Westminster’s “Natural Balance”

Following the Second World War, a host of new American recording companies sprang up, looking to take advantage of tape recording and the newly introduced long-playing record to expand the catalogue with music thus far neglected by their older and larger competitors. The big companies could afford to record in America, but these new upstarts chose to record in Europe where, thanks to the strong American dollar, costs were lower by orders of magnitude. From all the suitable European locations, one stood out: Vienna. Here were hundreds of musicians and ensembles anxious to work, recording venues that had been spared from wartime damage, and a cadre of Viennese musical experts and sound engineers eager to help the Americans build up their LP catalogues.

Among the upstarts was Westminster, represented by its president, James Grayson, and its then music director, Czech conductor Henry Swoboda. With them came two key pieces of US-made recording gear: the brand-new Altec 21b condenser microphone and the Rangertone R-5P portable tape recorder ($2,025 in 1949), based directly on the Telefunken Magnetophon that its builder, Col. Roger Ranger, had brought back from Germany in 1945.

To operate this equipment, Grayson engaged a young musician-engineer named Karl Wolleitner, trained in music and experienced as a recording engineer and tape editor both at Telefunken’s studios in the Vienna suburb of Dornbach and at the Vienna Symphony Orchestra’s Symphonia studios in the Konzert­haus in the heart of the city. The massive Konzerthaus complex contained three soundproofed auditoriums, but it was the middle hall, the 704-seat Mozartsaal, that Grayson and Wolleitner chose for most of their Vienna recordings. Although the Westminster team also recorded elsewhere – including in London and in New York at the 30th St. Studios of Columbia (CBS) Records, using Columbia engineers – it was in the Mozartsaal, often scheduling three sessions a day (morning for orchestra, afternoon for chamber ensembles, evenings for soloists), where they established the sound that became known as Westminster’s “Natural Balance”.

Achieving “Natural Balance” began by placing the orchestra adjacent to the concert platform and the conductor directly beneath the lip of the hall’s projecting balcony. Hanging above the ensemble was a single Altec microphone, whose frequency response in this position was essentially flat from 30 Hz to 10 Khz. If more microphones were needed, a pair of small microphone mixers directed the combined mono signal to the tape machine – no longer the Rangertone but instead the “standard” American Ampex model 300. Its motors were controlled via an oscillator to bypass the sometimes erratic line frequency of Vienna’s electrical grid. An array of other equipment, including frequency and distortion meters, was constantly used to ensure that everything in the recording chain was operating flawlessly.

Of course, “Natural Balance” involved more than just equipment. To achieve a coherent sound picture for mono recording, the orchestra’s string sections were often “bunched” close to the conductor’s podium. Dynamic contrasts were reviewed in the score and then discussed with the musicians so that loud/soft contrasts were proportional and kept within the limits of tape (60 decibels) and the normal range for home listening (40 decibels). With rare exceptions, Westminster recording teams neither “monitored” nor adjusted the loudness levels of the incoming signal; nor did they apply artificial reverberation to a finished master tape. A typical LP tape would be produced from a trio of three-hour recording sessions, carefully edited from up to twelve original reels of Scotch 111 recording tape.

Westminster rapidly expanded its LP catalogue in the early 1950s, by the middle of 1951 reaching the astounding number of 150 LPs cut and pressed on vinyl, as they would continue to be for years, by Columbia in America. By this time, others had joined the Vienna-based crew. Herbert Zeithammer was engaged as commercial manager and technical supervisor with responsibility for the recording equipment; by the mid-1950s he would take over the functions of recording engineer from Wolleitner. Zeithammer maintained Westminster’s permanent presence in Vienna, as the company’s recording activity there was not continual the year round.

In 1951, Kurt List arrived from America, joining the team first as an advisor, then, in 1952, as musical director following the departure of Henry Swoboda. It was List who – principally, but not exclusively, on the musical side – raised the label to the eminent status it has enjoyed ever since. Viennese-trained (he was a pupil of Alban Berg), List articulated the Westminster philosophy in a pair of pamphlets entitled Recorded High Fidelity and rapidly became the “face” of Westminster to the record-buying public. Mario Mizzaro, hired as the tape operator, became another key member of the team in the 1950s, to be succeeded until 1962 by Joseph Kamykowski. In 1955, a young Swiss musician named Ursula Stenz joined Westminster in London. She eventually became Kurt List’s assistant, deploying her “golden ears” throughout the record-making process to make sure each master tape was as nearly perfect as possible.

In January 1956 the second edition of Recorded High Fidelity was published, but by that summer its orientation towards mono recording had been overturned by Westminster’s plunge into stereophonic sound. Big record labels had been taping in stereo experimentally since 1954, and by 1956, when pre-recorded tape became available, more companies joined the rush to two channels. At Westminster, music recorded with more and newer microphones – including the Neumann KM-54 for the strings and winds and a vocalist; the KM-56 for the brass and percussion; the Telefunken M-221 for percussion; and sometimes the Altec 21b for the double basses or for a small chamber group – was now mixed in stereo through a specially designed twelve-microphone, two-channel mixer. A separate control room – usually with Ursula Stenz serving as musical director, accompanied by one of Westminster’s technicians as engineer – used the same microphone signals to create a mono recording. Most of these microphones were angled at 45 degrees towards their respective orchestral sections and elevated between 2.5 to 3.5 metres from the auditorium floor. How many were used and where they were positioned always depended entirely, of course, on the music being recorded.

At Westminster, stereo also changed the ways in which orchestras were seated to enhance the effect of separation. In the 1962 recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony included in this set, for instance, the four soloists are placed left-to-right in parallel with conductor Pierre Monteux; arranged in front of his podium are the LSO string sections; placed behind them (from right to left) are the percussion, brass (to the immediate right of the chorus) and winds (to the left of the chorus). Heard in this set are variants made during the 1960s of this body of equipment and orchestral seating arrangement.

By 1965, after most of the performances here were recorded, Westminster had ceased operations, and its team had moved on to other companies. In this set we celebrate their achievements: the skill, taste and musicality with which they used their hardware to preserve the artistry you are about to enjoy.

Michael Gray