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The Decca Ring Cycle: Then & Now

Return Of The Ring By Sam Inglis
Published October 2022

Georg Solti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic during a Ring session at the Sofiensaal, Vienna. The Decca Tree of three Neumann KM56 microphones is just visible above his head.Georg Solti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic during a Ring session at the Sofiensaal, Vienna. The Decca Tree of three Neumann KM56 microphones is just visible above his head.Photo: Copyright Decca

The legendary Decca recordings of Wagner’s Ring operas were always envisioned as immersive listening experiences. They’ve now been restored as exactly that!

Historic recordings become significant for all sorts of reasons. Some embody landmark technical innovations. Some set new benchmarks for sound quality. Some break fresh ground artistically. Some achieve unprecedented success. Some are notable for risk‑taking and sheer ambition. And on all of these criteria and more, the four operas that make up Decca’s Ring set may well be the most significant recordings ever made.

Visionary producer John Culshaw oversaw the cycle, which began in 1958 with Das Rheingold and concluded in 1965 with Die Walküre. He it was who championed the then little‑known conductor Georg Solti, convinced Decca executives to fund the recording of Wagner’s masterworks, and achieved impossible feats of scheduling to make the sessions happen. With a cast of characters that includes operatic divas, Wagner scholars, interfering pigeons and the hilariously truculent Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Culshaw’s memoir Ring Resounding is one of the most entertaining books ever written about music recording.

Feeding The Imagination

It was Culshaw’s creative and organisational genius that brought stars like Kirsten Flagstad, Wolfgang Windgassen, Birgit Nilsson and Dietrich Fischer‑Dieskau to Vienna. The indefatigable producer also tracked down musical anvils, steerhorns and other paraphernalia needed to achieve near‑impossible demands in the score. But to capture the results on tape, Culshaw was wholly dependent on his technical team, and on one man in particular.

Soprano Birgit Nilsson, conductor Georg Solti (centre) and producer John Culshaw discuss a point from the score in the Sofiensaal control room.Soprano Birgit Nilsson, conductor Georg Solti (centre) and producer John Culshaw discuss a point from the score in the Sofiensaal control room.Photo: Copyright Decca

“In Vienna, Culshaw had a young engineer called Gordon Parry,” says Dominic Fyfe, Decca Classics Label Director. “His importance in making this Ring sound the way it does is underlined by the fact that Culshaw dedicated his book about the recording — Ring Resounding — to only two people: Parry and Solti, in that order.”

At the time, major labels had their own engineering staff, studios and other recording venues, and much of their equipment was built or modified in‑house. Each label evolved their own, jealously guarded techniques, and competition to achieve the best‑sounding results was fierce. Decca’s mid‑’50s recordings were already attracting attention for their quality, but Das Rheingold was unlike anything that had been heard before. It represented the simultaneous flowering of several ideas that had been in gestation for several years, perhaps the most important of which was a wholehearted commitment to stereo recording.

Dominic Fyfe, Decca Classics Label Director.Dominic Fyfe, Decca Classics Label Director.Photo: Copyright Decca“The magic ingredient was stereo,” says Fyfe. “It is easy to forget that in 1958, when this project started, recording opera in stereo was still in its infancy, and recording complete Wagner operas in the studio was almost unheard of. For Culshaw, the medium of studio‑produced stereo was about to transform Wagner on record. His experience of working at Bayreuth in the early 1950s had left him averse to live recording and so, with the luxury of prior ‘test run’ recordings of Walküre Acts 1 and 3 in 1957, the stage was now set to scale the heights of a complete studio Ring.”

Culshaw saw stereo as far more than simply a means of capturing a performance in two dimensions. Rather, the Decca Ring would incorporate all of Wagner’s detailed stage directions and special effects, in order to create a sound world that would, in a very modern sense, be immersive.

“I think he called it ‘theatre of the mind’,” says Fyfe. “The idea was to create in sound what was demanded in the score, so that you could listen at home and imagine the characters moving about on an imaginary stage, and so on. Nothing like it had been done before. When they did Rheingold in ’58, no Wagner opera had been recorded complete in stereo. There were mono things that were just very straightforward, with no attempt at sound effects. And most opera recordings at that time were literally done with people in fixed positions, there was very little moving about.

“It was a bit like polar exploration. They were literally going into the unknown. But all meticulously planned. That’s the incredible thing. All of this was worked out. They had these huge great blackboards with all the session planning and everything. It was an incredible achievement.”

Pooling Resources

As John Culshaw eloquently explains in Ring Resounding, the Vienna Philharmonic is a unique orchestra with its own, characteristic sound. In Georg Solti, Culshaw found the perfect conductor to draw the best from them. Less widely acknowledged is the contribution of the venue in which the recordings were made — and in which Decca staff actually lived while sessions were taking place. “It is a sonic standard which is still a benchmark today and yet, acoustically, it came about thanks to the fortuitous accident of the Viennese spurning steam baths!” says Fyfe. “In 1826, the Sofienbad opened on Vienna’s Marxergasse, but steam bathing didn’t catch on and by 1849 the Sofienbad had become the Sofiensaal, reimagined as a concert and dance hall. Johann Strauss 1st conducted the opening ball, and many Strauss waltzes were first heard here.

“The secret of the Sofiensaal’s excellent acoustics was not just the high‑vaulted ceiling of the original baths, but also because the pool was covered over, creating a cavity beneath the floor and stage area. Almost entirely by accident, a depth of sound and natural glowing resonance was created which are as much an ingredient of this recording as the Vienna Philharmonic or Birgit Nilsson. Gordon Parry’s genius was to ally the natural bloom of the Sofiensaal with a soundstage of pinpoint precision.”

The trademark Decca Tree stereo microphone array had been introduced in 1954, and Decca engineers Roy Wallace and Kenneth Wilkinson had explored many variations and refinements. Then as now, the basic technique involved three mics above the conductor which would be panned left, right and centre, usually augmented by additional ‘outrigger’ mics on either side. Today, the Decca Tree is almost always implemented using omnidirectional mics, especially Neumann M50s or M150s, but Decca’s own engineers often experimented with different mics, polar patterns, placements and spacings. The Ring sessions were no exception.

“Interestingly enough, they used the Neumann KM56, which was switchable,” says Decca mastering engineer Philip Siney. “It had cardioid, it had omni and figure of eight. And they chose to use them in cardioid. We think probably the reason is that although the former swimming pool underneath the stage helped the sound, it also caused certain resonances, especially in the bass, in the cello and bass area, a bit of boom. And omni microphones probably would’ve accentuated that too much.”

“And also because of the fact that the singers were on the stage behind the orchestra,” adds Fyfe. “If they’d used omnis, then you’d have just had everything coming at you. So it allowed a degree of separation between the orchestra and voices, which would’ve made life quite difficult for them otherwise.”

The Tree was augmented by a pair of Neumann M49 large‑diaphragm mics, set to a wide cardioid pattern, as outriggers for the orchestra.

Tracking Voices

John Culshaw wanted the listener to be able to localise the singers within the stereo field, and follow their movements. This was achieved by using three further M49s as vocal mics, again set to a directional pattern. “The valve 49s at that time had an adjustable pickup pattern that was sweepable,” explains Siney. “They’d have a pencil with the rubber at the end, and one of the youngsters would tap it while the senior engineer would listen on headphones and adjust the pickup to get it just right. Something in between cardioid and omni.”

“If you are moving people on the stage, with a cardioid microphone it becomes very clear where they move from one position to another,” says Fyfe. “Whereas if it was an omni, then it would just be more indistinct.”

The production team lightened the intense mood during the recording of Götterdämmerung by delivering a live horse in response to Brünnhilde’s call. Visible at top left is one of three Neumann M49 microphones used to capture the voices. Note also the grid marked out on stage, which was used to direct the singers’ movements.The production team lightened the intense mood during the recording of Götterdämmerung by delivering a live horse in response to Brünnhilde’s call. Visible at top left is one of three Neumann M49 microphones used to capture the voices. Note also the grid marked out on stage, which was used to direct the singers’ movements.Photo: Copyright DeccaAchieving the desired level and position within the stereo field for each singer also required intensive and sophisticated choreography. “If you imagine a chessboard, laid out in a numbered grid, they’d work out in advance from stage directions where the singers needed to be in relation to one another and so on,” explains Fyfe. “And then they had two stage producers who would literally be moving the singers about. When the soprano, Birgit Nilsson, hit those stratospheric high notes, she would be pulled back by one of the producers, because of course it just would’ve blasted on the microphone. It was all done in real time. All the sound effects: the anvils, there’s a scene where there’s a sword being forged, and so on. These days we’d probably track it on afterwards, but at that time it was all done live.”

Noises Off

Another layer of complexity was added by the many special effects called for in the score, which often demanded musicians to play elsewhere within the Sofiensaal. “Surrounding the main hall were rooms of different size,” explains Fyfe. “And what they would do is, it might be a singer or it might be the steerhorns that were off stage, they would set up in one of the adjoining rooms, and there would be a television monitor so that they could then follow the conductor, or they would have a conductor in the room following Solti’s beat to cue them at the right point. And it was all done live. So they literally had to cue these things as it happened to get it down correctly.”

These external contributions were mixed live to tape by Gordon Parry and his team along with everything else. This was a job for at least two people: typically, Parry would balance the orchestra while Jimmy Brown took care of the vocal mics, with Culshaw directing operations in the middle. Das Rheingold was recorded only to stereo, and although a four‑track machine was available for the other three operas, its main function was as a safety net. “With the four‑track, they had the voices on two and the orchestra on the other two tracks,” explains Siney. “But those four‑tracks were never edited. They were there purely as a backup, and it was the stereo mix from the session that was used.”

By time that the third opera was recorded, it was apparent that the mixing desk in the Sofiensaal was too limited to accommodate all the complexities of Götterdämmerung. John Culshaw persuaded Decca to commission a new console from Siemens, which was installed in 1964. “I think the reason they had to change the mixing desk is that the original mixer was a mono mixer,” says Siney. “So to use it in the stereo environment, to pan things, they had to take the top off and pull a valve out! That was the only way they could do it. So it was either middle, extreme left or extreme right. They couldn’t pan within that, which they found very restrictive. They needed more channels, as well.”

John Culshaw (centre) with Decca engineers Jimmy Brown (left) and Gordon Parry in the Sofiensaal control room. This photo shows the newer Siemens console that was installed in 1964.John Culshaw (centre) with Decca engineers Jimmy Brown (left) and Gordon Parry in the Sofiensaal control room. This photo shows the newer Siemens console that was installed in 1964.Photo: Copyright Decca

Ring Revisited

The Ring recordings have remained in the Decca catalogue ever since they were released, and are thought to have sold over nine million copies in total — no mean feat when you consider that they were all expensive box sets. Götterdämmerung, the longest of the four, occupies six long‑playing records or four CDs. The recordings have previously been transferred to digital twice, in 1984 and then again in 1997, both times under the direction of longstanding Decca engineer Jimmy Lock. “The most recent reissue was in 2012,” recalls Dominic Fyfe, “but that used the 1997 transfer as the basis. That was done at 24‑bit, 48kHz, and they used CEDAR for the de‑noising and de‑hissing [at the time of the transfer in 1997], but at that time it was quite invasive. It shaved a lot of the high frequencies off, and things like that.”

Decca mastering engineer Philip Siney.Decca mastering engineer Philip Siney.Photo: Copyright DeccaTo mark the 25th anniversary of Georg Solti’s death, Decca Classics are releasing new and definitive digital versions of the Ring operas. The project has been led by Fyfe as producer, with Philip Siney in the mastering engineer’s seat. “For this 2022 edition we have utilised a completely new set of high‑definition 24‑bit, 192kHz transfers of the original two‑track stereo master tapes,” explains Fyfe. “Almost every tape box is marked ‘Edited & Passed: JC’ where John Culshaw personally initialled each reel as passed for production. These transfers were made as part of Universal Music’s preservation project at the Arvato facility in Gütersloh, Germany. Overseen by Andrew Wedman, formerly of Emil Berliner Studios, the tapes were aligned and played on Studer A820 machines coupled with Weiss analogue‑to‑digital converters and a proprietary workstation to record the output. Working with 38 reels of original master tapes — some up to 65 years old and spanning seven years of recording — there were inevitably instances where some individual tapes needed edit repairs or suffered oxide shedding. Tapes in poor condition were baked for 10 hours at 55 degrees Celsius to restore their integrity.

“The playback alignment was greatly helped by the fact that the first tape reel in each opera has an announcement from engineer James Brown or, in the case of Die Walküre, Culshaw himself, with left/right identifiers and a series of tones to ensure the correct calibration of the tape head. The classic NAB equalisation curve was used on playback to obtain as flat a frequency response as possible. However, Decca’s 1950s Ampex‑designed AME noise‑reduction circuit — a precursor of the Dolby circuitry to reduce tape hiss — was not deployed, so that we could use the very latest noise‑reduction software at the remastering stage. In a sense, what they did when they transferred them was a bit like creating a photographic RAW image, as it were, so it allowed us to start completely from scratch with all of that and use the latest plug‑in software for de‑noising and so on. Which are far less invasive because you only really need apply them where it’s needed in the quieter passages of the music. In the louder passages, you don’t, this isn’t an issue. So you can back off with all that.

“Ultimately, all these applications require our ears for critical judgement. We have cross‑referenced all previous versions of the Ring, right back to a set of the original LPs, and we have been at pains to retain the general equalisation characteristics common to them all. This has always been a fabulous‑sounding recording and we hope this latest version takes us a step closer to being back at the Sofiensaal all those decades ago. It is a story which never tires of retelling.”

Cutting Craft

Reading Ring Resounding leaves you in no doubt that the editing process was almost as important to John Culshaw and his team as the recording itself. The transitions they achieved with razor blades and splicing tape were often impressive, but not always perfect; and the ageing of the tape has tended to exacerbate problems around edit points. “There were lots of clunky edits where there was a gap in the sound, basically,” explains Siney. “So I had to fill the gaps in. Lots of panning problems, where the singer hadn’t quite got to the same place as he’d been on the previous take, so suddenly where you get the edit, the singer moves.

“The poor chaps only had two attempts at the time, whereas these days we can spend ages and try all sorts of things. With some of the edits, I had to totally take them apart, maybe use some reverb and smooth and reconstruct the edit. It was tricky. And then sometimes they put an edit in a sustained horn note, and I thought, why on earth would they do that? You get this wobbling effect, and we had to overcome that and smooth them out. Dominic was very attentive over this, and I had to adjust and get it just so. We’ve been successful, but it’s taken us an awful lot of time.

“But with the tools of the trade, as you know, these days, it’s wonderful, you can grab hold of harmonics and copy them. I use a system called Merging Technologies Pyramix, which is designed primarily for classical. I use CEDAR Retouch for the noise reduction, and I’ve been using iZotope for the de‑hissing side of things.”

Immersed In The Ring

Philip Siney’s work on the 2022 Ring hasn’t only been restorative. He has also created Atmos mixes of all four operas: a challenge, you might think, especially given that the four‑track tapes of Siegfried, Götterdämmerung and Die Walküre couldn’t be found, so he had to work from the stereo masters. “We did a pretty exhaustive search to see what was in the archive,” says Dominic Fyfe, “but none of the session tapes survive. Or at least if they do, they’re not catalogued, and nobody really has a sense of where they might be. So everything has been derived from the two‑track stereo masters. Which, in some ways, enables us to be as faithful to the originals as possible. In other words, we’ve not rebalanced anything, because there’s just no possibility to do that.

Prior to the Decca recording, the off‑stage steerhorns demanded by Wagner in Act 2 of Götterdämmerung were normally substituted by trombones. John Culshaw insisted on tracking down authentic instruments, which were cued live over closed‑circuit television in one of the other rooms in the Sofiensaal.Prior to the Decca recording, the off‑stage steerhorns demanded by Wagner in Act 2 of Götterdämmerung were normally substituted by trombones. John Culshaw insisted on tracking down authentic instruments, which were cued live over closed‑circuit television in one of the other rooms in the Sofiensaal.Photo: Copyright Decca“Even at the time there was criticism of Culshaw, there were people that found that some of the effects achieved were over the top, so the last thing we wanted to do was make them even more over the top! We thought, OK, this is what they signed off on, and we shouldn’t interfere with that. We can upgrade it in terms of the resolution that you can transfer the tapes at, all of that side of things seems to us completely legitimate. And doing the Atmos mix. But to start to unpick it and then play around with it, that doesn’t feel the right thing to do at all.”

“There are programs now where you can upsample a stereo mix into Atmos and it pulls the sound apart,” agrees Siney. “I tried that, and it totally ruined the pinpoint image of all the sections of the orchestra and the singers and their movement. So I thought, no, I can’t even go there.

“I then thought, well, let’s try and imagine how Sofiensaal would’ve sounded if I’d been in the best seat in the house. And that was the approach I decided was the best one to adopt really. It’s changed substantially from how it was originally, but we visited the hall to have an idea of what it used to sound like. We’ve used LiquidSonics Cinematic Rooms and Seventh Heaven [reverb plug‑ins] and tailored those to get something approaching how we imagine it used to be. It took me quite a while to come up with the settings, because what was great for the orchestra then suddenly didn’t work for the voices.”

“It’s interesting to speculate what they would’ve done had Atmos been available at the time,” adds Fyfe, “because you can be sure they would’ve used it. There’s a point in Rheingold where the Rheinmaidens were supposed to sound as if they’re underwater. And with Atmos you could have achieved that effect quite easily. Sometimes, to get off‑stage effects, they would put singers at the back of the hall, which was I suppose in a way almost like an early way of doing surround recording, but without knowing it at the time. But we’ve not been tempted to try to pull them out of the stereo and then put them into the rear. We didn’t want to get drawn into what‑if scenarios. The idea was to be faithful to the original, so that you get an uncanny sense of almost standing on the conductor’s rostrum and hearing everything coming straight at you.”

“You get more dynamic range as well,” adds Siney. “The sound just expands in a way that you don’t get with stereo. It brings the sound out of the loudspeakers.”

Dominic Fyfe: It’s interesting to speculate what they would’ve done had Atmos been available at the time, because you can be sure they would’ve used it.

Looking Forward

Ring Resounding ends with an extraordinary ‘Coda’, which includes a series of uncannily accurate predictions for the future. Writing in 1966, John Culshaw foresaw flatscreen and 3D television, interactive multimedia and, almost unbelievably, on‑demand streaming: “The listener, or viewer… will be able to command such a performance to take place by dialling some code through which a computer will channel the performance to him. Nobody has yet worked out quite how he will pay for this, but history has shown that once a demanded facility becomes technically possible, it takes no time at all to find out how to charge for it.”

If opera is to flourish, Culshaw argues, it will need to embrace new media and new forms of expression. John Culshaw saw the potential of Atmos decades before it existed — so, as Dominic Fyfe says, it is a fitting format for the presentation of his crowning achievement. “I am quite sure he would have put his initials to our endeavour to make this recording available across more formats and platforms than ever before — just as he put ‘JC’ on those very first master tapes back in 1958.”

The Quality Of Tape

The new transfers of Decca’s Ring recordings demonstrate that, in the hands of an expert technical team, tape recording in the 1950s and early ’60s offered amazingly high fidelity. In particular, the recorded bandwidth far exceeded that of any contemporary playback system. “When I’m de‑noising, I can see all the frequencies in the spectral editor,” says Philip Siney. “When the percussion gets going, the harmonics go way above 20kHz. There’s a line whistle from the television at 45kHz that’s clearly visible! And on the bass side, I was surprised because I haven’t had to add anything at all. What’s fed to the subwoofer is completely how it was off the analogue tape. The frequencies go down to 20Hz, it’s incredible. And at the time, they were listening on Tannoy Canterburys. They wouldn’t have heard any of this!”

“You can hear all sorts of thumps from Solti on the rostrum,” adds Dominic Fyfe. “And the street that the Sofiensaal was on had trams that ran up and down. If it got in the way of your musical appreciation, we’ve taken that out. But other things, studio noises and so on, we’ve not gone over the top in just removing everything.”