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Alan Blumlein (1) : Railway enthusiast, music lover, and the man who gave us stereo sound.
Alan Blumlein
Part one

Alan Blumlein (1903-1942) is the acknowledged father of stereophonic sound recording. There were others working on stereo, notably Arthur Keller in the USA, but Blumlein was the first man to patent stereo recording equipment, and the man whose ideas best stood the test of time.

IN 1935 Alan Blumlein, an avid railway enthusiast, made a five-minute film of trains running through Hayes in Middlesex.

There was a serious purpose to Blumlein’s subject. A maddening feature of early talkies was that as actors moved around the screen, the sound of their voices and movements appeared rooted to one spot. On a visit to a cinema in 1931, Alan had remarked casually to his wife Doreen that he had found a way to let the sound follow the action, and the following December Blumlein had filed the world’s first patents in stereophonic sound.

Subsequent tests included a recording of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ symphony in 1934,* since Blumlein was a keen music lover. However, Blumlein’s employers at EMI questioned the commercial value of stereo so early in the music industry’s evolution, and his distinctive 45º single groove modulation, a technique for recording stereo sound, lay forgotten until 1957, when Westrex made it the industry standard.

* Arthur C. Keller of Bell Laboratories in the US had by this time already recorded Leopold Stokowski in stereo, conducting Scriabin’s ‘Prometheus: Poem of Fire’ at Carnegie Hall in 1932. Amidst the secrecy of the recording industry, Keller and Blumlein appear to have been entirely ignorant of each other’s work.

Trains at Hayes (1935)

A short extract from Blumlein’s test movie showing trains passing through Hayes in Middlesex. The idea was to show how stereo microphones pick up movement as the train crosses from right to left.

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Picture: © Claudia Yang, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0. View original
A recording session for piano and orchestra at Abbey Road Studios in London. It was here that in 1934, Sir Thomas Beecham made his historic recording of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony (No. 41 in C Major), and Alan Blumlein dropped in to record it in stereo. Blumlein’s recording can be heard at the British Library. However, he recorded it using the vertical-lateral method, which in the 1950s was dropped in favour of his own superior 45/45 stereo cut.

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