Simon Trezise talks to one of the Naxos transfer engineers
One of the constant delights of the classical scene today is the burgeoning Naxos Historical catalogue, which has been prepared to venture into corners of the market usually inhabited only by the more daring specialist companies. Part of the success of this venture is due to the input of a handful of distinguished transfer engineers, including Mark Obert-Thorn. He spoke to me from his home in Philadelphia and described his early days transferring 78s for his college radio station. A 'crude process', as Mark admits, for in those days he copied the 78s onto the reel-to-reel tape and spliced the sides together. His passion took root, and curiously one of his earliest projects was the famous set of Act I of Die Walküre with Melchior, which also happens to be his latest project for Naxos, to be issued with the more piecemeal Act II made between Vienna and Berlin (and issued on CD by EMI with some bars omitted to fit it onto a single disc!).
Obert-Thorn continued transferring 78s for radio when he left college, now for Philadelphia Public Radio. He has been doing it professionally only for the last 14 years, starting with Pearl. Early on he was 'lucky to meet Ward Marston', who gave him some 'tips' which he was happy to take on board, though he found himself going off in his 'own direction' (Marston also works in Philadelphia).
Recommended Recording: Obert-Thorn's transfer of Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss
For Obert-Thorn the transfer process starts with finding the best possible originals from his own collection, and from friends and dealers. He has a variable-speed turntable and a pitch tuner, which enables him to sort out the extremely variable rpm of even electrical 78s (from around 74 to 81 rpm), and the much wider range found on acoustic recordings. Choosing the right stylus width is also crucial. Once the playback has been determined, the signal is passed to a pre-amplifier with settings for the various 'turnover' curves used by the companies over the years ('turnover' applies to the bass lift required to compensate for the attenuation of the bass originally used to get the sound into the narrow grooves of a 78 or LP), including the standard set in 1955, RIAA, for LPs. The OWL pre-amp also allows the user to filter out non-musical high and low frequencies, from whence it passes to an Ashly parametric equalizer for 'further adjustments to focus more on musical portions of the sound and further remove non-musical hiss and rumble'; he needs to get it to sound 'right to his ears' and 'shape the sound'. From here the signal passes into a CEDAR de-clicking module, CEDAR 2 series, with settings for three different intensities of clicks, small, medium and large. The wrong setting 'eats into the musical signal, particularly on tenor voices'. So getting it right is a real 'balancing act'.
Before going to DAT for the final master, the transfer is stored on a hard-drive, where residual clicks and thumps are manually removed and side joins implemented. Obert-Thorn uses equalization again at this stage to refine the sound, but he is against the use of denoising software or hardware, which he feels has unpredictable effects on the frequency balance. Neither is he in favor of over-glamorising the 78s by trying to make them sound as modern as possible: he optimizes their sound 'within their own parameters', and usually resists tarting up a dry acoustic with added reverberation.
Asked about how Naxos chooses its historical issues, it emerges that at least 90 per cent are suggested by Obert-Thorn, so he is often left to do much as he pleases. Moreover, Naxos has just acquired a major historical-vocal catalogue in the form of the Romophone label, which went out of business. He is being allowed to continue the Gigli series he had started and is taking the opportunity to improve on some of the work already done where, for instance, better copies or unpublished takes have been found.
In addition to the two-disc set of Walküre to look forward to, like Pearl and some other companies, Naxos is now able to start work on the early LP catalogue. One of the first issues will be the 1951 Bayreuth Parsifal under Knappenbusch. With good originals, Obert-Thorn believes the transfer can be 'indistinguishable from the original tape'. The issues should certainly be better than later LP issues, on which a drop in pitch towards the end of Act III went unnoticed.
Among his recent issues the celebrated 1933 Vienna Rosenkavalier, with a dream cast and Robert Heger conducting, has just appeared on Naxos. It gives a vivid impression of the standards now being achieved in historical transfers, and it has the attractive Naxos price tag as well.
This article originally appeared in the March / April 2003 issue of Opera Now. Reprinted with permission.