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The Birth of Stereo Recording

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

On November 10, 1933 the newly appointed Chancellor Adolph Hitler gave a fiery speech to 3,000 Siemens machine workers in Berlin. His harangue was designed to solidify support for the National Socialists in parliamentary elections two days later.  A team of audio engineers from AEG were on hand (see photo), not so much to chronicle the speech, but to test out a nascent recording technology: magnetic tape. The original recording has been lost, but the reverberations from that initial test have been felt in the music world ever since.

L to R: Postal official, Karl Siegfried Müller, Dr. Theo Volk, Hans Westpfahl, Eduard Schüller, Fritz Voigt, assistant to Schüller. [1]

As a baby boomer in the 1960s, I grew up with reel-to-reel magnetic tape. It was the best way to record anything. We used it to record family musical events or to capture our favorite shows and music off the radio.  Later as a studio musician, I marveled at audio engineers jockeying a 16 track 2” tape machine or slicing and joining up pieces of  ¼” tape to create a flawless performance. When I became a mastering engineer in the 1980s, I was wowed by the new digital toys, but I still held a deep reverence for the soon to be replaced analog technology.  Transferring analog masters of great artists like Duke Ellington, David Bowie, or Arlo Guthrie was for me a solemn ritual, to be executed with the utmost care and precision.

I decided to retrace the origins of magnetic tape. I knew the story began in pre World War II Germany, but I didn’t exactly know its origins or how the technology migrated across the Atlantic. My odyssey began in Berlin in the summer of 2014. Along the way I met with a number of surprises. This is the first part of that story.

.   .   .

I am struck by the dramatic transition from the sparkling new Radio Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB) facility to its 85 year old counterpart, the Haus des Rundfunks (HdR). I feel like I’m descending into a shadowy chapter of history as Christopher Collet, an archivist at the RBB, leads me across a narrow bridge of modern steel and glass, down a double winder staircase, into the dark mahogany and plaster deco world of 1930s Nazi Germany.

“They constructed the building in a quasi semi-circular shape so that all of the offices and control rooms provide good isolation around the main recording chambers.” He’s referring to the three main concert halls where the Berlin Philharmonic and other great German music ensembles made some of the world’s most memorable recordings – using magnetic tape.

We walk down a long, curving corridor. It seems endless, almost like treading the outer wheel of a space station: big solid wooden doorways on the left, windows on the right. I’m imagining all the activity more than three quarters of a century ago – electricians and sound engineers strolling down the hallways, staffers in blue lab aprons pushing carts stacked with discs and tape boxes, young secretaries and interns hustling ahead with piles of documents pressed to their chests.

.   .   .

The planning for this building began in 1929 when architect Hans Poelzig won an architectural bid to create a replacement for the old Voxhaus on Potsdamerstrasse. His design, completed in 1931, was a huge rounded triangle with a 150 meter facade facing Masurenalle in the western part of Berlin. It was aptly named “Haus des Runkfunks” (House of Broadcast) and featured three large halls for recording and broadcast and countless smaller studios and offices.

Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin

Radio burst onto the worldwide scene in the early 1920’s as the newest, most exciting technology since the telephone or the phonograph. Germans radio was lagging behind the British and Americans, despite the fact that forty years earlier Heinrich Hertz, whose name was adopted to measure frequency, had conducted crucial experiments on transmitting radio

waves.  Over subsequent decades, Marconi’s company had established several transmitters along the coast of England and smaller private radio stations were popping up all over the United States.

Even though German electronics companies like Telefunken and Lorenz were manufacturing and exporting consumer transmitters and receivers by the early 30s, German radio hadn’t quite come together yet. Ironically, it was the Nazis that set things in motion.

In March 1933, eight months before Hitler’s speech, the National Social Democratic Party had wrested power from Hindenburg. The Reich’s Cultural Minister, Joseph Goebbels, understood the importance of quality radio programming for propaganda purposes. He quickly nationalized all of the stations under the Reichs Rundfunk Gesellschaft (RRG) and established its headquarters in Berlin. In a nationally broadcast speech to the German people in March 1933, Goebbels declared:

These are times for the people. Individualism will be replaced by the will of society as a whole.   Radio will be cleansed, just like the administration of Prussia and Germany will be cleansed. [2]

Goebbels wasted no time in executing his decree. By 1934 he had disposed of “non-Aryan” employees at all stations. Forty percent of workers at Haus des Rundfunks in Berlin were either laid off or replaced.  All remaining employees, musicians, singers, narrators, handworkers, librarians, and secretaries, were required to sign a pledge, declaring their allegiance to the state.

The Nazi radio initiative was two-fold: 1) to program a daily regimen of spoken word and music, consistent with National Socialist propaganda, and 2) to bring wireless technology into every German household through the manufacture of small, affordable units. Within one year, production of small radios like the VE 301 “people’s receiver” had risen from 100,000 to close to a million.[3]

Music was a powerful antidote for instilling German pride and cultural superiority. Featured were some of the greatest musicians in the world, who lived and worked in Berlin, either as part of smaller chamber ensembles or as members one of the city’s many first rate orchestras – the Berliner Staatskapelle, the Rundfunkorchester, and of course, the quintessential jewel, the Berlin Philharmonic.  Goebbels annexed this organization in 1935, making it his own personal project. Repertoire was restricted to legendary German composers like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Wagner, with a few acceptable contemporaries like Richard Strauss. Jews like Felix Mendelssohn or modernists like Paul Hindemith were blackballed.

The Germans approached radio broadcasting quite differently than the Brits or the Americans.  In the United States live musical events were the main fare. Broadcasting of phonograph records or prerecorded performances was generally frowned upon. Americans liked tuning in to Fred Allen's Town Hall Tonight or the NBC Orchestra after work, knowing they were hearing the real thing. In Germany almost the opposite was true. The RRG recorded both live performances and sessions at Haus des Rundfunks in Berlin, usually for later airing.  This allowed the best possible programming from select edited performances. Such a strategy demanded the best possible recording technology, which accelerated the demise of disc recording and advanced the development of the magnetic tape recorder.

.   .   .

Collet checks into a few different offices to get clearance for me.  He introduces a few colleagues and mentions that I am doing research on the earliest magnetic tape recordings. The employees are cordial and friendly.  They ask me where I am from. A few of them proudly recount family trips to Cape Cod and Boston, or visits to relatives in New York City. It hardly seems possible that this was a work place of the enemy almost 75 years ago.

Our next stop is to look at the concert halls.  A blue aproned assistant leads us down the same curving hallway to a pair of large double doors. He pauses and smiles momentarily, then sweeps open the entryway to reveal a large hall, Saal 1. The dark stained wood and the red upholstered seats radiate sheer elegance and beauty. Yet its clear, simple, utilitarian dimensions match the 1940 black and white photo I have from the German Museum of Technology, which features a huge swastika at the back of the stage. The moment I step inside, I intuitively know it sounds great. Now it’s clear to me why the recordings made in this hall are so musically and sonically impressive. This was a place where the best musicians of the day performed in an acoustic space that they loved.

Haus des Rundfunks, Saal 1, circa 1938

“They still do recordings here?”

“Yes, of course. This is where the larger ensembles still perform and record.” 

“And is this how it looked 75 years ago?” “Yes, almost exactly. There have been acoustic renovations over the years.  Much of the wooden paneling was replaced and better insulation was installed overhead for the 1959 renovation. But essentially, it’s the same room.”

His remarks reinforce my limited knowledge of the hall’s Achille’s heel – its roof. I had come across an interview with Eva Kort, a young female RRG apprentice who began working in the press barracks several years after the 1936 Summer Olympics. She describes the devilish job of commandeering a pair of turntables for radio broadcast with another female colleague. Every four minutes a new 40 cm lacquer disc had to be positioned on a turntable, synchronized with the disc being played, then switched over at the appropriate musical spot to ensure uninterrupted broadcast. This required both adroit physical skills and adept musical ears. Once the RRG transitioned over to magnetic tape in 1938, things got a lot easier, except that Kort then had to learn the delicate craft of splicing magnetic tape using scissors and nail polish. 

Kort recounts one amusing story of how operations at the HdR continued without pause during the Russian invasion of Berlin in the spring of 1945. Even under the most demanding war conditions, recording went on in the building 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. But the roof had poor insulation. “Sometimes when we recorded in the big hall [Saal 1], we could hear the soldiers traipsing around the roof above us, watching for air raids.  So we’d have to send someone up there, tell them to sit down, relax, have a cigarette, and be quiet.” [4]

We step out of Saal 1. Collet turns to me, “So, Herr Mountain, let’s now take a peek at Saal 2, and then we’ll take you down to the archives which hold the Russian tapes (Russische Bänder).” The descriptor "Russian" is misleading, inferring a tinge of capitulation. The tapes in the archive were recorded in Berlin during the war, but have spent most of their lifetime in Russia. Before the end of the day I will learn the details about their odyssey, which is nothing short of amazing.

.   .  .

Russian troops outside Haus des Rundfunks

The Russians breached Berlin’s defenses on May 2, 1945. They drove steadily through the heart of the city, determined to find Hitler’s bunker near Potsdamerplatz.  One Russian battalion branched off and continued west to the Haus des Rundfunks, the home of Nazi propaganda. Once they had taken and occupied the huge building, they encircled it with barbed wire and held onto it in the face of American and British forces coming from the west.

“This building was for all intents and purposes a red island,” Collet tells me.  “The Russians managed to hold on to it until 1952, even though this sector was eventually occupied by the British.  Surprisingly, operations continued pretty much seamlessly.” Well, not exactly.

The Russians, like the Nazis, understood that radio was a strategic asset.  Under the recommendation of Walter Ulbricht, the Moscow authorities renamed the station “Radio Berlin” and put a Communist sympathizer named Hans Mahle in charge. Mahle had grown up in Hamburg as part of a leftist family, and was forced to flee to Moscow during the Hitler years. There he worked a long time in radio doing “youth programming.” At the new Radio Berlin his directive was to introduce instructive cultural programs, soundly reject fascism, and promote “a re-education of the German people in the spirit of peaceful work and true democracy.” [5] Germany radio was shifting from one totalitarian regime to another.

.   .   .

We move on to Saal 2, much smaller, but with a very high ceiling.  It is severely deco,

Haus des Rundfunks, Saal 2, today

reminiscent of a huge Japanese waiting room with beautiful wood paneling and tall vertical windows. I ask about the apparent shoebox shape, which would have the potential to reinforce some lower frequencies.  The assistant assures me that the designers were well aware of such problems and designed irregular dimensions accordingly. Acoustics was already becoming a science by the 1930s.

Collet looks at me and is reading my mind. He knows I’m anxious to move on to the tapes.

We return to the archive area. Collet takes me through two large doors and into a large room with tall shelves, reminiscent of a library.  He leads me past several stacks to the last two rows and declares, “And here are the Russian tapes.” There they are.  Several shelves of aging light brown tape boxes affixed with yellow stickers.

“So this is everything that the Russians sent back?” I inquire.

“Yes, it is everything. All 1,600+ tapes. Of course, they came in two batches, a few tapes in 1987 and the rest in 1991. As you know, much of the effort was spearheaded by our late colleague, Klaus Lang, who worked tirelessly here at the station for over forty years.“

Collet looks at his watch and says unexpectedly, “You can look through anything you want.  Please feel free. I have some business to do upstairs but I will be back in a quarter of an hour. I’ll try to bring back one of our sound engineers, who can do a better job of explaining the technical aspects of these recordings.”

Collet heads for the door.  Suddenly I feel like a kid in a candy shop, left alone to savor treasures laid out before me.  I experience a brief moment of euphoria, followed by a sudden sense of panic.  I am an audio archaeologist with a 15 minute tenure. I hurriedly open random boxes of tape and hurriedly snap pictures with my iPhone. 

One of the "Russian tape" boxes

The label on one of the first boxes I pull out bears witness to some history.  It’s a recording of the third act of Wagner’s “Götterdämerung” by the Berlin Staatskapelle under the baton of Robert Heger from November 1944.  It is labeled “working copy” (Betriebskopie) since it has been edited for broadcast by an engineer named “Wähner.” The post production work bears the date April 2, 1945, exactly one month before the Russians took over the building. This sends a shiver down my spine. There is no broadcast date, so it probably never made it over the airwaves. There is blue Cyrillic handwriting all over the front, but it does not obscure the remaining information.

Beneath the typewritten label is an original German handwritten label with the title “Magnetic tape type C” (Magnetophonband Typ C) at the top. I verify this when I pull out the tape. It is stored as a “pancake” with just the inner hub and no outer reels.  The rust color of the tape indicates it’s a later version of type C used during the war. The unmistakable I.G. Farben logo is at the bottom.

I.G. Farben was the infamous German chemical company that manufactured the nefarious chemical Zyklon-B for the gas chambers. Aside from several chemical atrocities, the company did actually create some good things. Least known is their involvement with the German electronics giant AEG to develop a suitable medium for magnetic recording. The invention, development and manufacturing of the tape, now resting in my hands, requires backpedaling almost fifty years.

.   .   .

The concept of magnetic recording started on the other side of the Atlantic in the late 19th century.  A mechanical engineer from New Jersey, named Oberlin Smith, theorized that sound could be recorded using electro-magnetism, an idea in stark opposition to Edison’s phonograph. Edison’s phonograph mechanically etched miniscule squiggles onto a wax cylinder, the result of sound pressure from a person talking or singing into a horn. Smith believed that an electrical signal, like a telephone, could be fed to a stationary electromagnet and written as a magnetic pattern onto a spool of passing iron wire. Smith never built a prototype, but manifested his ideas in an article entitled “Some Possible Forms of Phonograph” in a magazine The Electrical World.

Smith’s theory was later adopted by the Danish engineer, Valdemar Poulsen, who built and patented several working prototypes of wire and steel recorders, which he displayed at the 1900 International Exposition in Paris.  These machines had reels of wire or steel bands, which passed over an electromagnet charged by an electrical signal. His invention received a Grand Prix award along with rave reviews. Poulson’s “Telegraphone” generally produced better fidelity than Edison’s phonograph, but in practice the machines were awkward and clumsy to operate. The metal media often snarled or broke during rewind and splicing required a welder. Consequently, his company, American Telegraphone, was never able to successfully market the recorders as either telephone answering systems or dictaphone machines. It stumbled along for several years, unable to attract enough investors or capital to fill potential orders and was eventually liquidated in 1918. Poulson’s invention, however, did inspire further development.

Fritz Pfleumer, a German chemical engineer, gained notoriety for fusing bronze powder to cigarette paper to create the stylish “gold tipped” cigarettes, which were all the rage in the late 1920's. Pfleumer was well acquainted with the problems associated with magnetic recording, but he believed he had a solution. He replaced the wire with long paper strips, to which he glued iron shavings. His invention, which he called the  “sound record carrier” (Langscriftträger), is considered the first real working tape recorder.

Fritz Pfleumer

Pfleumer’s efforts caught the interest of AEG-Telefunken in Berlin (the German General Electric. [6] AEG acquired his patent in 1931 and set about making improvements. The first priority was to replace the record medium with something more robust.  Pleumer’s paper strips broke easily during rewind, and it was evident that a more reliable material was needed.  For this job AEG contracted I.G. Farben. Scientists at I.G. Farben’s BASF subsidiary in Ludwigshafen came up with a much more suitable backing for the magnetic material.

Sheets of 30 um thick cellulose acetate, akin to film used in the movie industry, could be rolled out and sprayed with a mix of lacquer and carbonyl iron compound. After drying, the finished sheets could then be slit into 6.5 mm. wide strips and wound onto individual hubs. Magnetic tape was born.

Back in Berlin, the AEG made a series of mechanical and electrical improvements to Pfleumer’s original design. Chief engineer Eduard Schüller invented a circular electromagnet “head” (Ringkern-Magnetkopf) for the critical recording process. The tape path was optimized and three separate motors utilized for improved playback, rewind, and fast forwarding. By 1935 they had a real product named the “Magnetophon” which debuted at the Berlin Audio Fair to great acclaim.

Initially the press viewed the Magnetophon as a slick device for office dictation or news media interviews, innovative because of its lengthy recording time (+20 min) and ability to edit and erase. No one yet saw the machine as a game changer in the music industry. But one author’s report in Aus Aller Welt, saw some potential as a home music recording device:

As testing has shown, a radio instead of a microphone can be hooked up to a Magnetophon. If the radio is playing Mozart’s „Kleine Nachtmusik“, the Magnetophon can be put into motion and the iron particles will capture the gratifying music. After a few days you might want to record something else. At the push of a button, the tape rolls past the magnetic record head, the old recording is erased, and you can record a tango, a foxtrot or a waltz onto the 0.05 mm thick tape. [7]

AEG hoped to market the recorder in the United States.  In 1937 they shipped a K2 machine to Schenectady, NY for evaluation. Reports show that the General Electric engineers were not at all impressed and declined an offer to sell the machine in the United States. [8] While the rest of the world had no knowledge of the Magnetophon, over the next eight years AEG sold over 2,000 units of varying designs to the German Wehrmacht without even a blink of the eye from Allied intelligence

Following the success at the Berlin Audio Fair, AEG began to see the Magnetophon’s potential, as not just a dictaphone, but also perhaps as a music recorder.  German Radio in Berlin (RRG) ordered several machines for testing and evaluation.  The first challenge came in 1936 when the Magnetophon was used to record the London Philharmonic under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham, on a tour through Germany.  Most of this historic recording is preserved (movements 2 and 3 of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39) and available on CD. On the Internet one can easily find a photograph of Beecham standing behind the single Neumann CMV-3 “bottle” microphone used to record the concert.

The sound of this mono recording is nothing extraordinary.  There is abundant surface noise (tape hiss), static, and distortion. The overall fidelity is a little worse than a typical lacquer or wax disc recording of the day. But the Magnetophon held promise and significant sonic improvements would come over the next few years. Just the advantages of 20+ minute recording and ease of splicing were compelling enough reasons to rethink how the radio station recorded and archived audio. German radio desperately wanted to replace the 4 minute transcription discs. In 1938, the chief engineer at RRG, H.J. von Braunmuehl, made the decision to use the AEG machines for all transcriptions and radio broadcasts. [9] From this point on, the audio engineers at Haus des Rundfunks became valuable consultants to the Magnetophon project.

The single greatest breakthrough came in 1939 when an AEG engineer named Walter Weber, partly by accident, discovered a phenomenon known as AC bias (Hochfrequenz-Vormagnetisierung).  Simply put, AC bias is a method of injecting ultra high frequencies (80-100 kHz) into the record circuitry to control the oscillation of the magnetic field, giving it more stability and accuracy. The result was a huge improvement in audio fidelity, with recording specs that an audio engineer could only dream about: an almost flat frequency response from 40Hz to 12kHz, a dynamic range of close to 65 dB, and less than 3% distortion. With AC bias the Magnetophon suddenly became the best recording technology in the world.

Two revisions to the chemical formulation of the tape would also provide dramatic improvements. In 1936 they replaced Pfleumer’s carbonyl iron with a black, cubicular iron oxide (Fe3O4), Three years later they refined it to a red gamma ferric oxide (γ-Fe2O3) formulation of even finer particles, which could accommodate shorter wave lengths or higher frequencies. [10] This was the rust colored Type C tape, which I now held in my hands.

.   .   .

I quickly opened several other boxes and found similar stories:  classic works by orchestras like the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Furtwängler and other great conductors. Most of the boxes were covered with Russian handwriting or pasted over with Russian typewritten labels. I was already familiar with some of them, since they have been subsequently issued on disc: the spectacular sounding Schubert’s Symphony in C (unfinished), recorded at a live concert in December 1942, or Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, op. 61, the last recording in the Alte Philharmonie, before the building was destroyed by British bombers on January 30, 1944. All of the recordings were mono, the majority of them live. Even after examining a tape and its label, it was often difficult to determine if it was a 77cm/sec. original master or a 38 cm/sec copy (Schnitt). I suspected that many of them were copies. I drew my breath for a minute, overwhelmed by the sonic history surrounding me. I was now witness to a moment in history when recorded sound was catapulted into greatness.  But it had taken so long. Visual technologies had sprinted ahead, while audio had lagged behind. Spectacular photos survived the Civil War. Stunning motion pictures ran in theaters in the 1920s. It took three quarters of a century to get beyond Edison’s phonograph or Berliner’s Gramophone. As I lamented this irony, I heard a door open and multiple footsteps approach. It was Collet, followed by a colleague.

“Herr Mountain, let me introduce one of our audio engineers, who is very familiar with these early recordings, Herr Löwe.”

I extend my hand to a short red haired, bearded gentleman.  Löwe is much younger than me. He looks like a laid back kid from California, but his demeanor is decidedly German, dead serious. I hone in on him, knowing he could provide a wealth of information. I want to know more about the first experiments with stereo.

.   .   .

Stereo is a loaded topic. A fair amount of serious research preceded the Germans. A British engineer named Alan Blumlein, who worked at EMI in London, experimented with two microphones and a steel magnetic recorder.  There is a Decca CD available of Blumlein walking back and forth between two microphones and talking (“now I’m moving over to the left microphone..”), proving his concept that stereo was a coherent and aesthetically pleasing phenomenon for our ears. By the early 1930s several of Blumlein’s papers and patents were circulated and well known. German engineers were certainly aware of them.

Harvey Fletcher of Bell Labs in New York also conducted research into multi-channel recording. His work culminated in one rather amusing experiment. In 1940 Bell Labs hosted a public concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring playback of an optical film recording of the Philadelphia Orchestra through three enormous loudspeakers. The event attracted hundreds of music lovers and thrill seekers. The conductor, Leopold Stokowski, a self-professed audiophile, insisted that he sit at the helm of a mixing desk so he could control the balance of the three channels. It was a bad decision. In his excitement Stokowski pushed the levels so hard that some listeners fled the building, agitated and terrified. [11]

Helmut Krüger (fr. left) and Associates

Despite these early forays into stereo, it was the Germans who turned experimentation into reality. In 1942 AEG engineer, Eduard Schüller designed a special “dual twin record head” (Zwillingskopf) for the Magnetophon, giving the machine the ability to record and play back two channels of sound simultaneously. A pair of K4 models, outfitted with the new stereo heads, were delivered to the Haus des Rundfunks within a few months. Even though stereo could not be used for radio broadcast, the RRG was willing to explore its possibilities. In 1943 they appointed engineer Helmut Krüger “head of the experimental department“ (Leiter der Probeabteilung) to conduct testing of stereophonic recording.

Over the next two years Krüger, along with Dr. Ludwig Heck and his associates, made over 250 stereo recordings at the RRG facility. [12]a

.   .   .

The brunt of the Allied air campaign was now beginning to take its toll on Berlin. Some AEG and I.G. Farben production facilities in and around Berlin had already been destroyed.  In 1943 the AEG decided to move its central laboratory for research and development to a more obscure location in Kosten in Wartheland about 150 miles east of Berlin (now Poland). The stereo recordings were put into boxes, labeled “for archival purposes only” and shipped off to this location.

Kosten was a spa center (“Lazurusstadt”) with a dark past. Shortly after the 1939 invasion of Poland, the SS had taken over the psychiatric hospital, brutally killed over six hundred citizens and patients, and turned the facility into a military hospital. [13] The new AEG laboratory, adjoining the rehabilitation hospital, also performed a service to the Reich’s military, offering music as a healthy cure. During 1943 and 1944 Dr. von Braunmühl personally hosted several “stereo listening sessions” for the benefit of doctors, hospital staff, convalescing soldiers, and the general public. On another occasion there was at least one documented stereo playback session at the Berlin Foreigner’s Club in April 1943 where a Berlin music academic, wrote what he witnessed in an April 1943 article for the Berliner Börsen-Zeitung:

In order to recreate the full breadth of playback, two channels, which are the result of a few spaced microphones, are played back using two separated loudspeakers. It’s an unqualified success: any disturbing background noise, which especially troubles a phonograph recording of a piano, is suddenly gone. Also, subtle orchestral parts come through with transparency and form, so that one has the complete illusion of the separation of the instruments in the room. An even stronger impression comes from the playback of the human voice. [14]

In retrospect, moving the stereo tapes to Kosten was an ill-fated decision.  Had they remained in the archives at Haus des Rundfunks, we might now have a treasure trove of historic stereo recordings. Instead we only have five. Three were among the “Russian tapes”: two versions of an incomplete Brahms Serenade for Orchestra, op. 11, and a badly distorted Overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  The other two, presumably stored at Kosten, eventually found their way back to Berlin through private hands: a stunning finale of a Bruckner Symphony No. 8, and the complete Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 with pianist Walter Gieseking.

According to a 1991 interview with Helmut Krüger, almost all of the stereo experiments were carried out in the Haus des Rundfunks with the German Radio Orchestra, with one notable exception: In 1943 they travelled to Beyreuth to record Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic performing Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. This recording has never been found. Krüger also relates how a young Herbert von Karajan needed 32 hours to record the Bruckner symphony, not because he was so meticulous, but because recording had to be curtailed numerous times because of air raids. Did von Karajan know about the stereo technology?  Not a chance, said Krüger, since the stereo project was so secretive. [15] The maestro did, however, receive a copy of it on his sixtieth birthday in 1968. 

Beethoven/Gieseking tape

The Beethoven recording by Gieseking is a sonic revelation, hard to believe that it was recorded over 70 years ago. It rivals any modern day orchestra recording, including one of the great early digital recordings of the same work (BSO, Seiji Ozawa) released by Telarc in 1981. The articulation of the piano is clear; the orchestra sounds broad, cohesive, and powerful. As only stereo can do, it beautifully captures the sonic footprint of the hall. Twenty seconds into the first movement’s cadenza, after the piano winds its way up to a trill on a high B natural, a lyrical theme ensues, quietly announcing a mood of personal triumph.  The musical passage is just quiet enough, the recording just transparent enough, to make clearly audible the unmistakable sound of German Flak guns a few kilometers away.

While these tragic events are captured on tape, Gieseking and the orchestra press on for two more movements, pulling and tugging at each other in classic concerto fashion, ignoring, defying, and perhaps even mocking the war raging outside.

.   .   .

I’m anxious to learn more from Löwe about this momentous recording.

 “So, Herr Löwe, can you give me some technical information about the Gieseking tape?”

He pauses and takes a deep breath. “In the early 60s, Helmut Krüger came into possession of the three 77 cm/sec master reels. He edited together the first two reels to make up the first movement, then made a 38 cm/sec copy of the entire work onto one tape. I have worked intensely with this recording, transferring it to digital on two occasions. But I have noticed a strange phenomenon. At the cadenza of the first movement, Krüger’s splice point, there is a slight drop in pitch and change in sound. This is, I believe, because reel 2 was recorded on an older K4 machine, running at a slightly higher speed than reels 1 and 3, recorded on a K7. These machines, of course, preceded the development of the capstan.” [16]

I’m stunned to learn that the Gieseking, which I heard for the first time yesterday at the German Radio Archives, is a second generation copy.

I probe further. “Can you explain to me how this stereo recording was made?”

Löwe proceeds carefully, “The recording was made in the main hall here.  There were three Neumann CMV-3 omni microphones placed across the front of the orchestra: the left one in front of the high strings, the right one in front of the low strings, the middle one behind the conductor.  The two outside mics were sent to the left and right channels, and the middle mic split between the two channels to create an expansive stereo image.”

It seems so simple and intuitive. Unlike the complicated multi track recordings of today, where producers can postpone balance decisions, there is something pure and organic about it - three spread microphones, simulating a very wide set of ears, letting the beauty of the orchestra breathe spaciously throughout the acoustic space. Ampex engineers used this same approach a decade later to test out their new Ampex 350 2 channel recorder. [17] Shortly afterwards, Jack Pfeiffer began the RCA “Living Stereo” series. Later in the 1950s Robert Fine produced the famous Mercury “Living Presence” recordings in the same way.  Interestingly, none of these American counterparts had any knowledge of the RRG experiments a decade before.

I look around me at the tape archive. “What percentage of the tapes here in the archive are originals? ” I ask. Collet and Löwe hesitate for several seconds. They don’t seem to know exactly. Löwe finally breaks the silence with a touch of finality laced with cynicism, “When the Russians came to this building, they either carted away everything that was moveable or destroyed anything that was immoveable. So, whether they’re masters or copies, we’re just happy to have the tapes back.”

.   .   .

What exactly happened over those three decades after the war is still a bit of a mystery. Realizing that they couldn’t hold the radio station too much longer, the Soviets began to move tape machines and broadcast equipment to a new radio facility in East Berlin sometime between 1947 and 1948. From there the invaluable tape archive was carted off to Russia.  When the British finally gained control of the building in July of 1952, they found an empty, dilapidated shell. It took six years of renovation before the newly established Radio Free Berlin could move in.

The tapes were all but forgotten. Post war Germany was rebuilding from total destruction. The average citizen was far more concerned with putting bread on the table than worrying about missing audio tapes. Even veteran radio personnel, who had survived the war, like Helmut Krüger, simply assumed that the tapes were either lost in the carnage of war or that the Russians had destroyed them.

Then an odd thing happened.  In the mid 1960s LPs released on the Soviet Melodiya label of wartime Furtwängler recordings started to surface in the west. If nothing else, these records fueled some speculation.  Were these LPs created from old disc acetates from the Berlin radio archive, or could they perhaps have come from the original Magnetophon tapes? If the tapes still existed, where were they? There were no immediate answers, especially under current cold war conditions.  General interest gradually died down, but the questions still lingered. Two decades later Radio Free Berlin producer, Klaus Lang, made a personal discovery during a trip to Russia:

My first encounter with a disc recording from the Alte Philharmonie was during a private visit to Leningrad in 1983.  In a coffeehouse on Newjski Prospect I noticed a blue LP in Cyrillic type with Furtwängler’s picture on the cover. When I turned the album over, I noticed the contents: Bruckner’s 5th symphony and Schumann’s Cello Concerto, both recorded in October 1942. From this point on, I could not rest. [18]

Melodiya Furtwängler LP

Lang spent the next four years, hoping to find answers. He initiated a series of contacts with Russian artists, musicians, and the Soviet embassy. Then in October 1987 a box of 22 tapes magically appeared at the Berlin radio station. The Russians had sent them.  They were all edited 38 cm/sec. copies of Furtwängler concert recordings with the applause removed, perhaps the same ones used to master the Melodya LPs. But where were the originals? Although not optimistic, Lang remained doggedly persistent. Most disturbing was the fact that even the Soviet officials didn’t seem to know where the original tapes were. Further inquiries with Moscow radio officials produced no answers. A few years went by.

Then a retired radio employee came forward with a faint memory of a secret depository on the fifth floor of a huge warehouse in the suburb of Moscow-Medvedkovo. It was there that the famous Magnetophon tapes had reached a post-war resting place.

In 1990 Lang and his coworkers were invited by the Soviet officials to inspect the tapes. They spent a day at the warehouse in the Moscow suburb taking pictures and inventory. But the actual return of the historic archive required a whole new political initiative at a much higher level. Initial meetings with the foreign chief of Moscow Radio and the Soviet General Consulate in West Berlin produced no results. German officials cited an article from a German-Soviet post war treaty that stated "any wrongfully deported artistic property should be returned to the original owner or their successor.” [needs footnote] Negotiations continued. The Germans pressed for their release. Finally, after a 1990 personal visit from the Berlin mayor, Walter Momper, to the Soviet foreign minister in Moscow, an agreement was reached. One month later a representative from Soviet Radio announced that 1,462 tapes would be returned to Radio Free Berlin as a gesture of “good will.” This joyous news occurred just two months after the reunification of Germany in October of 1990.

As it turned out, the Russians had stored and cared for the tapes quite adequately.  They also took great pains to rewind and repack the tapes shortly before shipping them to Berlin. Shorter reels of chamber pieces had fared well, while a few of the longer masters were falling apart and unplayable. Lang’s team worked for five months, checking their condition, taking inventory, and making copies. Using a specially modified BASF machine built to original Magnetophon specifications, they copied all of the playable tapes to two formats: digital audio tape (DAT-16 bit, 48 kHz), and 38 cm/sec analog with Telcom noise reduction.

During this process, they discovered that much of the archive consisted of second generation copies, made either at the original speed of 77 cm/sec. or at half speed 38 cm/sec.  It is now clear that most of them were copied not by the Russians, but by RRG personnel before the end of the war. [19]  The BASF scientists had probably warned that the early formulations of type C tape would not survive very long – perhaps five to seven years. As part of a Telefunken restructuring in 1942, a new company called Tonband G.m.b.H. was founded with the explicit duty to “replicate” (vervielfältigen) the RRG tape library for archiving and distribution to other radio stations. [20] Copies were also made for 35 releases of phonograph discs for the Telefunken label. This was obviously a prudent policy.

The Russians, surprisingly, utilized but never fully exploited magnetic tape technology. Nor is there any evidence that they were interested in expanding their commercial music market. Certainly, they designed and built their own versions of the Magnetophon after the war, which were used at eastern bloc radio stations, studios and record pressing plants.  But they never pushed the technology any further. Evidently they were more interested in building rockets to carry cosmonauts into space or creating training centers for Olympic athletes.

Instead, it was the Americans that ultimately benefitted from the spoils of war. This is where our story takes a weird twist and starts to resemble a screenplay for a Clint Eastwood / Ron Howard collaboration.

Our American protagonist was an unpretentious but persistent signal corps sergeant named Jack Mullin.  Mullin, who was stationed in London, wondered why music from German radio broadcasts always sounded so much better than the BBC. Once the BBC had signed off at midnight, he would switch over to RRG broadcasts of the Berlin Philharmonic in the wee hours of the morning.  There were no telltale crackles, pops and surface noise from a phonograph record - just pure music, as if it were a live performance. Mullin knew that the Germans possessed some sort of amazing recording technology, but he wasn’t sure what. When the war ended in Europe, Mullin was assigned to inspect German broadcast facilities as part of the US Army’s FIAT initiative: [21]

And within a half-hour or so I was in this little town called Bad Nauheim. The Radio Frankfurt operation had moved out to this town because of the bombings in Frankfurt and so this is where their studios were. And so it was under control of army officers, but the staff were German and they were operating the whole thing. And I went in and saw the officer and I asked him if he had these tape machines that they used on the air, and he said, "Oh yes." And I said, "Could I hear one of them." And he said, "Okay." So he took me in and sat me down in a room and he clapped his hands a couple of times or something, and a German attendant came and clicked his heels and went off and put on a roll of tape on this machine in the back room. And all I heard was the loudspeaker in front of me and I couldn't believe it. I'd never heard anything like that in my life before. This was the great revolution as far as I was concerned. [22]

Mullin’s enthusiasm was understandable. He immediately knew that he had witnessed something extraordinary. But, in that instance, he was probably not yet aware of the ramifications of his discovery.

Mullin had the transports of two Magnetophons packed up and shipped, along with fifty reels of German type “L” tape, to his mother’s address in San Francisco. After he got home, Mullin spent the next two years improving the electronics of his two Magnetophons, while using them to record audio for film with his partner, Bill Palmer.

Jack Mullen with his Magnetophon recorders

After Mullin’s demonstration to radio engineers in San Francisco in the summer of 1946, the word was out. The potential of the new technology motivated the Ampex Corporation, a small wartime electronics company, to begin manufacturing professional tape machines. Mullin acted as an informal consultant. In 1947 he demonstrated his machine to Bing Crosby’s personnel in Los Angeles. Crosby was so enamored with the technology that he sent a $50,000 down payment to the Ampex Corporation to immediately begin manufacturing machines for his parent company ABC.  Ampex soon became the world leader in professional tape recorders.  Within a few years, several electronic companies across America were manufacturing tape machines for commercial and consumer use.

These developments started a ball rolling that couldn’t be stopped.  The music world was changed forever. By the early 1950s hundreds of artists were recording using magnetic tape, with the added luxury of editing their own performances. In 1953 Ampex unveiled the first professional stereo tape recorder in America. A few years later, with the help of guitarist Les Paul, they introduced a multi-track tape machine, making overdubbing possible. By the end of the decade the tape recorder had revolutionized how American pop, jazz, and classical artists approached music production. The creative possibilities now seemed limitless. And overseas their European counterparts were fashioning a brand new music genre called musique concrète. [23]

In short, everything we listen to today owes a debt to the Magnetophon.

.   .   .

As I walked away from the RBB on my way to the U-Bahn, I pondered a few open questions. Hitler and Goebbels possessed their own Magnetophons, which they used to practice their own speeches. They probably also used them to play back their own vaunted German music favorites – Beethoven, Bruckner, Wagner. But did they ever experience stereo? And did they ever stop to think how their technological innovation would be used after the war?

Then a fanciful thought entered my head: What if either one of them had survived the war?  

I pictured Goebels in a high security prison, in solitary confinement, dressed in striped fatigues in an empty cell of hard concrete - his only diversion a pair of headphones. Music piped in from an Ampex tape recorder of Stockhausen, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley.  Sweet revenge. Now he could live out his life, knowing that a prized Nazi technology, designed to confine and control the masses, had actually allowed individual artistic freedom to flourish.

[1] From the archives of the Deutsche Technikmuseum, Berlin

[2] Heide Riedel “Lieber Rundfunk” (Berlin, Vistas Verlag, 1999) p. 80-1.

[3] Ibid, p. 91

[4] Eva Korte, Interview with Klaus Lang, 1993

[5] Heide Riedel “Lieber Rundfunk” (Berlin, Vistas Verlag, 1999), p. 161

[6] “The Birth of Tape Recording in the U. S .”, Peter Hammar, Ampex Museum of Magnetic Recording, AES Paper, 1982.

[7] Aus Aller Welt, 19. November 1935, “Magnetophon oder Grammophon” newspaper clipping from the archives of Deutsche Technikmuseum, Berlin.

[8] “Zeitgeschichten: Magnetbandtechnik als Kulturtraeger” 3rd edition,. Friedrich Engel, Gerhard Kuper, Frank Bell, Worlf Münzner, Polzer 2013, p. 100.

[9] "The Birth of Tape Recording in the U. S .", Peter Hammar, Ampex Museum of Magnetic Recording, AES Paper, 1982.

[10] "A Selected History of Magnetic Recording”, Friedrich Engel and Peter Hammar; additional editing by Richard L. Hess, p. 5

[11] “Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music”  Greg Milner,  Faber & Faber, 2010

[12] “Helmut Krüger Pionier des deutschen Rundfunks” interview with Krüger by Klaus Lang at RBB in 1991

[13] “Koscian – Executions and Euthanasia”

[14] Dr. Herbert Dominik, Berliner Börsen-Zeitung, Nr. 176, 15. April, 1943

[15] “Helmut Krüger Pionier des deutschen Rundfunks” interview with Krüger by Klaus Lang at RBB in 1991

[16] The capstan was a post World War II invention that further stabilized the tape speed.

[17] The first known American stereo recording:  the San Francisco Symphony performing at the War Memorial Opera House with Alfred Wallenstein conducting, January 25, 1953.

[18] “Musikschätze der Reichs-Rundfunk Gesellschaft” Bärbel Böhme and Wolfgang Adler, Sender Freies Berlin, 1992

[19] Interview with Eva Kort by Klaus Lang. Lang points out that most of the tapes had the indentifier “KO” (Kopie) at the beginning of the paper leader of the tape.

[20] “Zeitgeschichten: Magnetbandtechnik als Kulturtraeger” 3rd edition,. Friedrich Engel, Gerhard Kuper, Frank Bell, Worlf Münzner, Polzer 2013, p. 184.

[21] FIAT stands for “Field Intelligence Agency, Technical”, a collaboration of British and American intelligence to gather information on German technology.

[22] “Interview with Jack Mullin” by  Richard Riley, June 13, 2000

[23] Musique concrète is the French term used to describe music composition with magnetic tape, ie. assembling prerecorded pieces with tape splicing to create a sound collage.

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2 commentaires

七弦 候
七弦 候
28 mai 2023

I'm searching something about Karajan's 1944 Bruckner 8th and find this article, Thank you Mr. Mountain, It's really a good story of the recording tech.


Wow, beautiful story. Thanks for sharing

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