📜 Feature Command Records, Anyone?

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As it was explained to me by "Fred" (the senior jazz announcer at the first station I worked at back in the mid-'80s), Command "specifically engineered records to make your $35 Montgomery Wards portable phonograph sound real good"; and he’s correct. Rather than capture the concert house ambience to recreate the illusion of stereo in your living room (understand that back in the late 1950s it was enough just to get a hi-fi stereo console into your living room…let alone be overly concerned with any finer points of stereophonic imaging such as dampening low frequency standing waves or breaking up midrange waves to increase definition), Enoch Light (Command’s proprietor) quickly spearheaded the idea that to the layperson the following mantra would spell aural success for the then-new stereophonic LPs:

~ The word, stereo, means that what you hear in the left speaker should be different than what you hear in the right ~

Enoch basically shoved stereo — or rather his idea of stereo — into your ears. There were no subtleties. In fact some of the early Command LPs were imaged entirely hard left and hard right thus leaving a sonic void of nullity in the middle.

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To do this Enoch visually exaggerated the two-dimensional aspects of stereophonic sound reproduction by emphasizing close-miking techniques to better control sonics. To that end, the close-miking did add presence to the instruments and by pushing nearly all instruments up front in the mix, he produced a flatter, brighter sound at the expense of natural soundstage depth and definition. As a kid these were my favourite sounding LPs. However, as I matured and was able to purchase quality sound reproduction equipment, I later concluded that those Command LPs did not exhibit realistic sound on quality equipment: trumpets sounded glassy, saxophones sounded squawky — and that was through a tube amp using warm EL84s. I don’t have any CDs of these things but could only imagine how a digitized version, mastered to contemporary in-your-face commercial pap standards, would surely decalcify ½ of your spinal column in short order at 92db.

Ironically enough, all that close-miking actually sounds dynamite in monaural (as single-channel sound reproduction moves more direct air by way of delivering a single-point-source of aural punch, which, in the end, was part of what Enoch was after).

Of note, also, was the packaging, which was a trend setter in the hype department. Check this out (from RS 826 SD):

Listening to this record can be a shocking experience. It can be exhausting…No record like this has ever been made before. The music is so pure, so totally true, that it is possible to reproduce music of such great intensity that it actually approaches the threshold of pain.

(To which one of my 1990s LP friends — who for all intents and purposes was of the school that all "pop" music made prior to 1967 was of marginal consequence — stated that the only really painful thing with Command records is the music itself.)

command-1-1.jpg


In the end, once beyond all the silly ping-pongy stuff, Command, if for nothing else, was the 1959-66 label of Tony Mottola, the 1959-69 label of Dick Hyman, and contained the entirety of Doc Severinsen’s 1960s LP output — and there’s some really good stuff in there.

For those interested, the label has been done to death over in the Hoffman forum (particularly their early-'60s fad of recording onto 35mm film).
 

JOv2

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The real irony here is Command Records describing the ability to place instruments front to back using multitrack. I suppose they could have done this through some phasing trickery, yet I doubt the engineers were aware of this sort of thing back in those days or if they were, it was an unwanted side effect. Their claims I would tend to take as marketing hype, and I doubt many, if any, of the engineers of those records are still around to tell us how they really were recorded and mixed. This type of claim is what makes those records so amusing today.
I think it all boiled down to the mixing: finding 8 definitive pan points (7 actually; one needs an odd number given one needs a dead-center point) on the sound stage to group the sounds was probably the sales pitch to the market. Even in the late '60s, Command still confined their sounds to envelopes -- so the only soundstage was synthetically assembled by the engineers -- which, actually, was commonplace with rock production (once Phil Spector's "aeroplane hanger reverb" trend went south).


I have some examples of a later iteration of Encho Light on his own Project 3 label. Apparently he left Command after it was sold and started his own label, Project 3.
One thing I remember was that Project 3 had some of the most hideous LP covers conceivable.

YUck.jpg

I like how Mottola's back-up "band" is named "The Groovies"...I guess Enoch's thinking was that such a hip reference would persuade someone who just picked up a Blue Cheer or Stooges LP to give Tony Mottola a whirl.

I have a few Project 3 LPs. One thing for sure: they definitely sound better than the old Commands (for instance, that "metallic glassiness" is gone; and by the early '70s the sound stage became a bit more realistic).

The label was also the LP home of Free Design! (I'm confident Carpenters connoisseurs out there have followed up on the music of Chris Dedrick...)

free.jpg
 

Harry

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I read a bit of online conjecture that the vocalists on that "Knowing When To Leave" by Enoch Light that I posted above, WAS in fact the Free Design.
 

Rudy

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I think it all boiled down to the mixing: finding 8 definitive pan points (7 actually; one needs an odd number given one needs a dead-center point) on the sound stage to group the sounds was probably the sales pitch to the market. Even in the late '60s, Command still confined their sounds to envelopes -- so the only soundstage was synthetically assembled by the engineers -- which, actually, was commonplace with rock production (once Phil Spector's "aeroplane hanger reverb" trend went south).
That is how I understand it also. And it anticipated the multitracking/mixing practices that continue to this day for all types of music, even classical, where sections or individual instruments are mic'ed. Only now, we can have unlimited tracks. Which can be a good or bad thing, I suppose. Some smaller, specialist labels produce recordings with simple mic techiques that sound quite good.

IMHO, it is laughable when some talk about a "soundstage" on a multitracked recording. All they are really hearing are the pinpointed placements of the instruments panned left to right. Those other spatial clues don't even exist, although reverb will make the sound scatter a bit, since reverb could be considered random. Panning left to right can't place someone in front of or behind the plane of the speakers--the information isn't there. They can still sound quite good, though! Labels like ECM record a very pure, clean sound and they are always a pleasure to listen to.

One popular recording I learned was the exception to the rule was Bruce Swedien's mic technique for Michael Jackson on the track "Bad" (and presumably, other vocals on the same record)--Swedien used a Blumlein pair of mics to record the vocals, so created spatial cues as Jackson moved (danced) behind the mics. Michael Fremer described this in a video he made about the lawsuit of Quincy Jones. vs. the Estate of Michael Jackson (he was called on to testify and demonstrate how the recording was originally made). So in essence, the vocals used two channels on the mixing board, and were mixed to the final track that way.

Blumlein pair:

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The early stereo era was a time of some oddball engineering choices, that's for certain.

If you want Reverb Mania™, check out some of those early stereo Capitol LPs. Nat King Cole's LPs like Just One Of Those Things were soaked in it, and if you find the original stereo pressing of Stan Kenton's Viva Kenton, there is so much reverb that you can barely hear the horn sections or the bass! I can imagine Spector salivating over those records. 😁
 

JOv2

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I read a bit of online conjecture that the vocalists on that "Knowing When To Leave" by Enoch Light that I posted above, WAS in fact the Free Design.
Yes, I believe that is correct. On one of Free Design's CD re-issues, it was stated that they supplied the voices for "the Groovies".
 

JOv2

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Thread Starter
IMHO, it is laughable when some talk about a "soundstage" on a multitracked recording. All they are really hearing are the pinpointed placements of the instruments panned left to right. Those other spatial clues don't even exist, although reverb will make the sound scatter a bit, since reverb could be considered random.
...as any Steely Dan recording neatly demonstrates.

In any event it's hard to image a realistic soundstage, however constructed, from those old consoles with just 3' between the speakers. Presently, I'm pushing about 12', which yields a gorgeous stereo effect, particularly on those Living Stereo recordings from the golden (1957-62) era.

If you want Reverb Mania™, check out some of those early stereo Capitol LPs. Nat King Cole's LPs like Just One Of Those Things were soaked in it, and if you find the original stereo pressing of Stan Kenton's Viva Kenton, there is so much reverb that you can barely hear the horn sections or the bass! I can imagine Spector salivating over those records. 😁
I know that Kenton LP: that was about as "wet" of an LP as they come!
 

Rudy

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Presently, I'm pushing about 12', which yields a gorgeous stereo effect, particularly on those Living Stereo recordings from the golden (1957-62) era.

I have mine set up in as close to an equilateral triangle as I can get in my room, so it seems fairly wide here. As much as I'd like to get something closer to what George Cardas recommends for placement (based the golden ratio or Fibonacci sequence), I can't make it work in a room which is also used as living space. The formula would put the speakers 6.7 ft into the room from the rear wall. (I can manage 3 ft at the most, and use GIK Acoustics diffusers behind both.)

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I know that Kenton LP: that was about as "wet" of an LP as they come!

The first few bars are OK, but once the entire orchestra comes in, there is so much chaos that I can't hear the parts. The ending especially is chaotic. I believe the CD version is a much-needed remix. It's probably the worst example of Capitol's reverb that I have in my collection. The Nat King Cole album Just One Of Those Things actually has an engineering flaw in it--on the original stereo LP, the channels are out of phase. If you press the mono button (or sum the channels), Nat disappears; in stereo, Nat's voice is vaguely non-centered (or in other words, sounds like it's coming from everywhere but the center). That is one LP I can't believe passed by the engineers unnoticed!
 

JOv2

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I have mine set up in as close to an equilateral triangle
ROGER that. 12' equilateral triangle side lengths with the speakers 3' off the rear wall. With my fair share of sound tiles, diffusers, corner absorptions in place, sitting in the sweet spot is pretty good for enjoying the illusion of depth (stereophonically). The bass is not as tight as I'd like, but the definition is quite clear down to the lowest natural frequencies (probably the 6' concert bass drum or the 16' pipe on an organ -- although I read online that double bass frequency extends down to 35Hz, which surprised me as I thought it was round about 45Hz) and they don't seem to muddy up the lower midrange too much.

The first few bars are OK, but once the entire orchestra comes in, there is so much chaos that I can't hear the parts. The ending especially is chaotic. I believe the CD version is a much-needed remix. It's probably the worst example of Capitol's reverb that I have in my collection. The Nat King Cole album Just One Of Those Things actually has an engineering flaw in it--on the original stereo LP, the channels are out of phase. If you press the mono button (or sum the channels), Nat disappears; in stereo, Nat's voice is vaguely non-centered (or in other words, sounds like it's coming from everywhere but the center). That is one LP I can't believe passed by the engineers unnoticed!
Those early '50s stereo LPs are truly something else. I read that in the very early days of stereo recording, Capitol would hold two sessions: a monaural session with numerous microphones everywhere (as by 1955 sound engineers were experimenting with the multi-mic approach) and then a stereo date with just two or three mics to capture the soundstage and concert all ambience. As you've pointed out elsewhere, the 3-track came in fairly quick to essentially manage the soloist within the realm of the soundstage. As mono has no soundstage -- just a point source of sound -- the engineers could do all and sundry with the mics, which really opens up the creative possibilities for sound management. (I think Brian Wilson was the last producer to record monaurally as a preference -- into 1967 -- which was why the Beach Boys LPs that he produced have no stereo versions from that time -- just the dreaded Duophonic.)
 

Rudy

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The bass is not as tight as I'd like, but the definition is quite clear down to the lowest natural frequencies (probably the 6' concert bass drum or the 16' pipe on an organ -- although I read online that double bass frequency extends down to 35Hz, which surprised me as I thought it was round about 45Hz) and they don't seem to muddy up the lower midrange too much.

Yeah, my room has bass issues also. It never fails that the one spot in the room with the worst bass performance is the only spot I have for a primary listening seat. I am not going overboard with room treatments until we know what our housing situation will be like later this year. (Debating a couple of different options to relocate.) The room isn't tiny, but it really only has three corners to it, as the back wall only covers about 2/3 of the room, as the remaining third opens to the kitchen. (The room is part of a mid 80s addition to a 1940 house, part of which more than doubled the size of the original kitchen.)

I have noticed that with my current speakers having a powered woofer section, the bass is better in the room, and has no issues reaching down to about 29 Hz (a low Bb, one note below the lowest on a 5-string bass guitar). It is not as strong at the listening spot as I'd like it though.

Part of the Cardas theory is that the room's standing waves and null points are minimized with that ideal setup. Only, it is not practical unless someone has a totally dedicated listening room, which itself would ideally have "perfect" dimensions as well. But I don't think his home listening room is perfect either, now that I think of it. 😁 (Although he did have a modified formula for full-range planar speakers--these are the Magnepan Tympani.)

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BTW, here's a handy chart of musical notes and their frequencies.

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JOv2

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Thread Starter
these are the Magnepan Tympani
Wow! Back when I was on the hi-fi kick, I was visually intrigued (like everyone else) by these -- the folding room divider look and all -- seems like every hi-fi joint had a pair (at least back in the late '70s and into the '80s). Looks like wavelengths disperse right from the start and from up and down the wires (if that's the proper term).

Thanks for the chart. I like the mathematics of it: for instance, how the octaves double (or half) the frequency value. I'm sure the psychologists have long studied this thing to try to postulate why certain groups of pitches, or their step-to-step changes, elicit certain predictive responses!
 

Rudy

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Wow! Back when I was on the hi-fi kick, I was visually intrigued (like everyone else) by these -- the folding room divider look and all -- seems like every hi-fi joint had a pair (at least back in the late '70s and into the '80s). Looks like wavelengths disperse right from the start and from up and down the wires (if that's the proper term).
We had one dealer in the area who carried Magnepan, and yep, it had to be the early to mid 80s when my buddy and I used to take a ride up the main road and spend the day stopping at all four of the audio dealers. There were other Magnepans and today they are all the single panel configuration, but I do remember our local store had the Tympani pair, in the off-white color.

I know that the conducting wires or strips are glued to the diaphragm, as over the decades the glue was known to dry out and work loose. (Some individuals are able to disassemble the panels to repair them.) There are permanent magnets opposite the wires that make it move back and forth.
 
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