Explanation of Decca's "Phase 4"

Decca, which for years was the official record label of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, made two G&S recordings in the so-called "Phase 4 Sound": A Gilbert & Sullivan Spectacular in 1966 (containing selections from various operas, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent), and a complete recording of Pinafore in 1971.

The "Spectacular" has long been a favorite with fans, while the Pinafore is one of the most loathed D'Oyly Carte sets of all time, primarily due to the overuse of extraneous sound effects. It was re-issued on CD in late 1997, with numerous tracks from the "Spectacular" used to fill up the extra space on the second disc.

I originally thought that Phase 4 meant "quadraphonic," but several correspondents corrected me: Although Decca made some "quad" recordings, Phase 4 was different. Since Phase 4 is largely forgotten now (notwithstanding Decca's spate of re-issues in '97, of which the Pinafore was a part), an overview of the technology might be helpful.

Stan DeOrsey wrote:

Phase 4 was a marketing term/ploy that was designed to make one think a great new breakthrough in technology had been achieved. Under this logic, phase 1 was 78rpm records and anything else "old", phase 2 was long playing records, phase 3 was stereo, so the next new twist was phase 4. More specifically, the left and right channels of stereo were recorded without the right channel bleeding over to the left and vis versa. The stereo effect was much more pronounced, be that good or bad. I recall seeing a photo of an orchestra split down the middle and each half in a separate room, with all the members wearing headphones in order to hear each other. When all was said and done, a rather large number of recordings were made before the process ran its course, and many are now being reissued on CD. Phase 4 is a trademarkof Decca/London, although not all uses, even by them, are so marked.

Dan Kravetz added:

Phase 4 may have been a marketing gimmick, but some of the recordings made with that process are absolute treasures, with or without the special features of Phase 4 multitracking. They include Leopold Stokowski's Beethoven Ninth Symphony and his Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique (among the best recordings ever of these pieces), Charles Munch's Respighi Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome (unsurpassed), and quite a few others. In this distinguished company, the D'OC Pinafore and Sargent highlights record were welcome choices by Decca. It's only been in the CD and home video era that G&S was initially ignored in pushing new products to the consumer. For the cylinder, 78rpm record, hi-fi LP and stereo disc and tape, G&S was there to help usher in the new medium.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic about the technology. Stefan Pilczek wrote:

Phase 4 was was a series of LPs recorded in a very artificial kind of sound. It was supposed to be a sort of "stereo spectacular" sound, but very often the results were rather edgy and tiring to listen to. Fortunately, the 1971 Pinafore was the only complate G&S opera that Decca made in this system.

Incidentally, Decca are revamping their Phase 4 LP issues for a new series of CDs--it's all part of the "LP nostalgia" phase that the major classical record companies are going through at the moment. In the case of Decca Phase 4, the CD spotlight only serves to make the recordings sound more artificial than they originally were.

And, Clive Woods added:

With "Phase 4", Decca was one of the first classical labels to use multi-tracking, with un-natural balance and pan-pot techniques to locate soloists. When taken to extremes (as on H.M.S. Pinafore) the results are, by modern tastes, shall we say, rather odd.