The Audio Interview--Jack Pfeiffer: RCA's Prince Charming (Nov. 1992)

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above: Ivan Fisher, Jascha Heifetz, Brooks Smith, and Pfeiffer


He is the prince of the RCA vaults, currently "reawakening all the sleeping beauties ...," many of which he also created. Jack Pfeiffer (John F., formally), a 43-year veteran of RCA, now BMG, has produced the original recordings of many of classical music's most revered performers, including Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Jascha Heifetz, Van Cliburn, Leontyne Price, and Arturo Toscanini. He now is overseeing the reissue of these treasures onto CD. Pfeiffer arrived at RCA in 1949 fresh out of the University of Arizona.


From 78s through tape, microgroove, Dynagroove, stereo, quad, and digital, he's seen--and in some cases helped create--it all.

--S.E.


above: Serge Kousevitzky, Eleanor Roosevelt, end Pfeiffer

You've worked with all the greats. Jack. How does it feel?

I can't tell you how proud I feel about that. Just to be able to remember sitting in a control room while Jascha Heifetz played the violin into a microphone-and then recalling that he actually asked me what I thought! How ridiculous! To have had the feeling that all these great artists--Heifetz, Rubinstein, Stokowski, Reiner, Horowitz, Landowska, Leontyne, Placido--would profit from my opinion is really just unbelievable to me.

How do you see your role as a producer?

I'm an audience, a receptacle. Artists want a reaction. Not that they always consider it valid.

You're too modest. There must be a reason. These people kept conking back to you, besides you being a warm person with a lot of patience.

I think that's the whole thing. Somehow I always managed to give the artists the feeling I was on their side, that I was doing everything I could to help them do what they did best. As a result, they gave me friendship. Some developed into very close friends.

Who?

Heifetz, Horowitz. Wanda Landowska was probably first. Certainly Van [Cliburn] has been an enormous friend.

Watching you in the studio. I see your approach as laid-back, low-key--very different from, say, Tom Frost's. He's very hands-on and even functions as a music director.

I always felt the artist knew pretty much what he wanted to do, and it was my job to translate that onto a phonograph record--not to tell them how or what to do. Of course, a lot depends on the level of the artist. To some I've had to say, "Sorry, that doesn't make it," but only when I felt they weren't sure of what they were doing. I always found the better the artist, the easier he or she is to work with.

After 43 years with RCA, what has been the best decade for you?

The first, because of the wide-eyed, just unbelievable excitement and enthusiasm and newness. To be suddenly in close proximity with all these people I had admired from a distance--I can't think of anything I could've done that I would have enjoyed as much.

When Von started, was tape the accepted medium?

When I finally got into the record department, tape had just come in; everything was being recorded on it. The RCA engineers had made their own tape machines. We call them now the Tinkertoys. They had small, 7-inch reels and they ran at 30 ips, so you could only get 7 1/2 minutes per reel.

Anything that went on for any length of time had to be overlapped. We used to do that on some of the early Toscanini recordings and then had to splice them together.

Generally we ran two machines on everything. If a piece was more than 7 1/2 minutes long, we would stop one machine, change the reel, start that up, then stop the other machine, change the reel, and then start that one up, and so on.

You started as an engineer?

I was hired before I graduated from engineering school to come to RCA as a design and development engineer.

They were interested in me because I had a music degree and was on my way to an engineering degree as well. I went through their training program in Camden [ New Jersey]. I had done a lot in sound work as an undergraduate, so they had me designing audio amplifiers and IM distortion analyzers.

I started in July of '49 and by September there was an opening in the recording department for a quality-control engineer. They needed someone with a musical background, someone who could tell the difference between a technical flaw and a musical flaw. I got the job, which meant I was also in charge of production control of the record division on 24th Street.

That went on for a few months. In the meantime I met Richard Mohr, who was the only producer in the classical department. RCA was beginning to rerecord for LP and 45 a lot of the earlier 78-rpm recordings that were not of good enough quality to transfer to the new microgroove format. They were setting up sessions with the Boston Symphony and all the major orchestras and instrumentalists--Heifetz, Horowitz, and so on--to re-record the repertoire that had been popular on 78s.

Richard couldn't do it all alone, there was just so much. When he found out about my musical background, he asked me to join him in the A&R Department, in the spring of 1950.

Hon long did you use the Tinkertoys?

By 1950 we had machines with 16-inch reels, so we could record up to 30 minutes of music at 30 ips. These were mostly used for assembling LP masters and Toscanini broadcasts. Then around '52 or '53, Ampex came out with some good 15-ips machines-the heads were better, the electronics, even the mechanical aspects were better. Torque was more consistent, there was little flutter or wow, and you could record a whole LP side, about 23 minutes, with the 2,400-foot reels.

What was your reaction when you first heard the microgroove record utter hearing the 78s for all that time? I was practically hysterical, it was so beautiful. First of all, the music wasn't interrupted every five minutes, and then not to hear all the ticks and pops and bangs and crashes was just a delight.

Tell me about sour involvement in the early days of stereo.

We started experimenting with it in 1954 when they had finally gotten two track machines. I insisted that we take advantage of our recording sessions and set up two systems. We did this with the Chicago and Boston Symphonies recording sessions. There was one mono setup and one stereo setup, each with its own console, microphones, tape machine, engineer, and producer.


above: Pfeiffer, Richard Mohr, Lewis Layton, and Leopold Stokowski.

Out of those sessions we got some fantastic recordings, especially the Chicago Symphony's Ein Heldenleben of Strauss with Reiner. Those were done in March of '54.

How did those first stereo recordings turn out to be 'fantastic’?

Out of sheer ignorance, I had only used a couple of microphones-literally, one for each track. I set up two in front of the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall in Chicago. And the clarity and the definition that we got--of course, a lot of it had to do with the acoustics of the hall, the quality of the musicians, Reiner's balances, and so forth--were so dramatic. It was completely different from anything we had ever heard before. I set up listening sessions down on 24th Street and grabbed anyone who was around to come in and hear this fabulous sound.

I remember getting some of the RCA executives to listen. They were all enormously impressed.

I think the early stereo experiment proved the point, that the fewer microphones you have, the more likely you are to get a really first-class recording.

Microphones are stupid. They pick up everything that comes their way. So the more mikes you have, the more phase differences you get, plus you pick up all the reflections from the acoustical environment. It all adds up to a mess.

I've always tried to limit the number of microphones.

Still?

Yes. Of course, there are certain advantages in multi-miking. You have only a limited amount of time in a recording session to get a good performance; in a live situation you only have one chance. You use all the insurance you can get-you put up a lot of microphones so you can try out various combinations later on [in the mix] rather than during the session, when costs are enormous. I've always felt that multi-miking gave a satisfactory result, but not the best result--not as good as just two microphones.

Did the progression of stereo machines from two tracks to three alter your linking philosophy?

Somewhat. In '54, Ampex came out with a machine that recorded three discrete tracks. That seemed practical, because very often you had a soloist, whom you wanted to isolate from the rest of the orchestra-so you could record the orchestra on two tracks and the soloist on the third.

But you were still thinking one mike per track? Yes, although then we began to think that sometimes the center of the orchestra, which was behind the soloist, sounded a little subdued-that it wasn't being picked up properly. So we thought, let's put a couple of mikes up for the woodwinds, just to have a little more control. And then, well, maybe we don't hear the percussion quite enough. Eventually it just got out of hand.

What other kinds of experiments it ere you involved in?

Even before stereo, we were playing with tape editing. Actually the LP generated tape editing, because [earlier] you had to edit together the 78-rpm sides to make up an LP. From that, everyone realized that you had more degrees of freedom.

Editing was a real fascination. Some musicians were so overwhelmed by the possibilities, they just went hog wild. Especially Jascha Heifetz. He was a great tinkerer. He loved to work with his hands. He liked automobiles, firearms, all sorts of things. He had every tool in the world there in his workshop in California. Never used any of them, of course.

Because of his feel for tinkering, when he discovered tape editing he became fascinated. Not that he wanted to edit for the sake of editing, but it gave him an ability to put things together in a way he never could before.

He was never totally satisfied with his recordings, though he had made many great ones before editing.

I myself practically became an editing fiend. Because of my interest in technical things, I very quickly recognized all the possibilities. I knew what to listen for because I could envision the waveform that was being created by the onset of the sound.

The attack of Landowska's harpsichord, for instance, was a very sharp wavefront. You could hear where the sound actually started. I realized you could edit note by note if you had the patience. And I had infinite patience.

With Landowska we did a great deal of editing on the recording of the Well Tempered Clavier. It was a great benefit to her, especially since she was elderly and had difficulty getting her fingers to be reliable all the time. I got my editing feet wet on that recording.

Has your editing philosophy changed over the years?

Not much. I try to maintain as much of a spontaneous feeling as possible. If you over-edit, you risk losing that. A musical experience has to have the human element, so it's bound to have flaws. So long as the flaws don't distract from the music, then I think they should be left in.

Tell me when you first began to record Heifitz.


above: Pfeiffer and Artur Rubinstein

I first went to California with Richard [Mohr' in the summer of 1950 to record the trios with [Gregor] Piatigorsky and [Arthur] Rubinstein. The following year I went out alone to work on the Bach solo sonatas and partitas. We worked in RCA's studio on Sycamore Street in Hollywood. It was basically set up for soundtrack recording.

Because of Heifetz's fascination with editing, we did a great deal of tinkering. There is a point in one of the sonatas where Heifetz felt that Bach would have written a low F, which of course doesn't exist on the violin. So he decided we would stop while he retuned the bottom G string to an F. He'd play the phrase, then we'd stop while he retuned back up. Then we edited in the phrase. That's on the recording, and no one has ever found it.

Who else did you record in the early '50s?

Well, my first solo session with Horowitz was in December 1950 at Hunter College. He did the Liszt "Funérailles" and the "Stars and Stripes," among other things, all in the same day. I recorded [pianist] Willy Kapell, José Iturbi, and the Robert Shaw Chorale that same year. We completed the Bach sonatas and partitas in October of '52. Also in the early '50s were Stokowski, Kirsten Flagstad, and Jussi Bjoerling, between sessions in Lakeville [Connecticut] with Landowska.

In 1954 we did a whole series of recordings with Helen Hayes, Thomas Mitchell, and Raymond Massey called "Poet's Gold." I got [Hayes] to record my favorite poem, "The Owl and the Pussycat." She was such a delight.

Wasn't that the same year that Toscanini stepped down from the NBC Symphony?

Yes. I recorded his last two concerts in 1954 in stereo, independent of the mono setup they had for recording.

They were never released on CD because the family won't give approval--they were not that good. But they are his only true stereo recordings.

You've supervised BMG's entire Toscanini reissue program--all 82 CDs' worth. From what sources did you work?

The original recorded masters, that is, the composite original tapes that were played for Maestro for his approval. In some cases, those original source tapes had been lost or destroyed. So we went to Walter Toscanini's vaults, which were given to the Lincoln Center Library. He would get 15-ips copies of the approved master tapes, so he would have a source that sounded almost as good.

What shape here the originals in?

They were in bad condition. They haven't been handled properly over the years-they were improperly wound, some of the oxide was peeling off. Sometimes they were completely unusable. There has been a multitude of difficulties finding acceptable sources.

What nor the trickiest recording to piece together?

The Verdi Requiem. I figured up the cost of that one day. The remastering cost more than the original recording.

Engineering time costs $145 an hour, and we spent hundreds of hours on it.

It was a bad recording to begin with. It was a broadcast and the pickup wasn't particularly good. Plus it had all those performance forces and the broad dynamics of the Dies Irae, with somebody standing back there beating the hell out of a thunder drum. That recording went through numerous incarnations, just to arrive at something for Maestro to approve. They took parts from rehearsal and parts from broadcasts. The original was just full of distortion. The production master was really terrible. So we had to go back and re-edit.

We re-created the composite that Maestro had approved, using notes from Walter's letters and from our own records here. The results are amazing. Maestro starts screaming during the Tuba Mirum, when all the brass come in. It sounds like damnation. That part of the Verdi Requiem never sounds right to me unless I hear Maestro screaming. It sets your blood on fire.

Was he as amazing a force as everyone claims?

Yes. You couldn't go to one of his concerts without being overwhelmed by the power of his personality. He was so concentrated on what he wanted. Basically he was an opera conductor, he was best in music in which there was a dramatic message. There's a lot of that in Beethoven, of course; the really strong and powerful program music was what he did the best. His Respighi and his Verdi were mind-boggling.


above: Lewis Layton, Wends Landowaska, and Pfeiffer.

Tell me your thoughts on the development of Dynagroove.

Late in the '50s, some companies started recording on 35-mm film--Bob Fine did that, at Mercury. Technically it was a very good system. George Marek, RCA's president, decided that we should have some big technological breakthrough too. He got Dr. Harry Olson, the acoustical wizard, together with me and John Volkman and Don Richter, the head of our engineering department. He told us to come up with sound that was superior to anything on the market.

So Don developed an equalization system designed to bring out the characteristics of sound. of musical instruments, irrespective of the level at which they were played. He contended that a lot of people listened to things at a much lower level than they were actually performed. It's probably true. A full orchestra can get up to 110 dB, but you can't play things at that level at home. Your system wouldn't tolerate it, nor would your neighbors.

So Don designed this equalizer that operated dynamically, that is, responding to the dynamics of the music. It gave you at a lower [overall] level a frequency response that was similar to the one you would hear if the music was performed at a higher [overall] level. It was a big mistake. Immediately all the critics saw "dynamic equalizer" and just assumed that we were equalizing the dynamics.

Olson came up with a distortion eliminator so the groove was cut in a way that would be more compatible with a spherical playback stylus, which at that time was the only shape there was.

So we had a contribution from the research department and one from the recording department.


above: Richard Mohr, Pfeiffer, and Pierre Monteux

Where did you fit into all this?

I was supposed to come up with a new method of recording that improved the overall quality. I had just come back from a two-year sabbatical studying the problems of music and engineering and psychoacoustics.

Mr. Marek said, "You go in there and tell the producers and the engineers how to record. It's no longer their job to determine the sonic quality of the records, is yours. Follow through in the transfer, the mixdown, etc. Make sure all the recordings have all the characteristics you want. Then we'll put them on record with these other two improvements and we'll have a better product and we'll call it Dynagroove." What was your new, improved method? I started throwing out mikes and simplifying setups and trying to get everything much more basic than it had been. This was in about '62. I started going to all the sessions. I hated the name Dynagroove, however.

And the end result?

The first records were received with a lot of enthusiasm. But when the critics started reading about the dynamic equalizer, they started questioning whether the records had a limited dynamic range. They assumed we were equalizing the dynamics to make records for inferior machines.

How long did Dynagroove last?

About four or five years. Then we went through a very bad period, when the whole record company was depressed.

And the next technological milestone?

Quad. I wasn't involved in creating the technology, just in demonstrating the aesthetic qualities of the four-channel system. Everyone felt, as I did, that it had possibilities. But then the producers didn't know how to work with it.

And after quad?

Digital. I started working on it in '76, '77. I had been working with Tom Stockham at Soundstream on the Caruso project, starting in about '73. Basically Stockham had to convert the old Caruso recordings into digital form in order to process them on the computer. Stockham was the first one, in this country at least, to demonstrate digital recording. He demonstrated it to us back in '75 or '76 with the Virgil Thomson opera The Mother of Us All.

Once digital looked like it would be a commercial possibility--Denon had gotten into it, with their own system, and then Sony--Tom Stockham started in this country. He designed a different system, which I thought was better because it used a higher sampling frequency--50,000 per second instead of Sony's 44.1k. I also thought the Soundstream editing system was much more flexible and lent many more degrees of freedom than Sony's.

What was RCA's first digital recording?

It was in 1979, the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Jay Saks produced it.

In the early years of the digital era, what was RCA's ratio of analog to digital recordings?

Maybe 40% digital. I promoted digital recording from the time when Stockham first demonstrated it as being a very efficient system of storage. There wasn't any generation degradation either. But it didn't make the sound any better than analog did with good microphone placement and good head end equipment.

It's basically a high-quality transmission line. They're now using it in consoles, of course, but you still have to convert from an analog sound to a digital form, and that conversion has its drawbacks. Just having a digital recording does not guarantee it's going to sound good. Microphone placement, the acoustical environment, and the judgments you make in your original recording are still the determining factors, as they have been ever since Mr. Edison recorded "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

What about tape hiss?

True, that's not a problem anymore, but it never was, really. I listen to music, I don't listen to noise. The mind has the ability to concentrate on what it wants to hear. It's not like a microphone, which can't discriminate as to what it will listen to and what it won't.

Are there disadvantages to digital?

In our experience digital tape deteriorates more rapidly than analog. Some of the manufacturers have specified that the shelf life of their U-matic tapes is 10 years.

If digital has nothing to do with sound, how do you explain the early digital recordings with hard-edged string sound or oboes that sound like kazoos?

If you heard it on everything, on all the sources, it would have something to do with the digital sound. But you don't, so it must have something to do with something other than digital.

Do you think digital sound is changing? Improving?

No, but people are learning a little more about how to record with it.

When RCA started to reissue its back catalog on CD in earnest, you commented that you were having a ball.

Oh, it's been a lot of fun. Many of those recordings were things I originally produced. So it's been wonderful to go back and make friends with some of those sleeping beauties.

What is your primary function these days?

Producing the reissues. I supervise three crews in digital remastering. My job takes in the entire reissue program of BMG Classics, which is Red Seal, Victrola, Gold Seal, Silver Seal, Victor.

Even the Broadway shows. And of course the Toscanini Collection. And the Victor Vocal Series, which is very close to my heart-recordings by Geraldine Farrar, Ezio Pinza, Marcella Sembrich. I've gotten quite a few out. I keep pushing our merchandising people to put them on the schedule.

Then there's the Victor Opera Series, which we're almost through with. I'm constantly making lists of recordings that should be reissued-for example, the new Victor instrumental series for people like Paderewski and Kapell and Rachmaninoff and Kreisler and Casals. We just don't have the facilities to do much more than we're doing.

You do everything in-house?

Some 78-rpm transfers I have done outside because we no longer have good 78-rpm transfer facilities. It's a lost art. Most engineers don't know how to make a 78-rpm transfer to tape.

It's a totally different kind of discipline.

How has your philosophy as a producer evolved through the years, relative to all the technological changes you've seen?

I simply try to get the best musical performance possible, or as good a representation of the artist as I can. The technical aspects have, of course, played a role. But they've never represented anything more than a means to the end.

(adapted from: Audio magazine, Nov. 1992)

Also see: Dorian Live (June 1997)

Made In America -- Advertising Supplement (Dec. 1992)

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