Thorne at the Stereo Society
Thorne at the Stereo Society
The Production Of Quadrafile
In 1972, the first commercial disk systems for surround sound, at that time using four speakers and called ‘quadraphony’, were introduced. Four competing systems wound up fighting it out in the market place, resulting in the eventual alienation of the listening public. Working at a premier stereo monthly and then editing Studio Sound, at the time the world leader in studio technology writing, it seemed obvious to propose a double album with one system on each side. Collecting the source material, dealing with the corporate politics and guiding all the production elements to final pressing in Japan would be a huge logistical exercise, eventually taking well over a year and ending with publication in 1976 just as quadraphony was finally winding down.
I proposed the project to my editor at Hi-Fi News and Record Review, John Crabbe. The budget looked reasonable, helped by technical assistance from the big companies and some elastic sessions courtesy of EMI’s Abbey Road studio. The interest we might stir up would be considerable. It was an obvious thing to do.
The four competing companies were CBS (with SQ), Sansui (QS), JVC (CD-4) and Nippon Columbia (UD-4). Since I knew the principal technical people at CBS and JVC, it was simple to present my case for giving them all identical master tapes for them to encode and cut one side of the four in a double-album set. Once these two companies had agreed, Sansui and Nippon-Columbia were happy to follow.
The next task was to collect varied tracks on four-channel tape. Each tape was assembled by copying directly from the master. Securing cooperation from the record companies was surprisingly easy. Even though they stood to gain from the publicity anticipated from the project’s launch, at that time companies were very protective of their recordings, and compilations were not the commonplace release they are now.
In the years leading up to the introduction of quad, there had been several notable recordings made in anticipation of its arrival in the home. One was of Mahler’s Third Symphony (Jascha Horenstein with the London Symphony Orchestra) using just four microphones. The opposite of this extreme purism was a section from Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, recorded by Columbia with Pierre Boulez and the New York Philharmonic, with the orchestra arranged in a circle around the conductor. The commercial disk issue was issued in SQ, but Columbia had also recorded and mixed it to four-channel tape.
Pierre Boulez recording Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra with the New York Philharmonic in the Mahattan Center, December 1972
The pop side of quad productions was less adventurous at the time, paradoxically, although Moody Blues’ producer Tony Clarke had remixed all their albums for release on 4-track cartridge, a doomed format popular in US cars and, to a much lesser extent, in the home. However, Alan Parsons had just remixed Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon in quad, and he offered to present my case for its inclusion on Quadrafile to the group when next in the studio with them. Two weeks and a very polite letter later, I had the nod from the superstars. The last pop clip was a special remix in Abbey Road Studio Four of two sections of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, done by Alan with the participation of Tom Newman, the original record’s producer.
In EMI Abbey Road Studio 4
from left Mike Thorne, Pat Stapley, Alan Parsons and Tom Newman.
Quadraphonic remix of two excerpts from Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells by Alan Parsons with Tom Newman (producer of the original stereo version), May 1975.
All the systems claimed various successes in aurally locating sounds, so with engineer Tony Faulkner (who is now one of Britain’s top classical engineers) I put together an ‘electronic footsy’, with various signals moving around the sonic room.
Tubular Bells quad remix layout
Assembling the four master copies was tricky, because we couldn’t rely on multiple copies from CBS, EMI and so on. To ensure parity between all the recordings, the copies had to be made on the same machine, so we had to borrow the masters from the companies concerned. My paranoia at having the quad master of Dark Side Of The Moon in my safe keeping was considerable. During its brief stay in my basement apartment in South London, it lived inside the piano, which I didn’t play for the time and which I assumed would be very low on a burglar’s acquisition list.
Stephane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin recording in EMI Abbey Road Studio 2, May 1975
The tapes were then sent to Stamford, Connecticut, USA (CBS SQ), London (Sansui QS), Los Angeles (JVC/RCA CD-4) and Tokyo (Nippon Columbia UD-4). The masters were collected in Tokyo and pressed by JVC, then shipped to Hi-Fi News in England, united with their sleeves and numbered for a limited edition. They sounded wonderful. Unfortunately, we got the record out just as the quadraphonic tide was ebbing. But we had created a marvelous collector’s item, and some people even bought them.