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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The History of Stereo and Quadraphonic Sound

When audio recording began, there was only one sound source (monaural or "mono"). The horn of a cylinder or gramophone record player. And all was well. For most people.

For others, something was missing.

You see, the epitome of a perfect recording is not just an incredibly good performance artistically, but also how lifelike it sounds.

The first is actually easier to achieve than the latter. The most lifelike sounding and the very best artistic recording rarely come together. Even today.

The very first experiments in binaural reproduction (an early form of stereo) go back as early as 1881 (no joke!) At a theater in Paris. The sound was transmitted through two telephone wires to special headsets that received the audio. This was used in hotel rooms and by special subscription service. But it didn't garner much attention, simply because the tinny headsets and 19th century telephone line quality audio was so bad.

An early two-channel playback system, developed and sold in the early 1900s, used a two-channel phonograph cylinder and two mechanical pickups and horns. But it really didn't sound good and the early recordings themselves have been lost to time. To make stereo sound acceptable on a commercial scale, vast improvements in monaural audio fidelity would have to be achieved.

Here's another early attempt at stereo, it's mono, but used a delay effect.

Enter radio.

There were experiments in stereo broadcasting going back to the early '20s. They utilized two radio station frequencies, two radio receivers (VERY rare in most homes of that time) and a special headset that connected into the outputs of both radios and at a time when most earliest commercial radio stations were very competitive, very hard for stations themselves to negotiate (the earliest duopolies of stations didn't happen until the late 1920s.) But again, this was early 1920's AM radio fidelity, while still an enormous leap from the telephone lines of 1881, still had it's own problems. including skywave interference from distant stations, hetrodyne squeal, harmonics from nearby stations and electrical interference.

However, recording had moved from acoustic recording horns to electrical microphones and reproducers. With the dramatic improvements in recording fidelity, the idea of stereo recording was again revisited. In the early 1930s, Bell Labs and RCA Victor made experiments in hi-fi and stereo recording, independent of each other.

Here's an early RCA Victor Mono Hi-Fi recording session with The Paul Whitman Orchestra in 1933.

Here's a VERY early experimental single groove stereo recording made by Bell Labs in 1934

Magnetic tape was also being developed. The first magnetic recordings were made in 1898 on steel wire and the first magnetic tape was invented in 1928. For the most part, they were merely experimental, first because the lengths of wire or tape needed to make reasonable quality recordings were astronomically long. Second, the tapes were made of steel or paper backed magnetic tape, making them prone to breakage. It wasn't until the mid 1930s when German scientists developed the first successful hi-fi tape recordings and it was initially used for Nazi radio broadcasts.

The very first Stereo system offered to consumers was reel to reel tape in the mid 1950s. But they found limited acceptance. Reel tape was awkward, bulky and expensive. Most records however remained monaural - except for a few made by Cook Laboratories. These records were binaural. as mentioned earlier and used headphones instead of speakers for the best reproduction.

They also used two grooves with two cartridges and pickups


Single groove full stereo records were finally perfected by 1957 and were sold by 1958. They were an instant sensation. But there were still millions of monaural record players and the heavier tone arms would ruin a stereo record. So record companies made records in both Stereo and Monaural (aka "Mono") versions until 1968.

Stereo radio was also being developed. First using a revival of the AM/AM experiment of the 1920s. When FM was established in the 1950s, AM/FM radio combos experimented with using FM for the left channel and AM for the right.

Yes, there were actually tuner components that allowed you to hear FM on the left channel and AM on the right. This crude form of stereo radio was obsolete by 1961 when multiplex FM Stereo was invented.....
Stereo sound is great. And when it's recorded with care, it can be breathtaking in it's own sense of realism. But you're still only getting what's coming from the front of you. Not the ambiance from the rear as you would in an actual live performance. In the early days of stereo recording, most of the early stereo recordings tried to emphasize the stereo ping-pong, left to right, right to left sound, which is fine if you weren't particular with the realism of sound, just the physical effect of stereo sound. Something to show off your fancy new stereo and what it can basically do to your friends.  

Many early stereo studio recordings (especially those early stereo records from the late '50s and early '60s) were deliberately mixed to highlight these effects. But most pop/rock recordings were originally mixed in mono and later run through a gamut of fake stereo enhancements (echo chamber, reverb, vocals on one channel, instrumentation on the other) instead of going back to the original multitrack studio tapes - if available, and creating a true stereo mix. If it couldn't be done, and in most cases regardless in my opinion, it should have been left alone. It wasn't until the mid '60s when true stereo mixes of pop/rock albums became the norm. The technology and science of stereo recording was improving

And then came Quadraphonic.

Quadraphonic was first used as far back as 1953 (using 4 track tape) in Europe and introduced to the American market by the Vanguard Recording Society in June 1969. Then RCA followed with a Quadraphonic 8-Track tape

In the early 1970s the very first Quadraphonic LPs came out. But there was a problem. There was no uniformly compatible system for making Quad LPs. There were three incompatible systems SQ (developed by CBS Records), CD-4 (developed by RCA, no relation to Compact Discs, which wouldn't be invented for another 10 years) and QS (developed by Sansui).

This created a lot of confusion. And the government wasn't willing to step in and saw this solely as a civil matter beyond their authority (which would be repeated for AM Stereo in the '80s. But what made AM Stereo different was it was a form of radio transmission and that usually automatically falls under government jurisdiction.)

But it was the consumer that suffered the most. Because most labels allied with one system of Quad or the other. For example, if you liked Santana and had an SQ Quad system, you were in luck. Santana was a Columbia artist then and Columbia used SQ exclusively. However, if you also liked The Doors, you were toast. Elektra used the CD-4 Quad system and while those records will play on an SQ system, you won't get Quad sound (and the basic stereo separation of a CD-4 Quad record was not very good on an SQ Quad system. Or even a basic stereo.

Click to enlarge and read

There was no true winning system in the Quad war. But it seemed like SQ had far more advantages than CD-4. SQ used creative phasing, while CD-4 Quad records required a special stylus and since the system was encoded using something very similar to how FM Stereo radio is encoded at a very high inaudible frequency. So there was a serious record wear problem. If the portion of the groove where the frequency was encoded was worn, the Quad separation of the CD-4 Quad record was gone as well.

And what about Sansui's QS system? I don't have any personal experience with QS, but I have heard it said the QS system was very similar to SQ.

And like the early stereo recordings, studio engineers of the time were eager to utilize all four channels sonically in every way possible. Including putting each instrument on it's own channel. They had to. You see, most recording studios are acoustically dead places, so there was no way to capture the ambiance of a live recording. They could add artificial reverb and echo to the rear channels (as with the early fake stereo records), but it would sound AWFUL if played on a conventional stereo. So most didn't. I say most because I have heard some REAL atrocities in Quad.

Usually the very best sounding Quad albums were the classical albums recorded specifically in Quad.. They captured the sense of depth and space far better than most pop or rock albums.

Click to enlarge and read

The Quad fad had pretty much died out by 1978. Mostly out of consumer exasperation with the competing systems. But also the extra baggage of two extra speakers. But multiple-channel sound was revived by Dolby for use in movie theaters in the late 1980s

Today, the children of Quad, the DTS and Dolby Surround systems are used in home theater setups and even as a limited edition CD/DVD series - AGAIN with competing and incompatible systems, SACD and DVD Audio. They were introduced in the early 2000s. But like the Quad LPs of the '70s, they too have largely vanished due to consumer frustration as well as indifference.


  1. CD has the capability to encode four discrete channels of sound, but from the outset this was strangled in its infancy, largely because of sony's insistence that a CD hold 74+ minutes of audio, sufficient to store the whole of Beethoven's 9th [a discrete four channel CD carrier would only allow just shy of 40 minutes thus requiring two CDs to hold the 9th symphony].

    1. Ummm....You're talking about CDs, CD-4 stood for Compatible Discrete 4 Channel sound for vinyl LPs. I never heard of any Quad CDs until the Super CD format in the late '90s when the original Quad mix of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of The Moon album reappeared, which required special players for 4 channel playback, but could play in regular stereo on a conventional CD player..

    2. "Anonymous" is entirely correct, Larry. CDs could potentially carry 4 channels -it's in the technical specifications - it's just that there were never any released.

      When DSOTM was released on Super Audio CD (SACD) it was a new 5.1 mix - the original quad was never released on SACD.

      The official release of the original quad mix of DSOTM is available along with the 5.1 mix on Blu-ray, buried in a large expensive box set.

  2. With a father who was a music and tech/audio buff, I think he had it all .. except the Elcaset. Not that he didn't try to get one!

  3. Although the format war between SACD and DVD-Audio did hamstring their progress, it was a little different from other format wars (VHS v Betamax, Blu-ray v HD DVD) in that neither format was triumphant and releases in both format continue to trickle out today. And unlike other formats, it was (is) possible to get universal players that would play both.

    Where they may potentially both be defeated however is Blu-ray with releases including old quad mixes (Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton) and 5.1 mixes of both classic (Yes, Jethro Tull, XTC) and some new release albums slowly gathering momentum.

    Unlike the quad days, many people have even a basic surround sound/home theatre setup for movies and can play these new Blu-ray releases.

    (And that's not even mentioning the underground hobby of converting old quad recordings to the new formats. Shhhhh ...)

  4. Chicago and Chase were the best examples of quad that I ever heard, but I almost NEVER heard anybody's quad systems. I'm curious about the later Blood, Sweat & Tears Quad efforts. (Mirror Image and New City) New City sounds kind of like there was too much Fiberglass insulation in the studio. It'd be nice if the Quad version (a la "Chicago"/II) rescued the EQ and engineering. The music was pretty good.

  5. I lived through that era and it wasn't pretty.

    One of the other dilemmas facing quad was the huge base of consumers who already bought into esoteric (expensive) audio equipment and weren't keen on throwing out the baby, the bath water, and the bath tub only to adopt what may turn out to be the ugly second cousin - so to speak. It wasn't just the incompatible formats, it was also the confounding dearth of gear available. Did you dump your entire system for a new quad receiver? Did you buy a quad adapter that patched into your existing system? Was that an adapter with - or without - an additional amplifier? What speakers would sound good (balanced) with the speakers you already owned? Quad eight track... really? (Yes - really.) Or maybe a quad RTR deck.

    Speaking of: You didn't mention the FOURTH competing format in the market - discrete 4 channel tape. Not a compatibility issue per se, but if you wanted to record those quad LP's you needed a quad tape deck. Or you could just buy pre-recorded quad tapes - which was, IMO and in hindsight - the only sane solution to the format war.

    Quad eight track was amusing - with annoyingly short run times, about half the normal total run time of a two channel eight track recording. A reel to reel deck was the only serious option - at least you could get a 90 minute recording onto a 7" tape reel - but it wasn't an inexpensive option either. If you think about it - even here you have a sub-format compatibility battle going on: quad eight track vs. quad reel to reel. NOTHING about quad had a straight-shot, "this is it" solution.

    Sure, the incompatible LP formats were the biggest problem. All people I know who went through it looked and looked and looked at magazines and read test reviews and got product literature and had in-store demos and... went numb from all the confounding, incompatible and expensive hardware options. Ultimately no one I knew bought anything, myself included.

    Oh - yeah I did. I built a Dynaco SCA-80Q amplifier - Q as in quad. The synthesized (difference extracted) quad processed out of your plain old 2 channel sources. (Which isn't all that much different from Dolby surround processing.) That was as close as I ever got to actually buying quad anything.

    Quad had great potential but it was a format war that no one won.


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