Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Coming Up: The WFMU Record Fair

We're a month away from one of the best record events I know of: the WFMU Record Fair.

Some background for the unfamiliar: WFMU was formerly a college radio station. The college, Upsala College of East Orange, NJ, went bankrupt in the mid '90s. Through the fervent support of its freeform-loving listeners, WFMU survived apart from the college as a non-profit entity and thrives as one to this day.

WFMU has a lot of things going on - a blog, Twitter, Facebook, a free music archive, an app, and a live stream you can access in about 136 ways, to name a few. They're also getting a 100-seat radio theater in shape, so the Record Fair has a little more of a mission this year.

The Record Fair (capitalized for reverence) is back after a year's absence, and as always it's an orgy of sounds, sights and special events. Actual records for sale number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. WFMU even sells albums people have donated for $1 each to raise funds for the station.

But it's not just a record fair. Oh no, far from it. There are special events all weekend. Lala Brooks from the Crystals showed up one year; the Trashmen got back together to play Surfin' Bird again...and where else can you get a musical haircut? A guy with electric scissors and amplified clippers gives you a trim like you've never heard before. There are even screenings of music movies. A few years ago, I got to see End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones, with a Q&A after.

The dates are Friday 11/22 to Sunday 11/24, and the location is the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City. Any day now, special event info should pop up at the WFMU's website,

I'd hope to see you there, but I can't make it that weekend. So if you can, do...and let me know how you liked it.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Sound On Film: The (Abridged) Story of 35mm Albums

I didn't quite get to AES in time to get to the story of the Peggy Lee album, but I did get to the story of 35mm film recording. And I learned a lot. For example:
- Classical music can be good. I liked an excerpt of a Mahler piece (Symphony No. 9 in D Minor) I heard during the demonstration.

- Queens may not be the cultural center of the world, but there was some fine music recorded there.

- I have to be more careful with what records I get rid of. One of the albums in the presentation was one I used to have.

The presentation was given by Tom Fine, whose parents both played significant roles in the history of 35mm recording: father Robert was an engineer who bought Everest's studio after Everest disbanded; mother Wilma worked for Mercury Records and oversaw its Living Presence series of classical albums from conception to its digital remastering in the '90s.

Cliffs Notes on 35mm sound: it started in the late '50s at Everest Records, a small label in Bayside, Queens. Its founders believed 35mm film was better because it was wider and thicker than standard audio tape of the day, and it ran faster (faster speeds = higher quality). It was also less prone to noise, like tape hiss.

Unfortunately, film was ridicuoulsly expensive, so Everest, which specialized in classical recordings, went under after only a few years. But bigger, better-resourced Mercury carried the torch for a few more years...and it blazed pretty brightly. Mercury's Living Presence albums were a marvel not only technically, but artistically.

On the heels of Mercury's success came 35mm albums from labels like Command, from the always-technically-forward Enoch Light, and Philadelphia-based Cameo/Parkway. Towards the end of the '60s, a turbulent time in general, things changed for 35mm..not the least of which was public taste. And the change in taste actually helped hammer the coffin shut for 35mm. The classical recordings typically done on 35mm, with their 3 microphones (or sometimes just one) over the orchestra, didn't need the editing, overdubbing or special tricks rock music did. Plus, improved tape formulations and the advent of technology like Dolby noise reduction rendered the advantages of 35mm moot.

But 35mm still lives on - barely. Time has not been kind to the reels of film recorded by Everest, Mercury, Command and Cameo-Parkway. Indeed, some have been lost forever, mainly due to improper storage conditions. There has been success in restoring Mercury's 35mm recordings. There are two sets of them now available on CD. The first might be out of print - it's now hideously expensive, but there's a second one available for a decent price, considering it contains about 50 CDs. But if you want it, you'd better act on it before the price goes up like it did with the first one. A few of the Living Presence albums have also been reissued on vinyl as well.

The story of Everest Records and Fine Recording Studios
Wilma Cozart Fine and Her Role in Mercury Living Presence
Mercury Living Presence box set at Amazon

Friday, October 18, 2013

Educational Field Trip to NYC

For once, I'll be on a trip where records aren't being purchased, but strictly learned about. I got late notice that the AES Convention is happening in New York this weekend (and of course, your notice is probably even shorter - sorry 'bout that).

If pro audio is a circle you travel in, AES needs no introduction. For the rest of you, AES is the Audio Engineering Society, an international organization of professionals dedicated to learning, teaching and innovating in all fields of recorded audio. They hold conventions twice a year, and they're massive - like an auto show for your ears. In fact, this AES is being held at a place where there's an auto show every year - the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. Mnaufacturers will show their latest microphones, recording consoles, effects, and software. Some will even be hosting seminars. There are producers, engineers, and lots of big names in audio. One speaker manufacturer is even recruiting for jobs!

So what does this all have to do with vinyl?

Two things.

One is a presentation on an early stereo album. Peggy Lee's Jump For Joy was one of Capitol Records' first albums to be released in stereo. But it didn't originally get reissued to CD that way. Tomorrow, the mystery is revealed about how the proper stereo version of this album finally made its way to CD from the original tapes.

The other vinyl-centric feature deals with film. Yes, film. There was a time just after stereo was introduced when some engineers felt tape just wasn't up to the job of capturing evey detail of the dynamic performances they were recording. A small studio believed that 35mm film - the same type used for movies - could also be used to record music. The idea held promise...but tape made quick strides in quality during the '60s that left film behind. The rise and fall of 35mm film recording will be chronicled tomorrow.

AES runs through Sunday, October 21 at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. You can learn all about it at