Mary Poppins Mixing Error and Thornton's involvement


New Member
Hey all.
I'm new here. I was directed to this site by a friend of mine and said that it would be the best place to ask this question...

but, the other day I finally sat down and listened to the Special Edition release of the Mary Poppins soundtrack and almost immediately I was baffled by the mixing.

It's a technique I've noticed used in several old scores such as John Williams "Towering Inferno" and so fourth...

but anyways, the thing I noticed is that even though most of the instruments are in stereo (such as brass, percussion, etc), the strings however are not!

As a string player and audiophile, I HATE hearing music where channels are switched and you hear the horns in the right channel and the trumpets in the left... or the cello/bass in the left and the violins in the right.

I have to admit I'm a bit confused about how these are recorded as it was my understanding that the mixing is done via 3 channels (Left, Center, Right). But I've noticed before that the strings alone will be in the left channel, or an even MORE grevious mistake heard in the SE of Empire Strikes Back where all the brass are flipped, but the rest of the instruments are not....

So I assume that the instrument groups have their own mics and are down-mixed into the 3 channel configuration... but again, I could be wrong.

To the lay person I realize it doesn't hold any problems, but it absolultely baffles me.

So my first assumption is that perhaps the strings stereo track was destroyed or damanged and they had to use the mono track...

I then read Randy Thornton's wonderful notes about the score and how well preserved it was. So it begs the question: why?

I know with the John Williams Towering Inferno release, some of the masters had been damanged, several cues lost, and others just simply in poor condition, but Thornton speaks to how well the masters had survived.

So I guess my question is does any one know why they were inproperly mixed?
How involved was Thornton in this set? (The notes seem to say he was involved quite prolifically and I've seen him credited with the restoration of several scores)
If he was that involved, why did they mix it this way?

I'm assuming it wasn't recorded this way as it makes no sense to record something this way...especially when the whole point of stereo sound, as pioneered by Disney, was to have the audience hear the instruments where they actually are... So having all the strings (Violins, Viola, Cellos, Bass) all in the left channel is simply confusing.

Thanks for any help or information on this.

Also, as a side question, I'd heard rhumors of a more complete set to be released. Will this be correctly mixed?

Thanks agian
Hiya, Good Musician!

Welcome to the board!

I know what you?re saying. You see, MARY POPPINS wasn?t recorded in ?True Stereo?. It was, as you said, 3 track (L,C,R). Now one would think that even though it is not 2 track stereo, it should still bare the same results. That?s not the case. Here?s some background ?

You are correct in that Disney was the first to use a ?True Stereo? recording in SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). But George Bruns contracted a brand new state-of-the-art studio in Germany to record - some say to take advantage of this new stereo technology, while others say that it was due to the musicians strike at the time. Either way, it was the first ?True Stereo? Soundtrack. But it wouldn?t be until the later 60?s before the technology migrated to the US and became the standard. 101 DALMATIANS (1961) was even recorded mono (so was LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955) contrary to popular belief).

MARY POPPINS (1964) was recorded 3 track. Now 3 tracks of audio gives you some separation, but it wasn?t true stereo. Some instruments appeared strictly right, others strictly left, and yet others strictly center (or mono). This gives the illusion of stereo, but it doesn?t have the same imaging. It?s an Acoustic Science thing that would take too long to explain and I?d even put myself to sleep recounting it. But in short, true stereo relies on mic placement and reflective sound to create the stereo image. 3 track just is essentially 3 mono tracks.

As for the mix itself, it was mixed on the fly during the recording sessions. I actually used these original recordings to reconstruct the soundtrack for CD ? false starts, alternate takes, etc. While going through these recordings, I heard the chatter between the engineers and Irwin Kostal discussing the need to re-record various takes when one section or other was recorded too low. This showed me that it was all mixed on the fly. There were quite a few instances of this. Occasionally, there were over-dubs ? like Irwin?s belly-slap soft shoe in ?Jolly Holiday? and an occasional orchestral flourish that I mixed, but other than that, it was straight off the floor.

As for the ?moving instruments?, that was due to orchestra scheduling. As I?m sure you?re aware, Irwin?s orchestrations are brilliant and legendary. He often required only small sections of the orchestra ? either for complete pieces or over-dubs. So, instead of having an entire orchestra sitting around when only a small combo was being recorded, these combos were recorded separately. Now we know today, that when we do a pick-up or call-back, it?s important to recreate the original set-up. Back then, it wasn?t a consideration. That type of acoustic difference was never audible in mono. We notice those things today, because were all accustomed to a standardized stereo recording technique. There was no standard until a few years later. Also, we record orchestras today as if you were at a concert with the orchestra arranged before you. But again, they weren?t thinking of imaging, as they never had to deal with that before.

The other examples you pointed out, prove that it was the ?technique? of the time, and to me, shows us one of the evolutionary steps to true stereo. Why, you ask, wasn?t the technology from 1959 used on a recording for a major production 5 years later? I don?t know ? why was 101 DALMATAINS recorded mono, when 7 years earlier 3 track was used on 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA? My only guess is, it just takes time for things to change.

Hope that answers your questions. Thanks for the post!

Randy Thornton

Dr. Know

That was utterly fascinating! Thanks to the original poster for formulating the question, and to Randy for taking the time to answer in such detail.


New Member
wow, when my friend said to post here that you, Randy Thornton, might answer me , I thought he was joking but wow... ok...



Thank you for the information. I was often confused as I am a film score collected and as you probably could have guessed, I love John Williams, and sometimes scores that were recorded older than others sound better than some more modern and It confused me as to why that could happen.

I have played around with remixing tracks and such, trying to get the best balance such as Return of the Jedi. Even the supposed "digitally remastered" release of ROTJ is in such poor quality and it baffles me because I have scores of Williams back from far earlier than that such as Checkmate and or even some of the TV scores he did where the sound is brilliant! (especially since ROTJ is 1986 lol).

And there have been other scores where I was just confused. I admit, I have not studied the history/science of recording but I can understand what you were alluding to with the illusion of stereo. I've had to play with some releases because, as formentioned, I cannot stand hearing things mixed backwards or in some cases, far too narrow.

I am a huge fan of alternate takes and full recordings and flubbed takes and so on and of the whole recording process. I understand why they arn't released as there'd be probably one person who'd buy it besides me lol.

I envy you so much, sir, being able to walk through the libraries of such masters as these and just sitting down and putting one on and listening.

My continuing fear is the degredation and destruction of masters, which is why I feared in this case.

Like with "Towering Inferno," if you read the information on the score and film, because the film had been produced by two movie studies, the score was stored in both, causing some of the masters to be lost, poorly stored, destroyed and so fourth.

Perhaps one of themost horrific pictures I saw was of a man smiling, holding up a reel with the caption that read "This is the original master for 'North by Northwest.' It was reused and music taped over for the TV show Night Rider."

It is such a wealth of information and history that is just...rotting away, being thrown away, lost, destroyed. And it simply baffles me.

I applaud you, sir, in your efforts and for doing what you can to preserve film history.

We should all be so lucky to have a man like you watching out for us. I was watching a program the other day on the Taliban in Afghanistan and among many of their atrocities was the destruction of a hundred years of local film history. Luckally the people who ran the library found ways to outsmart them (hiding the room it was in by building a wall where the door was, burning the copies of the masters instead of the masters, etc.).

Compared to a life, film is nothing. But without film and music, we loose our history, and without our history, we loose our identiy.

Thank you sir for your service to us all. It was an honor to have had my question answered by you.