...David Sarser: A True Recording Idol
, one of the Roxio community's most active members, is also one of the greatest audio engineers who ever lived.Need proof?The music librarian at the Library of Congress
calls one of Sarser's
recordings the best he
has ever heard - and that's just the latest addition to Sarser's extraordinary 50-year resume. He played a Stradivarius in the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Arturo Toscanini - later he was the conductor's advisor.He went on to be the musical director for the network's Opera Hour, The Steve Allen Show, and Hallmark's Hall of Fame.He
has recorded Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Dianah Washington, Maurice Chevalier, and Zero Mostel, and invented many pieces of recording equipment and techniques.Now retired, he
has been beta testing for Roxio
and has definite opinions about the state of CDs and the quality of today's recordings.So, how does one reach such achievements?The same way you get to Carnegie Hall:
In high school, in Kansas City, Missouri, Sarser
practiced the violin four hours a day and was accepted to Juilliard when he
was just 16.After a couple of years of living in New York by himself he
finally got to play Tchaikovsky with Juilliard's symphony orchestra.That's when he
became fascinated with recording.
"The orchestra had really done some outstanding work, but when it was recorded on 78 it sounded so terrible," says Sarser
."I decided to find out how recording worked and see if it could be any better."
After a teacher took him to RCA to see recording in action, Sarser
purchased a $100 recording unit and asked Julliard for a room to record the other students.They gave him a little room he
could use once a week."That's how I got started in recording.I was always looking to improve it.I recorded everybody at the school."
That ended abruptly when the U.S. joined World War II
and drafted Sarser
told the draft board that he
would make a good tech or entertainer but was classified "chemical warfare."He
was sent to St. Louis for training and then assignment.This is when music probably saved his
life.On Christmas Eve he
had seen a large classical harp in the window of one of the barracks and went to investigate it the next day.
"On Christmas they let us go for the day so I wandered over there and asked if I could see the harp," says Sarser
."An old man came out--he must have been about 50--and he
said, 'I've been waiting for you!' meaning other musicians. 'We want to have music in the officers' mess, and he
threw a fiddle into my hand."When the camp's Colonel heard him play, he
asked if he
would like to play every day at 11:00 and 5:00."We got a good group going.Then I noticed that there were lines leading to speakers in the enlisted men's mess and I asked if they worked."Soon the music was being piped in there too.
"A few weeks later Glenn Miller came through and he
heard the music," he
says."He'd been looking for something to do for the men and that's where he
got the idea to play in the mess halls.
But time was running out and Sarser
would soon be shipping out and into the infantry.He
called a former teacher, now in Hollywood, to see if there was anything he
could do to get him into a wartime musical show called "Winged Victory."When he
didn't hear back he
planned what he
thought might be his
final trip home.Just then he
was called to the office."Who do you know?"growled the officer."You're going to New York."He
was reclassified "Entertainment Specialist" and sent to join Dave Rose's Winged Victory Band
"I took a week off and went to visit a violinmaker to get my fiddle fixed," says Sarser
."The place was loaded with fiddles but one struck me." It was a Stradivarius.It was in the shop because the famous concert violinist Efram Zimbalist wanted to sell it.Sarser
took it down from the shelf and began playing.The violinmaker told him it was probably worth $60,000 but that Zimbalist was looking to sell it quickly and he
could probably have it for half of that.That was still a small fortune in 1949, but Sarser
put all of his
money together, and borrowed more, and was able to buy the violin.
"Buying that Strad got me a different life," he
says."I was in the newspaper.I took it everywhere with me, and everyone was in awe.They drooled over it."That violin is worth well over a million dollars today and was supposed to be Sarser's retirement but it was stolen from his
studio in the mid-60s.Just when the FBI
seemed close to finding it, it disappeared, going to a buyer in Japan.Later Sarser
found out that it was on display in a Japanese department store, but he
couldn't get the name of the owner.Sarser
says that while he
owned the violin it was always called "The Ex-Zimbalist" and that's how it was displayed in Japan."They should at least call it the Ex-Sarser now," he
says with irony.Still, he
can always hear his
used it as a test instrument to see how pure he
could get his
The Shows Must Go On - With QualitySarser moved on from the orchestra to become a musical director for some of NBC's shows.
The first step was to help bring opera to the English-speaking masses.Regarding the controversy that some people believe opera shouldn't be translated, he
responds, "Most opera buffs are a bunch of snobs."To Sarser
, an opera is not just a drama; it is music.He
listens to the radio the same way.When others are listening to the content, Sarser
hears the production value-or lack of it.He
misses the old days of broadcast.
"We used to have a director, producers, and a 35-piece orchestra, and a lot of it was ad lib," says Sarser
."If we had a one-hour show to do, we'd have a one-hour rehearsal right before we went on the air.Then we played from the beginning to the end.Now the production values are terribly low and it's all automated.That's true of radio, TV, and the movies.It's not an art anymore.Radio is about the loudest signal."
One place Sarser
found true quality was working on The Hallmark Hall of Fame specials.A favorite memory from that time is of 1969's "The Littlest Angel," which starred an incredible cast including E. G. Marshall, Tony Randall, and Johnny Whitaker of Family Affair.It's the story of a young shepherd who is having trouble adjusting to being an angel.
"Fred Gwynne was in that show," says Sarser referring to the actor who became famous as Herman in The Munsters TV show."He
was a huge man.He
was playing an angel so he
wore wings and had to sit on a cloud and sing a song.
...Sarser was also the audio director for The Steve Allen Show and he got to know Allen very well.
"Steve was good at everything," says Sarser
of the show's host, who could play the piano, write songs, do comedy, and was an expert on many subjects.He
was also well known for his
temper."Steve's worst enemy was Steve, but I liked him in spite of his
saw the cruel side of Allen sometimes, but he
could be extremely generous as well.That's also when Sarser first worked with Skitch Henderson, the original orchestra leader of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.
All this time Sarser was still honing his
audio recording skills.Time well spent, as those skills were about to be judged by a master-make that Maestro.Arturo Toscanini was going to do a recording session at NBC
"Toscanini never liked the sound of his
recordings," says Sarser
.So the session sent people into quite a panic, knowing that measuring up to Toscanini's
quality and expectations would be almost impossible.They ended up with four different recording setups, including Sarser's
.After the session they all voted in the control room and they chose Sarser's recording."When they played it for Toscanini you could tell he
loved it."After that he worked as an advisor to Toscanini.
In fact, it is Sarser's recording of the 1957 memorial concert for Toscanini
that the music librarian at the Library of Congress
judges to be the best recording ever made.
That was just the first of Sarser's famous collaborations.Together with the celebrated musician and inventor of the solid-body electric guitar, Les Paul, Sarser
was instrumental in getting Ampex to make an 8-track recorder, with 8 separate erase and record heads, and sophisticated mechanical and electrical switching.It was the first one ever built, long before the recording industry had even thought of multi-track recording.While still working at NBC, Sarser combined his technical know-how and musical ear when he opened his own