Telarc, Frederick Fennell, and an Overture to Digital Recording


This article was initially published in Today's Engineer on July 2005

Over the past twenty years, the compact disc has become the primary format for recorded music. Compact disc players have replaced turntables and tape decks in most of our homes and automobiles, and the development of digital audio has made the crisp and authentic quality of CD recordings we now enjoy possible. The first commercial digital classical recording in the United States was Frederick Fennell and the Cleveland Symphonic Winds’ performance of Holst Suite No.1 & 2, Handel Music for the Royal Fireworks and Bach Fantasia in G for Telarc Records in 1978. Five years later, the recording also was one of the first to be released in the new digital format, and it would help to launch the technology to audiences worldwide.

Telarc, founded in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1977 by Jack Renner and Robert Woods, both of whom were classically trained musicians and educators, made its first two recordings in the then-typical direct-to-disc format. At the same time, Renner and Woods were inspired by the new digital recording technology of Tom Stockham’s Salt Lake City-based Soundstream, Inc., the first commercial digital recording company in the United States. Stockham, whom Renner calls “the father of digital signal processing,” had developed a 16-bit digital audio recorder using a high speed instrument magnetic tape recorder and demonstrated the recordings at the fall of 1976 AES convention. Renner and Woods formed a partnership with Stockham. They requested that he increase his digital system’s high frequency response, from 17 kHz to 22.5 kHz at a sampling rate of 50 kHz, an unprecedented level. Renner and Woods committed completely to digital earlier than all the major labels, placing Telarc on the cutting edge of recording technology. As Woods recalled, “The digital recordings we made were a nightmare to master for LPs, but we knew it was the only way to create the realism of live performance that had just become technically possible.”

Renner and Woods decided that their first digital project must be something with, as Renner recalled, “Something really spectacular, with great dynamic range.” They also needed a conductor to help coordinate the project, and quickly contacted Frederick Fennell, a Cleveland native and musical innovator in his own right. Fennell had founded the Eastman Wind Ensemble in 1952 at the University of Rochester in New York, where he created its prolific high-fidelity and stereo recording program with Mercury Records. For his conducting work, he is credited in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians for bringing about a “complete reconsideration of the wind medium.” His expressive and often innovative arrangements generated new interest and respect for band music, and transformed music programs in schools across the United States. Renner and Woods offered Fennell the opportunity to re-record some of his Eastman Wind Ensemble hits with sections of the Cleveland Orchestra, and he eagerly accepted.

The program featured Gustav Holst’s two Suites for Military Band, which Fennell considered part of the foundation for American band music. For the performances, he had the opportunity to consult the Suites’ holograph scores, which had surfaced for the first time in 1977. For Song of the Blacksmith, he also used the same anvil as his family had used in their Cleveland shop during Fennell’s childhood, lending what he called “a familiar sound.” The program also included Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, and Bach’s Fantasia in G.

The recording introduced The Cleveland Symphonic Winds, which included the entire reed-brass-percussion section of The Cleveland Orchestra, and a few local professional musicians needed to complete the instrumentation. Fennell lauded this repertory as “one of the few times in the history of professional symphonic recording [a group of such caliber has ever performed in the United States].” The performances that took place on 4-5 April 1978 in Severance Hall, the Cleveland Orchestra’s home, were captured on a Soundstream Digital Tape Recorder by Schoeps Colette Series microphones. That year, World Book Encyclopedia’s Yearbook called the recording “the bass drum heard ‘round the world,” in reference to the distinctive percussion featured in Holst’s Suites.

After several years of research and collaboration, a joint taskforce of engineers from Sony and Philips produced the “Red Book,” the standard format for the audio disc, in 1981. When compact discs finally reached the commercial market in 1983, the Telarc and Fennell collaboration would become one of the first recordings released in the digital format, which continues to be the standard for audio recording. It is still available on the Telarc label (ASIN B000003CSE). Telarc continues to produce recordings in many different genres, including classical, jazz and blues. Its editors still work at the company’s Cleveland production studios.

Tom Stockham contributed to the fields of digital commercial sound recording and editing until his death in 2004. His accomplishments were recognized with an Emmy (1988), the first technical Grammy (1994), and a Scientific Engineering Academy Award (1999).

Frederick Fennell continued his prolific career, making other recordings with the Cleveland Symphonic Winds and the Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble. In addition to his thirty-year association with Eastman, he served as Associate Music Director of the Minneapolis Symphony and Conductor in Residence of at the University of Miami. Fennell died at the age of 90 on 7 December 2004 at his home in Siesta Key, Florida, USA. His legacy lives on, not only in his contributions to musical recording history, but in the estimated 20,000 wind ensembles in American schools which his work in the wind medium helped to create.