by Tony Maygarden

In 1961 London Records introduced Phase 4 Stereo, with promises to break "the sonic barrier." London was a well established American label owned by British Decca (not to be confused with American Decca) that specialized, not surprisingly, in releasing recordings from England.

Liner notes from early releases attempted to explain what "Phase 4 Stereo" was. Phase one was the concept of stereo. Phase two was using stereo as a gimmick (my language), such as having a Ping-Pong ball bouncing from left to right speaker, etc. Phase three was when engineers discovered how to electronically "move" sounds. Individual instruments, voices and effects could be moved left and right and back and forward in the stereo spread. And then, here's the label's explanation of Phase 4 Stereo: "New Scoring Concepts Incorporating True Musical Use of Separation and Movement. In this phase, arrangers and orchestrators re-score the music to place the instruments where they are musically most desired at any particular moment and make use of direction and movement to punctuate the musicality of sounds. The effect is more sound -- more interest -- more entertainment -- more participation -- more listening pleasure: PHASE 4 STEREO is not background music." In 1964 the light classical Phase 4 "Concert Series" was created (see Part 7).

Phase 4 albums quickly became known for their characteristic sound: warm, rich, clean, precisely performed, arranged and recorded. Sometimes the material was corny or not engaging, but you could always count on that sound. Dull, muddy, flat are three adjectives that do NOT apply to Phase 4 Stereo!

Phase 4 started with a 10-channel recording console, which quickly evolved into this 20-channel monster. If you see "+ i.m. 20 c.r." (individually monitored 20 channel recording) at the top of a Phase 4 cover, it means they were using this console. Each channel of the console had equalization and reverb/echo (electronic or chamber), and each channel was assignable to any of the 4 tracks of an Ampex tape recorder. Microphones used included Neumann, Telefunken, AKG and custom built models. For the early to mid sixties this was pretty much state-of-the-art. The average record buyer of the time probably had little idea what it was all about, but it certainly sounded impressive, both in print and on disc.

London also made the claim that Phase 4 albums were mastered with "custom" equipment, and manufactured with strict quality control. One odd detail about Phase 4 albums is that most of the discs were pressed in England by Decca, with the covers printed in America. This is not exclusively the case, as some of the discs of the albums in this article were either pressed in America, or, in one case, Canada. Pressing location doesn't seem to have anything to do with the date of release.

Scores for Phase 4 recording sessions actually included instructions for the engineers telling them where each particular instrument and/or voice was to be placed in the stereo field, and whether the instrument should be recorded on one or two tracks of the tape machine (so it could be panned left or right). These guys were serious about their stereo!

Early Phase 4 releases were dominated by "gimmick" albums, such as the "Percussion" releases (see Part 3) and the historical epics (see Part 2). Eventually Phase 4 became just another popular music label, but their releases always maintained that special sound quality and manufacturing quality control. London Phase 4 never embraced the Rock'n' Roll revolution, and by 1980 the label was pretty much gone.


Judging from catalog numbers, there were well over 200 releases in the regular Phase 4 series, and close to 200 in the Concert Series. One would have to have pretty wide-ranging musical tastes to enjoy the wide variety of styles the label released.

Most Phase 4 albums can be bought on the collector's market at reasonable prices, but there are some that will demand significant bucks. Not coincidentally, some of the more sought after titles are featured in this article.

The Endless Groove does not have any detailed information on the availability of Phase 4 releases on CD.


PART 4 - PART 5 - PART 6 - PART 7