oh, you’re a big collector!

MF: Oh, well, I’ve got a lot of original…

MH: You’ve got tons of original RCAs.

MF: And I actually listen to classical music too!

MH: This is the guy who went on television [The Today Show] five years ago and said that he sold a copy of Gaité Parisienne (LSC-1817) for $800.

MF: Yeah, I did.

JP: …and caused this big controversy 

MF: Oh, I upset a lot of people. I didn’t want to sell it [laughs]. I had gotten it from somebody for $1.

JP: Oh, really? A dollar, oh boy.

MF: And I wanted to keep it, but the pressure to sell it kept building.

JP: No, when the price goes that high you can’t resist it.

MF: That’s right, and when you write for The Absolute Sound, you know, you need $800, believe me. Does all this attention now come as a big surprise to you? This whole thing that’s happened with these records coming out again?

JP: Well, in a way, yes, although it’s not a surprise because these have been my favorites for so many years so that I feel that when people do finally get a chance to hear them, they’ll feel the way that I do about them. They are genuinely precious items, and they have to be preserved, and this is one way to do it.

MF: Over the years it’s gone from the original pressings and the original quality that was involved, down, down down, down. How did that feel?

JP: Well it had to do with our marketing people wanting to put out certain things, and they just scheduled things and somebody went in and grabbed the production tape, and transferred it to a Victrola or a Gold Seal, or something like that, without paying too much attention to what they were doing, rather than going back to the original masters and trying to extract all of the quality that was in the original recording.

MF: That must have been frustrating given all the work that went into it.

JP: Well, yes.

MF: At the bottom of that pit, did you ever think there was gonna be a way out?

JP: Well, I felt we had a chance with CD to preserve it in what I consider to be a much more endurable product. And it wasn’t subject to the frailties of our [LP] manufacturing methods, our vinyl processes where we had the feeling that they were using, you know, floor scraps.

MF: Right. Sometimes I bet they were!

JP: Or scrapings for the vinyl or chopping up labels and incorporating those into the… I mean that was the main problem with the generations of the various releases. Because the master tapes were still pretty good. They were what created the original “Living Stereo” and the original “shaded dog.”

MF: What was the corporate environment when you first started doing this? RCA was still a corporation. It was a fairly big company.

JP: Oh yes.

MF: But how do you explain the corporate ethics act that allowed you to really do such high quality work?

JP: Well, we had a vice president in charge of the record division who had quality on his mind, and he knew, and I don’t think he especially was endowed with that, with that desire, but it came from the top from General Sarnoff who felt that the records were great publicity items and that if we had great quality, and if we had the quality artists primarily, that it would  reflect onto all the other RCA products. And that’s why he said, “Go get Toscanini. Go get Heifetz, Horowitz, Rubinstein. Get all these great superstars, and I don’t care what it costs.” And he had to pay plenty to get them! But by virtue of their being exclusive to RCA, it would reflect on all the other products that RCA was making.

MF: Now what about the high quality of the recordings? Columbia had some good artists. Most of those records are a dime a dozen, and no one cares about them.

JP: Well, again, as I say it started with the General, and it reflected on down, and we had a vice president who was a little bit in awe of General Sarnoff. We all were, of course, but he realized that we had to maintain not only a high quality in as far as the artist was concerned, but a very high quality as far as the product was concerned, and he constantly drove us crazy—George Marek—he drove us to do things and gave us money to do things, not always wisely, but at least it was an effort.

MF: Who invented the “Living Stereo” logo?

JP: Well, it came up from our publicity department, and we’re sitting around talking about it, and they wanted to call it… again, you know, RCA was famous for its “Orthophonic” sound. Then it’s “New Orthophonic,” and they said we should have stereo, and we did have “Stereo-Orthophonic” for the tapes. And they said, well, let’s call [the records] “Stereo-Orthophonic,” and I said, “Come on. Enough already, what we’re trying to do is to emphasize the fact that this is more like a live audio sensation.” They scratched their heads and said, “Well, let’s call it ‘Living Stereo’ then.” I said, “Well, I think that’s fine,” and our art department came up with a wonderful logo.

MF: Yeah, I’m old enough to remember that when it first came out.

JP: Oh yeah, it was good—spectacular, and all of the first releases both in the Red Seal and the pop department were Living Stereo.

MF: One of the questions that I got asked by someone at a party last night was, “How is it that all those popular and jazz [‘Living Stereo’] recordings sound so good also?” How much of what you did crossed over to the pop side, ‘cause that’s what most of our readers are really gonna be interested in knowing.

JP: Well, I was trying to emphasize the simplicity of microphone placement or microphone use, because I said the more microphones you use, the more likely you are to get phase distortions, and things that—you don’t really know what you're doing. You know, because every microphone picks up every sound in the venue, and when they get all blended together, it’s going to be a terrible mess.

MF: And when you all heard that…

JP: And we all heard that—yes, and of course, this is a battle that I’ve been raging for the last 50 years almost!

MF: I think you’ve won that battle at this point.

JP: Well, I think so too, because I think that digital recording has really emphasized the fact that you’ve got to limit the number of microphones.

MF: Well, that was the frustrating thing for a lot of us audiophiles, because we heard how bad it was in the 70s. We complained and complained, and we weren’t listened to. We were put down and then all of a sudden with digital recording, all of a sudden there were people saying, “Well now, for the first time, you can hear the problems with the microphones and the phasing.” We heard it all along.

JP: We heard it all along too!

MF: And were laughed at! Now all of a sudden!

JP: Yeah, I know. Very frustrating.

MF: So did you have any supervision and oversight on the pop side as well?

JP: Not directly, although the engineers who were working with us were also working for the pop people, and the head of the engineering department was very, very quality conscious too, and he came to every Red Seal session, and he supervised, sort of, all the technical aspects of it. He’d sit there and actually test the tape to make sure that he was getting the best noise-free batches of tape, because at that time tape quality was a little bit, well, uncertain. And he would sit there and roll those tapes through before the session started and put aside those that had the best noise characteristic.

MF: And the ones that didn’t went to the pop side! [Laughs]

JP: Well, not really. Of course, that only counted for one aspect of the quality because low noise was good, but the important thing was the engineers who worked with us also did the pop work, and they were, of course, at that time recording everything together—they weren’t doing all this [multi-] tracking.

MF: That’s back when everybody could play.

JP: That’s right, they could play, and they had the big band era, and they were doing the ballads with Perry Como and even Elvis did some of it.

MF: Were you around when he showed up there?

JP: Oh, sure.

MF: What was that scene like?

JP: Oh, that was something! It really was because, and, you know, you’d see him in the hallways and not pay too much attention to him, but then over the years when you realized that his participation in RCA really kept us alive.

MF: Did you ever get his autograph?

JP: No, never. I never got anybody’s autograph. I’m not an autograph fiend. I do have some. I have Horowitz, I have Heifetz, I’ve got Rubinstein and Leontyne Price, and Van Cliburn and Piatagorsky. Those are sort of my favorites, you know, and people I got very close to in working and so, I like to have my little rogue’s gallery with their pictures and their autographs.

MF: I'm sure it must be a nice thing to have to remember.

JP: It is.

MF: So, how big were the production teams? Let’s say you were doing a project. You traveled around the country to the different venues where these recordings were made. And all the equipment was shipped by truck?

JP: Yup.

MF: Like to Chicago’s Orchestra Hall?

JP: We did have some equipment at that time in Chicago, because we had a Chicago studio, and there was some three-track equipment in Chicago that we were able to use, but this was only later, of course, in ‘56, ‘57 and after that. Earlier, we sent everything from New York because we had a very limited supply of stereo equipment and that’s why not everything was recorded in stereo, because even though I screamed and hollered and said, “We’ve got to do everything in stereo,” the equipment was not available all the time.

MF: Now your job was to produce these sessions, so that meant?

JP: Well, we had two teams. We had a mono team, and we had a stereo team. And generally the mono team was the product that was going on the market, so Richard Mohr and Louis Layton were handling that. He [Mohr] would work with the artists directly, working out the takes, so in a sense I really didn’t produce those sessions. I produced the stereo because I worked with the engineer to set up the microphones, and I supervised him when we were recording. We did very little monitoring [because] we didn’t have that kind of equipment.

MF: So basically there was a dual track system.

JP: Yes.

MF: So Mohr and Layton were…

JP: They were doing a mono totalled [mix], and then we were using another console and different microphones and a different monitor system in a different location in stereo.

MF: Wow.

JP: You see, and it was expensive, of course, to do that but… eventually I put together a demo tape, starting off with the opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra, and I remember one of our executives listened to it and he said, “What’s that hum at the beginning?”

MF: That’s how I got a copy of that for $10! Somebody said, “I got a copy of this I reckon you might want, but it’s got this noise at the beginning. I think it’s wind or something, I don’t know what, must be defective.” [Laughs]

JP: Really. But I would drag people into our listening room, and I had the setup constantly going and anytime anyone in management was around, I’d say, “You’ve got to hear this.”

MF: I do that today with that recording! People go crazy.

JP: I’m sure. That’s the only way to do it, you know, get people fascinated with it. I’m still doing it too. Because we get new equipment, and I bring them in. I want them to hear what it’s doing, so I think they were all in agreement, but they knew that it was a slow process, and we couldn't just suddenly start recording everything in stereo. The pop department was, of course, the most profitable part of the company.

MF: Always was and always will be probably.

JP: Yeah, and they wanted to make sure that the stereo was well distributed to the pop people, and if there was any conflict, you know who won out.

MF: Yeah. At first these stereo recordings were just released on tape?

JP: Yes, that’s right. In the 50s, ‘55-‘56, we released—well they turned out so well, our experiments, that they decided to release them.

MF: And those were expensive.

JP: Yes, they were.

MF: They cost $12 or $13, originally.

JP: Yes, and that was a lot of money then.

MF: So mostly doctors got those. [Laughs]

JP: They also made some stereo tape cartridges and they had a big massive machine that played them. It was sort of the beginning of the cassette era.

MF: It was before Elcaset. Was it something else entirely?

JP: It was before that, yeah. It didn’t last very long, because people would have to buy the whole machine, and they’d have to buy an extra amplifier, and an extra speaker, and it was too complicated.

MF: Yeah, well you needed some of that for stereo anything.

JP: A lot of people didn’t feel it was worth it, and I don’t know, it probably wasn’t at that time.

MF: Now, were all those tapes [being used for the Classic “Living Stereo” vinyl reissues] stored properly?

JP: Well, I don’t know how properly they were stored because we’ve never really had a strict humidity and temperature controlled environment in which to store tapes. And, of course, as you know, it’s a physical property and when temperature and humidity change, why it’s bound to change.

MF: But you didn’t do what Atlantic unfortunately did, which is to store all their outtakes in a department store wood frame building in some place in New Jersey that burned down. You didn’t do that.

JP: No, no, no.

MF: Can you imagine that? I mean, is that nuts?

JP: I don’t believe it. They did this?

MF: Yeah, they had a fire and they lost everything that wasn't issued.

JP: Oh no.

MF: It’s gone.

JP: Well, we had a similar tragedy. At a certain point we had some new engineering moguls in here who realized that we were just building up tapes like crazy, and they wanted to cull through all of the tapes and throw out those that were not going to be used. Well, who knew, you know? And they kept what we call the work part, which was the original master from the recording session, edited together. They kept that, and they usually kept the remaining, what we called the prime tapes, because we always recorded to a prime and an alternate. This goes back to the days of 78s when they recorded on two machines. The -1 and the -1A, and so they kept all of the remaining parts of the prime [tapes] so if something happened to the work part, they could go back and re-edit it from the prime tapes, but they discarded the alternate tapes in some cases but not all. Then they also [chuckles], we had paper boxes, cardboard boxes that tapes came in, and we would write on the back of them what they were, when it was recorded, who was involved and all sorts of things. They took all the tapes out of those boxes and put them in metal cans with the idea that they’d have a better preservation quality, but all of the information on the back of those boxes was thrown out!  All they kept was the number, and then we had to depend on their being accurate. So we’ve been going through a lot of problems with that.

MF: And I understand metal cans also have problems. There are certain…

JP: Well, these were aluminum cans. I think the theory was that they would be better preserved by being in these cans, but they didn’t do it to all of them. At a certain point they stopped and, you know, when you’ve got such a big organization, there are all sorts of people who have their two cents’ worth.

MF: Well at the networks, they erased all the videotapes for all the TV shows for years. I mean, thank god you didn’t do that.

JP: Oh, thank god! But fortunately we are finding, I’d say 95-98% of the original work parts for these recordings and, of course, that’s what Mike [Hobson] is using for his production, and that’s what we use in digital remastering for our CD releases.

MF: Now the 1954 Zarathsutra: there’s all kinds of stories about that tape having gotten partially erased, someone left it on top of a loudspeaker, and what they are using is a 1/4" 15ips copy…

JP: No, no, no, no. Actually, what we did at that time, we—nothing was erased, but before the master tapes were used for records, of course, we were using them for the open-reel tapes, and so we used that as the high-speed master—the original edited tape for the high speed master.

MF: So it was run many times?

JP: Yeah.

MF: That was a gutsy thing to do.

JP: It wasn’t. I mean it was preserved in a sense. It wasn’t destroyed just by playing it. Although probably some of the quality of it was, but that’s what we have been using, and that’s what Mike used for his production.

MF: That’s one record that for me the original sounds much better than the reissue for some reason. A lot more was lost in that one, perhaps from being played so much. What about the controversy of a lot of people saying that these reissues sound too bright and too “solid state?”

JP: On what, on the vinyl?

MF: Yeah, on the vinyl.

JP: Oh. I don’t think so, and I have friends who are what I call Hi-Fi-natics [laughs], who I’ve given these pressings to, and they have the CDs of them and they’ve compared them. They say, “No, no, no.” They say vinyl is even better than the CDs.

MF: Oh, I think that also, but there are some people who say that what Classic should have done was try to recreate what the original records sound like.

JP: Oh, no, no, no.

MF: Which were, as I understand it, somewhat compressed, and the bass was summed...

JP: Why, yes. They had to be tailored to the deficiencies of the cutting and the playback system of the day. We used to listen to lacquers. I mean they put the master together, they’d transfer it to 1/2" tape as a production master, they’d cut a reference lacquer, and we would listen to that on our own systems in the office and also at home, and we’d make judgements about whether or not it needed—whether the compression was too great or whatever, because when the mix down was made to make the production master, they tried to limit the bass, they tried to limit the dynamics, and to some extent, they tried to limit the high frequency content at the end because they knew that that was going to be on the inside [center] of the record. And we would listen to that, and if we felt that that was too great, or if the level wasn’t good enough or if the—whatever the sound was—we made a judgment based on what they cut.

MF: It was done because you had to, because of what it was being played back on?

JP: Sure.

MF: The original recordings were made to be as good as possible.

JP: Of course. And with a wide range, a wide range as far as dynamics and frequency were concerned, but when we had to put it onto a record which had limitations, both in the cutting and the playback, you know, then we had to take the record and make the judgment based on that quality, and that’s what came out on the original “Living Stereo.”

MF: So the people that think the originals are the holy grail, those are the magic, they’re mistaken?

JP: They are totally mistaken.

MF: That’s my position on the whole thing, and you wouldn’t believe the kind of abuse you get for having that position.

JP: [Laughs] Well, you see, people get used to a certain quality, and if they’ve listened to something for a long time, they feel that that is the true quality that expresses their position.

MF: Their position—these people’s position as I understand it—is that you guys were making these recordings as raw material and then you were tailoring it to make it sound as good as possible, period!

JP: No.

MF: That’s not what it was. What you were doing is making the recordings sound as good as possible, and that if you could have done the straight transfer right across to vinyl like they’re doing now, you would have.

JP: Like they’re doing now, and that’s what we’re doing for the CDs too, because we’re not limited to any kind of restriction.

MF: Now here is the question for you that I need to get answered.

JP: [Chuckles] Okay.

MF: BMG is a company with a lot of money and a lot of resources.

JP: Yeah.

MF: Yet all of the transfers that they’re doing that I can find out about on the pop side, and I guess on the classical side, are stock Sony 1630 transfers. That’s the converter they’re using.

JP: Um hum.

MF: Now, surely they have the money and the facilities and the ability to listen to some of these much higher tech processors that are out there. Are they convinced that there is no difference in the sound when you could go to a stock 1630 processor as opposed to a Wadia or an Apogee or any of these…

JP: But we’re using Apogee.

MF: You are?

JP: Oh, yes. We’ve been using an Apogee for some time now.

MF: Not on the pop side from what they’re telling me.

JP: I don’t think so. I don’t know. See, now BMG is two different companies, I mean as far as the record division is concerned, we have nothing to do with the pop end. Not a thing. In fact, if we want to release something that was originally in the pop department we have to go in as a client and…

MF: “We” being RCA?

JP: RCA Classics.

MF: Okay. Why would you want to release anything that was on the pop side?

JP: Well, we have. Like we released the Belafonte Return to Carnegie Hall on our “Living Stereo” series, and I tried to put together a Christmas record of all the famous old Christmas songs by the various people for Red Seal, for a classical “Living Stereo” release and got up to a certain point, and they decided, “No. You can’t do that.”

MF: So is the Heifetz stuff ever gonna come out on these records? Do you think eventually?

JP: Uh, that depends on the contracts. Now, Jay Heifetz, Jascha’s son, is sort of in control of that whole thing, and he signed a contract with BMG to somewhat restrict the freedom of doing things like that. I would think that at a certain point, he will recognize that that is a viable way of expanding his father’s recorded output, you know. In fact, we put out one Living Stereo of Heifetz, the Brahms and Tchaikovsky [violin concertos].

MF: Right. It’s the 2-in-1.

JP: With Reiner, and that was before the contract was drawn.

MF: Oh, it got pulled off the market?

JP: No, no, no. He left it on, because it’s the best seller of all of the “Living Stereo” CDs!

MF: I’m not surprised.

JP: And our Heifetz 65CD collection is, it’s a miracle really. It’s the most incredible thing. I get cold chills every time I think of it.

MF: And that sells too?

JP: It has sold out because it was a limited edition.

MF: So now it’s time to put them on records!

JP: Oh, well of course. I’m totally in favor of it, and I will certainly make it an issue with Jay.

MF: Now, you’re playing those back in the studio on a tubed tape recorder when you do the CD transfers, or no?

JP: Yes.

MF: And Classic is using solid state?

JP: Yeah.

MF: Does that make…

JP: I don’t think that matters too much. No, we’re trying to duplicate the actual conditions of the recording, and think it’s a good idea, and so far we have the equipment, so why not use it? I don’t think they have the equipment.

MF: What percentage of the “Living Stereo” catalog has come out on CDs at this point? What about the “Dynagroove” stuff?

JP: Well, we’ll get into that, but all the “Living Stereo” was not of the same superb quality. It varied greatly. Even at the beginning, because we were recording things and sometimes they didn’t turn out too well, but they still went out as “Living Stereo.” There was no technological profile that specified that this is a “Living Stereo” record.

MF: It was an aesthetic concept more than anything.

JP: That’s right.

MF: Like all the companies that have these kinds of names for their so-called recording process.

JP: Yeah, that’s right, and so I don’t want to put everything out on “Living Stereo” because some won’t represent what I think are the true historic releases. And that I think I said at the outset when we started with the “Living Stereo” reissues, I said, “We’ve got to find the original tape; they’ve got to be great performances; they’ve got to be by great artists, and they’ve got to have great sound.”

MF: Well, you’ve got a pretty good catalog to work with then!

JP: Well, we have, yes, fortunately. Although, surprisingly enough, I was against putting things out as “Living Stereo” because I said, “Well, you know, Mercury came out with its ‘Living Presence.’ This will just look like we’re jumping on the bandwagon, and ‘Living Stereo’ wasn’t any great technological improvement.” And then I got to thinking, but, you know, we’ve got the artists.  We’ve got the sound.

MF: And what does Papillon [the name given to the first reissue series] mean anyway? What the heck was that [aside from meaning “butterfly”]?

JP: Well, another one of those things.

MF: Another one of those things. And when I saw that butterfly logo, as a fan of these “Living Stereo”’s, that original logo that as an eight-year old, a 10-year old, whatever it was, I was around ten years old when Belafonte at Carnegie Hall came out. That logo literally got me excited when I saw it back then! So to see that abandoned in favor of a butterfly!

JP: Why, sure.

MF: And it still does [excite me].

JP: Right, you were imprinted with that logo. And that was the idea, of course. We didn’t realize it was going to be as popular as it turned out to be.

MF: Isn’t that always the case? You never know what you do when you’re doing it.

JP: You never know what you’re going to end up with, but if you have your instincts right, and you keep pushing for the right quality and the best sound, and the best conditions constantly, then… and I keep doing it even to this day after 47 years.

MF: That’s good. That’s what you should be doing.

JP: It’s giving me a great deal of satisfaction to see these great recordings coming out.

MF: It’s got to be, and a whole new generation of younger people enjoying them.

JP: I know. It’s surprising. It really is amazing, and having them come out on vinyl is also a great thing. I’ve been encouraging our German people, they’re also very interested in putting a whole vinyl series of “Living Stereo” out.

MF: Now that whole “Dynagroove” thing. Do you want to…

JP: Well, I’ll dispose of it quickly. Some of them were great, great recordings too.

MF: Recordings yes, but once they got onto disc though…

JP: Well…

MF: The difference was in the cutting, correct? It wasn’t in anything else.

JP: It was in two places, basically. It was in the cutting, but it was also in the mixdown, because the head of our engineering department came up with a device to make the translation from a high level of listening to a moderate level of listening that most people listen to. And to make that translation from listening to it at high level to low level or lower level, it changed the whole ear characteristic change.

MF: The Fletcher/Munson curve? [Named for the researchers who demonstrated that, at lower sound levels, the ear/brain loses low frequency sensitivity in a predictable fashion. Thus some electronics feature a bass boosting “loudness” control.]

JP: Yeah, that’s right, and he designed a device that was a compensator that varied with the level of the music.

MF: Varied frequency balance?

JP: Yes, that’s right, it varied the frequency balance with the level of the music. Now what his biggest mistake was, he called it a “dynamic equalizer,” and every critic came out and said, “Oh, but they’ve equalized the dynamics,” and, of course, if you listened, we didn’t.

MF: It equalized the frequency response based upon the dynamics.

JP: Yes, but just calling it a dynamic equalizer was a big flaw. I had a lot of confidence in the system, in fact I worked with the engineers both in Princeton and in New York, and I supervised every Red Seal recording session, whether I was producing it or not.

MF: But why not leave well enough alone? That’s what I could never understand.

JP: Well, we had a lot of pressure at that time.

MF: People complained? Were people complaining that it was too dynamic?

JP: No, people were complaining that our records were too soft overall. Because we were trying to put the complete dynamic level, and in order to get that level we had to lower the overall level.

MF: So they were saying when it got down to the lower levels, you couldn't hear it?

JP: Well, it would be under the surface noise. And there were other companies, there was a company called Command…

MF: Oh, I remember.

JP: You remember Command?

MF: Sure, Enoch Light’s label.

JP: Yeah, and he was doing 35mm.

MF: And Bob Fine was doing some of those.

JP: And he put out some really powerful records, and our quality guide George Marek said, “We’ve got to compete with that, so go do what you have to do.” So I got together with our Engineering Department, and I got together with our lab at Princeton, and we came up with it. I said I would supervise all the recording sessions and try to limit the number of microphones and try to keep this as simple as possible so that we get the best possible recording, but we’ve got to make sure that we get it on the record right, and we’ve got to make sure that our mixdown reflects some of the thinking about this translation from high level playback to low-level listening. And so it was an integrated program between all of us to create, and  again, our publicity department came up with this idiotic name “Dynagroove.”

MF: They lucked out with “Living Stereo” and then they messed up with “Dynagroove.” Well, it happens.

JP: Well, the pressings were not good for one thing, which totally acted against the whole program because all of the technical aspects leading up to the pressings were very carefully organized.

MF: Now does this mean if some of these “Dynagroove” recordings are gonna come out again on vinyl, does that mean that the tapes have this encoded on them?

JP: They go back to the original tapes, there’s nothing encoded there. The dynamic equalizer  was only used in the mixdown.

MF: So, in other words, these could be restored, I hate to use that word, but…

JP: And there is some interest now in coming out with a “Dynagroove” series.

MF: And call it that?

JP: Yeah.

MF: On CD or on vinyl?

JP: Well, on CDs, at least from our people. We’ve gotten some feedback from our Europeans mostly. Strangely enough, when they got the “Dynagroove” product originally, you see, they couldn’t cut the records the way we were cutting them, because they didn’t have a device that was devised at Princeton to limit the distortion at the inside of the record. It was an anti-distortion device.

MF: What did it do to limit the distortion?

JP: Well, they had what they called a complimentary distortion or something like that.

MF: So they figured out what kind of distortion the average turntable was gonna be and…

JP: That’s right. You see, at that time, primarily it was a spherical diamond stylus. And the cutting stylus was an ellipse, and to make the translation from elliptical to a sphere, our engineering minds in Princeton said, “You have to put in some kind of distortion there in order to change the space of the groove so that the sphere can track it properly on the inside.”

MF: I see. And that was added in the cutting process?

JP: That was in the cutting process, and when we listened to lacquers, I must say, they were really very effective. And even some of the pressings that came out were very effective too. I remember I got a letter from Avery Fisher, of all people, who said, “You have done the most glorious thing that I can think of. These are the greatest recordings I’ve ever heard.” Well, we’ve done something right.

MF: Yeah, but…

JP: But the general critical response was based primarily on that idiotic name of that dynamic equalizer. We had a press conference and we explained it all to them and tried to show them everything that we had done, as honestly as we could, and yet even after explaining this dynamic equalizer—just having that name—they said, “Oh, well they’ve squashed all the dynamics,” and, of course, we didn’t, but that’s what they thought.

MF: Yet most audiophiles still think that when it went to “Dynagroove,” the sound just wasn’t very good.

JP: I know. I think a lot of it had to do with a combination of the pressing and this distortion that they added toward the end of the record. It changed things a bit, because every sphere wouldn’t be the same.

MF: Well, not only that, let’s just say you’re playing it on a micro ridge or even an elliptical stylus cartridge today!

JP: Yes, if you’re playing it on a spherical cartridge…

MF: Maybe it’s better, but today you’re playing it on these very wide elliptical and micro ridge cartridges. So you’re gonna have that distortion in there ‘cause it’s not gonna be compensated out. That’s what the problem is today.

JP: That’s right. But the original recordings were really, really very good. A lot of them were Boston and Leinsdorf.

MF: I have some of those “Dynagooves” and those do sound good, no matter what anyone says. There was an interim period where it was the red label with the dog on it, and it still said “Living Stereo” and “Dynagroove.” They sort of slowly crept away from one toward the other. You know, I bet there probably are people who will swear that early “shaded dog” “Living Stereo” “Dynagroove” records sound better just because they have those earlier logos!

JP: [Laughs]

MF: In their heads, right?

JP: I think so, yeah. Well, too, much of sound is a matter of taste, a matter of experience and what you get used to listening to, and I don’t know. I think a lot of people still prefer a lot of the older pressings because it had the warmth to it, you know, and they say you hear all that room sound.

MF: The lack of bloom is a big complaint I hear.

JP: Well...

MF: And that’s what you hear in the concert hall also, they say, but I go to concert halls and it gets pretty rough in there sometimes—even Carnegie.

JP: Orchestra Hall in Chicago was the worst listening environment I was ever in. I used to hate going to concerts there.

MF: Yeah?

JP: But, of course, when it was empty it was totally different.

MF: And some of those are great recordings.

JP: Those are amazing recordings.

MF: Yup, and the tapes have held up over the years which is a good thing also.

JP: Yeah, I just keep my fingers crossed that we can preserve it.   

MF: Are you going to re-transfer the whole thing over again 20 or 24bit, 96kHz sampled—or whatever gets chosen—when DVD-Audio happens?

JP: Yeah [laughs]. You know, we’re going through a problem now transferring all of our vault from Indianapolis to a preservation area in Pennsylvania. It’s an abandoned mine, and it has been converted into a total humidity- and temperature-controlled environment. And for the first time, all of our assets will be there. Not only BMG, but Arista and all of the other BMG companies will be in there. Except for the European ones. This is going to be our North American vault.

MF: Are field trips available for stories?

JP: Oh probably.

MF: I would really like to do that.

JP: Yeah. Well they’re in the process now of moving it. Of course, it’s just total chaos. They have moved most of the metal parts I think, and most of the pressings from the old 78 days, but the tapes are in the process of being moved now, and we’re still trying to do production, you know, sometimes we order tapes, well they’re not here and they’re not there. Is there somewhere in between?

MF: I got to tell you the truth. I’m not happy with a lot of the jazz CD transfers of things that they’re doing. Not at all.

JP: Really? I don’t listen to them anymore.

MF: Yeah, because they’re doing digital “restoration,” you know, a lot of “cleaning up” and revisions. They just don’t sound that good. A lot of the jazz ones have been very disappointing to me.

JP: Really?

MF: I mean Our Man in Jazz by Sonny Rollins in particular.

JP: Yeah.

MF: It’s a classic. Well, at least they’re gonna do it on vinyl.

JP: Are they? Oh wonderful.

MF: And it’s an amazing recording. It is. You’re there at the Village Gate. And BMG did a CD where they “restored” it. The original engineer went back in and put it in sonic solution or something, and I think remixed it, and it’s dead sounding. You know, they should, and it’s very annoying, they should just, it is what it is, and they should let it be.

JP: Let it be, yes. I know, I was talking to Tony Hawkins at breakfast and I said I went to Germany because we have an arrangement with Melodia now, and they’re gonna do the transfers and all the processing in Berlin—over my dead body—but that’s another story [laughs]. I wanted to do it because I thought we have the most experience in restoration in our studios in New York.

MF: And you’re using the UV22 [Apogee dithering algorithm]?

JP: Yeah. Yes, but from a commercial point of view and then in a financial way, it didn’t seem right [to ship everything to New York] so we had this company in Berlin which did a lot of the Melodia transfers for Eurodisk for a while. They gave the contract to them to do all this transfer work, but I said, “Look, let me see what they’ve got and what they’re doing,” and I went over, and they’ve got everything. I mean they’ve got Sonic Solutions, and they had an Apogee UV22, and they’ve got everything. And they’ve got bit mapping, noise shaping…

MF: How you use that stuff is what counts.

JP: That was the whole point. I said, “Gentlemen, you know, it’s nice to have all these play things, but this is what counts. And use your judgment, please use judgment about what you incorporate into this, because you can make some terrible mistakes,” and they have, unfortunately.

MF: If people don’t want to hear hiss, let them go to hell.

JP: [Laughs] But they wouldn’t be buying these older recordings if they didn’t realize there was some hiss involved. I mean, when you buy a 1936 recording of Richter you don’t care whether there’s a little noise there.

MF: Right. Unfortunately, when they get rid of the noise, you get rid of some of the performance. That’s the whole feel of the performance.

JP: That's right. The excitement of sound is a part of the performance, and they don’t realize that. So I made a deal with them. I said, “When you get the tapes from Russia, you send me a DAT, and I want to hear what you’re getting, and then you send me your master, and I’ll compare them and see what you’re doing.”

MF: Well then I think we’ll be in better shape with those.

JP: Well, it’s just to let them know I’m leaning over their shoulders, and still, they’ve been doing terrible things. They’ve been using the No Noise excessively, and I’ve been complaining about it and “Well, it’s because they don’t get the right tapes from Russia,” they say. I think that that in fact is part of the problem, because some of the Richter tapes have been showing up with synthetic stereo added to it.

MF: Oh great. That’s always fun.

JP: And they’re supposed to be giving us original tapes from Russia, and I said “they’re not,” and, of course, Russia says, “Well, unfortunately the original tape wasn’t available, so we had to give you the best possible.” I don’t know. They grab something and they transfer it. Too bad. You can’t be everywhere, you know.