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Two Violas and a Cello

Dear Reader,

Hi there! Yes, I’m back from a self-imposed sabbatical. Wish I could say it cleared my head, sharpened my hearing, lifted my spirits. Probably did, a little. But my overall experience of the last six months and counting may have been like yours, which is to say: Groundhog Day. The takeaway? It helps to just keep going.

One thing I learned (over and over again) was to balance the quotidian and the transcendent. Sometimes a little peanut butter (crunchy, please) on a cracker (preferably a Keebler Toasted) means a lot. But so does Mahler; so does Bill Frisell. (For me, quotidian pleasures tend to get more specific than the transcendent ones.) I promise not to strain for too much transcendence in this space, nor deny any. We’ll see how that goes.

Recently I’ve developed a special affection for the sound of the viola, the alto/tenor member of the violin family. It’s pitched a fifth lower than the violin, so acoustically its body should be half again as large, but it isn’t. Any such instrument would be impossible to play as violins are played, at the shoulder. You will hear a wide range of individual viola sounds on recordings; typically the highest string produces a more nasal, piercing sound than the warmer, less assertive tones of the G and D middle strings. The ultimate test of a well-designed viola is just how beautiful yet resonant a tone you can produce on C, its lowest string.*

Good composers take these anomalies into account. In Ralph Vaughan Williams’s genial Suite for Viola and Orchestra (1934), sounds from the viola’s mellow middle register introduce our soloist and predominate thereafter. Here’s the first movement:

 

The music begins with more than a hint of Bach’s WTC but soon progresses to the pastoral lyricism more often associated with this composer. The YouTube link above offers a sequence of six tracks from violist Timothy Ridout’s excellent new album; the first four are drawn from Vaughan Williams’ Suite. It’s lovely, inviting music.

Vaughan Williams was himself a violist, as were two other composers represented on Ridout’s collection, Paul Hindemith and Benjamin Britten. The album’s weightiest music, however, comes from Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959), whose two-movement Rhapsody-Concerto (1952) will satisfy anyone craving a dose of Romantic High Drama. Like RVW, Martinů pointed to folk music (Czech, in his case) and English madrigals as strong influences. (The Rhapsody-Concerto’s first movement is No. 5 in the YouTube sequence above.)

In terms of sheer viola output, Hindemith (1895–1963) easily surpasses RVW and Britten put together. His dual career as a composer and viola soloist may account for this — after all, he’s often credited as founder of a whole movement: Gebrauchsmusik, “music that’s needed.” By 1935 he had written several viola concertos including Der Schwanendreher, based on melancholy folk songs that reference departure, loneliness, and grief. That was no accident: two years earlier, the cultural masters of the Third Reich had turned fully against him, and he could no longer obtain performances or commissions in his native Germany.

In January 1936 the composer arrived in London, where he had been engaged to play Schwanendreher with the BBC Symphony. Then George V died. Musical life in Great Britain came to a standstill, but the Brits made an unusual request. As Hindemith told his wife,

They did not want to do without me and so I wrote a piece of funereal music for string orchestra and solo viola. It is not really that original but as I had to do it quickly, I could not go on voyages of discovery.

The resulting Trauermusik ended with a Bach chorale well-known in England, Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit. It was broadcast with great success and became a staple of the viola repertoire, causing Hindemith to joke that “I’m now going to specialize in corpses.” (It’s No. 6 in our YouTube sequence.)

For a partial update to Ridout’s astutely assembled 20th-century Viola Club, I suggest a new piece by Pēteris Vasks (b. 1946), my personal nominee for Grand Old Man of Latvian music (do other candidates even exist?). Prolific Mr. Pēteris had already contributed two cello concertos and several works for violin and orchestra to the repertoire (I like his second cello concerto, Klätbütne), so it was high time he came up with something viola-centric; violist/conductor Maxim Rysanov obliged with a commission. We can hear the result of their successful collaboration on a new album from BIS; it also features one of Vasks’s most celebrated earlier works, the Symphony for Strings.

Vasks regards the viola as “a particularly melancholic instrument,” therefore “a very suitable one to talk about the time we are living in.” Its four movements make use of two concepts, chant (song) and monologue (conversation). In this case it’s a conversation “with oneself” and “about our time.” Dāvis Eņģelis, who wrote the liner notes, tells us that for Vasks,

in every piece there has to be something that leads the listener towards the light; in the Viola Concerto this path is more strenuous than in any other of his works.

I hope you find the four movements of this concerto so beautifully varied, so passionate, that their cathartic impact more than justifies the struggle they so forcefully express. To that end, I’m offering just the first four minutes of the third-movement Andante. In it, grief is still fully evident, that elusive ray of hope not yet in sight:

And now to slip down a notch on the string-family scale.

Several years ago in this spot I praised a big orchestral piece, Night Ferry, by Anna Clyne (b. 1980). The composer describes it as

music of voyages, from stormy darkness to enchanted worlds, music of the conjurer and setter of tides, [a] guide through the “ungovernable and dangerous.” . . . [These] threads of ideas and imagery . . . stem from Riccardo Muti’s suggestion that I look to Schubert for inspiration.

(You can read more of her thoughts about this astonishing music here.) A glance at Clyne’s catalog reveals that she has written over two dozen pieces since then, many of them major works commissioned by distinguished soloists or ensembles. One of them is DANCE. It’s now gotten a first-rate recording from cellist Inbal Segev, who commissioned it, and the London Philharmonic, here conducted by longtime Clyne advocate Marin Alsop:

 

DANCE sounds wildly different from Night Ferry. That was no accident: Clyne was inspired by a poem of Rumi, which consists of five brief lines, each of which becomes a separate movement.

Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.

If you listen closely, you’ll discover patches of complex, sensitive orchestral scoring not dissimilar to the phantasmagorical textures in Night Ferry. A bigger difference lies in this work’s striking — and strikingly accessible — succession of moods, which the gifted Segev delivers faultlessly. Her album is filled out with a work written exactly a hundred years earlier, the Elgar Cello Concerto. Honestly, even in such august company Clyne’s music more than holds its own. Impressive playing by the LPO, strong leadership from the podium.

*Thanks to David Boyden, New Grove 1980, for the straight dope on viola DNA.

Header: Viola by Antonio & Girolamo Amati, Cremona, 1617;
held by Kim Kashkashian.

Tube Tester

I’m afraid to even turn this thing on. Jennings Model J-1005 high voltage voltmeter.

 

A true classic and recommended reading for anyone into vacuum tubes.

 

A classic of a different kind; one of the first digital audio blockbusters. Dig that futuro-bank-check typeface! From Audio, September 1979.

 

Has anyone ever heard or even seen one of these? From Audio, September 1956.

 

The cure for rotton sound! (Read the third sentence.) From Audio, January 1980.

 

 

 

How Loud Is a Record?

In this article, I shall attempt to shed light on an often misunderstood concept: loudness.

Let us begin from the very basics. Three folks are playing a tenor sax, a bass and a drumkit in a room. If someone holds an SPL (Sound Pressure Level) meter in that room, a reading in dB SPL will be obtained. This is the measured loudness of the performance in that room.

Now, let us take a recording of that performance, take off the lab coat, pour a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and enjoy life a little bit in the comfort of our own living room, a different space at a different time. Ah, the miracle of sound recording and reproduction.

But how loud is it now? Where did I put that SPL meter? Given that most domestic listening systems will offer some means of arbitrarily adjusting the listening level (commonly the volume control knob), the loudness of the reproduced sound in our living room may or may not bear any resemblance to the loudness of the original performance. The reproduction can therefore be scaled up or down, depending on our mood, preferences, and neighbors.

In the process of getting to the recording and reproduction of a performance, there are several important relationships between the various representations of amplitude of the original acoustic sound waves.

We usually start by sneaking some microphones into the room. These convert the air pressure variations (sound in the room created by the musicians) into electrical signals. This way, dB SPL becomes volts.

These volts can be used to drive an amplifier and loudspeakers, converting the volts back into dB SPL (sound). This is what happens in public address and sound reinforcement systems. But to achieve the recording of sound in a manner which would allow its reproduction at a later time, we need to convert the electrical signals generated by the microphones into something that can be stored on a practical storage medium.

In the case of a vinyl record, the storage medium is a flat disk onto which modulated grooves are cut. As such, the vinyl records in your collection do not contain air pressure variations and they do not contain electrical signals either. They only contain a spiral groove on each side. When rotating and reproduced, the phono cartridge converts the stylus motion back into an electrical signal, which can then be eventually converted by the loudspeakers back into sound.

The electrical signal coming from the playback cartridge is too weak to move the loudspeaker cones directly. It is usually first amplified from the millivolt range into the volt range by means of an audio system’s phono stage. But the volt-range signal is still not adequate to really drive the loudspeakers. This is because the loudspeakers need power to do the work it takes to produce sound. The volt-range electrical signals running through your interconnect cables are still only in the milliwatt range in terms of power. The power amplifier is tasked with converting these milliwatts to several watts of power to be able to drive the loudspeakers.

So how loud will those watts sound? This depends on a huge number of factors, including the sensitivity of your loudspeakers, given as dB SPL per watt measured at one meter from the loudspeaker (dB/W/m), in anechoic conditions. In other words, not in the typical conditions encountered in your living room, unless you’re seriously weird (honey, I’ve just built an anechoic living room for the family!). As such, the actual room acoustics play a very important role in the sound pressure level we will end up with in the living room for a given amount of electrical power.

But let us go back to records.

When cutting a record, the electrical signal (volts) get amplified into watts (power) by a cutting amplifier which drives a cutter head. The cutter head responds by moving its cutting stylus, modulating the groove as it is being cut. The volts become watts and the watts become stylus velocity. This is why reference levels on test records are given in cm/s (velocity). You could even convert it to miles per hour, but the numbers would not be as convenient. Somewhat confusingly, when the record stops spinning and becomes an inanimate object on a shelf, there can be no velocity, since nothing moves. In storage, what remains is groove excursion. But since inanimate records on shelves do not produce sound (phew..!), it is the velocity which becomes the most important component of motion. Loudness is directly proportional to velocity.

Neumann VMS-70 disc cutting lathe at SAE Mastering, Phoenix, Arizona. Courtesy of Wikipedia/VACANT FEVER.

Upon reproduction, the higher the playback stylus velocity, the higher the voltage it generates. This relationship is often given as the sensitivity of the cartridge, in mV/cm/s, or more commonly, in mV for a 5 cm/s RMS velocity at 1 kHz.

But how loud will that sound? As loud as you set your volume control knob. Unlike some professional audio systems used in mastering and broadcasting facilities, most consumer listening systems are not calibrated end-to-end. There are no absolutes there; the level is only relative. As in, adjust to taste.

So, how loud is one record compared to another record?

This is where things get complicated. Apparent loudness is often achieved at the expense of dynamics. By intentionally restricting (compressing/limiting) the dynamics, the average loudness can be pushed higher. But the transient impact lives in these dynamics. So the instantaneous (transient) loudness goes down as the average loudness goes up, within our available dynamic range. It is called apparent loudness because, for example, if you compare two records at the same volume control setting, the one that appears to be louder will be the one with the highest average velocity, not the one with the highest peak velocity. Yet, it is the one with the highest peak velocity that uses up more of the available dynamic range of the medium.

In fact, if we were to calculate the theoretical dynamic range potential of the storage medium alone, we would end up with a mindblowingly high number, which could never be achieved in practice. The same holds true with any theoretical dynamic range calculation for any medium. But unlike other formats, the vinyl record does not actually have any hard ceiling of maximum loudness. Which is why mastering records is so complicated and why it can make such a huge difference in the sound of the final product, depending on how it was done.

Since there is no clearly defined hard upper limit, designing a phono stage that can really cope with the full practically-achievable dynamic potential of the medium becomes extremely challenging.

This is no longer about loudness, but about impact, transients and dynamics. This is one of the biggest secrets to realistic sound reproduction. The commonly achievable dynamic range of the vinyl record already far exceeds what can be heard in a typical domestic listening room and even challenges professional studio systems. We could even cut a wider dynamic range than that on a record, but very few playback cartridges would be able to reproduce it.

 

VU meters on a Teac A-3340S four-track tape recorder.

For decades, as a direct consequence of the loudness wars, a lot of technological development in disk mastering systems was concerned with increasing the apparent loudness. Yet, the ability to capture the sharp transients (instantaneous loudness), which depends more on the skill of the engineer, was there all along! Which beautifully explains why many audiophile records, known for their excellent sound, were cut using very early, bare-basics, manually operated disk mastering lathes.

Vintage Neumann Lathe with a copper DMM blank on the platter. This was not a DMM lathe and was not able to cut copper blanks. This machine predates DMM technology by about 50 years. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/32bitmaschine.

Reflections on Echo & the Bunnymen

When his Liverpool-based band called the Crucial Three broke up in 1978, singer Ian McCulloch formed a trio with guitarist Will Sergeant and Les Pattinson on bass. Echo & the Bunnymen was among a list of preposterous band names suggested by a friend. The joke has turned into over 50 years of serious success.

Among McCulloch’s early influences was his Crucial Three bandmate Julian Cope, who helped define the sound and spirit of British post-punk music and culture. The first time Echo & the Bunnymen played in public, it was to open for Cope’s new band, The Teardrop Explodes. The Bunnymen just riffed on one song for 20 minutes, true to the middle-finger-raising musical tenets of post-punk.

Their debut, Crocodiles (1980), was the first album released on Warner Records-owned Korova Records, established specifically for this genre and appropriately named after the Korova Milk Bar in Anthony Burgess’ proto-punk novel A Clockwork Orange. The main producers were Teardrop Explodes keyboardist David Balfe and cultural iconoclast Bill Drummond, who was also the Bunnymen’s manager. One track was produced by Ian Broudie (of late 1970s British band Big in Japan). The influential British music magazine NME described the album as full of “sorrow, horror and despair.”

The title song “Crocodiles,” with writing credits to the whole band, ends Side A. The message seems to be that life is inevitably horrible, so you might as well keep pressing forward instead of worrying about what’s coming up behind you. Up to this point, the trio had used a drum machine, but for this album they brought in Pete de Freitas, and his drumming is the best thing about this track.

 

The band’s reputation grew quickly, and the next album, Heaven Up Here (1981), stayed on the UK charts for 16 weeks. And now America was starting to show some interest. This time the Bunnymen themselves wanted to be involved in producing, which they did under the guidance of Hugh Jones. Jones was making a name for himself in the post-punk scene, also working with bands like Modern English (“I Melt With You”) and The Damned.

The song called “The Disease” exists in a wobbly synth atmosphere with simple strummed guitar chords pick out the details of a sonic hellscape. As one commenter wrote on YouTube, “Very apt in 2020.”

 

In 1983, the album Porcupine reached the No. 2 spot on the UK charts and entered the US Billboard 200. But it had not been an easy album to make. The members of the group were not getting along, and once they finally thought they’d finished the album, Warner rejected it as unmarketable. Back into the studio they went, this time with a highly marketable result.

One of Porcupine’s distinguishing features is a guest appearance by Indian violinist Shankar. He plays eerie electronic string sounds on “My White Devil,” among other tracks. De Freitas contributes pitched percussion to the complex texture, and McCullough’s slow-moving vocal line cuts through the sound traffic.

 

Although they made it through the recording of Ocean Rain (1984), friction among band members had worsened by the time they tried to record Echo & the Bunnymen (1987). McCulloch’s drinking was out of control. De Freitas had announced his resignation, so they proceeded without him – and got nowhere. Fortunately, he returned; this would be his last album before being killed in a motorcycle crash.

On Echo & the Bunnymen, Laurie Latham produced, a man known for working with more mainstream artists like Paul Young and Squeeze. It was that mainstream background that caused problems with both critics and fans, who found the record tame and too sweet. Ironic that the album’s biggest single, and maybe the Bunnymen’s most recognized song, was “Lips Like Sugar.”

You can hear the smoothness of the sound in “Blue Blue Ocean,” quite reminiscent of Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, from the same year.

 

It wasn’t just the death of De Freitas that changed the Bunnymen’s personnel. McCulloch quit, thinking the band was about to break up anyway. But instead, they found a new singer, Noel Burke, previously of the group St. Vitus Dance. Insulted, McCulloch reportedly began referring to his creation as “Echo & the Bogusmen.”

Drummer Damon Reece and keyboardist Jake Brockman were brought on to record Reverberation (1990), which was produced by Geoff Emerick, known for his work with The Beatles and Elvis Costello. The biggest stylistic change with the new lineup was the influence of psychedelia. This is especially pronounced on the track “Freaks Dwell,” with its jangly timbres and minor modes.

 

The new group didn’t last. In 1993, the Bunnymen officially split. But that didn’t last either. The original three – McCulloch, Sergeant, and Pattinson — reformed a few years later to self-produce Evergreen (1997). Their sound was supplemented by session musicians, including the solid and experienced drummer Michael Lee, who had recorded with Led Zeppelin. To enrich the sound (in a way that would have been unthinkable in their early years), they brought in the strings of the London Metropolitan Orchestra.

The album closes with “Forgiven,” which features an attractive cello line and a surprisingly introspective McCullough.

 

Pattinson was the next to rock to boat. They had just begun studio work on What Are You Going to Do with Your Life? (1999) when he quit. So, session bassist Guy Pratt — a veteran of recordings with The Smiths, Pink Floyd, Tears for Fears, and many others – played on all but one track. The string orchestra returned, and now there was even a hip-hop element: The group Fun Lovin’ Criminals participated in the single “Get in the Car.”

McCulloch doubled down on his wistful songwriting phase with the quiet, stripped-down “History Chimes” for voice and simple piano accompaniment.

 

Every four or five years since 2000, McCulloch and Sergeant have put out a new album under the Bunnymen name. The most recent is The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon (2018), containing new arrangements of older Bunnymen songs plus two new pieces. The orchestrations are lush and easygoing.

One of the new songs is “The Somnambulist.” This poetic vision by McCulloch describes a fantastical sub-oceanic being, perhaps as a metaphor for finding one’s own path in life. The rage and defiance of those early post-punk years may have cooled, but the beacon of individualism that inspired those youngsters in 1970s Liverpool still has a strong pull.

Dame Ethel Smyth: Knight of the Musical Realm

In 1922, when she became the first female composer ever to be knighted by the British crown, Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) solidified a reputation she’d fought for her whole career. The knighthood was official acknowledgment that she was equal to her male countrymen. Recent recordings of some of Smyth’s instrumental and vocal works give us plenty of proof to back that claim.

Smyth defied her wealthy parents’ wishes by going to Leipzig Conservatory; they did not want their daughter to be a musician. While she wasn’t happy at the school and dropped out after only a year, she remained in that vibrantly musical city, taking private lessons in theory and counterpoint and rubbing elbows with the likes of Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Clara Wieck Schumann. She impressed Tchaikovsky so much that he mentioned her admiringly in his memoir. For ten more years, she exercised her compositional and networking skills all over Europe, finally returning to England in 1890, where she began to get noticed in the London music scene.

Those who were threatened by Smyth’s musical prowess were no more comfortable with her activism as a suffragette. In 1912 she was arrested during a voting-rights riot. Reportedly, she spent her time in prison organizing the other hundred or so feminist detainees into a choir.

Although in the UK she became known for large-scale works like her Mass in D and her operas – particularly The Wreckers, an eerie story about a village that survives only by causing ships to crash near their shores so they can be looted – she also composed a fair amount of chamber music. That output includes six string quartets, two string quintets, and a handful of trios and duo sonatas.

Violinist Tasmin Little recorded Smyth’s Violin Sonata in A minor, Op. 7, as part of her new collection on Chandos. Accompanied by pianist John Lenehan, Little put together an all-female powerhouse lineup: Smyth, Amy Beach, and Clara Schumann.

You can hear in this opening Allegro moderato movement that Smyth was solidly trained in all the harmonic and contrapuntal techniques you might expect in the music of the Schumanns or Brahms (whom she also knew). She was still in Leipzig when she composed this in 1887, so those influences were thick around her. The movement revels in deep sonorities and interesting twists and wanderings. Little and Lenehan attack its challenges with gusto.

 

Smyth constructed her four-movement work with the scherzo before the slow movement, typical of the Romantic approach, allowing a dramatic buildup to the finale. That crucial dramatic pivot movement is marked “Romanze: Andante grazioso.” Little’s playing is unabashedly emotional, even if its effect is somewhat undercut by her relentlessly tight vibrato. A stronger commitment to rhythmic clarity in certain passages would have made for better contrast with the sweeping freer sections.

 

Not surprising, given her era and the amount of time she spent in Europe, Smyth wrote a number of art-song cycles for solo voice. Pieces like these would often have been performed for friends in the homes of educated Germans, who viewed such salon recitals as a mark of civility. None of Smyth’s songs were originally in English – her texts come from a range of European poets in French and German – but she prepared English versions during her lifetime. This is largely what contralto Lucy Stevens has recorded on her new album, Ethel Smyth: Songs and Ballads, on the British indie label SOMM Recordings.

Pianist Elizabeth Marcus accompanies Stevens for the 5 Songs and Ballads, Op. 3, and the Lieder, Op. 4, with the former sung in English translation and the latter in the original German. “The Lost Hunter,” from Op. 3, sets a text by the great German Romantic poet Eichendorff. Stevens’ voice is as rich as Marcus’ playing is lush. These beautiful songs should be performed more often.

 

It’s interesting to compare that Op. 3 collection with Smyth’s 4 Songs (no opus number), written 20 years later. Not only is there a maturation of style, but the accompaniment is scored for ensemble rather than piano. The instruments are played here by the Berkeley Ensemble under the direction of Odaline de la Martinez. The second song, called “The Dance,” uses a poem by Henri de Régnier, an important French Symbolist. The flute and tambourine dominate the orchestration as the text conjures sultry and exotic images:

 

Despite creating a large corpus of intimate works, Smyth was (and is) mostly celebrated for her large pieces for voices and orchestra. These include six operas and a dozen pieces for chorus, both sacred and secular. The last of the secular oratorios – in fact, the final orchestral work Smyth completed – is The Prison, which until 2020 had never before been recorded. Premiered in 1931, it has finally been released on Chandos by the Experiential Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by American maestro James Blachly. The soloists are soprano Sarah Brailey and baritone Dashon Burton.

Smyth referred to this piece as a choral symphony. Setting the words of philosopher Henry Bennett Brewster, The Prison deals with the experiences of a solitary man contemplating death. Burton represents the man (called The Prisoner) and Brailey voices His Soul. In this clip you can hear the delicate interplay between Burton’s searching lines and the wide-ranging colors of the orchestra. One can see why a master orchestrator like Tchaikovsky saw enormous potential in this composer when she was young.

 

The writing for chorus is intensely dark and beautifully sung. This next excerpt showcases some exquisite choices in orchestration, including the pairing of French horn with the baritone’s voice.  I hope that Experiental’s skillful, ethereal recording helps to establish this stunning work as a standard part of the choral repertoire.

 

Smyth is without question a composer who deserves more attention. But her fan base is growing. Lately I find it instructive to check in on how COVID-19 is affecting various composers’ footprints on YouTube. Smyth is among those making surprising headway, thanks to her stirring choral composition “The March of the Women.” The text is by fellow suffragist Cecily Hamilton, and its newfound popularity marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Here’s a recent, socially distanced performance as part of the Allison Charney: Season of Hope series:

 

Portrait of Dame Ethel Smyth by John Singer Sargent.

Three Great New Records…and Waters Can Still Play Pink Floyd

Roger WatersUs + Them

Us + Them documents Roger Waters’ recently released concert film of the same name; it offers highlights from the 2017 – 2018 Us + Them tour. There was a planned theatrical release, but it was scrapped due to the pandemic, along with another large-scale world tour that was to be titled This Is Not A Drill; Waters insists that the tour will eventually go on, though perhaps not at the same scale as previously imagined. The Us + Them release offers a number of choices, from a double-CD package, three 180-gram LPs, your choice of BluRay or DVD, and the audio tracks are also available on all the major streaming services. Each incarnation includes a few additional songs that didn’t appear in the original theatrical film, as well as behind-the-scenes and bonus footage included in the video releases. Most of the footage contained in the original film and videos — and most of the music in the soundtrack — is sourced from an Amsterdam date that was near the end of the tour.

In my way of seeing things, most current Pink Floyd fans fall into two camps: those who believe that Roger Waters was the principal reason for the existence of the band, and those who believe that the sum of the group was much greater than the individual parts. I definitely fall into the latter camp. With all the public squabbling between Waters and David Gilmour, it didn’t make for a particularly nice transition for fans in the aftermath of Waters’ split from the band, some of whom are probably really torn between supporting the “purity” of Roger Waters’ musical vision sans-Floyd, and those who believe that Pink Floyd minus Roger Waters is still a viable musical commodity. Both Waters and the Gilmour-led Pink Floyd (now essentially retired?) have sold a decent number of records in the decades since the breakup, and both have maintained a reasonably respectable creative and artistic vision with regard to their own (or the band’s) musical vision.

And who can blame Roger Waters, who, despite seemingly doing everything possible to distance himself from the Pink Floyd brand, has still occasionally felt the need to trot out and showcase his remarkable legacy of contributions to the band – and to generally rabid audience reception. All that said, I’m not a particularly huge fan of this album. It mostly consists of Waters’ rehashing of Floyd classics stretching all the way back to Meddle (“One Of These Days”), with a generous helping from The Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and of course, The Wall. And a smattering of songs from his own latest release, 2017’s Is This The Life We Really Want? All played to an ocean of screaming, adoring fans.

Waters isn’t in particularly great voice here – he is, after all, 77 years old – and not all the renditions of Floyd classics are note-perfect or spot-on, and there aren’t many interesting embellishments to the songs that sometimes make the live concert version preferable to the studio recording. If someone gave me a ticket to the show, I’d probably go, but otherwise I’d probably be completely oblivious to the fact that Waters was even touring at all. YMMV – if you’re a Pink Floyd or Roger Waters completist, this is probably a required acquisition, and I’ve heard that the concert movie is quite the visual spectacle. Personally, I prefer the David Gilmour version of Pink Floyd music post-Waters; the concert films like Delicate Sound of Thunder and Pulse are truly outstanding, and remarkable documents of Pink Floyd’s legacy. And there’s a whole lot more interesting new music out there I’d rather be digging into.

Columbia/Legacy, 2 CD/3 LP (download/streaming [24/48] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)

Drive-By TruckersThe New OK

Drive-By Truckers have worked really hard to develop a reputation as skillful purveyors of new Southern rock, but they’re pretty much still mostly known for being the band that Jason Isbell got kicked out of. That said, principal songwriters Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood have cobbled out a respectable string of good albums, even sans Isbell. And The New OK, which is the band’s 13th studio album, is the band’s second release in 2020, following on the heels of DBT’s excellent record The Unraveling, which dropped in mid-January. Patterson Hood recently remarked that in light of the continuing pandemic, making a new record was “all that we can do.” He’s taken advantage of the time off and written a prolific number of new songs, many of which made their way onto The New OK. Both Hood and Cooley have expressed their distaste for “desktop concerts,” where you’re basically playing live into a computer screen; each of them have done enough of that this summer to last a lifetime.

The Unraveling documented what Hood and Cooley both saw as a strange new reality, with a seriously troubling decline in civility in our country, and a sobering refocusing of our overall worldview. Patterson Hood has also stated that he’s been battling depression during this very long year, and he’s had a difficult time hiding that fact from his family and kids. Writing new music was a way of combating his unhappiness, and hopefully the new songs will make that abundantly clear to the fans of Drive-By Truckers. Hood lives in his adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, and much of the material from this bounty of new songs stems from his participation in and observation of the Black Lives Matter protests and riots that took place over the course of the summer. While The Unraveling was a record of despair and dystopian portrayals of what Hood sees as Trumpian reality, The New OK is more of an angst-fueled statement of a new found defiance, and serves as a companion to the previous album’s message of dissonance and depression.

In the title track, “The New OK,” Hood chronicles his experiences in the Portland riots. “Smashing medics and the once-free press…Goons with guns coming out to play / It’s a battle for the very soul of the USA.” Probably the most lighthearted moment on the entire album is Mike Cooley’s sole contribution, “Sarah’s Flame,” a tongue-in-cheek depiction of Sarah Palin’s influence on the leanings of the current administration. Some of the songs here were part of a planned follow-up to The Unraveling, and were ready to go; the remaining tracks were assembled remotely. Where the taped contributions of the various group members were shuttled back and forth across the country, with each member of the band laying down their parts prior to the final mixing of the album. It’s actually almost more like an EP, clocking in at only 36 minutes; 18 songs were completed, but the songs chosen for release were selected to maintain the continuity of the overall mood of The New OK. And the album finishes up with a rousing cover of the Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away” – another obvious reference to the troubling protests and riots from an already difficult year.

My listening was done via Qobuz’s excellent digital stream, although CDs and LPs are also being made available for purchase. While The New OK isn’t an entirely uplifting listen, it’s still nonetheless very highly recommended.

ATO Records, CD/LP (download/streaming [16/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)

Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension 

My first experience with the music of Sufjan Stevens came a number of years ago at Christmas while visiting my then twenty-something daughter; when my wife suggested that perhaps we should put on some holiday music, my daughter exclaimed that she had the perfect record. She then put on Stevens’ 2006 release, Songs for Christmas, which elicited something of a WTF!?! expression of understated surprise from the pair of us; we were baffled by what we were hearing, but we didn’t want to upset my daughter with our disapproval of her, shall we say, unusual choice of holiday entertainment. Both of us are more into the Johnny Mathis-influenced, more traditional vein of classic holiday music — that Christmas was definitely an eye-opening learning experience, to say the least.

Fast-forward to the present; in the years that have passed since that experience, I’ve been building a music server that mostly consists of rips of my CD library, and I’m constantly on the hunt for new and offbeat music choices. And with CDs available often for as little as $.25 to a dollar at thrift stores, I’ll sometimes take chances on the more adventurous, unusual titles that I’ve come across. Which happens to include two of Sufjan Stevens’ more notable releases, Michigan and Illinois(e), which have surprisingly grown on me over the last couple of years. I picked up an absolutely pristine copy of Michigan for only $.25 in a ramshackle roadside thrift store. So, shockingly, it didn’t come as too much of a stretch to consider reviewing Stevens’ new record, The Ascension.

My previous experiences with Stevens’ music have been mostly lo-fi, minimally accompanied outings. Not so with The Ascension, which offers layers of synths on top of layers of synths; that definitely took some getting used to. I mean, here’s the guy who was singing about serial killer John Wayne Gacy on Illinois(e), and now he’s playing semi-danceable synth-pop? Fortunately, there’s a lot to like here, and much of it is makes for surprisingly cerebral listening — along with being reasonably danceable. The record’s undeniable creative peak is on the introspective title track, “The Ascension,” where Stevens sings, “When I am dead, and the light leaves my breast…nothing to be told, nothing to confess…let the record show what I couldn’t quite confess…for by living for myself, I was living for unrest.” How true those words probably ring for so many of us, who maybe chose the road less traveled; this is perhaps Sufjan Stevens’ best song ever.

As usual, the 24-bit Qobuz files sounded absolutely superb; this is a long album, clocking in at just over 80 minutes; maybe not perfect for a single sitting, but there’s much to explore here. Highly recommended.

Asthmatic Kitty Records, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)

Thurston Moore – By The Fire

Sonic Youth played their last show over nine years ago; bassist Kim Gordon made it clear with her solo release from 2019, No Home Record – and its ensuing tour – that fans shouldn’t expect any kind of Sonic Youth reunion anytime soon. Fans craving more Sonic Youth magic shouldn’t lose too much heart, however; the band’s other principal writer and guitarist (and Kim Gordon’s ex), Thurston Moore, has continued to churn out a string of outstanding albums that explore his offbeat poetry and penchant for experimentalism with his guitar. His new release, By The Fire, offers a generously proportioned (83 minutes!) mix of the strangely affecting avant-garde melodic rock and industrial/noise drones that hearken back to the classic Sonic Youth sound.

Moore continues with the same core group of musicians who’ve teamed with him on his last few releases; guitarist James Sedwards and bassist Debbie Googe (My Bloody Valentine), along with Negativland’s Jon Leidecker handling the electronics and Jem Doulton behind the drum kit. It’s an amazingly effective ensemble; this group can really rock with concise precision, but they also allow Thurston Moore space to create a delectable melange of noise and feedback with extended experimental excursions. “Locomotives” is a perfect example of Moore’s mastery of assembling a lengthy drone with his guitar and effects that at nearly 17 minutes seems almost interminable, but still not nearly long enough – this is absolutely essential late-night listening. As the guitar and effects push the tune along with an intensity not unlike that of a locomotive, at about the nine-minute mark, the stranglehold of the dissonant drone is broken, and Moore begins to melodically sing “We are here, we come in peace.” There’s another seven minutes of noise interrupted with spurts of brilliant rock and roll, but the bottom line is that it’s still all about peace and love — it’s just that more noisy New York love, not the mellow California (where ex Kim Gordon has relocated to) love of the sixties.

Contrast that to the following tune, “Dreamers Work,” which offers a two minute intro of some of the most laid back, melodic guitar of Moore’s career, or the twelve-plus minutes of “Siren,” which lays a very fluid groundwork with guitars, bass, and drums – before spinning off into a crush of pounding drums awash with tons of feedback and electronic haze, then right back to the melody from whence it sprang to sum things up. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but this album will be seriously welcome comfort food to the souls of Sonic Youth fans everywhere. Very highly recommended.

Daydream Library, CD/2 LP (download/streaming [24/48] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

 

Header image of Sufjan Stevens courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Joe Lencioni.

Neil Young and Phil Baker’s To Feel the Music

To Feel the Music: A Songwriter’s Mission to Save High-Quality Audio, by Neil Young and Phil Baker

 Many if not most Copper readers are audiophiles, and one can safely presume we’re all music lovers. As such, I think we can surely identify with the passion expressed by Neil Young for music reproduction that can be felt, and not just heard. Hence, the reason Young and many other audio enthusiasts prefer music from analog or high-resolution digital sources over digitally-compressed and other lower-res formats.

To Feel the Music: a Songwriter’s Mission to Save High-Quality Audio is a book written by Neil Young and Phil Baker. It’s the behind-the-scenes story of the inception, creation, development and ultimate downfall of the failed Pono high-resolution digital music player that Neil Young famously funded and promoted starting in 2012. Given that the ideas for so many groundbreaking audiophile products are often inspired by a similar passion, I thought it especially appropriate to review To Feel The Music, a fascinating look at the challenges that a company faces in the 21st  century in launching a new product, particularly an audiophile one.

The Initial Vision

To help create Pono Neil Young partnered with the book’s co-author Phil Baker, a consumer electronics product designer with an impressive track record of iconic devices from Apple, Polaroid, Seiko, Barnes and Noble, and others.

To Feel the Music’s story is told in alternate chapters by Young and Baker. Young’s love of music and his mission to keep artists’ work from being degraded through digital compression is laudable. Young is also on a crusade to preserve classic recordings in high resolution before the analog masters have degraded beyond recovery.

While Pono was Neil Young’s idea, the task fell upon Baker to coordinate with Young’s manager, the late Elliot Roberts, to assemble the team required to make Pono a reality. This involved a host of concerns that the layman would never dream about, yet are probably everyday chores for every audio industry product entrepreneur.

From the very beginning, Pono was conceived to be a handheld player of hi-res downloaded digital music files, thus competing as a super-high-quality alternative to the soon to be defunct iPod and to cellphones and other low-res audio sources.

Pono digital music player.

In creating an all-new product Baker had a panoply of immediate concerns including the Pono’s industrial design, user interface and screen, DAC and internal circuitry and software. Baker called in colleagues from his days of creating the Nook eBook reader for Barnes and Noble and other products to work on various aspects of the Pono. Neil Young was still funding it from his own pockets at this stage, and his loose, informal business approach would soon create Pono’s first hurdle. (Later Young would take on private investors.)

After initial prototypes of the hardware were ready and promotion for the Pono had already gone public, the designer for the proprietary software tried to hold back the code in a last-minute renegotiation for a bigger slice of the equity pie. Rather than succumb, Young, Baker, and their new CEO (see Section II following) were able to get another hardware designer to redo the circuitry to deliver high-res audio without needing the proprietary software, while keeping the additional cost incurred to a minimum.

Along with designing the actual device, the other immediate concern was being able to obtain high-res audio content to play on the Pono, at a low-enough cost to ensure Pono’s viability. In order to ensure the content was truly high-resolution, a scrupulous forensic effort was required to ensure that the high-resolution content met Pono’s standards. This task was often made difficult by poor record-keeping on the part of some record labels.

Financing and Management

Since Neil Young was focused on his own recording and live performance career, getting Pono off the ground required full-time management in order to become an actual audio company and not just a rich rock star’s hobby. Start-up tech companies are a very different animal than record and other entertainment companies, and the skill sets required are very different. Finding the right CEO proved elusive. Once Pono found John Hamm, an investor and consultant to many successful tech start-ups and a dedicated audiophile, they had someone solid at the helm. Software engineers (to create an online store), a business development manager, a marketing director and other personnel were hired soon after to make Pono an actual business.

Hamm’s financial expertise became crucial when development costs required an additional several million dollars that Young and his pool of private investors could not supply. It was decided to deploy an innovative Kickstarter campaign. Aided by the ability to purchase signed Pono players from a host of like-minded musician friends like Willie Nelson, The Eagles and Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Pono Kickstarter campaign raised $6.2 million – a 2014 crowdfunding record for the second-highest-grossing Kickstarter hardware campaign and the third-highest Kickstarter campaign ever.

However, the the success of the crowdfunding created increased expectations for delivering the first 15,000 Pono players on the stated availability date of within months, which put a time crunch on the quality control testing and product debugging stages that still had to take place.

Manufacturing and Sales Platforms

Baker concluded from the start that production of the Pono would need to be done in China. Luckily, his vast previous experience in electronic products sourcing led him to the right facilities in that country. The Pono units, complete with a Neil Young-designed reusable bamboo box and shrink wrap, were manufactured and packaged at the Chinese factory. However, a quality control issue occurred in about 20 percent of the initial units with the discovery of a loose screw rattle that had to be addressed. Additionally, bamboo products required quarantine in Israel and a few other nations, which necessitated repackaging units for those destinations. The factory quickly handled all of these concerns.

Setting up access to the music catalog would prove to be the more daunting task. Pono was attempting to re-create an iTunes-like site from scratch, along with a point-of-sale component. It might have been impossible to create an entire infrastructure, but fortunately Pono was able to modify a resource that had already been created by software giant Salesforce.com, thanks to Neil Young’s relationship with Marc Benioff, Salesforce.com’s CEO. (In fact, the Pono workaround later became the model for the direct-to-consumer platform currently used by Salesforce.com. Pono also made a deal with cloud-based music services provider Omnifone (now out of business) for the use of its back-end and sales collection services.

Initial Public Reception and Growth Obstacles

Given that Neil Young’s objective for Pono was to make high-resolution audio an accepted consumer format, the challenge was to convince the millions of mp3 and streaming listeners what high-resolution audio was and why it should be important to them.

Upon Pono’s launch, audiophiles and reviewers in high-end audio publications praised Pono for its excellent sound. However, other tech reviewers and influencers who had never experienced high-resolution audio would use iPod earbuds and other inadequate methods to audition Pono and, as a result, would be unable to discern a significant sonic difference. This led to a slew of accusations that the whole idea behind Pono was “snake oil,” and some outright refusals by a number of influencers to admit to their inexperience in evaluating high-performance audio, along with their reluctance to eschew the convenience of inferior-quality sound.

To his own frustration, Neil Young found that many tech heads’ love of digital gadgetry outweighed the ability for them to recognize the fundamental problems with digital audio that had made listening to anything other than high-res audio quality a clinically painful experience for him, complete with headaches and pain in his ears. And as a collector of antique cars, Young thought that car stereo systems might be an inviting market for Pono, but he would find out otherwise.

In discussions with Ford Motor Company’s Lincoln brand about installing Pono as a standard feature in Lincoln vehicles, Young was rebuffed when, during the evaluation process, Lincoln engineers insisted on feeding the signal from a Pono through lower-quality DACs into a collection of run-of-the-mill car speakers. To Young’s amusement, the engineers also mixed in an audio loop of engine rumble during the evaluations.

In another automotive industry meeting with Elon Musk, Young’s request to audition Pono in a Tesla with a simple wire-plug connection to an analog amp was met with sneers for not being a wireless technology, and a refusal by Musk to even consider the possibility that Pono would sound better than the digital processing used in the standard Tesla audio system. A possible distribution deal with audio giant Harman International also fell by the wayside.

When Pono required a further investment of $4 million, an investor was identified who wanted the usual seat on the corporation’s board, which would be commensurate with this person’s proportionate investment relative to Pono’s valuation. This met with resistance from a board member who also was a lawyer for several other board members. A power play ensued, resulting in the CEO’s dismissal. Young, Baker and Roberts all concluded, in retrospect, that this was one of the worst moves Pono had made. The company would subsequently falter for the remainder of its lifespan and never recover.

The straw that broke Pono’s back happened when Omnifone was taken over by Apple. Apple immediately shut down all of Omnifone’s business dealings with outside parties, including Pono, who was also a competitor. Pono eventually went out of business in 2017.

Yet Pono remains a reference standard for portable high-resolution audio devices. It was and is an excellent-sounding player, and received Stereophile’s Products of 2015 Digital Component of the Year award. Both Young and Baker have continued their collaborations with the Neil Young Archives and its Xstream service, aimed at Young’s desire to have his collected works made available to listeners in a format that enables his music to be heard in studio-quality sound as Young originally intended.

Neil Young, 1976. Image courtesy of Wikipedia/Mark Estabrook.

My personal perspective on the Pono saga is colored by the fact that my day job is as a project and corporate finance consultant, predicated on a prior 15-year tenure on Wall Street as a trader and investment banker. As such, I am well-aware of the kinds of considerations Young and Baker had to deal with behind the scenes.

The challenges faced by Young and Baker are not uncommon. To Feel The Music does an excellent job of giving readers an intimate look into the struggles of contemporary small business entrepreneurs (defined as under $15 million valuation). In particular, Pono’s various technological and logistical obstacles seemed to pale in comparison to the internal financial and political ones, something that happens across all industrial sectors.

To Feel The Music left me with a deeper respect for Neil Young, whose music I have always loved, if not his self-indulgences at times. I think any audiophile will come away with a much greater appreciation for the dedication, hard work, and vision of those inventors who ceaselessly strive to ascend to greater heights in the quest for high-quality sound. And most of them accomplish this without a rock star sitting on their board of directors.

The Legacy of Eddie Van Halen

There are millions of guitar players.

There are thousands of really good guitar players.

There are hundreds of really great guitar players.

And then there is an elite group very near the top whose style is so unique that you know who they are immediately when you hear them. Santana, B.B. King, Duane Eddy, Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck and Albert King come to mind.

But, at the very top of Mount Olympus, where Zeus resides, there exist the most astonishing guitar players of all.

This select group created a musical language and pathways that did not exist before they took their first breath of life.

This group consists of Django Reinhardt, Andres Segovia, Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen.

Like athletes who break world records, these special guitar players have shown us where we can go when we thought that there was nowhere else to go.

These players broke the rules by steamrolling over them.

These giants gave us a new language.

There is no higher recognition that can be given.

Eddie Van Halen now resides with the Gods of Guitar.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Abby Gillardi.

Val and Eddie, Amy and Tom Revisited

Note: this article originally appeared in Copper Issue 74. In light of Eddie Van Halen’s passing, we felt it appropriate to run it again here in tribute, updated and with an added postscript. – Ed.

How would you react if you were suddenly face-to-face with one of your idols? I hope you’d be more prepared than I was on that day in 1984.

I remember the first time I laid eyes on Van Halen’s debut album in 1978. The front cover introduced Eddie and his Frankenstein Fender Strat, David “Diamond Dave” Lee Roth with his phallic mic and insanely hairy chest, and Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony, practically blurred out. I found the album in a stack of records at my friend Bill Jr.’s house.

Bill was still into the Bay City Rollers, and his sister possessed even worse taste in music – all weepy singer-songwriters, so I could not figure out who owned that heavy Van Halen record. No one wanted it, and so they let me have it. As soon as I heard their version of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and its intro “Eruption,” Eddie’s solo shredding masterpiece, I was hooked.

 

For the next six years, Van Halen supplied my summer soundtracks. Back then, when other kids went to sleep-away camp, I joined a bicycling program that took me all through New England, parts of Canada, and California and Oregon. We rode all day, ate outdoors, and slept at campgrounds. On occasion, the group would have a layover at an RV park, and those places had luxuries like laundry machines, pay showers with hot water, a snack bar, and a rec hall complete with a jukebox! Electronic entertainment was rare on the road, so a bit of television, a movie, or some current music was a treat.

Depending on the region, there might be a lot more Molly Hatchet and Lynyrd Skynyrd on the jukebox than New York Dolls and Ramones, but Van Halen was universal. I played “Dance the Night Away” (Van Halen II, 1979) during my trip to Vermont, “And the Cradle Will Rock” (Women and Children First, 1980) in Quebec, “Unchained” (Fair Warning, 1981) in Oregon, and multiple cuts off Diver Down (1982) in New Hampshire. With so many kick-ass tracks, including “Where Have all the Good Times Gone,” “Cathedral,” “Little Guitars,” “Dancing in the Street,” and “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” Diver Down is one of my favorite Van Halen albums.

 

In 1984, Van Halen released 1984, and it turned out to be their last with Roth until 2012. “Jump,” “Panama” and “Hot for Teacher” were mainstream smash hits, as well as videos in heavy rotation on the then-nascent MTV channel.

One August day in 1984, I was walking my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and a young couple appeared accompanied by a man in a suit walking slightly behind them. They had matching blow-out 80s hairdos. The woman noticed my dog and squatted down, “Awww, what’s your dog’s name?” People always wanted to pet my dog. She was beautiful, but it got a little annoying after a while – especially when they talked to the dog as if she were walking me, but this lady was so friendly and pretty. “Amy,” I answered, with a slight wince.

Amy, my childhood dog.

Then, I looked up and saw that big smile. “Hey,” he said nonchalantly through a puff of smoke. My brain was straining to place these faces. I had seen them a thousand times, but I could not process their features fast enough. And by the time I was done being flummoxed, it was all over. I stood paralyzed as Eddie Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli (aka Barbara Cooper, America’s sweetheart from TV’s One Day at a Time) walked away down 57th Street – likely towards one of the studios that were in that area. It was like starting the best dream of your life just to be robbed of it by the cruel alarm clock of reality.

“Was that really them?” I second-guessed myself. “It was. I can’t believe I was standing right next to Eddie Van Halen and Valerie and I didn’t say anything, not a single word except my dog’s name! I don’t think I even said “hi” back to Eddie. “What an idiot I am!” For the first time in my life, I was overwhelmed by celebrity.

Eddie Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli, 1991. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Alan Light.

I always regretted not being more engaging and quicker on my feet, but I was 18 and in a bad state. There was a fasting craze tearing through my school, and all I had ingested for a few days was black coffee and clove cigarettes. On top of that, my prom queen, also named Amy, broke up with me preemptively in preparation for college. I don’t know what I could have said to Eddie anyway. In my depressed mood, I might have begged him never to leave Diamond Dave because of personality clashes and silly arguments over the use of keyboards on the new album. Like I kept trying to explain to Amy, if each party is fully committed, a loving couple can work through anything, even a long distance relationship from SUNY New Paltz. But Eddie and Dave couldn’t make it work either and my youth came crashing to an end: the original Van Halen disbanded, high school was over, my girlfriend was moving away, and I was too old for bike camp.

When Van Halen reunited with Diamond Dave for a tour a five years ago, I was there. I never got a chance to see them in their prime, but despite the passage of thirty years, Eddie played seamlessly while smiling his way through the show. It’s unbelievable how distant summer days came flooding back on that humid night at Jones Beach Amphitheater on August 13, 2015. As the less nimble David Lee Roth sang, I was suddenly transported to 1978 and hanging out with Bill Jr., since deceased, awaiting each new Van Halen record, cycling around America carefree, and running into Eddie and Valerie. I told my concert mate the story, savoring the smallest details in retrospect. “You saw Valerie BER-TIN-ELLI up close; was she as hot in real life?!” I’m just glad Kent wasn’t there to make a complete drooling fool of himself. And, yes, Kent, Valerie was positively gorgeous and enchanting.

I always wonder how I would react if I had it to do over again. Anything I can think of is so trite. The memory now is almost better because so little happened, or I could have been telling the story quite differently:

“…and outta nowhere, the dude in the suit hauls off and punches me right in the throat and twists my arm behind my back. And, I’m just joking around with Ed and Val! Turns out…that guy was their bodyguard.”

Instead of regretting an embarrassing encounter for the last 36 years, I can simply appreciate how kind that Hollywood couple was to a random dog and star-struck teen on a New York City street. It was great to share one quick but unforgettable moment with them.

Postscript: October 7, 2020

For us metalheads, Eddie Van Halen was the king of shredders. Hard rock would have plodded along just fine with Iommi, Blackmore, and Page riffs, but when he brought his solos and string tapping technique to the masses, rock and roll turned to metal, and Eddie set the benchmark for future guitarists.

Yes, Eddie was adept at playing soft, slow, and sweet, but we couldn’t wait for him to go loud, fast, and crunchy. Guys tried to play faster with as much to flash as they could muster, but even the deftest picking and fretboard gymnastics fell short of Eddie’s virtuosity. Arena rock and the Los Angeles scene of the 1980s would have been a lot different without Van Halen. Not only did he heavily influence local musicians, but also Texas thrasher Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott of Pantera, San Francisco’s Metallica riff artist Kirk Hammett, and even Alice in Chain’s grunge rocker Jerry Cantrell up in Seattle, just to name a few.

Eddie Van Halen died on October 6, 2020, in Santa Monica, CA, at the age of 65, and it is truly the end of an era spanning thirteen albums and more than 40 years of touring. There will never be another Van Halen, and there certainly will never be another Eddie. Frankly, I’m not sure if there’s much left to be done with the guitar after Eddie put it down for the last time.

Little Esther: Long Days With the Diva

It’s 1977 and we are waiting on Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills for talent manager Irene Pinn when her partner Jim Kellem (one of the two Jims who I worked with at Creative Management Associates (CMA, later ICM Partners) points to a new Fiat Spider convertible pulling up. It is looking a little lopsided and tilting toward the driver’s side. That can’t be good, I say to Jim and he laughs while R&B singer “Little Esther” Phillips struggles her way out of the bucket seat in the low-to-the-ground sports car.

Inside the Doheny office of KP Productions Irene tells me the Esther Phillips tour is about six weeks long. The first leg will be an All-Star Jazz tour in Hamburg, Germany, then a gig in Cannes, France at the Midem music convention and on to Caracas, Venezuela for ten days in an upscale night club.

A week later we all meet up in Hamburg. Esther is about forty years old and is about five foot four and solid. She can sing, no misunderstanding about that, and she has had two major hit records and many on the charts. Her first hit was “Double Crossing Blues,” with the Johnny Otis Quintet and the Robins (a vocal group), which was released in 1950 by Savoy Records and reached number one on the Billboard R&B chart. She was 15 at the time, hence the name “Little Esther,” and she is a four-time Grammy nominee. Esther had a distinctive voice and was a Jazz singer with blues and soul influences, But she has lived a hard life – and has not always been the victim.

 

She is the headliner of the German tour which means she closes the show. The day after we arrive in Hamburg we do a rehearsal at the concert hall, where the next night the first show of the tour begins.

The tour is called “The All-Star Jazz Tour” and includes musicians like jazz greats Gerry Mulligan, Nat Adderley and Buddy Rich. We are all on the bus zig-zagging across West Germany. It is a tiresome tour, with overnight bus trips sometimes lasting 16 hours with only ten-minute bathroom breaks and vending machine food stops. We go from North to South and back North, West, East and every which way. That is the concert business, and it has to do with the availability of concert halls. Bookings are put together with the only restriction being that you will be able to make the travel in time for the show. This tour was worse than most, but that is the life, and no one complains; we all get it.

It is the afternoon of the first show and the promoter tells me to have Esther back at the hall at 9:30 pm that night. While driving back to the hotel I tell her that, and her boyfriend says, “that’s bullsh*t! We don’t have to be back at the hall till eleven that night.” I repeat myself and they both are not buying it. I tell them that these are our instructions and Esther says, “fu*k them, I am not waiting around to go on stage for no one.” I am not winning this argument and I say to myself, screw it, I am only here to help. I call Jim Kellem in California, but it is like four in the morning in Los Angeles and he is sleeping. No answer.

We arrive at the concert hall at eleven and the promoter is frantic. The band has been ad-libbing and stalling for time. Esther is freaked out at this and her eyes are popping out of her head.

The promoter pushes her on stage. While she starts singing the promoter starts yelling at me. I tell him, “I told her over and over that we had to be there at 9:30 and her boyfriend said I was wrong.” We pulled him into our conversation and he tried to worm out of it. Esther can see the argument from the stage and she knows she is in for it.

She comes off stage and the promoter tells her she is fired from the tour. She starts crying and apologizing like crazy. I know she is not actually fired but that the German promoter wants to put the fear of God in her. “This is Germany; everyone here is on time, always,” he says, scolding her like she was caught shoplifting. “Please, I’m sorry, so sorry, sorry, please,” she pleads to me and the promoter in between sobs. The promoter knows he has her and keeps lecturing her for another five minutes.

Esther Phillips, 1976. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Irene Pinn Inc.

In the car heading back to the hotel she is giving her boyfriend a bad time. He is squirming and I’m not minding it.

On the other hand the musicians are a very serious busload of jazz performers. There are no other road managers, so I make it a point to look after everyone. I am the youngest person on the bus and this will be the last time in my life I will ever be referred to as “The Kid.” I think I connected more with Nat Adderley than anyone else and late one night on the bus we were talking and he says, “you think Esther is difficult? you should do a tour with the Temptations. The Temps are first-rate hardasses and thankless MFs.” I guess so; I think to myself that he would know.

The bus is quiet for a tour bus and it is low-key and there is no friction between people. Everyone is cordial, but they are not best friends either; it is more like live and let live. Just professionals doing their job. I am sure the money was good for them.

Gerry Mulligan brought his wife along for the tour and sometimes the three of us would hang together for meals. Gerry was quiet and she and I did most of the talking. Every few minutes or so Gerry would hold his hands like he was playing the saxophone while pressing the invisible keys like he was working out a riff.

On the bus, I talked to everyone. Buddy Rich and I were chatting one afternoon about touring and told me his next gig was in Toronto opening a new Hilton Inn. Some performers had a reputation for being difficult, but on this tour everyone played a part, and even though Esther was the headliner and closed the show that was in name only. There was no grandstanding or ego trips between performers. On stage, everyone fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Esther’s goodwill towards me lasts about three days and she starts getting testy again. Then she is either complaining about the tour or demanding something. There is also the boredom of the long bus rides and she has nothing better to do.

About a week into the tour we finally get to spend a night in a hotel. The overnight stop is a luxury because that day’s drive was only a few hours. She gets on the elevator with me and demands I give her a thousand dollars. Money that is the band’s pay. I tell her that the money I have on me is for the band, and she says, “fu*k that, give it to me!” I tell her no and she takes a roundhouse punch at me, barely missing my face. I didn’t react, just got off the elevator and it was never mentioned again. I was getting used to her, thinking, she is who she is and I had already decided that I would finish this tour and move on.

Finally, that leg of Esther’s tour ended – but there seemed to be a problem. Her boyfriend had been playing backgammon for money with Nat Adderley in the back of the bus. He had lost a lot of money and owed Nat big time. Esther was beside herself. But hey, it was not my problem. I do not know how it got resolved but I did know that Nat was not a gentleman you wanted to owe money to.

After Germany, we flew into Nice and were driven down to Cannes for Midem, the world’s biggest music business convention. It is a big deal with record companies, music publishers, distributors and such from all over the world. This is early February and the time and place where deals between these companies are made.

Esther is there to perform at one of the big evening affairs; so big that Anthony Quinn is hosting the event. It’s on a pier in the harbor that is filled with these tremendous yachts. Monte Carlo is just up the road past the Nice airport.

Irene has flown in and she and Esther are staying at the Hotel Barrière Le Majestic, a beautiful five-star international hotel across the main road from the harbor. The band and I stay in a three-star hotel on a hill overlooking the Marina. It was just so French, and not touristy, and the food was out of this world. So we did not mind the different hotel arrangements.

A few days later we fly to Madrid and transfer to a Pan Am jet to Caracas with a refueling stop in San Juan. We flew through the night and landed in San Juan at about three in the morning. They made us depart the plane and put us in a special area, so we did not have to clear US Customs. Around five am we re-boarded the plane and headed out for Caracas. In the dawn light flying over the Caribbean waters, the colors were remarkable. The light greens, turquoise, light and dark blues were so beautiful I was mesmerized.

We were staying at the Caracas Hilton and Raquel Welsh was performing there. Man, I had hoped to run into her but alas, it was not to be. We were doing a show a night at a high-end club. Ticket sales were so-so, with just over a half-full house every night, but still, things were OK. Sometimes at night after our show, I would go with some of the locals, club employees, to these after-hours night clubs and they were so lavish, but also wild with booze and drugs. There would be shows with dancing girls and salsa bands; it was like the old days at the Copacabana with photographers and cigarette girls, a real scene that would go on till dawn.

Still, Esther continued to cause problems. One night before she went on stage she deliberately stomped on her microphone breaking it and tried to blame me. I was not fazed. Then she wanted to have a picnic pig roast for the band and the new friends she had made in Caracas, but they didn’t allow enough time for the preparation and it was inedible. Esther wanted to blame me even for that.

Finally, we were finished with the tour and I was glad to go home. The morning that we were supposed to leave, I went to Esther’s room to get her and boyfriend’s luggage and to get them downstairs to the taxis. Everyone but me was going to Los Angeles, me to New York. Always one to surprise me, Esther had one more trick up her sleeve. She said she did not want to leave that day and maybe she would be up to it tomorrow.

That was a new one. I had never had a tour end like that. I called Jim Kellem and told him the situation, and he was okay with me leaving her there. I gave her and her boyfriend their tickets and money for the taxi to Caracas airport and said, goodbye and good luck.

I had gotten over being bothered by Esther’s stunts, but I was done. It was fine; the experience was already in my rearview mirror.

The next day at home in NY Irene calls me, exasperated, and fumes, “how could I leave Esther in Caracas?” I told Irene that Esther refused to leave – and the tour was over I also told Irene that I was finished. Although, she knew that already because I had told Kellem, but she played dumb and then told me, “in ten days we have a bus tour in Italy opening for Gloria Gaynor.”

Oh boy, I could not even consider being on another bus tour with Esther.

Next day Irene calls again and asks me some follow-up questions about the tour, which I answer and clarify.

Then she calls me again the day after and starts talking about Italy, and I say, “Irene I told you, I quit!”

What a difference a day makes.

Close Encounter With The Rolling Stones

As music lovers, we all have our most favorite concert experiences. A lot goes into deciding which shows were the best, including the venue, the sound, the seat location, and, of course, the artist’s performance. Other variables include where the listener and artist are in their respective musical arcs and stages in life. When an artist’s performance dovetails with or exceeds a listener’s expectation, it is the perfect union.

Concerts to me are like special occasions. Not all special occasions are the same. Like weddings, birthdays, etc., some are more memorable and historic than others. As a music aficionado, I’ve attended over a hundred concerts. My three most favorite are, in ascending order: The Allman Brothers with Duane Allman at Stony Brook University (1970); Led Zeppelin for $2.50 in Central Park (1969) – and the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden for their Exile on Main Street tour (1972). I experienced all as a highly impressionable teen, a time in my life that no doubt contributed to the deep resonance these shows had for me.

Why I’ve ranked the Stones’ Exile concert number one is partly because of what unexpectedly happened to me the evening of the performance. In allotting the tickets to the Stones’ four shows at Madison Square Garden, the promoter introduced a then-novel concept: a postcard lottery system. The fear was that ticket demand would be so strong it would swamp both the box office and the widely used and unreliable Ticketron computer system, a precursor to today’s Ticketmaster. The lottery required that fans mail in a postcard, and if their postcard was randomly selected they could purchase up to four tickets to a show.

The promoter received over 500,000 mail-in postcards. There were so many, they literally had to store them in massive bins, and then stir each with a shovel prior to selection. This was no senior citizen bingo game!

I mailed in a ton of postcards and luckily two were selected. It was like winning Lotto! I sold off a few tickets and went to the July 24, 1972 show with friends. Our assigned seats were horrible, halfway up the venue’s highest tier. Back then the upper-tier in Madison Square Garden was called “the blues,” because of the section’s seat color, though a more apt explanation is that you were so far away, that’s how being there made you feel. Although disappointed, still, I was grateful to be in the building.

The opening act on the Stones’ Exile tour was the great, even-then legendary Stevie Wonder. He delivered an incredibly good set, not surprising, but the sound from our vantage point was piss-poor. As the roadies began re-setting the stage for the Stones, I told my friends, “I’m gonna take a walk.”

Exile on Main St. album cover.

Like the sun’s gravitational pull, I immediately was drawn to the venue’s lowest and best seats. Now venue security in 1972 was not nearly as tight as today’s concert experience, though certainly challenging the closer one got to the stage. Like many venues, security at Madison Square Garden is entrusted to these massively large, burly guys. They could steamroll their way through an aisle just via their natural gait. As I weaved my way down to the first row front of stage, I realized, once the house lights dimmed, security was going to clear the aisles up and down orchestra level. I also knew that once the lights dimmed, everyone was going to stand.

As the house lights went down, and before anyone’s eyes could fully adjust, I did what any positively rock-crazed, insane teen would do. I impulsively dove under the seats in the first row, as the patrons in those seats stood in anticipation. Yup, I was literally down on the floor in the dark, with the gunk, grime, grease and whatever else lived down below. I’m not sure antibiotics could kill what likely was growing there. But I knew I had to withstand this horror show only for a minute or two.

When the security guards and their size 14 shoes sauntered past me in their aisle sweep, I realized I was home free. I popped up like a jack-in-the-box and moved to dead center. As everyone else was standing, nobody paid mind to who did or didn’t have a seat.

The next thing I heard was the voice of legendary announcer “Chip” Monck of Woodstock fame: “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones.” As Keith Richards hit the opening notes to “Brown Sugar,” Jagger began to prance across the stage. I was so close I could see the glitter painted around his eyes. Right away, you could feel the tightness of the band, living up to its reputation as “the world’s greatest rock n’ roll band.” You could tell the boys were really enjoying themselves, and the sound was just the way I like it, loud. Keith Richards was wrinkle free. (Yes, there was a time.) He could have starred in a Neutrogena skincare commercial.

This would be the last US tour for Mick Taylor on lead guitar. Mick seemingly never quite fully blended in with the group, fame and adulation likely not his thing, though musically he arguably was the group’s most skilled guitarist and I say that with the deep respect for Keith, Ron Wood and Brian Jones. Rounding out the band was expressionless Bill Wyman on bass, Charlie Watts on drums, (yes, “Charlie was good tonight”), Bobby Keys and Jim Price on horns, and Nicky Hopkins on keyboards. Not too shabby a rhythm section.

When you’re that close to the stage, it’s easy to judge how into a performance an artist is by their body language, facial expressions, and how they engage with everyone else on stage. I could easily see how excited the Stones were to be playing in the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” and the energy they exhibited was infectious, easily spilling over to the audience. The concert was a “pinch me” type moment, exceeding any and all expectations.

The set list for the evening consisted of (6) tracks from Exile, (3) Let It Bleed, (2) Sticky Fingers and (1) Beggar’s Banquet, in my opinion the lads’ finest LP. The set did not include “Sympathy For the Devil,” a song some have stated, incorrectly, that the Stones were playing at the infamous 1969 Altamont Speedway concert while an attendee was killed by a Hell’s Angels member who was working security. “Sympathy” was performed earlier in the concert. For some time, the song and the tragedy at Altamont were inextricably linked.

Upon further reflection, a few additional things stand out: New York City was the last stop on a grueling 32-city tour. The show I attended was opening night, with a top ticket price of $6.50. For a little modern-day perspective, I recently saw a used ticket stub for that exact NYC concert selling for $125 on eBay, and that stub was for a lousier seat than the one I was assigned! The tour grossed a then-record $4 million, certainly not chump change, but a far cry from the now-record $776 million set by Ed Sheeran on his recent Divide tour.

The 1972 tour was infamously named the “Stones Touring Party” cause that’s what it was, one big party. There was a film crew covering the tour for a soon-to-be-made documentary. Rumor has it, when Jagger screened a rough cut of the documentary he allegedly said, “I love it, but you can’t release it.” Why? It was too realistic, accurately covering all the drugs and debauchery. (I have a bootleg copy of the film, and that is a very apt description.)

Now if you’re still with me, this is where the story gets real interesting. I reconnected with my friends after the concert, who were concerned about my whereabouts, though I never gave serious thought to vacating my first row “seat.” Some of them believed my story while others did not. And there were no smartphones or digital cameras to corroborate my story.

Then a few years ago while surfing the internet one late evening, I amazingly discovered a picture with me in it. Click on this link and you’ll see me, dead center first row, both arms leaning over the railing in front of Mick. Irrefutable evidence shot 48 years ago. Complete vindication.

So, without further ado, the defense requests for an immediate dismissal on any and all charges of fraud or deception in the telling of this tale.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikipedia/Jim Pietryga, cropped to fit format.

Dude Ranch

“Great recovery Roy,” yelled the wrangler as I tightly pulled back on the reins of my horse whose front legs had collapsed on the steep downward slope.

This happened on the last day of our two-week vacation at a dude ranch near Buena Vista, Colorado.

After a trip to Cairo, Egypt and a ride around the pyramids on a very placid horse, I fancied myself a rider and with my wife’s approval we booked a trip to a dude ranch. The brochure boasted a western experience with riding every day.

The ranch was rustic but very comfortable, with one caveat – it was 8,000 feet up a mountain.

Situated near an abandoned silver mine in the middle of a national forest, we reached it after a 10-mile drive on a dirt road. At the time we visited in 1991, the ranch had no direct telephone line, only an emergency communication system. They had also just been given an official street address so they could receive parcels via UPS. This was good because I sent a case of wine before our arrival.

The accommodation was very comfortable but we were on the second floor and as I was not acclimated to the elevation, it was one staircase too much. Wheezing and panting, I struggled up the 15 steps to collapse on my bed.

That evening after a copious dinner of meat and potatoes, (every night there were delicious versions of that theme) we had orientation. This started out as silly games and jokes to relax everyone. Then came the long list of safety rules and the schedule for the next few days. Weary from the travel and the altitude, I forced my way up the never-ending staircase to my bed.

“Riding every day.” This turned out to be a curse as I wasn’t to the saddle born. The first day, we were assigned horses according to individual skill and experience. Mine was a placid stallion that seemed to be gentle. We were taught how to push away from aspen trees because the horses loved to unseat their riders by scraping along the side of them. Forewarned and very nervous I saddled up and we took off up the mountain.

At first the trail was easy but at one point we trotted onto the edge of a cliff. The drop must have been thousands of feet. I then realized that my life depended on the sure-footedness of a 1,000 lb. nag. I tensed up, shut my eyes and hoped to survive. Apparently, I didn’t die as we started slowly to descend. The whole ride took an hour or so and after we returned, I found upon dismounting that my legs were frozen in the same position as they were on the horse. For 45 minutes I couldn’t straighten my legs, then slowly I managed to crawl on all fours to my room.

Every day we rode, and slowly, while I learned how to control my horse, my breathing started to ease. One morning we all rose early and rode up the mountain. When we arrived at a clearing, the biggest frying pan I had ever seen was already on a fire cooking bacon and eggs. That delicious breakfast, eaten in the pure mountain air while gazing at the Rockies, framed by aspen trees, was magical.

With my western boots, Wrangler jeans and Stetson, I was turning into a facsimile of a cowboy.

Eaton’s Dude Ranch, Wolf, Wyoming. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress/Carol M. Highsmith.

Some days, when we chose not to ride, were fun. We went white water rafting in the Arkansas river, which was exciting and a little dangerous. A road trip to Aspen via the 12,000-foot-high Independence Pass was hair-raising as one of our wranglers drove a van at high speed on this two-lane road with sheer drops, no barriers and hairpin bends. We briefly stopped at the summit and if 8,000 feet makes you short of breath, don’t go higher. Aspen was lovely if a little twee.

Back at the ranch, I tried my hand at skeet shooting, mostly missing the target and discovering that my eyes weren’t as good as they used to be.

Fishing was abundant as the ranch had a pond that was well stocked with trout. But even better were the pools built by beavers. Sometimes (I guess before their lunch) these pools were also well-stocked. One day my son Ilan caught a large trout. To put it out of its misery I, as my father had taught me, grabbed it by the tail and smashed its head against a rock. Nine-year-old Ilan was mortified by this and refused to eat it that night when it was served whole roasted on a plate.

Meals were “good and plenty.” The wranglers ate with us. They were a great crew, typically young, from all over the West. Most of them had been riding since childhood and they really kept an eye on us on the trail. For the guests, dinner was a time to schmooze and relax. Not so for the wranglers. They shoveled the food into their mouths and hurriedly left. Maybe they had chores to do or as I suspected, the less time they had to spend with us, the better.

The ranch had a pig who ate the leftovers from the diners every night. From time to time, the ranch would buy a young pig, fatten him up, then butcher him. The owner told us that the pig always got agitated when she approached with the leftovers, but what really freaked the owner out were the times when the leftovers were pork. This caused the pig to grunt gleefully with anticipation before devouring his cousins.

On the first day of our second week, a new group of guests arrived. The following day a man in his fifties sat opposite me for breakfast. He was resplendent in his brand-new, squeaky-clean, Orvis Outfitters, fly-fishing gear. Without knowing him, I said, “You look like you should be wearing a suit.”

He glowered at me, stood up and moved to another table. Later on, I discovered that he was a Wall Street banker.

As I mentioned earlier, orientation on the first night consisted of silly games and so on. On the beginning of the second week, the owners suggested that I shouldn’t attend as it would be boring for me. Nevertheless, I went.

To break the ice, the owner asked the group a question, “What was your most embarrassing moment?” As he spoke, he turned, looked at me and said, “Roy?”

My answer?

“This is my second week.”

 

Header image of the Double Diamond Dude Ranch courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/National Park Service.

Gayle Sanders of Eikon and MartinLogan, Part Two

In Part One, Gayle talked about his formative years in audio and the founding of electrostatic loudspeaker company MartinLogan…and left us with a cliffhanger as all of the company’s CLS loudspeakers began failing in the field. The story continues here.

Gayle Sanders in his native habitat.

Gayle Sanders: It was 2:00 am in the morning. In the darkness, hours before the dawn, I was facing my reality. I had failed. I had tried time and time again to fix the problem with the CLS, where the tension of the diaphragm would change over time and create an unwanted resonance and buzzing. I tried everything from power supply changes, grounding reconfigurations, structural mods, diaphragm conditioning, to even invoking sorcery…to no avail. This buzz on all of our CLS speakers was also growing into a rattle that raised its ugly head on each and every speaker out in the field. And I could not fix it.

I stood in the middle of the MartinLogan production floor, stared out into the space of our production area and began to weep. I thought, when the sun comes up, I have to call it quits, call all of our retailers and let them know I’m out of business and have to shut the doors. All of the years, all of the work, all of the trust…gone.

As I wept, the dark corner of an earlier project sitting against a white pillar caught my eye. What was that? Oh yeah, it’s a transducer I had tried early on in development.

I had abandoned it because it had a flat section on the edge of both sides of the diaphragm. It was not a perfect curvilinear line source (hence the name for the CLS loudspeaker), and because of the flat sections on the sides it had a slight high-frequency beaming off-axis. Barely noticeable, but if you listened carefully as you walked by you could hear a slight increase of high frequencies on axis with those sections – it was like a slight shhhh to SHHHHH as you engaged that specific spot. But I also remembered it as having superb bass.

I had abandoned this design in my perfection-fixated, myopic focus on creating the perfect transducer. (You know, the one that reproduces all frequencies with no crossover in a seamless distribution pattern…) Staring at the transducer now, I thought, “It’s not perfect but what have I got to lose?! Build a pair and test them out!”

I quickly put together a prototype assembly rig and fabricated a pair of the “not quite perfect” transducers. The clock was ticking. The MartinLogan team was coming to work in a few hours… and I had to get this thing right…NOW!

By configuring the central area of the transducer in the signature CLS (curved) format I retained the superb dispersion of the CLS. By then creating asymmetric woofer panels on either side, that tuning rendered a very linear, high-excursion bottom end to a usable 50 Hz with a nice suggestion of deep bass at 35 Hz. Whoa dude! Bottom end! Great dispersion! Yes, there was a slight increase of high-frequency energy at the periphery but it was negligible. What remained was that magnificent transparency that only a completely pure, super-low mass, superbly linear, crossoverless transducer can reveal…pure magic.

CLS electrostatic loudspeaker.

During the design process for the CLS, I was also ultra-fixated on making sure that the shipping box for that transducer could be shipped via UPS. The transducer was big – It was 2 feet wide by 4 feet high and it took a great deal of creative design effort to fit that monster into a box that was UPS-able. It was literally 1/4-inch under the maximum UPS height-girth dimension. But now I knew that work was going to pay off.

The morning came. The sun rose. And as morning light flowed onto our production floor, the entire MartinLogan team focused on building this modified transducer. We set to work 24/7. At our expense we sent replacement transducers to each and every dealer and customer in the field – No questions asked. If you had a problem we sent new transducers for free.

Weeks passed. The phone rang off the hook. Everyone was overjoyed. And a small miracle occurred. All of that suffering, not just mine but of everyone who had suffered along with me, created a community and a comradeship. A deep bond began to form. Together we had made it through a very difficult time and had come out of it successfully.

Those of us at MartinLogan, our retailers and our customers became a passionate community that had prevailed and succeeded together! What a wonderful feeling. I learned a big lesson. Rather than known as that company of broken electrostatic speakers, MartinLogan became known as that company you can trust. A company that loves their customers, admits their mistakes and solves your problems, and man did that pay off in the long run.

Because sometimes only a Stratocaster will do.

FD: I never knew that. Let’s shift gears completely now! I remember the first time you came out to The Absolute Sound to visit Harry Pearson and myself. Harry kept strong-arming you to have sushi. You’d never had it, were reluctant to try it and he insisted, “you have to get sushi-fied!” Finally we went and you enjoyed it. Actually, we all got sake-fied a little too much and you wound up crashing at Harry’s house. The next morning you’d left, and left a note that said, “I’ve been sushi-fied!” Harry was charmed (and more than a little hung over). What was it like for you to meet Harry that night?

GS: Harry was an icon (no pun intended) in the industry. But to be reviewed by him was a double edged sword! Remember those days Frank? To submit a product to Harry was a bit like heaven and hell…in those days, the high-end audio industry was defined by Harry. To get a rave review would put your company on the map. To get a bad review meant you would then then die on your sword. So, it was with trepidation that I first met Harry.

But that was a great night and it still brings such great memories. From that moment on, I sushi-fied all my friends. As a matter of fact a few years later I ended up in the hinterlands of Japan and as we wandered into a sushi-house we found out we were the first non-Japanese to ever walk through their doors. By the end of the night, they had tried everything on me, and the owner and I were trading songs and singing late into the night.

FD: What made you decide to leave MartinLogan, a company you co-founded?

GS: I thought it was just time to move on. I had spent 30 years in the industry and felt it was time to look at other things in my life. But after a few diversions I realized that audio was my true love. Once it’s in your blood it’s there to stay. And I love it. It’s where I live. It’s what gets me up in the morning…and I found out that I wasn’t done.

In the beginning [right after leaving MartinLogan] I just relaxed. My wife Deborah and I moved to California and just enjoyed life. I supported a few small startups, one of which was in the health food industry. It was great fun but involved even more steps in the market distribution of the products than in the audio industry. As much fun as we had, at the end I decided to sell our company in that there were just too many steps in the distribution chain for anyone to be profitable.

During that time, I was able to look at our industry from a different viewpoint, and could see that the future of how we experience sound was going through a dramatic transformative change. Yes, I think the audiophile world as we know it will still be around for those that love to assemble their own systems and evaluate the sonic changes. In so many ways, I’m that person and I love the process of discovery. And sharing that with other members of our community [is extremely rewarding].

Eikon prototypes.

But the future is changing and the advancing digital technology, as Moore’s Law drives more and more performance, creates new solutions for an engineer’s palette. The convergence of digital advances in DACs, digitally-enabled amps, DSP and on and on, the ability to stream studio-quality music at your fingertips from streaming services like Tidal and Qobuz, along with the Internet of Things – all of this brings powerful tools to advance how we experience high-definition sound in our lives. So I began developing technology to advance our industry into that new and exciting world by integrating those disciplines. This led to the beginning of Eikon Audio and the development of the Image1 system.

[The Eikon Image1 system is comprised of two 4-way active loudspeakers, and the Eikontrol preamplifier with DSP including room correction. – Ed.]

These new digital technologies allowed me to finally explore solutions that weren‘t available in the MartinLogan days. A new world of possibilities was now available. In our loudspeakers I can now throw away the passive crossover components, use dedicated amplification to drive each transducer directly, and tailor the frequency response and time coherence of each driver with surgically precise filters. We can also control the wave front in the time domain. In addition, we can reduce the size of the speaker enclosure to 1/4-normal size yet retain bone-crushing, subterranean bass extension, at incredible sound pressure levels.

Getting there: another Eikon prototype.

We can direct bass energy away from destructive wall reflections and focus it into the room. In addition, with our wavelet technology we can correct room problems dramatically beyond the classic passive and active room treatment schemes.

And that’s just for starters. Not to mention that we can tailor the system to different recording schemes, have control of the system from a phone, and create multi-room whole-house solutions, all without compromising performance.

With this technology Eikon can achieve the precision and resolution of electrostatic loudspeaker panels in a compact system with incredible dynamics and slam. [Because the speakers are able to have a smaller form factor, we can] also begin to really integrate sculpture and art into these incredible feats of engineering.

The hinge didn’t make it to final production!

Let’s talk about crossovers. Since the beginning of multiple-driver systems we have used capacitors, resistors, and inductors to filter the audio spectrum, shaping the frequencies that are handled by tweeters, midrange, and woofers. When we use crossovers after the amplifier, it’s a passive crossover. When we use them in front of the amplifier it’s an analog electronic crossover. But no matter what, we have used these crossovers to attenuate high, midrange or lower frequencies, and then try to blend the drivers together in the hopes they can sing together in order to sound as one.

But in designing a loudspeaker, we are trying to create a speaker that delivers as pure a signal as possible, so the ideal situation is to have nothing in the signal path between the amplifier and the driver itself. Putting capacitors, inductors and resistors in the path can only degrade the performance. It’s embarrassing to think that we spend thousands of dollars on cables to connect our amplifier and speakers, and then drive the signal through inductors, resistors and caps. They are rather crude devices at best for shaping the frequency spectrum. And they are even more limiting when we try to adjust performance in the time domain [and have the low, midrange and high-frequencies arrive at our ears at the same time]. That’s why you see designers literally physically positioning the drivers on the baffle board to get them to even come close to some semblance of time alignment. But that just aligns the drivers themselves, not necessarily the complete audio wave launch.

Inductors can suffer from a host of inherent problems ranging from saturation, to hysteresis, to cross-induction. Even the best inductors are problematic. Capacitors are just as problematic. They are inherently storage devices and can easily become nonlinear. They store voltage and then release that energy, and they can suffer from dielectric absorption and hysteresis among other problems – in the best of worlds.

So what is the ideal situation? Purify the signal! Throw away the lossy, destructive passive analog crossover components. Get them out of the signal path and directly connect the amp to each individual driver. Now that we find ourselves in the digital world and have processing power at blazing speeds, the logical place to apply crossover filtering is in the digital domain. Once we impose filters in the digital domain we have supreme control over surgically-precise sonic tailoring. Furthermore, we have control in microseconds over the entire bandwidth of the entire system.

FD: Who did the industrial design? It’s striking. I’m sure you get this a lot, but after seeing pictures of the Eikon I expected the speakers to be bigger.

GS: Thanks Frank – back in the MartinLogan days, elegant design became our identity. We were not only technology-driven but we were also committed to setting standards design-wise. But back then, if you had a beautiful design it almost worked against you. Remember? It had to be ugly to sound good! Hah. But I came from the architectural design world and excellence in design was a significant part of who we were. The same is true with Eikon.

The Image1 is still my work. [The design] was developed over two years, at the same time we were engineering the system, using the classic “old school” design method. Starting with pencil sketches, moving to clay models, working through physical construction…I developed three complete prototypes before the final design. We started with a simple straight-sided enclosure to laminated, curved sides, to the final bevel-cut system you see now. We have a young, talented team supporting my efforts with 3D and advanced virtual reality CAD (computer-aided design) and rendering.

Eikon1 components and models.

And yes, the speakers’ diminutive size is deceiving. By integrating DSP, driver, and cabinet design we are able to dramatically shrink the box size without compromising depth of bass or output.

When designing a traditional passive stand-alone speaker, the engineer is handcuffed by the electro-mechanical alignment requirements of the driver/box relationship. The physics require a very large box to create extended bottom end. If you shrink the box size, the bass will roll off and you are left with vanishing or, at least, anemic bass and extension. This is one of the strengths of our system design orientation. When you integrate every aspect of the system, that is, DSP, amplification, and driver/box design, you have an open palette [that allows you] to shrink the box size and offset that bass rolloff with an equal amount of opposing EQ. It’s not quite that simple but, with the right digital and electro-mechanical engineering and amplification, one can then shrink the box dramatically yet still retain the same bass extension. Very cool.

And so the Image1 is at least half the size of a passive speaker yet has bottom end equal to or beyond in both extension and output, down to 25 Hz.

FD: The “Eikontrol” control unit – how did you come up with that name? – offers user-defined sonic “Personality Maps.” How does that work? It also seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which decrees that there would be only one “accurate” sound for an audio system.

The Eikontrol unit.

GS: One night we were trying to figure out what to call our master control box and Eikontrol just fell out as we were chatting, and you know you have the right name when it keeps being repeated by everyone.

Ah, the Personality Maps…yes there we go again, flying in the face of conventional wisdom. Of course, our goal in creating a reference system is perfection when reproducing the signal, but as you know, that’s far from what happens when you’re in the recording studio. Otherwise we would all be listening to that favorite Stones album when we do a system demo.

How many times [as manufacturers and audiophiles] are we forced to demo with less-than-great music because the great music we really want to listen to has been poorly mixed or EQ’d etc. The Personality Maps allow you to set specific compensation to offset that issue – “opening up” a host of recordings that were almost unlistenable before. I mean. that’s the future of high -performance audio. Not just some narrow version of what to listen to but to open up the palette of opportunity without compromising performance!

So, it’s about accommodating the realities of compromised recordings and broadening the user experience. As a matter of fact, in the future, we intend to publish specific sonic “maps” for our Eikon community for those recordings of great music that are almost unlistenable on conventional reference systems.

Eikon1 system.

FD: Tell us about your in-home demo program. With fewer dealers, this aspect seems more important than it might have been a few years ago. Also, how are you handling it in light of COVID-19, and how has the pandemic affected your company in other ways?

GS: To tell you the truth, it’s been a big challenge for us. Our main launch happened right at the same time COVID-19 hit. Robert Harley had just given the Image1 an extensive review in the April 2020 issue of The Absolute Sound, and we were ready to exhibit at AXPONA (which was canceled). So it’s been an uphill battle. But we have great supporters and our team is growing by leaps and bounds, so we are surviving and even thriving in many ways. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” We are [getting better] at our unique abilities to create a reference-quality listening experience. And I strongly feel we have superior solutions for the high-end user.

FD: Without spilling any secrets (or spill them here if you want – editors love exclusives), what can we expect to hear from Eikon in the future?

GS: There’s more to come – getting crazy sonic magic out of ever-shrinking boxes. Creating a Master Signature series. We are envisioning new products for the custom-installation world too. That space is also going through dramatic changes and [many] suppliers are locked into the old world, while our technology and design orientation can bring radical new product solutions to that [market] as well.

As they say: “stay tuned!”

Giraffes and Whipped Cream Return: Frank Zappa

This article originally appeared in Issue 18. We decided to run it again, in edited and updated form, as a prelude to WL’s upcoming review of the new movie, ZAPPA, to be released in theaters and on demand on November 27. And because WL and I are huge Zappa fans. – Ed.

Two of my kids have a cat with decidedly un-cat-like characteristics. Having known a few cats in my time, the strangest thing about Jeter is that the kids can take him to anyone’s house and he’s as cool as an iceman’s handshake. Very weird. Because the kids are at our place a lot, our home is a second one to the little guy. So we naturally keep a cat bowl and food, and a litter box downstairs in front of the furnace.

A few weeks ago Diane called to get the furnace cleaned. She took the guy down to the furnace. Dwayne scoped the job and told Di she has to keep the cat away for a while.

My wife: “We don’t have a cat.”

Pause, then Dwayne says, ”OK…then keep your husband away for a while.”

Confusion and cat pee drove Frank Zappa to some of the most barbequed nebulae and tire shredding blarps since Edgard Varese went to a Barbie reunion with Spike Jones. If you started listening to Zappa when you were still living with your parents, you waited until they weren’t home, closed the door, and prayed yer Mom didn’t come up the stairs while you were listening to Crew Slut. If she listened enough and got the drift they’d send you to West Point. If she heard this they’d put you in a home.

 

“What the hell was that?!”

“It’s a song from Burnt Weeny Sandwich.”

Pack yer bags, Johnny. We’re going for a ride.

Dad complained early on that the music I was listening to, like Hendrix, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin, was nothing but worthless noise. When I started listening to Zappa, he was flummoxed, had no word for it. He’d gone to the superlative with “worthless noise” and had nowhere to go. That was worth the price of an album right there.

Zappa fell in love with Edgard Varèse at an early age, early enough that for his 15th birthday his mom let him call Varèse’s home on the opposite coast as a present. Edgard wasn’t home. That’ll crap on your day. Point is that Frank at an age like 13 or 14 was not just listening to guys like Varèse but was hungry for it. You can’t talk about Frank Zappa without Edgard Varèse, an early 20th century composer who pioneered and composed music with a focus that led in a host of directions. He took concepts of music in space, the floating of notes, the organized noise of music that fed spatial frames and waited for something to come back. That appeals to a very interesting group.

Varèse did have nominal success in his lifetime. One of his successes, albeit without knowing it, was a teenage Zappa going into a Sam Goody music store in California and purchasing Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume 1. This was the end of a yearlong search for Varèse’s music. He had read an article in LOOK magazine that described the percussion sequences on Varese’s Ionisation as “a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds.” He had to have it.

A young Zappa found a mentor and new purpose to his music. The fact that his mom allowed him a long distance phone call to Varèse for his 15th birthday places a bookmark on his development and an insight into just how early Zappa was working with really avant-garde ideas. When I was 15 I had just started dating my future wife and she was all I could think about. Frank was dating guys like Varèse, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

So consider this notion as you read on: FZ had no formal training. He did take theory classes in high school and some short-lived junior college classes, but for all intents was self-taught using training books and an amazing ear. He was composing in high school and had a few teachers who allowed him to conduct in band, but even at that early age, found trouble finding kids who could play his music and teachers who could fathom what he was up to. By the time Zappa graduated from high school he was composing and conducting avant-garde pieces with the school orchestra. His primary instrument was drums, and with indulgence of his mom was playing in R&B bands in the San Diego area. Later, he switched to guitar.

In 1963 he incongruously got onto The Steve Allen Show. I haven’t found a good explanation for this; Zappa was 22 and unknown. Probably he’d gotten the attention of one of Allen’s minions and was put on the show as a foil for Allen, and in fact Allen treated Zappa like a backwards relative. After all, Allen was a classically-trained musician, and Zappa came on the show to play a bicycle. Yep. Check it out. The sounds created here are incredibly prescient of later works.

 

By the early 1960s FZ was performing with bands around San Diego and LA. He was the guitar player for a trio called the Muthers, and in 1965 they got the attention of Tom Wilson, a well-known producer, who was able to get them a record contract with Verve. Verve insisted they change the name to the Mothers of Invention. Here we go. They released their debut album Freak Out! in 1966. This was only the second rock double album after Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and being a debut album that was amazing enough, but on top of that the album was an eclectic collection of rock, doo-wop, and musical giraffes.

The album had an 11-minute closing track called “Return of the Son of Monster Magnet.” Session musicians brought in for the album (a small studio orchestra was also used) were shocked to discover that Zappa had the stuff all on sheet music and the musicians were expected to be able to sight read. The release of the album established FZ as an important artist in the freak subculture. Good on ya Verve.

Zappa and the Mothers continued releasing albums in the late 1960s like Absolutely Free and We’re Only In It for the Money. FZ was experimenting heavily with taped sounds and strictly-produced live recordings. His live performances were so heavily structured in key, time and signature that he was able to use the live recordings as samples in the studio. His live performances became such studies in composition and strict timing that he had to employ the best musicians, even if the result sounded like dropping a drum kit down a well.

My brother Jim saw Zappa in Hartford in the 1970s. At one point during the performance Frank was conducting a particularly complex composition with a 20-piece band, when a fight broke out in the orchestra pit. Zappa stopped the band on a dime with his hand, and proceeded to tell these two clowns that they were disturbing people who had paid money to see them, and suggested they move their bullsh*t outside. Then he turned back to the band, and with a wave of his hand the band was perfectly back on the next note.

It was one of Zappa’s drummers, Terry Bozzio or maybe Aynsley Dunbar, who talked about Zappa’s printed-out drum music looking like a black sheet of paper. In fact, FZ was concerned enough with the possibility of walking into a studio with a composition that was impossible to play that he decided to exorcise that demon by writing a percussive piece called “The Black Page.” Originally played by Bozzio, it contained some of the most complex percussive passages ever written.

Yet Zappa had a superficial reputation for writing potty songs, and did have some famous sexual and plastic banana lyrics that led to songs like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” “Montana” and “Catholic Girls.” These were really a lot of fun. Many people loved the raunch that got FM airplay and were disappointed when they’d pick up an album like Burnt Weeny Sandwich and couldn’t figure out what was going on. Frank wasn’t above making money with the whack tunes but always used that money to fund his deepening journey into musical black holes. This was no Spike Jones. This was a genius, and as a genius he was certainly misunderstood and hounded by the censors his entire career.

But Zappa was no saint. He was a tyrant in life, in studio and on stage, and believed absolutely in his version of the world and music with high disdain for anyone who couldn’t see it. He in fact treated fans like dolts, especially if they tried to discuss his music. In 1967 the Mothers were doing an extended stint in New York at the Garrick Theater. During an Easter show he somehow convinced some US Marines from the audience onto the stage. Frank had put a large baby doll on stage, then asked the soldiers to attack the doll as if it were the enemy (this was during the Vietnam War). They dismembered the doll while Zappa played an antiwar composition. That was black, man. He thought of this as satire. With genius comes fear.

Zappa was infamous for looking down upon drug use and had no patience for this in his musicians, who were some of the heaviest drug users in the industry. We were always amazed by this because listening to his music you’d think these guys, including Zappa, were higher than Icarus. But to me, there was an obvious example of a period in FZ’s life where he had to be using something. He despised most of the rock that was going on, considered bands like the Beatles insignificant pop. But he loved the Monkees. A quote from one of FZ’s bios states, “Zappa had respect for what the Monkees were doing.” This really was odd because what all we thought they were doing was becoming the first boy band. Only Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork could play an instrument and the band was always backed by studio musicians. In fact, Tork was a better guitar player than Nesmith but was switched to bass because he looked goofy. Zappa appeared in two episodes of the TV show and even did a cameo in their first movie, Head. Zappa, incredibly, offered Micky Dolenz a job in the Mothers but RCA/Columbia/Colgems wouldn’t allow Dolenz out of his contract. We knew Frank was weird but this was truly a departure from reality and smacks of running into Castaneda out in the desert. I call this his LSD Period.

Zappa released more than 60 albums during his lifetime, including some of the most complex music ever written. What a nut. The discipline he needed and demanded required the best of the studio musicians of his day. The list is amazing. Ian Underwood, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dunbar and Bozzio, Flo and Eddie (aka Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the Turtles), Ruth Underwood, Stevie Vai, George Duke, Eddie Jobson, the Brecker Brothers, Patrick O’Hearn (bass!), Chester Thompson, Jean-Luc (I want a hyphen in my name) Ponty and Don “Sugarcane” Harris. Zappa himself was featured in Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Guitarists list at #22. And I think that ranking is too low.

Here’s a pic of Frank in concert in 1977. You can see the concentration on not only his instrument, but everything going on around him. OK, forget about the schnozz, I’m trying to make a point here. Geez, you guys are sick.

Oslo, Norway, 1977. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Helge Øverås.

Frank Zappa did a lot for us, but especially this. OK so he did it for himself. Zappa stated once his ambition was to replicate the sound of squeezing a giraffe filled with whipped cream. I don’t know if he ever felt he’d achieved that.  No one could know but Zappa himself.

Here’s a cut from 1979’s Sleep Dirt called The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution. My favorite song title. With Patrick O’Hearn on bass.

 

That Zappa. He organized our noise.

 

Header image: original LP fold-out cover for We’re Only In It for the Money, 1968.

A Talk With Walter Schofield of Krell Industries

Well-known industry veteran Walter Schofield has been part of the audio community for over 40 years, having worked at leading manufacturers such as Linn, the Harman Specialty Group, SVS, and Emotiva. Walter is currently serving as the COO of Krell after accepting the position in September of 2018.That year Walter was also inducted into the Class of 2018 CE Pro Masters, an electronics industry award sponsored by CE Pro magazine. Don Lindich interviewed Walter about his life, career and the future of high-end audio and video.

Don Lindich: Please tell us a little bit about yourself! Where are you from, where have you lived and where are you now? And what are your hobbies outside the audio field?

Walter Schofield: I’m from Arlington, Massachusetts, a burb a couple of towns away from Boston proper. Since leaving, I’ve lived in multiple locations in around the Boston area. I now reside in Wakefield, Massachusetts, about 10 miles north of Boston, and previously spent a few years in Atlanta and Nashville for a couple of positions I’ve held within the audio industry. Outside of audio, I am very much into the history and mechanics of horology, completely enamored by those little engines on your wrist that have a couple of hundred moving parts and keep time. To think that there are examples that are a couple hundred years old and still ticking fascinates me.

I also have a lifelong interest in feudal Japanese history, and specifically the concept known as Bushido which is the honor system implemented by the samurai.

Walter Schofield.

DL: Most audiophiles have a moment in which they became an audiophile, or started down the path that led them to become one. For example, in my own case I was a college student visiting a photo studio where a friend of mine was an assistant. The photographer was internationally known and quite wealthy, and had a high-end audio system in part of the studio. When my friend played it for me I was mesmerized by the sound, and as soon as I got back to school I started buying magazines, visiting hi-fi shops and buying equipment as I began what became a lifetime passion. Can you remember a moment or an experience that started you on your own path as an audiophile?

WS: My cousin Linda, who was about six years older than me, had a system and at age 10 or so she invited me to listen to Ten Years After’s A Space in Time album (featuring guitarist/vocalist Alvin Lee). I was amazed at how good the music sounded, and it was at that moment that I realized I needed to be associated with music in some way in my life.

That experience prompted me to buy a system at age 11, much to the consternation of my dad. I had worked a triple paper route over the prior few years and I had to convince dad that I should spend my hard-earned money on a stereo. He finally relented after my constant barrage, and we went to Tech Hifi and I purchased a Sansui receiver, KLH speakers and a Pioneer turntable. I drove my parents crazy for the next few years while listening to the system and I’m fairly sure my dad regretted his decision.

DL: What was the transition for you from audiophile hobbyist to audio professional?

WS: After working in audio retail for a bit at a Tech Hifi “Bargain Center,” a dear colleague of mine was purchasing a pair of Dahlquist DQ-10 loudspeakers and brought me to a high-end shop where I heard a Vandersteen/Audio Research/Linn system (speakers, electronics and turntable), and that trip cemented my journey into the high-performance audio world.

Dahlquist ad, 1977.

DL: Given that you work in an industry that revolves around music, do you play any instruments or perform in a band?

WS: One of the things that drove me to be involved in audio reproduction was the fact that I realized early on that I was a horrible musician. I dabbled a bit in a high school band, but I didn’t last long as I was truly not talented. Since I knew I needed to be around music, being in the audio business was my way to do so.

A few years ago I purchased an acoustic guitar and I’m trying to practice, but unfortunately, I just don’t have the time to dedicate to getting much better. I expect that in retirement, I’ll be one of those late bloomers with guitar in hand, driving everyone crazy with my obsession.

I’d love to make music, but I’m pleased to have the chance to provide the means to reproduce music with exceptional systems that bring people as close to the actual event as possible.

DL: You have held high-level positions in organizations from Asia, Europe and the United States, including the Harman Specialty Group, which at the time included Mark Levinson, Revel, Proceed, Lexicon and others.  You have also been at SVS, Emotiva and Krell. As an American, what can you say about the cultural differences that arise in working in different cultures?

Krell 300i integrated amplifier.

WS: I have had the pleasure of working with many different organizations, and I’m grateful to have had that exposure, which allowed me to better understand their cultural and business [perspectives]. At the end of the day, it is all about relationships, honesty, integrity and finding like-minded people to do business with. I’ve been blessed to find so many around the world that share that philosophy and we continue to seek like-minded partners for Krell.

DL: What are some of the favorite audio components you’ve owned? Do you have any that have remained in your system for an especially long time?

WS: Oh my, I’ve had so many wonderful components, it’s difficult to narrow it down. To name a few that have given me extreme joy, conrad-johnson and Audio Research electronics, Vandersteen speakers, an Oracle turntable and so many others. I have to say that the Krell components I’ve had throughout the years have been excellent, but of course I have to root for the home team!

The Krell KSA 250 amplifier [first introduced around 1990 – Ed.] is still in my system, having just been rebuilt about a year ago, and I can’t seem to part with it. The other component that resided in my system for years, but unfortunately has departed, was an Oracle Delphi turntable with an SME arm and John Marovskis MIT-1 cartridge. I worshiped at that altar of that turntable for many years, a great combination of incredible industrial design and sound quality. I currently use a VPI Classic Signature for analog and listen to digital through my Krell DAC.

DL: Are there any specific products you helped develop or bring to market that you are especially proud of?

WS: While at Mark Levinson from 2005 to 2008, our team developed a full product line and plan. That lineup was released, SKU by SKU, right up until just a couple years ago. There were many Mark Levinson products that came out of that plan that were exemplary performers, and one in particular that was amazing-sounding, the No. 532 power amplifier!

Mark Levinson No. 532H amplifier (successor to the No. 532).

I don’t want to build this up bigger than it actually was, as I just fell into it timing-wise, but I had the privilege of visiting with our partners at Harman Japan while they were fine-tuning the first JBL Project Everest DD66000 loudspeaker (now superseded by the DD67000). I was able to offer observations sitting alongside Ken Yasuda, the person specifically tasked with the voicing and development of that speaker. We listened extensively and forwarded our notes to the JBL development team. I’m not sure how many of my observations were actually acted upon, but it was very humbling to observe and be close to the development of one of the best speakers that I’ve ever heard.

DL: With portable devices, earphones and Bluetooth speakers such a big part of the market now, how do we get younger generations interested in high-performance audio and component systems?

WS: This is a topic widely-discussed and constantly with many in the industry.

So many industries or segments of industries have done an incredible job in messaging as to why people should spend their disposable income on their products. Wristwatches, automobiles, furniture and home decor, kitchen cabinets, appliances, and so many more product categories have succeeded in convincing consumers they need to spend a lot of money on these things, but we have done a poor job in our industry convincing people that having the world’s music and movie libraries at your fingertips is important.

Almost everybody loves music and movies, being an integral part of so many lives, and that is why I believe our industry has a huge opportunity to deliver the message that having an immersive audio or theater experience is of significant value to one’s quality of life. Krell has been working on plans to reach the younger generations that have not experienced this. Stay tuned.

DL: Krell occupies a place in the top tier of specialty audio brands. Where do you see the high-end segment of the audio industry going in the future?

WS: As we continue to deliver the message to a wider audience that exceptional-quality high-performance audio can deliver immersive experiences in your home, I have great faith that our segment of the industry will grow. There’s a huge opportunity to [give this] message to people that do not even know that this option exists. [Before COVID-19 hit], we knew that younger generations are seeking these experiences as they purchase more and more concert tickets, movie tickets and participate in live events. A big part of this is because they have never been aware that those experiences can also be available in their homes. I believe our industry has an excellent future if we can reach out via multiple channels to let people know this is possible.

Krell Illusion II preamplifier and Solo amplifiers.

DL: You have been to many trade shows. Even before the pandemic, the high-performance audio presence at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) was in steep decline and when the show eventually returns, high-performance audio may be gone from it for all practical purposes. There has also been a lot of controversy regarding the AXPONA 2020 audio show and the way the show cancellation and exhibitor deposits were handled. What do you see as the post-pandemic future of trade shows, and if you were in charge of the events, what would you do to make them better?

WS: During the pandemic, we have learned a lot relative to social and digital media, and I believe many will incorporate these avenues into their prior marketing and sales knowledge.

I believe tradeshows will come back as they were, since many more consumers now recognize the importance of home entertainment in their homes due to the pandemic confining them. It has resulted in record sales of audio components for many manufacturers, and I believe that once the shows return we will entice many more consumers to attend.

We in the industry are all looking forward to getting back to trade shows as well, and the resurgence in interest and in having immersive listening experiences in one’s home during said pandemic will result in that much more excitement at industry events.

Paul McCartney and friends on the Mark Levinson-sponsored 2005 US tour, Los Angeles STAPLES Center.

Regarding what I think could be better about trade shows – I would like to see a show that has a separate area that marries manufacturers with distributors around the world. In this area you would display your equipment, and if you needed a distributor in a particular country or region, you would hope that someone from that area slides by your booth and is looking for a product like yours. It’s speed dating at its best.

I envision a large hall with distributors set up alphabetically by country, and where manufacturers could approach distributors to have a no-pressure conversation to determine if there is mutual interest.

DL: So unlike others who have bemoaned the decline of brick and mortar stores and are wondering about the future of audio shows, you’re optimistic about reaching a new generation of high-end audio and video enthusiasts.

WS: If we as an industry can collectively reach out to people who enjoy music and movies in their daily lives, I believe the opportunity and potential is there to grow the industry for decades to come.

Sunset Marquis: When Bob Met Bruce

I was talking with singer/songwriter Ryan Hamilton the other day about his thoughts on the music of the 1970s and early 1980s. A celebrated musician within the world of Americana, Hamilton has just followed up last year’s award-winning release, This Is the Sound, with his latest album, Nowhere to Go but Everywhere.

Ryan and I talked about his early influences. He admitted that the music his Dad loved from that era continues to inspire him to this day, because what musicians were making sounded so new, and there was something really “free” about their creative process. When he mentioned that Bob Seger was one of his influences from that period I relayed a story I thought Hamilton would appreciate, especially because he is on Steve Van Zandt’s Wicked Cool label and Steve is Bruce Springsteen’s consigliere…

Whenever I am in Los Angeles I prefer to stay at the Sunset Marquis hotel in West Hollywood. It has a rich history rooted in rock and roll. Nestled below the Sunset Strip at 1200 Alta Loma Road, it’s located within a neighborhood and would go completely unnoticed if you didn’t know it was there. The hotel is set up in an oval around a large patio and pool and includes a sprinkling of private bungalows that dot the property’s perimeter. But the standout feature of any stay here is their bar. Named Bar 1200,  it’s a small, quiet, dark room that is rarely filled with patrons but overflows with stories that almost never leave its walls.

There I have found myself alone on many a weekday night after a full day of meetings and kept company with only the bartender and a random guest like, oh I don’t know, Julian Lennon. Stars pop in and out of the Marquis bar quietly but sitting there ringside I have had many conversations with boldfaced names, talking about a range of topics as wide as music, guitars, watches, and tequila. The stories I hold most dear are those that involve the respect musicians have for other musicians and the collaborative spirit that once was the industry norm, not the exception. Because of this, a picture of the bar sits framed in my house and remains a steady reminder of some really terrific nights. As a famous and anonymous person once said of Bar 1200: “Don’t make it too popular or I’ll stop coming back!” Well said indeed.

My favorite story about Bar 1200 was one that I didn’t actually hear at the hotel. Instead I heard it thousands of miles away at the midtown Manhattan offices of Rolling Stone. I was there one day a few years ago while having lunch with Bob Seger, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner and some members of the editorial team, we spoke to Bob about heading back out on the road behind what would become his second-to-last studio record. That night Seger was performing at Madison Square Garden and to most of us it was a surprise to hear that he still would get the jitters on stage. As a result he always tried to open with up-tempo tracks like “Hollywood Nights” to shake off his nerves. After all of those years of performing live and being known for delivering white-hot concerts it was stunning to learn that even “Boppin Bob” gets butterflies in front of an audience.

But the story that stopped me in my tracks was one he told about the Sunset Marquis. The year was 1980 and Bob was recording his masterpiece, Against the Wind.

 

This year a 40th anniversary edition of the record was remastered, but the packaging remained the same as the original release. There was no bonus material in the 40th anniversary release other than a 45-RPM single and B-side that came in a deluxe colored-vinyl version. So there was no forum like added liner notes or a booklet or anything like that in which to tell this fantastic tale.

It turns out that Bob was staying at the Sunset Marquis during the Against the Wind sessions. It also turns out that Bruce Springsteen was in town at that time mixing The River. As fate would have it, Bruce had decided to stay at the Sunset Marquis as well.

Bob Seger told us that he and Bruce Springsteen by this point had become close friends. In fact, Seger had been wrestling with the song “Night Moves” for a long time, not quite finding a way to knit what he had written together in a manner that wasn’t clunky or forced. According to Seger, it was Bruce who told him that it was OK to add more than one bridge to a song. As Bob told it, Bruce kind of “gave permission” to do what Seger had considered unorthodox. Seger made the change and the rest is history. Not only did Bob say that we would never otherwise have heard “Night Moves,” but even if we did it would not have become the hit that it did without Bruce’s important contribution.

 

The story then moves back to the hotel. Apparently during their time at the Sunset Marquis, Bruce and Bob would huddle at the bar every night and have dinner together. There they would run through their recording studio developments of that day. Bob would offer Bruce his thoughts on mixing, but in return, Bruce would give his track-by track-input for Against the Wind. Bob began to rattle off, track by track, the suggestions that Springsteen had made. Each dinner engagement was a working session that went into the night. None of us had ever had any idea that Springsteen had such an influence on Seger – and vice versa.

The following mornings they would stand outside the hotel, each waiting for their car to take them back to the studio. There Springsteen would use the moment to run through the changes they had discussed the night before, one last time. This went on for something like two weeks, where Seger at one point described the two of them to be something like an old married couple, making suggestions at Bar 1200 as to what the other should order for dinner based upon how they had “reacted” to the dishes they’d had the night or two prior. That time they spent they further deepened their now life-long bond and, let’s face it, resulted in two fantastic records that will outlive us all in relevance and relatability.

For a lot of performers, getting this much direction from a peer might have been hard on the ego if not simply difficult to process. But Bob Seger is arguably one of the most humble folks you might ever meet. He rarely takes credit for any of his success, instead feeling more comfortable passing that along to others.

Later in the lunch he told us about the time he walked through a diner in his native Detroit with his family after finishing breakfast. It was an early Saturday morning and as he passed through the booths, an unemployed auto worker who Bob had nodded “hello” to responded by asking Bob why he hadn’t done anything to help the ‘Big Three” automakers (General Motors, Chrysler and Ford) bounce back from the recession the industry had fallen into. Bob stopped and spoke with the auto worker and his friends, leaving the diner determined to do something.

Through his team, he made his song “Like A Rock” available to Campbell Ewald, Chevrolet’s then-advertising agency of record. The song was the title track of his just-released 1986 album and really was about how your late teens are the best years of your life. But Campbell Ewald cast the song as being about toughness, and kept it as the Chevy truck theme song for 12 years. During that time the company sold millions of trucks, and when they retired the song from being used in commercials, Chevy truck sales took a downward slide. The impact “Like A Rock” made on Chevy truck sales ties right back to that auto worker who stopped him at a diner to say his piece. That’s who Bob Seger is.

 

And that’s who people like Ryan Hamilton and I admire so greatly. They made music we will carry with us through our lives and hopefully pass on to our kids, and then they’ll pass the music on to their kids. But such artists are also creators of great character who live their lives with purpose, putting others ahead of themselves and also placing the highest value on the friendships they have forged. At the Sunset Marquis in 1980, the friendship between Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen birthed some great music, and a story that always makes me smile.

An Assortment of Favorite Demo Recordings

Many audiophile magazines and internet sites compile lists of what they consider definitive demonstration recordings that every audiophile should own, or at least use religiously when auditioning equipment. I rarely find those lists helpful for a few reasons – the music isn’t to my taste, the recordings are almost impossible to find or outrageously expensive, or I never found the sound to be all that impressive.

Demo recordings should reflect our own interests in music. It should be music that we are intimately familiar with and know every nuance of. Our demos should also convey the feel of the music – a perfect-sounding system that doesn’t convey the emotion is one that I am not comfortable listening to. (And I’ve heard many like this!)

I have my own selected recordings which I tend to pull out when I want to audition a new component, enjoy the components I already own, tweak my system, or demonstrate my system to others. This list is in no particular order and evolves over time.

Michael Franks: Music in My Head (2018, Shanachie Records)

Franks’ latest recording, Music in My Head, recalls those early albums The Art of Tea and Sleeping Gypsy. It’s new yet still familiar, a well-produced recording to hear his voice with – “Bluebird Blue” places his breathy vocals dead center, with a jazz combo accompaniment. The rest of the tunes are typical of his style of songwriting – easygoing, with clever turns of lyrics and rhymes. The clean instrumentation is good for pinpointing resonances or colorations in components, and his voice is perfect for detecting unwanted “chestiness” in the speakers.

Tears For Fears: The Seeds of Love (1989, Fontana)

Despite the excellent Songs from the Big Chair, I find myself drawn to the lush, bigger-than-life acoustic sound from The Seeds of Love. The title track gives a nod towards the Beatles’ psychedelic era with a lot going on in the background. Other tunes lean towards soul and gospel, thanks to Oleta Adams, whose crystal-clear voice cuts through the multilayered sounds on this album. The sound of this album is full-bodied and clean. A system should allow me to pick out individual parts, as well as enjoy the music as a coherent whole.

Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays: As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls (1981, ECM)

While I enjoy the mood of the title track, it’s the following three tunes that bend genres and make the record interesting. That it’s recorded on ECM also means that like other albums from the label, this one was impeccably recorded. “Ozark” starts the run with a busy, folksy workout. “September Fifteenth” is the highlight for me; a quiet duo piece honoring pianist Bill Evans (who passed away during the recording of the album). “It’s for You” is sprightly and fun with Pat’s guitars and Lyle Mays’ piano accompaniment complementing each other. Nana Vasconcelos handles the percussion and occasional vocals throughout.

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Holon (2008, ECM) and Randori (2001, Ronin Rhythm Records)

Holon was my gateway to Swiss pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch’s entire catalog. (Dan Schwartz wrote about Nik Bärtsch in Issue 31.) What also strikes me beyond the disarmingly simple music was how clean and precise the sound is on this album, without it sounding sterile as many modern recordings do. Bärtsch’s groups are all acoustic. Listen for intricate percussion, very subtle cues on the piano, the whisper of Sha’s bass clarinet and sax (often played in a percussive rather than melodic role)—there is much to uncover here on the right system.

Randori is an earlier album, more repetitive and simpler, but the way the instruments are recorded puts them in the forefront with crisp, clean attacks, especially the percussion, which will give your system a workout.  If you’ve ever heard these instruments up close in person, these recordings should give you an idea of what your system can reveal.

Oregon: Northwest Passage (1997, Intuition)

This album features clean acoustic sounds, intricate percussion, and a strong bass, all demonstrated on tracks like “Claridade” and the spooky “Nightfall.”

Kraftwerk: Computer World (1981, Warner Bros.)

There are some cases where you need the blips, bloops and buzzes of synthesized electronic music to test the “speed” of your system, and this one is my go-to since it’s also an engaging album musically. [Frank Doris wrote about this album and others from Kraftwerk in Issue 111.]

Burt Bacharach: Casino Royale (1966, Colgems, reissued by Classic Records)

An audiophile classic, the killer track by Dusty Springfield, “The Look of Love,” is enough to recommend this one. That voice…breathy and seductive. Herb Alpert’s trumpet on the main title is also the most lifelike I’ve heard it on those 1960s recordings, and the orchestra that Bacharach employed in London is nicely reproduced throughout. The Classic Records HDAD/DVD-A disc is the definitive digital version.

Eiji Oue/Minnesota Orchestra – Stravinsky (Song of the Nightingale/The Firebird Suite/The Rite of Spring) (1996, Reference Recordings)

This recording sounds as though it is over-boosted in the highs and lows. The overbearing bass drum resonates too loudly throughout the house, even without subwoofers. The brass is overly bright. The performance, under the baton of Eiji Oue, also differs from other renditions of these pieces; I still find it engaging though, despite the sound. The exaggerated lows and highs easily tax a lesser system. An edgy system will be triggered even more so by the overly bright brass.  Speakers with poorly-controlled bass will sound even worse with the bass drum, and power amps are easily taxed. The recording has attributes that can aggravate certain aspects of a system to reveal their flaws. There are a couple of other recordings on this label with Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra that sound much more balanced and musical.

Manfredo Fest: Braziliana (1987, dmp Records)

This is a naturally recorded digital CD from the 1980s. Fest re-records one of his better-known tunes here, “Brazilian Dorian Dream,” in an arrangement similar to the original from the 1970s.  Only this time, it’s so cleanly recorded, by Tom Jung at dmp Records. There is plenty of percussion details to listen for throughout the album.

Debussy: Nocturnes – Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (1979, Philips)

The recording dates from 1979 and has a nice sense of ambience and “being there.” I’m a fan of Haitink’s conducting, and the Debussy works here have been among my favorites for decades. Despite a little tape hiss, I get a very “you are there” feeling from this recording. (The 2011 SACD is my go-to version.)

Henry Mancini: The Pink Panther (soundtrack) (1964, RCA, reissued by Analogue Productions)/Hatari! (1962, RCA, reissued by Analogue Productions)

Here are two albums I grew up listening to. The Pink Panther soundtrack is lush and orchestral.  But given Mancini’s penchant for jazz, there are plenty of intimate jazz solos throughout the album, oozing out from one speaker or the other as the strings and double bass back them up.  Pour a martini!

Hatari! features a lot of African percussion, highlighting the film’s safari theme. The nearly seven-minute-long title track opens the film on an action sequence, starting with only light percussion and picking up steam as the horns and piano build to a driving climax. The crystal-clear sound on the hit “Baby Elephant Walk” is also one of RCA’s finest moments.

Both are available as 45 RPM, 2-LP sets from Analogue Productions (as is The Music from Peter Gunn album) which make them fantastic vinyl demo recordings, but there are SACD equivalents from AP that sound almost as good. The Hi-Res Audio reissues from BMG are also the best sonic versions I’ve heard yet from that company.

Bill Evans: Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961, Riverside, reissued by Analogue Productions)

This may be a clichéd pick, but in recent years I have become a big fan of Bill Evans’ trio recordings. Of all of them, this one certainly is not the best sounding, but this album should transport me to the Village Vanguard where this was recorded, with the ambient sounds of the audience sprinkled throughout the background. The Analogue Productions SACD is the best sounding version I own.

Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach: Painted from Memory (1998, Mercury)

A lifelong Burt Bacharach fan (my mother played his records often), this project seemed so utterly strange at first that I didn’t think it would work. But it does.  Behind Costello’s voice and lyrics, the music is 100% bona fide Bacharach. The recording itself is rich and dynamic, with everything from intimate piano to full orchestral crescendos, Costello’s gravelly voice adding to what is a high-water mark for both performers. The original CD is an HDCD disc; I prefer that over the Mobile Fidelity SACD and vinyl (which are too bright to my ears).

Gino Vannelli: Crazy Life (1973, A&M)

Like my Tears for Fears pick, Crazy Life is a well-recorded multi-track pop album. Thanks to Joe Vannelli’s synthesizer bass, there are plenty of low notes throughout. The sparse production on many of the tracks is a far cry from his most popular albums–plenty of clean, clear percussion parts, various keyboards without too many cheesy 1970s synthesizers, and Gino’s multitracked voice. The CD is practically unobtanium; you can hear the album on Qobuz, or you might still be able to find a clean vinyl copy.

Harry Belafonte: Belafonte Sings the Blues (1958, RCA, reissued by Impex Records)

This album, reportedly one of Belafonte’s favorites and the first he recorded in stereo, features very low-key participation of the cream of west coast jazz musicians in what is a quiet and revealing album. The best version I’ve heard is the Impex 45 RPM/2-LP set that puts Belafonte and the musicians right in the room. The digital Hi-Res version is commendable although it lacks that last little bit that tips the vinyl version over the top. A quiet, intimate recording, it is good for revealing the intricacies of the musical accompaniment and is one of the best recordings of Belafonte’s voice.

Bebel Gilberto: Bebel Gilberto (2004, Six Degrees)

Isabel “Bebel” Gilberto is the daughter of Bossa Nova pioneer João Gilberto and singer Miucha.  Her style brings bossa nova and Música Popular Brasileira (MPB) to the 21st century and updates it. Her most engaging work is this well-recorded self-titled second album. The sparse instrumentation frames the breathiness of her voice, making this album a good test for determining how well a system can reproduce vocals.

Mel Tormé: Swings Shubert Alley (1960, Verve)

A favorite album by a favorite vocalist. Tormé’s vocals are clear as day. This is another “feeling” album for me – a swingin’ good time from end to end. If I’m not feeling Marty Paich’s horn charts on here, or the band seems congested or muddy, then something is wrong. The recent Hi-Res version available from Verve is the best I’ve ever heard this album.

Here are some links to give you a taste of the music.

Manfredo Fest: “Braziliana”
Michael Franks: “Bluebird Blue”
Bebel Gilberto: “Simplesmente”
Harry Belafonte: “A Fool For You”
Mel Tormé: “Whatever Lola Wants”
Gino Vannelli: “Crazy Life”
Oregon: “Claridade”
Nik Bartsch’s Ronin: “Module 8_9 I”
Henry Mancini: “Champagne and Quail”
Henry Mancini: “The Sounds of Hatari”
Kraftwerk: “Pocket Calculator”
Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach: “I Still Have That Other Girl”
Bernard Haitink/Concertgebouw: Debussy – Trois Nocturnes
Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays: “Ozark”
Dusty Springfield: “The Look of Love”

Here’s a Qobuz playlist, for those who want to experience the tracks for themselves:

https://open.qobuz.com/playlist/4476932

I gathered two tracks from each of the albums listed, with two exceptions. Belafonte Sings the Blues is not available on Qobuz, so I had to substitute two of that album’s tracks from his 3-CD anthology.  (I really wanted to include “A Fool For You” but it’s not on the anthology.) Also, Bacharach’s Casino Royale soundtrack was nowhere to be found; Herb’s title track is on the TJB’s Sounds Like album, but I could not find that soundtrack version of Dusty’s “The Look of Love” on any of her anthologies. (They include a shorter version, a different performance, with a lot more reverb.) A bummer, since “The Look of Love” is one of my favorites and a standout demo track. I tried to pick Hi-Res Audio versions wherever possible.

John, Paul, George, Ringo and Irving

Irving Bieler was one step away from joining the Swinging Sixties.

He was standing in front of the Music Box on South Main Street in Fall River, Massachusetts. He had no idea what he was going to find inside. He was 37, a husband, a father of three, and a World War II veteran. It was 1964 and the world was changing in ways that this child of the Great Depression could not understand. Young men and women were saying and doing things it had never occurred to him to say or do.

But his oldest son, who was nine, had watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and had been lobbying for music. Not the radio, not the television. His son wanted records.

This was another new thing. Irving had never had records to play or something to play them on. Music for him was whatever random songs came on the radio. But he was determined to give his children all the things he had never had. If his son wanted records, his son was going to get records. Period. Irving took a breath, put on his brightest smile, and pushed open the door.

He saw long lines of boxes holding records in paper and cardboard sleeves. There were labels everywhere for different artists, but Irving didn’t recognize the names. His musical tastes ran in narrow grooves: Hank Williams and novelty numbers such as Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater” and the Hollywood Argyles’ “Alley-Oop.”

The honeymooners: Gloria and Irving Bieler, 1964.

The woman running the shop had long hair, but something about her made him nervous. He spotted two teenage girls in one aisle. Irving liked talking with new people, and they looked friendly. He approached them and said, “Could you girls help me? I’m looking for records for my children but I’m not sure what to look for.”

The girls considered this. “How old are your kids?” one of them asked. “What kind of music do they like?”

“The two oldest are nine and six. My daughter is a baby.” Irving resisted the urge to pull out the baby pictures. “We saw the Beatles when they were on Ed Sullivan. My oldest likes that kind of music, so maybe the Beatles and bands like them. Also The Mickey Mouse Club. And Alvin and the Chipmunks. But mostly the Beatles. And they have to be those small records, not the albums. The 45s.”

The girls took Irving on a whirlwind tour of popular music. After much consultation between them, none of which Irving understood, they handed him a dozen records. Irving, dazed, walked to the counter and got the attention of the long-haired woman, who, he was shocked to see, was actually a man. He wasn’t a beatnik, but what was he with all that hair?

You spin me right round, baby, right round

Irving chose 45s because the only record player the family had was a machine that played 45s. He liked it because it was a solid brown box the size of a birthday cake with a speaker inside and a thick plastic pipe sticking up out of it. You fit the hole in the middle of your record over the pipe and plopped it down onto the turntable, and then you swung the arm over and clamped the tone arm firmly to the record. You clicked the Play lever and the record rotated while the needle mounted inside the tone arm plowed miniature furrows around the vinyl.

The kids couldn’t knock this thing over. Irving had come to prefer furniture and other objects that the kids couldn’t knock over, break, or chew.

When Irving brought this new music home, his nine-year-old son was thrilled. Until this point in his musical experience, all he had had to play were the records his younger aunts had abandoned in the attic of the old family house and that Irving had rescued. Things like Carmen Cavallaro playing “Chopsticks” from some movie that was too boring for a nine-year-old to watch, Don Robertson’s “The Happy Whistler” (of interest only to people who are new to whistling), and Manos Hatzidakis’ “Never on Sunday,” which his mom, Gloria, sang while she washed the dishes.

 

Suddenly, the little boy had music from his own century, not from the dusty old one the grown-ups lived in. Records like these:

The Beatles, “She Loves You,” “Please Please Me,” “Twist and Shout,” “There’s a Place”
The Animals, “House of the Rising Sun”
The Dave Clark Five, “Glad All Over”
The Supremes, “Where Did Our Love Go?”
The Rooftop Singers, “Walk Right In”

 

Gloria was not happy when the music began to play. Neither was Irving. In fact, for the next 15 years, one of his most-used expressions was “Turn that down!” or, when truly distressed by the Who or Jimi Hendrix, he reverted to the fractured English of his parents and yelled “Make it stiller!” And yet he eventually replaced the indestructible old record player with a stereo console nestled in a deep box of fake wood. It was a big upgrade in sound quality, even after one of the speakers died.

I am the nine-year-old boy who grew up to be me, and I am writing this in loving memory of my father on the first anniversary of his death at age 92. Thank you, Dad, for venturing into that store, even if it meant dealing with a man with long hair. And thank you, girls, for understanding that a boy of nine would eventually grow into a song like “House of the Rising Sun.”

Irving Bieler, 1945.

An Olympian Experience

I.

It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2016. My phone rang. “Hi, this is Robert. Have you heard of the VOX Olympian?”

Robert started his career working for Mark Levinson (the man). After he returned to Hong Kong in the 1980s, he became a fixture at high-end showrooms around town. He must have worked for every high-end dealer in town at one time or another. Gregarious and loquacious to the extreme, people either love him or find him insufferable. I vacillate between the two extremes depending on the day. He had been a free agent in the past few years, earning commissions by introducing clients to dealers.

“Jonathan wants bring a pair to Hong Kong. He is looking for investors.”

I have known Jonathan for quite a few years. He first set foot in Hong Kong in the 1970s as an adventurous young law school graduate from Manchester. He was hired by an English law firm and worked his way up. With the looks of Richard Gere and double the charm (and wiliness), he eventually became their go-to defense attorney for white collar criminals.

One of his clients was looking at doing at least five years of jail time for fraud, until Jonathan got him off the hook. After the trial ended, he called Jonathan.

A VOX Olympian system with Elysian subwoofers.

“Jonathan, I would like to send you a little something to show my gratitude. You saved my life. I know the Ferrari dealer very well and I can get you any model you want.”

“That’s really very sweet,” replied Jonathan, “but I don’t like driving, especially in Hong Kong. However, I do like music…”

Some days later, a complete Kondo audio system landed at Jonathan’s doorstep. Guilty or not, can’t say the guy didn’t have taste. Jonathan was completely enamored by the little present, and invited many friends and clients to share his enthusiasm. Soon, some of them also wanted one for themselves. Being the helpful chap that he was, Jonathan contacted Kondo-san in Japan, who was more than happy to sell Jonathan what he needed.

After six months, Kondo-san made him an offer. “You’ve bought more equipment in the past six months than my Hong Kong distributor did in the past five years. Would you like to become my distributor instead?“

And thus, Audio Evidence, official distributor for Kondo, was born. With his power of persuasion honed by decades of convincing judges of his clients’ innocence, convincing people that they needed Kondo equipment was child’s play for Jonathan. He managed to sell over US$1 million of gear in his first year with minimal effort.

As his late partner, the brilliant trial lawyer Alex King once told me, lawyers go to work every morning counting the number of days until retirement. (Sadly, Alex never made it to retirement.)

Jonathan realized that working in high-end audio might just be his ticket out of the drudgery. He started to take it more seriously and began attending the important trade shows. It was at one of these shows that he first met Kevin Scott and became the distributor for Living Voice.

Kevin was a mental health professional in his previous career, but his real passion had always been audio. Once he gained enough confidence, he left his job at the National Health Service and started Living Voice. The company became very successful in the UK market, producing beautifully built, reasonably priced and eminently musical mid-priced speakers. However, Kevin’s ultimate goal was to build the best horn speaker possible. He realized at the time that there was little demand in the consumer market for horn speakers, so he started building professional monitors and doing custom installations. The system at the high-end whiskey bar and music venue Spiritland at King’s Cross, London, is one of his masterpieces. When the time was right, he unleashed upon the world his magnum opus, the VOX Olympian.

The VOX Olympian is a fully horn-loaded four-way speaker. The 15-inch bass driver and 3-inch compression midrange are built by the venerable British firm Vitavox. The compression tweeter was made by TAD in Japan specifically for this project. Only 20 pairs were produced, thus making the VOX Olympian a limited edition. The distinctive brass trumpet on the tweeter took more than a year of trial and error to arrive at the perfect balance between loading and dispersion. The super tweeter is the rare and famous TAD ET-703.

The Olympians at the Living Voice workshop, ready to be crated.

The cabinet is the work of a top English furniture maker. The curved surfaces of the bass horn are apparently extremely difficult to make, and it takes seven months to build one pair of speakers. Here is a loudspeaker that looks as good as it sounds; most of the time, it is one or the other. Since the bass horn rolls off below 70 Hz, the speakers are usually mated with the Elysian sub-bass units. The Elysian is a pair of gigantic folded horns, each one driven by two ultrafast 12-inch drivers. The frequency response is flat down to 20 Hz. Each one weighs 500 pounds and is driven by its own solid state amplifier.

The whole system had a list price of £750,000 retail in 2016, and Jonathan wanted to share the financial risk. Besides, selling it wouldn’t be easy and getting more people involved might help.

Robert and Kevin with one Elysian subwoofer.

Hong Kong has the most expensive real estate in the world, which is more than twice as expensive as Singapore, in second place. Most people live in tiny apartments. Bloomberg Businessweek once published an article about a new development where a Tesla model S wouldn’t even fit inside some of the apartments. People call them nano-apartments. We therefore asked ourselves whether it was realistic to try and sell the whole system here, given the space required to do it justice.

I agreed to invest a 20 percent share in the speakers. Robert reassured us that he had clients with lots of spare cash who lived in big houses in mainland China. According to him, these people compete with each other to have the most expensive and exotic audio system, as if their manhood depends on it. Besides, he had already lined up two investors in the US. (As a horn fanatic, I would dearly love to own this system, albeit only 20% of it, but the sum was already more than what I had spent on my entire audio system.)

The next question was, where would we house the system? Most dealer showrooms would be too small, and they might be reluctant to remove their own speakers to make way for the VOX Olympian. Jonathan had a friend who owned an art gallery in an industrial building. The gallery had a private kitchen, run by a chef from Tuscany. Clients of the gallery hire the place for parties from time to time. Jonathan thought that putting the speakers there would generate some buzz in the right circles. The owner was also happy for us to bring people in for demonstrations. The idea was to keep the system for several months, play with it, promote it, sell it, reinvest the profit on the next system and repeat. With all these problems solved, we wired the money to the UK and waited.

II.

The system finally arrived in the summer, one month before the Hong Kong High End Audio Visual Show, accompanied by Kevin and his wife. The speakers were transported disassembled and needed to be put back together again. The crossover and the positioning of the tweeters and super tweeters all needed to be adjusted to the listening environment, a process that would be expertly performed by Kevin. He had sold his last system in Vietnam, and the two before that in Thailand, so he had been busy flying back and forth to Asia. When a Living Voice system was sold to a client, Kevin would come out to install the system in the client’s home. Kevin and his wife were warm, easygoing and down to earth folks, with a great sense of humor and very passionate about their craft.

The VOX Olympian, fully assembled.

It took almost two days to uncrate everything and install all the drivers. The acoustics of the gallery left a lot to be desired, as it had a bare concrete ceiling, walls and floor. So off went Jonathan’s wife to pick up rugs, acoustic panels and other sundries to try and improve the situation. Then, when Jonathan looked closely at the unbelievably fine finish of the speakers, he was instantly hit with a panic attack. What if some drunken guest decided to get up close and personal?  What if they put their dirty paws all over the lovely finish or, God forbid, placed a drink on top of it? So off went Jonathan’s wife to have covers made for the four units, and stands and ropes to cordon off the area. But Jonathan was still worried. He decided that whenever there would be a party, one of the three of us would stand guard. We would do a demonstration for the guests early in the evening, then cover up the system (including the Kondo electronics) while the guests were having dinner, and then just hang around to make sure nobody went near the system until the end of the evening.

The undercover system; hands off!

I began to feel that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I had never sold hi-fi before, but I guess there is always a first time. Jonathan was also worried that Robert might actually offend some of the guests, but I reassured him that Robert would do just fine – before he could suggest that I should take Robert’s place also.

Fortunately we had little to worry about at first, as business was not brisk for the gallery and there were only a handful of parties over the next three months. However, trying to explain the system to a group of complete strangers (in fact, I was lucky I didn’t run into any patients of mine) who were probably not in the least bit interested in hi-fi was daunting. And trying to do a demonstration while people were eating canapés, drinking champagne and trying to talk over the music was frustrating.

I found out that it is in fact harder to persuade people to buy a million-dollar speaker system than to convince them to have their organs surgically removed. I came closest with a real estate developer. He told me that he was building a house (more like a palace by Hong Kong standards) for himself and his family. I arranged for him to have dinner with my friend James, the acoustic architect who designed my living room (see Issue 121). James managed to convince him that he really needed to have a dedicated listening room in his new home (with the VOX system in it). The developer came back twice to listen to the system, and even met up with James to go over his building plans. At the end, he came back and told us that his wife overruled him. I guess she wanted the room for her ballroom dancing or something.

The author trying to convince someone to part with their cash.

During the Hong Kong High End Show, I spent the days going around the venue looking for mainland Chinese people. And not any mainlander, but mainland Chinese media people. I managed to find several reporters for online magazines – each claiming that his/her site had the largest readership. They seemed enthusiastic and agreed to report on the VOX system.  Unfortunately, nothing came out of it. Jonathan didn’t have much luck either. The closest he came to making a sale was with a client of his who had an ownership interest in a high-end dealership with several showrooms on the mainland. He felt it would bring tremendous prestige to his dealership if he could demo the VOX in his showrooms. Unfortunately, his business partners vetoed his idea.

After three months, the gallery owner decided that he wanted to rearrange his gallery and we had to pack our bags. A dealer friendly with Jonathan agreed to host the VOX Olympian in his showroom. We could just about squeeze them in. As he was the Hong Kong distributor for FM Acoustics, we could not use the Kondo electronics. The powerful FM amplifier, while very fine in its own right, was not the right match for these ultra-sensitive horns. I managed to coax the dealer into setting up his top Lamm Industries tube system for a demonstration for an important prospective buyer. He agreed to let us use the Lamm ML3 Signature single-ended amplifiers and the LL1.1 Signature preamplifier. I must say it was jaw-droppingly good.

At the dealer showroom, with FM Acoustics electronics.

I actually preferred this to Jonathan’s Kondo setup. The Kondo had a lot of finesse and harmonic richness, but the Lamm electronics had massive scale, speed, and at the same time delivered a holographic image. They seemed to be tonally more neutral than the Kondo, and gave a very realistic portrayal of the acoustic space. The sound was alive. Unfortunately, the prospective buyer insisted on spending most of his time listening to a recording of Japanese Kodo drums. Luckily, we didn’t have any recordings of trains, garage doors or pneumatic drills in the showroom.

Look at that finish!

Everyone continued their efforts to find prospective buyers, but the size of the VOX Olympian system was always an issue. It is difficult to find someone with the musical sensibility (which I found to be a rare trait amongst the audiophiles I knew) to appreciate the qualities of the system, the financial means to afford it, and the space to do it justice. Then came the protests and riots of last year, and visitors just evaporated. This was obvious at last year’s Hong Kong High End Show.

After more than two years, we felt we had outlived our host’s hospitality. The Elysians were returned to their crates and put into storage. The Olympians went into Jonathan’s listening room.  He has to look after them for now, bless him. They actually do work rather well in a smaller space, and sound really lovely with the Kondo Kageki 2A3 amp. A perfect partner for Jonathan during the lonely days of COVID-19 confinement. As for me, I still own the best horn speakers in the world (well, 20 percent of them anyway). If anyone is interested in a VOX Olympian system, please let me know!

Crate-Digging for MP3s? No Joke

Like many of us, I’ve been looking for bargain records, new or used, at record stores, highway antique shops, second hand emporiums, dilapidated book depositories and surprisingly well-organized Goodwill buildings for a long time. The pastime became known as crate-digging, because we weren’t shopping for anything in particular, but looking through the crates or cartons of albums in the dollar bins on the floor looking for a cheap thrill, or just killing time.

It’s not a totally archaic endeavor: a few years ago in upstate New York, in a second hand book shop, I spent one dollar on a mint vinyl copy of the original soundtrack album to the 1956 science fiction movie Forbidden Planet, considered one of the first electronic albums, played by the composers Louis and Bebe Barron on their own pre-Moog synthesizers.

There was a time when grand bargains could be had at a series of stores on West Eighth Street between Sixth Avenue and University Place in Greenwich Village. One specialized almost entirely of new jazz overstock from Atlantic, Riverside, Verve, Blue Note, Impulse and other major labels. Everything was cheap enough (three albums for $5, say), that you could take a chance of judging a record by its cover, and invest wisely in The Complete Yusef Lateef, swinging Latin jazz by Cal Tjader, or Pharaoh Sanders’ Tauhid on Impulse: an impulse buy that more than delivered.

The problem with crate digging these days, even if you can find a record store or even a second hand store like Goodwill in your area, is that most people did not take care of their vinyl as well as you or I did. Goodwill stores are a good place to browse: there is always something. But most often that something is a Jim Nabors Christmas album, or an Andy Williams Christmas album, or a Connie Francis Christmas album. Or any Jim Nabors album, seemingly the vinyl of choice for those who give to Goodwill. It’s hard to understand: a few years ago, while doing renovations, we called Goodwill offering a mint condition dining room set a few decades old, and they refused to even haul it away for free. But they’ll take endless amounts of your Jim Nabors albums. It makes no sense to me.

I love my vinyl collection and my CD collection, but like many people, I suffer from the not-unpleasant minor malady of having too many choices, now that music is a nearly free utility that spouts from our phones to our speakers, headphones, ear buds or car audio. Too many choices; sometimes it’s just easiest to turn on the radio or the playlist shuffle and let the music out of the spout.

But I still like looking for music, a pleasurably addictive habit, so I crate dig for MP3s. It sounds ridiculous. How would you even do that? What I do is continue my subscription to eMusic.com, which sells downloads from an ever-shrinking music catalogue.

I have been a monthly subscriber since 2007. I am nothing if not loyal. I pay $11.99 a month, and for my loyalty I am given another few dollars of music purchase credits, so figure that for $12 I’m getting about $14 worth of purchases, which I must use each month: you can only carry over a balance to another month if it is less than 49 cents, which is the smallest amount a song may be sold for. (Single tracks might go up to 89 cents.) I would guess that a majority of the catalog sells for 49 cents a song. And the few people I know who’ve ever subscribed like to buy by the track, which is perfectly sensible if you make playlists for exercise, commuting, long drives, cooking, cleaning…all the activities in which music augments our lives.

But if you count that out in terms of albums, I have $14 a month to play with and can buy two albums, every month, at about $6.99 each. These prices are invariably a few dollars less than what the same albums would cost on Amazon or the Apple Music store. Subscribing forces me to buy two albums every month, and since I am stubborn and still think of the album as the proper means of taking measure of the art of popular music, I tend to look for albums. I also download some singles to round out my monthly purchase requirement.

Sometimes I can get considerably more than two albums if they are older jazz albums, which might consist of five or six longer tracks to constitute a 30-minute plus LP. Those tracks might be available individually at 49 cents each, so a jazz improv album with five or six longer tracks might cost $2.49 or $2.99. (Prices are also listed in euros, since eMusic is available in the EU.)

You download to your desktop, open the .zip file, and install it in your music library. I use what used to be called iTunes. [I still have it on some of my devices as I stubbornly haven’t upgraded the OS on my Apple devices. – Ed.] The recording appears promptly with album art, and plays on all the devices I have access to my Apple playlist: phone, laptop, iPad, and desktop computer, where I do most of my work.

The eMusic service started in 1998. It has gone through many evolutions and iterations, but its initial purpose was to focus on selling indie music at a discount. In its earlier days (and again, I’ve been with it since 2007), it had quite a few of the larger indie labels except for a handful: no Sub Pop, no Matador. The technology was glitchy, downloads sometimes did not work, and the audio quality was minimal to basic.

In mid-2010s, eMusic made arrangements with major labels, and for a short period it was indeed a well-stocked virtual record store. But indie fans didn’t like the majors, the majors did not like their renumeration, and the overhead was high because eMusic had added plentiful and excellent features and reviews under the leadership of editor J. Edward Keyes. (I wrote for eMusic.com, rebranded as Wondering Sound, and curated both its classic rock and modern rock inside-the-app radio playlists.)

Since 2018, eMusic has lost many of its labels, and finding worthwhile music has become time-consuming. But gems pop up. A “lost” album, A Step Ahead by 1970s Stockton, CA soul-funk band The 9th Creation, recently surfaced on the Past Due label of Beat Caffeine blogger T. J. Gorton. Think a less-slick Earth, Wind & Fire, and since it has been awhile since this music has been in fashion (at least in my house), it’s fresh.

 

I also copped a Graham Parker and the Rumour concert set a few months ago, via a company called Enterprise Music and Distribution. It has a substantial number of concert discs in its “Legends Live” series of classic rock acts, but there’s almost no information about when and where these recordings were made or which iteration of a band is performing. But with a selection from Blue Öyster Cult to Hall & Oates, you might want to take a shot.

Strange things show up on the HHO label: one of eMusic’s most popular offerings of the last few months has been David Crosby and Graham Nash’s Wind on the Water album. HHO also has everything from Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk to Doc Watson bluegrass, Duke Pearson bop, Soft Machine electronic rock, and Merle Haggard country. There is little about the personnel or sessions or even the labels themselves (many are based in Europe, and do their own compilations from various sources). I don’t want to sell you off-brand or re-recorded material, but you can listen to 30- or 60-second samples before you buy in the eMusic app before you buy.

Some of my best jazz purchases have come from Nagel Heyer records, a German jazz label based in Hamburg. There are about 300 Nagel Heyer album downloads at this writing, including Night Tide by Lou Donaldson, a 16-track compilation of Blue Note tracks circa 1962. Tracks, including “Watusi Jump” and “Spaceman Twist,” are so much better than their titles, and feature the likes of Grant Green on guitar and the underappreciated Big John Patton on organ. ($6.49 for the album, 49 cents a track.) For the same price, there’s a 22-track Eric Dolphy collection called Sugar. I was on the fence about it until a little research showed that six of the cuts represent the whole 1961 New Jazz label album Caribé by the Latin Jazz Quintet and Eric Dolphy. It’s not considered a Dolphy masterpiece, but it’s an interesting session if you just want to do a web search for the particular tracks and buy them for 49 cents each.

Blue Moon Music, another international distributor, has 135 classic jazz albums in its collection, including titles by Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and others, but again, smart shoppers will want to try to do a search to find out the provenance of some of these sessions. The UK’s Trunk Records label has hundreds of albums to download, and specializes in “lost film scores, unreleased TV music…sexploitation and kitsch,” but poke around and you’ll find the outstanding Miles Davis soundtrack to the 1958 French movie L’ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), amid oddities from Basil Kirchen and a collection of British flexidisc tracks.

Rolling Tide music carries just about the whole Steve Forbert catalog, including a 19-track “Best of” for $6.99, an outstanding discount since individual song downloads are 89 cents. And Willie Nile has a good selection of his catalog albums in the same price category, including his excellent 2013 album American Ride. Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records is still on the roster.

All these selections could be temporary; labels, especially those dedicated to individual artists, disappear without notice. Sonic Youth’s catalog was here one day, gone the next, as has Acony Records, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings’ label. It does take more time each month to find how to make the best use of my $14, but I don’t mind the hours of browsing. That’s the fun of crate-digging, even for MP3s.

A Question of Time

Do you sometimes feel like we’re living in an alternate universe? After all, alternate realities and parallel universes are not uncommon concepts in pop culture, let alone physics – just watch the Netflix series Dark or DC Comics’ “Crisis on Infinite Earths” or read Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder,” which gave birth to the phrase “the butterfly effect.” But we’re not really living in the Matrix, or a changed history created by meddling with the time stream…are we?

I am certain of one thing – time travel does exist. All we have to do is put on a record like Giant Steps or Songs for Swingin’ Lovers or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Fame, and we can be transported back to the time when the album was recorded and our memories of when we first heard the music. Any time we want.

Reminder: our Name That Column Contest runs through October 31. We’ll be running a new column about PS Audio’s Octave Records label, and we need a name. (For now it’s “The Column to be Named Later.”) The winner will receive a 16 x 24 photo on canvas of Copper photographer James Schrimpf’s photo of musicians Dale Watson and Chris Crepps, used as Issue 105’s Parting Shot.

Please submit your suggestions for the column name to letters@psaudio.com.

In this issue: Anne E. Johnson gets into Otis Redding and his deep soul, and free-jazz trailblazer Sam Rivers. Tom Methans isn’t with the band. We interview MartinLogan and Eikon Audio founder Gayle Sanders, and the Audio Engineering Society’s Gary Gottlieb. Roy Hall takes a trip to Copenhagen and one of the world’s greatest restaurants. Todd Rundgren’s Nearly Human album changes Ray Chelstowski’s life. We have an inside look at Octave Records’ new release, Temporary Circumstances by Clandestine Amigo. Rudy Radelic digs The Mavericks’ En Español.

J.I. Agnew asks: how hi would you like your fi? Jay Jay French revisits the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead on its 50th anniversary. Rich Isaacs revives some unusual cover versions in the latest installment of “Complete Recovery.” Steven Bryan Bieler knows what it’s like to be cool. Ken Sander goes one step beyond with Madness and the Go-Go’s. Tom Gibbs finds great new music and reissues from John Coltrane, Cat Stevens/Yusuf, Thelonious Monk and Gillan Welch. Reader Adrian Wu’s audio journey takes him to the present. We conclude the issue with hittin’ the note, spending money and socially distancing.

Our Staff

Contributing Writers:
J.I. Agnew, Ivan Berger, Steven Bryan Bieler, Ray Chelstowski, Jay Jay French, Tom Gibbs, Roy Hall, Robert Heiblim, Rich Isaacs, Anne E. Johnson, Don Kaplan, Ken Kessler, Don Lindich, Tom Methans, B. Jan Montana, Rudy Radelic, Wayne Robins, Alón Sagee, Ken Sander, Larry Schenbeck, John Seetoo, Dan Schwartz, Bob Wood, WL Woodward

Cover:
“Cartoon Bob” D’Amico

Cartoons:
James Whitworth

Parting Shots:
James Schrimpf, B. Jan Montana, Rich Isaacs (and others)

Editor:
Frank Doris

Publisher:
Paul McGowan

Advertising Sales:
No one. We are free from advertising and subscribing to Copper is free.

Hittin’ the Note

One of the most iconic taglines in advertising history, 1974. We’d bet you guys and gals could tell the difference though!

Music makers: vintage strings and picks going back decades. Author’s collection.

 

State of the art home theater, 1948. New Television: The Magic Screen.

 

“Pocket-sized?” Maybe if your name is Gulliver. From Audio Engineering, March 1953.

 

Audio industrial art, and you could hammer nails with it. From Audio, April 1957.

Social Distancing

Inside Lee’s Liquor Lounge, Minneapolis, Minnesota, now closed.

Otis Redding: Deep Soul

Few musicians in history have been industry game-changers to the degree that Otis Redding was. And he barely made it past the age of 25. The soul singer seems to have impressed everyone who heard him; decades after his death, his popularity is as great as ever.

Born in 1941 to a family of Georgia sharecroppers, Redding sang and played piano as a kid, even bringing in a little money every Sunday by performing gospel on the local radio station. After winning a weekly talent contest 15 times in a row, he landed a job singing with a band called Pat T. Cake and the Mighty Panthers, who toured the Chitlin’ Circuit, a network of venues where African American artists were allowed to perform. When Redding’s longtime friend, guitarist Johnny Jenkins, quit the band, Redding cast around for new opportunities too.

It was when he drove Jenkins down to Stax Studios in Memphis for a session gig that Redding was discovered and signed by studio chief Jim Stewart. Over time, the single from their original sessions, “These Arms of Mine,” ended up being one of his best-selling songs. It became part of his first album, Pain in My Heart, a 1964 release on the new Volt Records, owned by Stax. Redding immediately demonstrated his ear for suitable cover material. Pain in My Heart included songs like Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” and Little Richard’s “Lucille.”

In fact, Stax’s Stewart had originally complained that Redding sounded too much like Little Richard, and you can hear the singer’s devotion to that charismatic performer in his version of “Lucille.” He’s got that simultaneous growl and falsetto down pat, not to mention the wild energy.

 

One huge advantage for any artist working with Stax was the constant access to some of the best studio musicians in the country. For The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads (1965), Stewart surrounded Redding with  Booker T. & The M.G.s plus the Memphis Horns; historians believe Isaac Hayes played piano, uncredited (he is listed on later albums). The single “Mr. Pitiful” was Redding’s first top 10 hit. That tune is historically noteworthy because it inspired engineer Tom Dowd to install an Ampex stereo mixer in the studio. Dowd was an innovator in multi-track recording who engineered hit albums by artists ranging from Aretha Franklin and Charles Mingus to the Bee Gees and Primal Scream.

As with the previous album, most of the tracks are covers. However, Redding was stretching his wings as a songwriter. “I Want to Thank You” milks that horn section for everything it can contribute, filling the gaps between phrases with tight harmony. As for Redding, he uses a style of delivery that brings singing closer to the natural rhythm of speech.

 

Redding was not one to linger painfully over the creation of his recordings. Most of his third album, Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul (1965) was laid down in a single day in 1964. And it reached the top of the R&B chart anyway. The lineup of musicians is nearly identical to the previous album.

As usual, there are some fun covers here, mostly drawn from the expected soul and R&B sources, such as B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.” But Redding surely surprised everyone when he decided to record The Rolling Stones song “Satisfaction.” While the brass blats snidely, Redding shows the true madness behind the lyrics; the single hit No. 4 on the R&B charts.

But at its heart, this album is a tribute to Sam Cooke. Cooke, one of Redding’s greatest inspirations, was shot to death at the age of 33 a few months before Otis Blue was made. Redding included several of Cooke’s songs on Otis Blue, as he had on his previous albums. One of those is the powerful anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come.” This is a heartbreaking rendition. That’s Wayne Jackson on trumpet and Steve Cropper on guitar.

 

Redding’s success won him unprecedented clout at Stax; the label’s co-founder, Phil Walden, gave the singer part ownership in two related production companies, Jotis Records and Redwal Music (note the fragments of Redding’s name in each). But that didn’t slow him down in the studio. The Soul Album came out in 1966. Ironically, its only single, “Just One More Day,” did not reach the top 10.

Among the most interesting tracks on this album is a 1923 song by vaudeville star James Cox. “Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down and Out)” deals with how easy it is to lose everything you’ve worked for and built in life. It’s a timeless message, as this aching, bluesy arrangement proves.

 

Another Depression-era song turned into one of Redding’s most celebrated tracks. “Try a Little Tenderness,” included on his 1966 album Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul, was composed in 1932. Up to Redding’s time, it was best known in a Bing Crosby recording from 1933.

Always on the lookout for great material, Redding was as open to the new as he was to the old. That same album includes his cover of Lennon/McCartney’s “Day Tripper,” which he turns into a ruthlessly James Brown-style romp, partly thanks to Booker T. Jones’ screaming organ chords.

  

No one could have guessed that King & Queen (1967) would be the final studio album of Redding’s life. This collaboration with Carla Thomas, known as the Queen of Memphis Soul (hence the album title), was a smash, hitting the No. 5 spot on the Billboard Pop chart. While the song “Tramp” outsold the other singles, it’s “Knock on Wood” that is best remembered today.

Bert Berns, who wrote such hits as “Twist and Shout,” “Another Piece of My Heart,” and “Hang on Sloopy,” composed the song “Are You Lonely for Me, Baby?” Thomas’ and Redding’s voice blend together seamlessly.

 

On December 10, 1967, the plane carrying Redding and members of the Bar-Kays R&B band crashed on its way to Madison, Wisconsin. The only survivor was Ben Cauley, the Bar-Kays’ trumpeter. A few days before, Redding had recorded what would become his signature hit, although he wouldn’t live to enjoy the accolades: “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” was presented to the world in 1968, first as a single and then on one of several posthumous albums containing mostly unreleased material.

While the title track of The Dock of the Bay (1968) represents a new avenue of British pop-inspired music-making that Redding had hoped to pursue – to the displeasure of Stax execs – the vaults also yielded another great recording of a song from an earlier era. “The Huckle-Buck,” by Roy Alfred and Andy Gibson, dates from the heyday of Tin Pan Alley, and enjoyed some fame thanks to Frank Sinatra’s version. Once again, Redding reaches into the past and claims the music as his own.

 

On the shore of Lake Monona, near the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there’s a marble bench and a plaque memorializing the music legend whose brilliant career was cut short in that body of water. The dedication reads, in part, “Otis Redding stands with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Sam Cooke in the first rank of American rhythm and blues singers.” That’s some truth you just can’t argue with.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikipedia/Volt Records.

Sam Rivers: Free Jazz Trailblazer

When Sam Rivers (1923 – 2011) was growing up in Oklahoma, he often heard his father singing gospel music. The elder Rivers had been a member of the celebrated Fisk Jubilee Singers, who toured the world representing African American music before many people understood what that meant. Young Sam decided to do his singing through wind instruments instead. He became an inventive master of the saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet.

When the Navy stationed him in California in the 1940s, he started performing with the blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon. As soon as he was able, he made the trip to New England, where he enrolled in the Boston Conservatory in 1947. He transferred briefly to Boston University to study composition, but the call of live gigging was louder than anything academia had to offer.

His big break came after he befriended teenaged jazz drumming prodigy Tony Williams. Not only did Williams encourage Rivers to experiment in free jazz, which would become his signature style, but he also introduced Rivers to Miles Davis. Rivers toured with the great trumpeter in 1964, and although the professional relationship was short-lived (they made one album together, Miles in Tokyo), it put Rivers on the map and helped him land a contract with Blue Note Records.

For Rivers, bebop was merely a starting point. He excelled at the practice of “going outside,” or experimenting with harmonic language beyond standard charts. In their obituary for Rivers in 2011, the New York Times called him “inexhaustibly creative,” and his improvisations “garrulous and uninhibited.”

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Sam Rivers.

  1. Track: “Euterpe”
    Album: Contours
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1965

Euterpe is one of the Muses, the ancient Greek goddesses focused on the arts – in this case, music. Those who weren’t prepared for post-bop harmony might have doubted that she approved of this sound, but Rivers found plenty of top-notch players interested in testing out new sonic waters. Besides Rivers on soprano and tenor sax and flute, there’s Ron Carter on bass, Joe Chambers on drums, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, and Herbie Hancock on piano.

Contours, which was recorded in 1965 but not released until over a year later because of Blue Note changing hands, contains only four tracks, two per side. “Euterpe” opens side B. After a sultry bass solo by Carter, Rivers comes in on flute at 6:16. It’s worth noting that this album is known for the exceptional quality of its sound, which was produced by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder.

 

  1. Track: “Effusive Melange”
    Album: Dimensions & Extensions
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1967

Another Van Gelder production, Dimensions & Extensions has a larger personnel list and a timbral change: no piano. Instead, there’s trombone added to the mix, and Rivers shares the sax and flute duties with James Spaulding, who covers alto.

But the bigger difference between this and the previous track is the level of commitment to free jazz. Gone is the mellow safety, the cushioned sonic room. This is the Beat poetry of music: non-grammatical, uninterested in protecting its audience, visceral. It opens with Rivers running frantic on tenor sax.

 

  1. Track: “Exultation”
    Album: Crystals
    Label: Impulse!
    Year: 1974

While Rivers plays only tenor sax and flute on the Crystals album, he surrounded himself with multi-instrumentalists such as Fred Kelly (soprano, baritone, piccolo), Joe Ferguson (tenor, alto, soprano, flute), and Paul Jeffrey (tenor, flute, clarinet, oboe, basset horn, and bassoon), plus he bolstered the sound with three trombonists and three trumpeters.

As with his previous albums, Rivers wrote all the tracks, although the intensively improvisational quality of free jazz means that the tunes are collaborative works that exist only in their moment. “Exultation” opens with a mass of individual sounds crammed together like a downtown corner on a hot afternoon. What’s being exalted is the supremacy of dissonance. Once the tune relaxes into a melody of sorts, you’ll notice the inspiring “feathered” basslines (plucked with the right forefinger flattened to diffuse the pitch slightly) by Gregory Maker.

 

  1. Track: “Intro and Soprano Section”
    Album: Black Africa! Villalago
    Label: Horo
    Year: 1976

In the mid 1970s, an Italian jazz label called Horo was founded, and Rivers was among the first artists signed to it. He made two albums in a series he called Black Africa!, capturing performances from two different festivals. The Black Africa! Villalago album, a two-LP set, was recorded live at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy.

Black Africa! was itself a large-scale composition, and the tracks are simply movements named after the instrument featured in each lengthy section. The best way to describe the experience is as a free-jazz jam. Rivers is always the main player, on not only his usual saxes and flute, but also piano. He’s joined by Sidney Smart on drums and percussion and Joe Daley on tuba and euphonium, an instrument that goes a long way toward counterbalancing Rivers’ solo wandering in this opening “Soprano Section.” Smart’s snare technique is breathtaking.

 

  1. Track: “Torch”
    Album: Waves
    Label: Tomato
    Year: 1978

Rivers’ flute is the fire on this “Torch,” met with the high-energy work of Dave Holland’s bass pizzicato and Thurman Baker’s percussion. Daley is once again holding down the low end on tuba. It’s a strikingly different sonic landscape to have flute as the only melodic instrument, not mired down by a dissonant brass chorus. There’s a transparency and buoyancy that makes listening a significantly less intense experience. It also gives one a greater appreciation of Rivers’ mastery of the flute.

 

  1. Track: “Sprung”
    Album: Lazuli
    Label: Timeless
    Year: 1989

As is common in the jazz world, the Sam Rivers quartet was not a set group of musicians, but whoever he could get for particular gigs and sessions. On Lazuli, the only studio album by this foursome, Rivers had Steve McCraven on drums, Rael Wesley Grant on electric bass, and Darryl Thompson on electric guitar. This is an unusual instrumental grouping, compared to Rivers’ earlier works. Rivers co-produced the album with Wim Wigt, founder of the Dutch label Timeless.

“Sprung” is the album’s final track, a piece that could be described as retro, looking back to more of a classic bebop sound. You can imagine Charlie Parker playing on this track, which has a clearer structure and chordal motion that Rivers’ usual free jazz output.

 

  1. Track: “Bubbles”
    Album: Culmination
    Label: RCA Victor/BMG France
    Year: 1998

In the late 1990s, Rivers assembled a big band called Sam Rivers’ Rivbea Allstar Orchestra. Culmination was one of their albums. It’s an interesting stylistic blend, combining the tight orchestration required for such a large group with Rivers’ devotion to dissonance.

“Bubbles” adds in elements of funk (Doug Mathews tugs the group along with his mighty bass groove). With each successive chorus, the ensemble gives a greater and greater illusion of musical freedom, although they’re obviously working from a fairly detailed score all the way through.

 

  1. Track: “Nightfall”
    Album: Firestorm
    Label: Rivbea Sound
    Year: 2007

Firestorm was Rivers’ penultimate record, made on his own label with a group billed as the Sam Rivers Trio. Recorded at various live venues in New York City around the year 2000, the sonics are so vibrant that you can hear the musicians’ chairs squeaking.

“Nightfall” lets Rivers demonstrate his significant piano skills. The bowed double bass is played by Doug Mathews. It’s a very French-sounding composition, with sweeping lines leading to dramatic extremes requiring great physical power. Eventually Anthony Cole takes over the keyboard and Rivers comes back in on flute and vocals that are shouted, even screamed.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikipedia/Tom Marcello, cropped to fit format.

Three Winners, and an Interestingly Odd Remake of a Classic

John ColtraneGiant Steps (60th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition – 2020 Remaster)

Giant Steps was recorded in May of 1959, right on the heels of Coltrane’s exit from Miles Davis’ first great quintet. Miles had his manager arrange for Coltrane to get a recording contract with Atlantic Records for a princely retainer sum of $7,000 annually (over $60k in current dollars adjusted for inflation!). Coltrane was unhappy with the initial recordings for Giant Steps, and eventually changed sidemen, bringing in Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. Only one song, “Naima,” featured a different cast; Coltrane was again unhappy with the results. In December he called on some of his Miles Davis’ Quintet cohorts to fill in; the resulting take that was used for the original release featured pianist Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

Giant Steps was well received by the public and critics alike, and was a commercial success, being rewarded with a gold record for sales in excess of 500,000 units. The Penguin Guide to Jazz has called Giant Steps “John Coltrane’s first genuinely iconic record,” and Rolling Stone ranked it no. 102 on their list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Coltrane’s impressive contributions to the Miles Davis Quintet’s five Prestige label albums helped make Miles Davis a household name in the fifties, and Giant Steps helped him reach an equivalent level of success as a leader of his own group at the beginning of the next decade. Considering the challenging nature of some of the music, it’s also an extremely accessible album, helping a whole new generation of fans embrace jazz for the first time.

I’ve owned this album in multiple formats; stereo LP, mono LP, cassette tapes, multiple CD incarnations (including initial and remastered releases), and as part of LP/CD compilation collections. This one fact has remained pretty much true throughout several decades of record collecting: while Giant Steps is one of jazz’s most seminal albums, and a foundation recording for any serious jazz collection, the recorded sound has been consistently less than stellar. That is, until now; this new 60th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition is undoubtedly the finest sounding version of this album I’ve ever encountered!

While any information for this set I’ve been able to research has left me without answers, I’d swear this set has been remixed as well as remastered. Yes, John Coltrane’s sax is still hard left on all the tunes, but the entire album has a spaciousness and vitality that’s been seriously lacking on previous versions — and there’s a much greater sense of center-fill than on any prior versions I own. The level of realism is simply off-the-charts great — this is a Giant Steps for the ages. The album is being reissued as both double CDs, or two 180-gram LP sets, and they both include multiple takes, false starts, and bonus tracks not on previous reissues. And the LP sets will also include a large format booklet with a new essay and lots of photos, along with a 7-inch vinyl single with additional outtakes. I did all my listening through Qobuz’s excellent 24/96 digital stream, but this experience really got the old juices flowing — I’m ordering the LP! Very highly recommended!

Rhino/Atlantic Records, 2 CD/2 LP (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)

Cat Stevens/YusufTea For The Tillerman²

Cat Stevens, or Yusuf Islam as he’s currently known, is something of a polarizing figure in the music world: on the one hand, he’s written albums full of graceful, beautiful songs that captivated a whole generation. On the other hand, following his 1978 embrace of the Islamic faith, some of his public remarks have been perceived as incendiary. Certain British media outlets publicly declared him a supporter of terrorism, especially in the light of remarks he made in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the US. I personally haven’t really fully studied the situation; I regard Cat Stevens very much the way I regard a lot of musicians. I think they often speak without completely thinking about what they’re saying, and they often say things that are either completely misconstrued by the public, or are taken out of context. Anyway, while some of his albums are essentially “desert island” discs for me, when he stopped performing and recording, I pretty much lost interest.

Of his two albums that have received the most acclaim, 1970’s Tea For The Tillerman and 1971’s Teaser and the Firecat are the pair that most frequently get mentioned as his very best work. And are definitely among his most played records in my collection. There are extenuating circumstances; I was in love with a new transfer student in my sophomore year of high school — her name was Lesa (different spelling, I know!). She seemed kind of despondent after having to move from the big city (Atlanta) into the middle of nowhere. I played both the songs “Sad Lisa” and “How Can I Tell You (That I Love You)” countless times, trying to figure out how to break free of the catatonic state I seemed to fall into whenever she came near. We did have a moment years later, but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be! Anyway, the subject of this new release is Cat Stevens’ (Yusuf’s) new take on Tea For The Tillerman, and it’s now entitled Tea For The Tillerman². Clever use of the superscript, but is a retake on a classic really necessary?

Most mornings, while I’m having coffee and catching up on the day’s headlines, there’s a nice little feature on the Mozilla Firefox browser I use called Pocket, and it’s a page that’s populated with interesting and unusual stories that regularly resonate with me. Recently, I came across a story that featured a writer for a northeastern newspaper who had a particular lifelong fascination with Cat Stevens. And who, like me, had basically lost touch when Stevens dropped off the face of the music world decades ago. Suddenly, it’s the 2000s, and Cat Stevens (Yusuf) is touring again — this guy got tickets, even though it had been decades since he’d last seen him live, and really didn’t know what to expect, at all. Shockingly, Cat Stevens was as charmingly entertaining as he’d found him all those years ago. A little grayer, and a touch more worse for the wear, but the essence of the music and the songs came through with the same intensity as so many years before, he was happy to announce. Reading that article was probably the first time I had actually tried to visualize Cat Stevens as a performer, other than through replay of his classic songs, in literally decades.

So that makes Tea For The Tillerman², in actuality, and for me at least, not such a stretch after all. I’ve listened to the Qobuz CD-quality stream of this record several times, and my takeaway is that the experience is probably not at all dissimilar to attending a current-day Cat Stevens concert. There are some bizarre embellishments to a couple of the songs; for example, “Wild World” is played at an unusually quick tempo, with a jazzy sort of accompaniment. Yusuf’s explanation is that he owns one of those electric keyboards that has midi-synthesized “genres” available; he started playing one named “Ragtime,” and started singing the words to “Wild World” to the oddly enjoyable (to him, at least) background. A crazy story, I know, but apparently how the song has evolved to its current state of existence. I really (despite my obvious baggage) missed the fact that songs like “Sad Lisa” are now no longer mostly acoustic-based; the astonishingly good grand piano of the original is now replaced by an electric keyboard of some sort. And the worse for the wear part of the story mostly applies to Yusuf’s voice, which isn’t as pristine as it once was — he’s in his seventies, after all — so I guess you can forgive the guy for suffering from a few voice cracks here and there.

Overall, this is a YMMV album — if you’re a huge fan, it’s a must listen. Otherwise, it probably won’t add much to the existing catalog for the majority of listeners.

UMC (Universal Music Catalog), CD/LP (download/streaming [16/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)

Thelonious MonkPalo Alto 

In the late 1960s, a Palo Alto High School (California) student named Danny Scher decided he was on a quest to bring some culture — and perhaps racial unity — to the mostly white southern suburb of San Francisco. The Vietnam war was in full swing, and both Bobby Kennedy and MLK had been assassinated, sparking some racial tensions with nearby East Palo Alto, which was mostly Black. He began to convince a variety of jazz acts to perform at the high school auditorium, among them vibraphonist Cal Tjader, singer Jon Hendricks, and pianist Vince Guaraldi. Buoyed by his string of successes, Danny set his bar a bit higher, and started plying the management team of his idol, Thelonious Monk, with requests to get his quartet to play there as well. At the time, the late sixties were seen as a somewhat less than productive period for Monk, and the record-buying public hadn’t been particularly kind to the string of resulting albums, classics like Monk’s Dream, It’s Monk’s Time, Straight, No Chaser, and Underground. Monk was in debt to the record company, and was hitting the road to raise some cash; he was on the verge of settling into an upcoming three-week engagement at San Francisco’s legendary Jazz Workshop. While at first, he didn’t take Danny Scher’s offer seriously, he soon decided what the heck, and agreed to play the high school date — he needed the dough.

The record company wasn’t involved in any way, and there were no plans to record the live performance. On the day of the show, Danny’s older brother Les (who had just gotten his driver’s license!) drove to San Francisco to pick up Monk and his band, and chauffeured them to the high school auditorium. The high school’s janitor approached Danny, and asked if he could record the concert; if so, he was a piano tuner on the side, and would tune Monk’s piano for him in exchange. Danny agreed, and a few mikes and the tape machine were set up; they were able to capture all 47 minutes of the show on tape. The show went on as planned; Monk and his band were in excellent form, and the sell-out crowd left happy. Danny Scher eventually went to college, and ended up getting a job with big-time promoter Bill Graham for many years, but the live Monk tape basically languished in the attic of the Scher family home for almost fifty years. Until he stumbled across it a year or so ago, and contacted T.S. Monk, Thelonius Monk’s son; after being restored and remastered, the concert tape is being widely heard for the first time ever.

History has been a bit more kind to the memory of Monk’s mid-to-late sixties quartet; it’s now regarded as one of his best, and the resultant albums are all considered undeniable classics. This new release, Palo Alto, captures Monk’s band featuring saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales, and drummer Ben Riley in top form. Monk’s health was declining, and the Palo Alto concert, along with the Jazz Workshop dates, would be among this quartet’s last performances together. This amateur tape — virtually unheard for almost fifty years — captures the quartet at the apex of their powers, and for one of the last times, in shockingly good restored sound.

The song selection is no surprise here; it’s mostly chestnuts from throughout Monk’s career, and the concert opens with a great rendition of “Ruby My Dear,” followed by a thirteen-minute blowout of the classic “Well You Needn’t,” which has a pretty great Ben Riley drum solo in the middle. The following tune, “Don’t Blame Me,” also features some nifty stick work by Riley. He is definitely one of the underrated jazz drummers of that era, or any, for that matter. Another really great fourteen-minute version of the classic “Blue Monk” follows; and the concert begins to wind down with Monk’s perennial set-closer, “Epistrophy.” Monk comes back out for a surprise solo version of the Rudy Vallee song “I Love You Sweetheart of all My Dreams.” And this one, as they say, was in the books.

The live sound is a bit variable in a few places (duh, it was recorded by the school janitor!); yeah, the highs (especially Charlie Rouse’s tenor) are a bit screechy, but switching over to a tube amp helped ameliorate that to a certain extent. Tubes definitely improved its listenability; but in terms of 1960s vintage live jazz recordings, it’s still shockingly good, and I’ve heard much worse from the likes of Miles and Coltrane. The 24-bit stream from Qobuz is great, and Palo Alto is very highly recommended!

Impulse! Records/Legacy Recordings, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)

Gillian WelchBoots No. 2 – The Lost Songs

Gillian Welch was a California-born daughter to show-biz industry parents who indulged their daughter, sending her east to fulfill her desire to get into the music industry by getting an education at the Berklee College of Music. She immersed herself in songcraft while there, and when she and partner David Rawlings emerged in the mid-nineties with their debut disc, Revival, she was soon the queen of the alt-country/Americana genres. She sang songs of Appalachia and hill country folk that totally belied her SoCal upbringing, and captured the attention of everyone from LA to Austin, Nashville, and beyond.

Of course, mistakes would be made along the way, and in her haste to get recorded, she signed an early publishing contract (for songwriting only) — not at all unusual in the music industry. This one was for nine years, and unless she fulfilled a numerical obligation (she needed to provide the publisher with an additional 48 songs), she’d be bound for an additional period of time. With their first two albums beginning to make a big difference in how she and David perceived themselves as artists, she decided that within six months (the contract renewal date at the beginning of 2002), she’d provide the necessary songs. She and Rawlings pored over notebook sketches of a hundred or more songs, and over a single weekend, they recorded demo tapes for all 48 songs needed to cancel the contract!

The tapes languished in boxes in their Nashville home for almost two decades; during the aftermath of the strong tornadoes that ravaged parts of Nashville in March of 2020, they stumbled upon the tapes again. And in the ongoing pandemic, have revisited them and released them in a new “Boots” series; this album, Boots No. 2 – The Lost Songs, is the second of these excellent releases. For fans of Gillian Welch (the duo as they are known, not just Gillian herself), it’s a literal treasure trove of previously unreleased material — none of these songs has seen the light of day. The recordings mostly consist of simply the guitars and voices of Welch and Rawlings, with an occasional harp solo thrown in for good measure here and there. That said, the recording quality is superb for what are essentially home-studio demos, where they basically just set up a recorder, rolled tape, and played. The album is a remarkable document, and a stunning companion to their already impressive catalog of work.

The songs range from the straight fingerpicking of “Hundred Miles” to the more traditional folk of songs like “Rambling Blade,” to waltz-time classic country like “ I Only Cry When You Go.” “Fair September” takes the soundtrack down a more folkishly ghostly turn, and “Wella Hella” has Gillian telling you that she “can really shake it” — if need be! The 24-bit Qobuz tracks possess a warmth and vitality that totally belies their nearly two-decade-old origins. The album only clocks in at a tad over 41 minutes, but listening to fifteen previously unreleased tracks of classic, mid-period Gillian Welch is literally miraculous. For true fans, and new converts alike, this is essential listening. Very highly recommended!

Acony Records, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

One Step Beyond and Going With the Go-Go’s

The two Vietnamese gals that were hanging out backstage asked me what I had in my briefcase. Contracts, travel itineraries, touring papers, that kinda stuff, I answer. “Oh, so you are the road manager,” the one on the left said. “Yup, I am,” I answer as I double-check that my briefcase is locked and turn back toward the stage at the Fab Mab. I remind myself not to put the case down…anywhere!

I am not in Kansas anymore. This is San Francisco, a wide-open town where in the 1800s men were drugged, given a Mickey, knocked out and kidnapped only to wake up on a ship in the Pacific Ocean headed for some exotic locale in the far east. These new involuntary crew members had just been Shanghaied.

The Mabuhay Gardens (aka The Fab Mab) at 443 Broadway is located in the North Beach section of San Francisco, an area best known for its strip clubs. The punk rock club was run by the infamous Dirk Dirksen, who liked to think of himself as the “pope of punk.” The nephew of Senator Everett Dirksen (a status that he promoted), he deliberately provoked and insulted the audience and the bands. I too had that experience with him. He was a putz, but Dirksen is considered one of the club promoters responsible for bringing the original late 1970s wave of British punk rockers to the United States. He created an “exchange  program” where bands from England would come to the Mabuhay Gardens and bands from New York would go to England in return. This helped popularize punk rock. According to Wikipedia, the alley located next to the former site of the Mabuhay still exists and is now named for Dirksen. It has been noted that it still reeks of bad vibes and violence.

These are not money gigs, I mean yeah, the band gets paid, but not much, barely making expenses so the record company has to kick in money and an advertising budget. This time I am working a promotion tour for the ska revival band, Madness, who just had their successful UK album One Step Beyond released stateside on Sire Records. They are touring the States for a few weeks and then the band goes back to England.

 

Ska evolved in the early 1960s when Jamaicans in their own way attempted to replicate the sound of the New Orleans R&B they heard over their radios. On purpose or by accident they created a new music style. Instead of mimicking the sound of the R&B, the first ska artists developed a distinctive style and voice, which eventually became reggae.

In the late 1970s, several British bands like the Beat (later the English Beat), The Specials, The Selecter and others began reviving the sound of original ska, adding a nervous punk edge to the skittish rhythms. The ska revival bands were often more politically-oriented than any other British musical style. The sound is angry and macho, like the Stranglers and the Sex Pistols. This was a real niche type of music, and Madness, who became known for their style known as “The Nutty Sound,” was successful in England but here in the States, not so much. The political issues of the Caribbean and the UK do not seem to register stateside.

We were booked for a few nights at the Fab Mab, Nov 30th, and Dec 1st. Those were tough nights with dust-ups in the house with audience members and backstage among the various crews and security. Madness did not mind but I was certainly surprised. You just didn’t see that in the rock scene in the States. This was a few months before my Stranglers tour in England [see Ken’s story in Issue 111 – Ed.] and it certainly was a learning experience for me.

Finishing up in San Francisco we flew down to the relative safety of Los Angeles for a couple of nights at the Whiskey A-Go-Go. The opening act was The Go-Go’s.

I’d heard of them, a local LA girl punk band who were pretty much self-taught musicians and were paying their dues. They had a reputation of partying hard and musically they were very raw. To be honest I never was very interested and the odds of them being successful at least to me were dubious.

The first night we (Madness and I) hung around after soundcheck to watch the Go-Go’s first set. They were pretty good; I was impressed. Still a bit raw but you could see they had that certain something.

 

Madness apparently felt the same way and immediately took to them. After the Go-Go’s set, the guys in Madness went to the Go Go’s’ dressing room and told the girls how much they liked their music. It was instant friendship between the bands. shortly after, Madness invited the Go-Go’s to come to England and open for them on their dates.

The girls were excited and intrigued. It seemed like a great opportunity and they immediately accepted the invitation. Their manager, Ginger Canzoneri had to scrape up the cash for airfare but soon they were in England. It was not what they expected. The venues and hotels were run down and it was hard knocks. Additionally, this audience had a hard time accepting a girl band. But the Go-Go’s were tough, and they hung in there. They played hard and they were good. They changed some minds but there was no glamor in these gigs.

Original Go-Go’s 45s.

The Specials, another successful British ska revival group also offered the Go-Go’s opening slots. All in all, the Go-Go’s spent close to six months in the UK playing many sets almost every night. It really tightened them up musically.

Upon returning to Los Angeles they noticed a change. Now fans were lining up to buy tickets for their shows. Their popularity soared and they had plenty of work at better money. This (pleasantly) surprised them and they assumed it was the buzz they got from doing a British tour. Everyone stateside was impressed and thought their UK tour was a big deal, and the girls were smart enough not to change that perception. Moreover, they really did get better and were playing on a new level. Understandably this reinforced their newfound popularity.

 

In a few months, Miles Copeland, founder of I.R.S. Records signed the Go-Go’s to a recording contract. Miles managed and oversaw British Talent Managers (BTM), Frontier Booking International (FBI, then run by Ian Copeland, Miles’ brother) and I.R.S. Records, which handled the wildly successful rock group the Police (their drummer Stewart Copeland is another brother). The Go-Go’s became the opening act for the Police; same management, booking agency, and record company, so it made sense. Even though they were an opening act to the Police, the Go-Go’s were playing stadiums.

Around then Miles Copeland asked producer and Sire Records co-founder Richard Gottehrer to produce the Go-Go’s. One of the first things Gottehrer incorporated was to get them to slow their songs down. Doing this enabled the listening audience to understand the lyrics and increased the desirability of the Go-Go’s songs.

The Go-Go’s wanted to work with Richard Gottehrer because of his work with Blondie and his sixties hits “Hang on Sloopy” (The McCoys) and “My Boyfriend’s Back” (The Angels). Beauty and the Beat was their first album. The album also had the effect of moving the girls towards pop and away from punk, which initially horrified them. Two very successful singles came out of that album – “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed.”

 

That is the thing about live music; it tends to be faster than the studio recordings. I have noticed on tours that an hour and three quarters set at the beginning of the tour many times will time out to an hour and forty minutes by the end of the tour. In the case of one group I worked with the set got so short by the middle of the tour that they had to add a song.

Back on the Madness tour, we went east to play the Mudd Club in Manhattan. New York welcomed them with open arms. Madness’s label, Sire Records, is based in New York so there was a big turnout of press and music business personnel. There was such a demand for tickets they could have played the Mudd Club for a week and sold out every show!

Madness had a few more dates that included the Paradise Club, Tier 3, Hurrah, and the Hot Club. The attendance was good. The lads had a good time on their short American tour but were happy to get back home to their UK fans and drink some scrumpy.

In 1982, Madness would hit it big with their smash, “Our House.”

 

Postscript: A Note on Record Labels and Royalties

Sire Records is an interesting record company. It started in 1966 as an independent record label founded by Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer (this was before Richard became the producer for the Go-Go’s) and occupied a townhouse on West 73rd Street. Over the years Sire records signed many acts besides Madness including Madonna, the Pretenders, Ice-T, Talking Heads, The Ramones, Depeche Mode, The Cure, the Smiths and k.d. lang just to name a few.

Record companies are an unusual business, where a hit record makes so much money that it covers the loss of the records that do not sell. If a record company has 90% failures and 10% hits it is probably doing just fine. In fact, record companies are frequently just rented offices with executive suites, an art department, an A&R department, and public relations and promotion people. There are no hard assets and all manufacturing is farmed out. Expenses are rent, salaries and cash outlay for the artist, payments for the plants for vinyl and/or CD pressings, and distribution.

Everything a record company does for the artist including advertising, tour support, studio rental, travel, promotional items and such is charged back to the artist. Not all record companies are successful, but I have never heard of one going bankrupt (they own no assets, and if they had a catalog or publishing they could sell those rights or merge with another record company). Nowadays artists try to get their money upfront upon signing with a label because the process of getting royalties is, and I quote, “a long and winding road.” The songwriters do better over time and even though the record companies ask for the publishing rights, the labels are happy to settle for fifty percent, but the artist should fight to keep it all.

When you are in a band everyone usually splits the royalties evenly, but the songwriter or writers get additional songwriting revenues separately. To me, this seems fair but because of the different amount of cash each band member may receive it sometimes causes issues between the people in the band.

An aside: In 1985 the Beatles catalog sold for 47.5 million dollars to Michael Jackson. He was advised to buy it by Paul McCartney, and it was a particularly good investment. In 1995 he sold the rights to Sony/ATV for $95 million. In 2018 Paul McCartney regained the rights in a confidential settlement agreement with Sony/ATV.

Copenhagen

Hi Dad, we just managed to get a booking for Noma in Copenhagen. Would you like to join us?”

My son Ilan is a chef and one of the things chefs love to do is eat in really high-end restaurants. Noma is one of the best and most storied restaurants in the world. Through connections, my son’s partner in Los Angeles, who interned there a few years ago, landed this coveted reservation.

I decided to join them and make a business trip out of it by visiting my German, Danish and Swedish distributors. Through Airbnb I found a lovely one-bedroom apartment in old Copenhagen. Situated very close to the university, the apartment had an old bar almost directly below it. A really good coffee shop was nearby and opposite the apartment was the newly-renovated Great Synagogue of Copenhagen complete with two 24/7 guards.

That first night, I descended to the bar. The room is cozy with half a dozen tables and some bar stools. Most of the customers were young. The friendly barman served me various aquavits and I started to talk to two women who coincidentally hailed from Long Island.

Opposite me was a table with a young woman sitting, staring any me. She beckoned me over.

”Sit down.” She said. I sat. She put her hand on mine and looked into my eyes. “Stay with me,” she commanded. Intrigued but disinterested (or perhaps a little too scared by her offer), I declined and returned to the bar and my new companions.

Ilan and his friends had taken an apartment not far from Freetown Christiana, which is a commune established in the 1970s by hippies wanting an alternative lifestyle, available marijuana and a life free of government interference. Now that the hippies have aged and the area has become more gentrified and further away from its original aims, it has become a large tourist attraction.

Ilan’s apartment, in a newly renovated old building, was on the sixth floor of an elevator-free residence. The walk up, seemingly endless, wasn’t too hard for me. Not so for two of our party. Both of them, half my age, had to frequently stop for breath.

What can I say about Noma?

From the beginning to the end, it’s a performance.

Noma. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/paz.ca.

We, the chosen few, congregated outside until summoned by name. We were greeted by René Redzepi, the owner and all the staff.

The restaurant is airy and bright. Very Scandinavian in feel with light wood on the ceiling and walls. The floor is made from very large light pine planks.

The menu, all 15 courses, was more of an event than a meal. Prawns caught by one fisherman in a certain fjord in Norway. Berries only grown on a tiny volcanic island in Denmark’s Kattegat. Giant mussels from the Faroe Islands. Sea snails and roses. Horse mussel ragout. Squid in seaweed butter. Head of the cod. Venus clams. Sea snail broth, Sugar kelp tart and plankton cake.

The menu in winter is always seafood-based and the wines to match were perfect. Everything was delicious and served by the chefs themselves. After the meal, René Redzepi showed us around the kitchens. There were rooms full of all sorts of liquids fermenting. We saw his test kitchen where other chefs were experimenting with next season’s menu.

There is something wonderful about eating in such a place. A once in a lifetime experience since I doubt I will return.

Since I was traveling with chefs, eating was central to the trip. We ate in another two or three top-class restaurants but the one that stood out in memory was Schønnemann. About 150 years old, it is a lunch-only restaurant specializing in freshly-made smørrebrød and all sorts of the most amazing herring you could ever imagine. Marinated herring, fried herring, curry herring, ginger herring, pickled spiced herring and smoked Bornholm herring – just to mention a few. There was a recommended and perfectly matched aquavit for each different herring.  Ultimately this much simpler food made the biggest impression on me.

Schønnemann.

The transport system in Copenhagen is magnificent. Trains, subways and buses seamlessly integrate. The station near my apartment had a subway and a train station in one place. In fact I caught the train to Gothenburg, Sweden from that very station. Gothenburg is where my distributor lives and it is also the home of Volvo cars. It’s about three-hour journey from Copenhagen on a very pleasant, quiet and spotlessly clean train.

On the day of my departure, I had an afternoon flight to New York. To save time, that morning I purchased a subway ticket to the airport. As the train was pulling into the airport station, an inspector approached and asked to see my ticket. I gave it to him and on looking at it he declared, “This is invalid.”

Perplexed, I asked why.

“You purchased it this morning, it is only valid for 90 minutes,” he said.

Incredulously I looked at the ticket and he was correct.

By this time we had disembarked the inspector had taken my passport and written out a ticket. He explained that there was a website, in English, that I could contact to dispute the charge. I thanked him and continued to check in.

On the plane I got chatting with my neighbor and told her the story.

“How much was the fine?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Let me look.”

The fine was equivalent to $100.

On my return, I contacted the website, explaining that I bought the ticket in good faith and had no idea about the time limit.

The reply was terse. Rules are posted in English in all subway stations and I had to pay the fine. (Note to myself. After arriving jet-lagged in a foreign country, before anything else, make sure you familiarize yourself with the subway rules.) It also said that if I wanted to further dispute this finding, there was another website I could go to file my grievance. I clicked on it and it informed me that to continue I had to pay the equivalent amount of $100.

I took the ticket and added it to the pile of unpaid European tickets I had previously collected. Four speeding fines from France, One from Spain and another from Norway. ($375 for going nine miles over the 50 MPH speed limit…?) Now I am a scofflaw in four countries.

Birth of the Cool

Everyone wants to be cool. But what the heck is cool? “What is Hip?” Tower of Power asked us. “Tell me tell me, if you think ya know.” See, even they couldn’t figure it out.

Scientists may never be able to define the state of being cool. To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” But we do know quite a bit about the circumstances that can lead to cool. I’m going to take you through two of my experiences to explain how to achieve cool – and why cool can’t be held for long.

Please note that I’m not speaking here of being cool because you made a deal with the devil at a crossroads or lit your guitar on fire at Woodstock or invented recorded music. This is not about Humphrey Bogart telling Dooley Wilson to play it. Let’s keep this on the level of the rest of us mortals.

Case Study 01: Motion in the Ocean

Return with me now to Boston in the summer of 1978 (in my memory, “youth” means “summer”) and a club on Commonwealth Avenue called the Paradise. My age: younger than the kids I work with now. The occasion: A show featuring a new band, the B-52’s.

At that show, in the middle of “Rock Lobster,” when the B-52’s sang, “Everybody had matching towels,” I was one of the people in that little club waving matching towels. Mine were white with a red checked pattern, though I might be remembering the kitchen towels my Mom had at the time. I probably bought them that morning at Goodwill.

 

Of course, I hadn’t considered what I was going to do with them after I waved them. I’ll bet no one else thought of this, either. The towels ended up kicked into the corners. I hope the club donated them all to Goodwill the next day.

At that moment I had achieved all of the following:

  1. I knew about a great band before they became popular.
  2. I knew the lyrics to their best song and, as with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I knew what I had to do while the lyrics were being sung.
  3. I executed flawlessly.

And yet I wasn’t completely cool. The missing element: I was alone. I had gone with some people from work, but they weren’t my best friends or my romantic partners or potential romantic partners. I had no special person to experience my coolarity with me. Close, but no crustacean.

The B-52’s are still touring today. People bring their grandchildren.

Case Study 02: Beat This

It’s 1979, we’re in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and my girlfriend and I, along with my best friend at the time and his girlfriend, went to see the Beat, a power-pop quartet from LA. The venue was a boxy brick space near the Central station on the Red Line that was called the Box or the Square Brick Thing. Someone from Cambridge who was there in 1978 will have to help me out here.

The Beat came on late, after the local favorites we had originally come to see. They were raw, vulnerable, biting, aggressive, love-sick, and swaggering. They lit each song off the last one like a chain smoker. We were transformed. I felt as if we had discovered them, the four of us, and that, like Jon Landau on first hearing Bruce Springsteen, we had discovered the future of rock and roll.

At the end of the show, I walked out of the Square Brick Thing with my ears ringing and the cold air hitting my flushed skin and feeling as if I’d been to the moon and back. I’d like to report that my girlfriend and I had sex in a car in the parking lot (in someone else’s car). We didn’t, but I can report that this show was so good, she actually considered it.

Unlike the previous case study, this time, I was cool. I was in the right place with the right people and I had witnessed a performance so transcendent that the Beat were vaporized while reentering Earth’s atmosphere.

The Beat were not the future of rock and roll. These days they don’t even exist on oldies radio. But the energy pulse they generated that night continues to spread outward. In two million years it will reach the Andromeda galaxy. That will be cool.

 

Passport to Cool: Revoked

When I was younger, I was ahead of the musical curve. Now I am older, and stuck on a musical off-ramp. Fortunately, young people don’t care. If, in talking with my young co-workers, I demonstrate that I know the difference between Oasis and Blur or Mos Def and Mos Eisley, my young co-workers will think I’m adorable. And if I stumble while trying to demonstrate this, they will think I’m adorable.

If I had danced with Rio on the sand in 1982 or jammed with Sheila E. in 1984, that would’ve been cool. For a while. Today, young people might not know what I’m talking about. At a family dinner I attended in 2010, a fight broke out over Sting that ended only when my 12-year-old niece asked, “Who is Sting?”

Tower of Power warned us: “What is hip today/might become passé.”

(Goodbye to Tower of Power’s Rocco Prestia, who left us on Sept. 29, 2020. Your bass playing on “What is Hip?” will never become passé.)

Unusual Takes on Others’ Songs, Part Two

Sometimes a performer is so taken with another artist’s song that they just have to do their own performance of it. These cover versions can range from faithful portrayal of the original to something else entirely. Here are some more of my favorites that fall mostly in the latter category: (The original artists for the songs are in parentheses.)

CHEVY CHASE – “I Shot the Sheriff” (Bob Marley/Eric Clapton)

Okay, this is really a parody, but still…it’s a lot of fun. Produced in 1980 by Tom Scott and featuring a stellar lineup of L.A. session musicians (including PS Audio/Octave Records’ own Don Grusin), the album is pretty much all covers with a twist. Other oddball takes include parodies of “Short People,” “Wild Thing,” and a Chipmunks-style rendition of “Let It Be.” Don’t miss the faux-Jamaican-accented asides.

  

CHRISTOPHER MILK – “Locomotion” (Little Eva) / “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (The Beatles)

Let’s keep the laughter coming with a “twofer.” John Mendelsohn, a rock critic from the 1970s who wrote for Rolling Stone and Creem, was in this short-lived band named for an old San Francisco Bay Area brand of dairy products. Their first effort was an elaborately packaged four-song EP for United Artists Records. They subsequently signed with the Warner Bros. label to record a full album, which was one of the first sessions ever by the legendary producer Chris Thomas (Badfinger, John Cale, Procol Harum, Roxy Music, Sex Pistols and countless others). Mendelsohn’s sense of humor was a hallmark of their style.  “Locomotion” comes from the LP, and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the B-side of their single cover version of Terry Reid’s “Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace,” neither of which was on the LP. The Beatles track is re-imagined as a vocal trade-off between Bob Dylan and another artist. The YouTube graphic implies that it’s Iggy Pop, but I’m not convinced. (Readers, what do you think?)

 

  

GLASS MOON –  “Solsbury Hill” (Peter Gabriel) / “On a Carousel” (The Hollies)

There aren’t very many covers of Peter Gabriel songs, so this first one qualifies as unusual on that basis alone, even if it’s not that different. Glass Moon was an under-appreciated progressive pop/rock band. They put out three albums, the last having only one member who was on the first two: keyboardist/vocalist Dave Adams. Those early albums also featured guitarist Jamie Glaser, who had been part of Jean-Luc Ponty’s fusion band of the late 1970s. The band had a minor hit with this 1980s-sounding re-make of “On a Carousel.”

 

 

 THE IGUANAS – “Fortune Teller” (The Del-Rays or Benny Spellman)

The original was an uptempo track from the early 1960s written by Aaron Neville (under the pseudonym Naomi Neville). Here, it gets the “slow ‘n’ sexy” treatment from this New Orleans Tex-Mex band. I use this track to demo my little FoxL Bluetooth speaker – it always impresses.

 

THE MOVE – “Don’t Make My Baby Blue” (The Shadows/Frankie Laine)

In England, The Move was a highly successful, and just as highly regarded, band in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their earliest works were more in the pop/psychedelic vein, with song titles like “Flowers in the Rain” and “I Can Hear the Grass Grow.” Roy Wood, and later, Jeff Lynne were the driving forces behind the band which would ultimately morph into the Electric Light Orchestra. Shazam, the album from which this track comes, was quite varied, and marked a real departure from their previous sound. Released in 1970, it was also the last album to feature original vocalist Carl Wayne.  Here, the band gives a heavy, almost Black Sabbath-y twist to the pop song.

 

PEOPLE – “For What It’s Worth” (Buffalo Springfield)  / “We’re Off to See the Wizard” (from The Wizard of Oz)

This is an ultra-obscure twofer from late 1960s San Jose band People. They had an international hit (big in Japan!) earlier with a cover of the Zombies song, “I Love You.” I saw them in May of 1969 at the Northern California Folk Rock Festival. Jimi Hendrix was the headliner that day, and Poco and Lee Michaels were also on the bill. The Buffalo Springfield track gets a questionable up-tempo, funky treatment complete with horns. “Wizard” starts at 11:30 in the video — and stick around for (or jump to) “The Willie Tell Experience” at 36:25. I think drugs may have been involved.

 

VANILLA FUDGE – “Some Velvet Morning” (Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra)

If you know the original, you’ll agree – this one’s waaay out there. A long, spacy/heavy instrumental intro that incorporates a motif from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (!) gives way to a light, wistful vocal. Has anyone ever made sense of the lyrics? Years later, the Vanilla Fudge rhythm section would team up with Jeff Beck as Beck Bogert & Appice, recording one studio album and a subsequent live one.

 

Header image of the Vanilla Fudge, 1967 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/KRLA Beat/Beat Publications, Inc.

I’m (Not) With the Band

When I was in fourth grade, I enrolled in Manhattan Music School. Not to be confused with The Manhattan School of Music, a private conservatory near Columbia University. The school I attended was on 84th Street and Madison Avenue above a diner and a ladies’ clothing consignment shop. Once a week, I would climb the long flight of worn linoleum stairs to a dusty wooden floor arrangement of small studios with scratched upright pianos and gray fluorescent lighting.

Mr. Adams, my first teacher, was a pleasant young man who made my beginner’s pieces sound musical. He even showed me how to strum an acoustic guitar and blow a saxophone that tasted of tarnish and spit. After a year, Mr. Adams left, and an older lady took over my education. With her fixed expression and Slavic accent, she taught piano according to the old method: a solid foundation to be established by rote, practice, and hand strengthening exercises.

My practice instrument was a piano owned by an old-time Broadway star, Dorothy Lindsay, also known by her stage name, Dorothy Stickney. Her husband was Howard Lindsay, half of Lindsay and Crouse, who, along with Rodgers and Hammerstein, was the team that created The Sound of Music on Broadway in 1959. Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse were both dead by 1977, so the piano sat idle unless one of Mrs. Lindsay’s theatre cronies played it during cocktail parties. Otherwise, I was the only other person to make its lush tones come to life.

My mother spent her days as Mrs. Lindsay’s chef, and I hung out in the kitchen most afternoons and weekends. I loved being in that townhouse off Fifth Avenue and 94th street. It was full of dark corners, unused spaces, and a creepy cold basement with a coal room used to store wood for the fireplaces.

On weekends, I would volunteer to take Dorothy her breakfast. When she awoke, Mrs. Lindsay rang down to the kitchen on an ancient intercom, letting the staff know she was ready to dine. As the white buttered toast, poached eggs, bacon, marmalade, and pot of tea were being plated, Mrs. Lindsay performed her toilette before she could be seen, even by a 10-year-old. I placed the tray and morning papers onto a cart and rode the two-person elevator from the ground floor to her room on the third floor. At the opposite end of a long hall was Mr. Lindsay’s bedroom suite, which had been left intact and used as a guestroom. The floor above was for the live-in help. The second floor consisted of an office and my music room; dining and living rooms were on the first, and an antiqued parlor was on the ground floor in front of the kitchen.

Young Dorothy in New York ca. 1926. From: Stickney, Dorothy, Openings and Closings: Memoir of a Lady of the Theatre, 1979. Personal collection.

Mrs. Lindsay, a frail 80-year-old in a 1920s flapper wig and bright red lipstick, was perfumed and propped up on a giant bed, dressed in a frilly robe and flanked by two cats: one a regal Siamese named Madam, and a creamsicle Angora, Butch, who was very sweet but ignored. As soon as Butch realized he could get attention from me, he began following me wherever I went.

Mrs. Lindsay had no children, and I had no grandparents in America, so our moments together were familial. I sat at the foot of her bed, and we talked about school, the musical pieces I was learning, and what my performance plans were after fifth grade. Mrs. Lindsay could hear me from her room, and she encouraged me to practice. Piano was the basis for everything – the springboard for other instruments, singing, and composition. There’s not a stage or rehearsal space without a piano. But I didn’t want to be like her friend Oscar Hammerstein or Vladimir Horowitz, who lived down the street, or even Elton John. I wanted to play guitar like Brian May, but my stepfather considered electric guitars and drums vulgar, and the people who played them “low class.”

Several days after school, I brought my school-supplied vinyl attaché packed with my latest scribbling in my composition and workbooks, along with various pieces of sheet music to practice on Lindsay’s black grand Steinway. The instrument was polished and well maintained. It had no scratches, the hammers were new, and its strings all attached and tuned. However, Butch and I preferred to explore the music room filled with souvenirs, portraits, black and white photos, show posters, programs, and awards. There were cabinets, drawers, and closets stuffed with records, sheet music, and wind-up music boxes. I guess all the artifacts appealed to the historian in me, while an aspiring showbiz kid would have come away with a greater appreciation for the golden age of Broadway or at least Mrs. Lindsay’s most well-known play, Life with Father, which launched at the old Empire Theatre in 1939 and ran for 400 weeks.

I was too obsessed with the guys in Creem and Hit Parader magazines to understand that Mrs. Lindsay was a rock star in her own right who had done vaudeville, talkies, television, Hollywood movies, and theatre. My mother heard her sing in Bob Fosse’s Pippin on Broadway just a few years earlier when Mrs. Lindsay was still working at 76 years of age. I do feel like I cheated my parents out of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If I had only been born with a few of Mickey Rooney’s song and dance genes, maybe Mrs. Lindsay could have catapulted me to stardom. Instead, all I came away with was a dowagers’ love for orange marmalade, Earl Grey tea, and cats.

Playbills from personal collection: Pippin Playbill, Imperial Theatre, October 1973; Life with Father Playbill, Empire Theatre, April 1944.

 

Dorothy as Berthe in Pippin. Her final theater role. From Stickney, Dorothy, Openings and Closings: Memoir of a Lady of the Theatre. Personal collection.

After fifth grade, my family relocated 40 miles north of New York City to Bedford, NY. I thought moving would cancel the lessons, but my stepfather loved the piano and was determined that I should master it. Perhaps he envisioned summoning me to the salon to entertain our cultured friends and family with a few licks of Minuet in G minor (which seemed like the only piece I ever played). Thankfully, we never owned a piano, never had space for a piano, and never had money for one. By some turn of misfortune, my stepfather found a new place for me to practice: at his boss’s house. Lessons resumed.

This piano sat in a gentleman’s library with built-in bookshelves that seemed 50 feet high, leather chairs, a desk the size of my bed, and a billiard table. From the big picture windows, I looked at the swimming pool and tennis court. Though I’m sure the piano was first-rate, I remember absolutely nothing about it. The people who lived there had two kids, the darling teenage Katherine with a tan, braces, chestnut Farah Fawcett curls, and what I imagined to be strawberry-flavored lip gloss. Then there was her brother, a tow-headed boy younger than me, Richie, whose energetic charm sprouted from knowing he was not the favorite child. He was desperate for a playmate and came looking for me whenever I was around. So Richie and I shot pool, slammed air hockey in his basement rec room, and even started playing tennis, another activity for which my parents sought formal training. I spent a whole summer at a tennis clinic in Central Park trying to be Björn Borg, but Richie beat me every time. He beat me at everything, but playing with him was still more fun than practicing piano.

Every Wednesday, I took a bus to the local music store in town for my hour of torture. Lessons took place in the back, past rows of shining guitars of all shapes and colors. As I clanked down on the keys, the instructor would eventually grow bored and start eating his supper, and it was always something delicious-smelling. Like a weekly tour of the Carnegie Deli, he brought salami on rye one day, stacked bologna on a hard roll another, and then tuna on white with a side of loud crunchy pickles. No matter what, he always had something better than my public school lunch and breakfast of menthol cigarettes stolen from a silver box at Richie’s house. I wasn’t really a smoker and only lit up when the morning school bus approached. Just before the yellow door swung open, I flung my cigarette to the ground and blew out a plume of minty exhaust as I boarded, hoping someone saw me. Unlike my friends, I wasn’t allowed to have long hair or wear torn jeans, concert tees, and Keds to school. I wore Earth Shoes, off-brand polo shirts, and khaki pants. I thought the cigarette would detract from my squareness, but it made me look like a smoky substitute teacher instead of a stoned Keith Richards. By 4 pm, I was jittery and starving as my instructor rustled foil, chewed, and slurped while barking music terms I was supposed to study: “Staccato! Tempo giusto! Molto allegro! Adagio!” These half-hearted performances went on for a few weeks until he’d had enough.

Having teachers call home was a common occurrence in my household, but my parents were paying good money for these lessons, and they were done throwing it away. I had disappointed them again. Not only was I the most defeated at tennis camp and a C- student, but now I was a failed musician too. Their dream of having a Beethoven-playing son was dashed for good. My luck finally turned around when my friend Jaime invited me to play piano for a jam session with his band Soul Solitaire. This is what I wanted all along: to be in a rock group. It was really happening.

Jaime was a naturally gifted musician and one of my best friends since fourth grade. His father was of the Woodstock era and had all the classic rock records, so Jaime’s foundation was built on Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix, and Neil Young. His first guitar was a blonde Hondo Stratocaster knock-off. It looked real enough. The deal was, if Jaime showed he was serious about guitar, he would get a real Fender Strat by high school, but he already had all the dedication, perseverance, and talent required.

During an afternoon when Jaime’s parents were still at work, we smoked a few skinny joints before setting up on the backyard deck that faced a small patch of woods. Lead guitarist and vocalist Jaime was on his Strat, Chris on bass, Nick on rhythm guitar, Aaron on drums, and me on a miniature organ belonging to Jaime’s sister – my six-year-old cousin had the same one. Once plugged in, a little fan came on to propel a few octaves of mournful gasps through a mesh vent out the front. Because it was made for little kids, the organ was low to the ground, so I had to kneel to reach the keys. It didn’t matter. I was just happy to be in a band. With my keyboard miked up to a small amp, we were ready to rehearse The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” off the Beggars Banquet album.

The first instrument of many an aspiring rocker, a reed organ. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Glogger.

For a piece that requires an assortment of keyboards, guitars, and a samba orchestra’s percussion section, “Sympathy for the Devil” was a complex song for our junior high band. Nevertheless, Jaime was a natural arranger and knew how to fill in the sounds. That’s where I came in. I was expected to improvise the first two minutes of Nicky Hopkins’ piano part. I listened to the song a bunch of times but didn’t prepare anything like the other guys. It didn’t seem very “rock and roll” to be doing homework. Consequently, I was lost during rehearsal. Even if I had sheet music, I probably couldn’t decipher that level of detail. To get us through the beginning of the song, Jaime taught me three chords. “Come in on two. Okay now! Hit the next chord… now!” He kept count for me, but it wasn’t working. I couldn’t keep time. Then Jaime decided I should do the woo-woo parts of the song. All I had to do was contribute one well-placed chord for two-thirds of the song.

“I watched with glee [woo-woo] While your kings and queens [woo-woo] Fought for ten decades [woo-woo] For the gods they made [woo-woo] I shouted out [woo-woo] Who killed the Kennedys? [woo-woo] When after all [woo-woo] It was you and me [woo-woo]”

And so it went with more than 100 woo-woos.

With the help of Jaime’s head cues, I slowly got the rhythm and was reaping the rewards from years of classical piano study. While beating out my chord, I added stage embellishments such as rocking the keyboard back on its legs, dancing from the knees up while pointing to my bandmates with my free hand in a show of solidarity and encouragement. “Yeah, man, you got it!” The first song was done, and I was ready to learn the chord for the next. In the meantime, I worked up quite a thirst.

I walked through the sliding door flying high – not from all the pot we smoked, but from the satisfaction of a solid performance. Like Billy Preston did for the Stones all through the 1970s, I brought my keyboard skills to complement the band’s sound without overtaking it. I was comfortable not being the center of attention and not having too much responsibility.

As I poured juice from a pitcher, I imagined my show business arc as a part of Soul Solitaire. We would rehearse, do some local shows, and move down to the city to get discovered. Then, who knows? My rise to fame would be a comeuppance for my stepfather and the two piano teachers whom I would not credit in my Grammy speech. People were finally going to realize that I was a rocker all along.

When I went back outside, I noticed my band members huddled around the little organ on short legs. Perhaps a blown fuse, or a spilled soda, or maybe Aaron dropped his cigarette on my knee cushion borrowed from the couch. As I came closer, I could see they were disassembling my keyboard station. The long extension cord that powered my instrument from the kitchen was needed elsewhere, and so was our only other microphone and amp. Jaime, our leader, and my friend from the old neighborhood had the task of demoting me to a hanger-on. I’m relieved he didn’t ask me to be a roadie in exchange for weed. I would probably be hauling crates to this day.

“Sorry, man, Aaron needs that mic,” he said. I wondered, indignantly, why he needed my mic when those drums were loud as sh*t already! I could barely concentrate on my keyboard part as it was. “He’s going to sing the woo-woo part, like in the song.” I was beginning to understand. Jaime was just trying to include me, but this band didn’t need a member who could barely land three fingers on the right keys. Not only could Aaron drum with all four of his limbs in rhythm, but he could sing at the same time. My talent went as far as posing in the mirror with a tennis racquet and pretending to play under bright lights like the guys in magazines. It was all gone – limo rides, leather pants, groupies, and easy money. I was washed up by seventh grade. All I could do was go back inside and play records until the rehearsal was over. But Jaime and I remained best friends until my family moved back to Manhattan.

After high school, Jaime honed his craft for years by playing the blues in New York City before packing up his guitar and moving to Italy. He didn’t stop at performing covers; he went on to write his own material, and nowadays, he makes a living playing Delta blues with his band iNNeRSOLe! throughout Europe. His love of the blues is authentic and flows naturally. He might not be well known, but as a composer, songwriter, musician, and singer, Jaime Dolce is in the same company as Hendrix, Allman, and for that matter, Lindsay and Hammerstein.

As painful as it is for so many young men to realize, most of us are destined to be lifelong spectators and never participants in making music. I’m sure I could start taking lessons again and probably learn a song or two, but that doesn’t make it art. My playing was always stilted and lacking emotion, and I had no desire to improve. On the other hand, Jaime took his lessons seriously. He loved to play, and practicing wasn’t a chore for him. In case expulsion from music school wasn’t enough of a cease and desist, Jaime ultimately freed me from the burden of playing ever again so I could enjoy listening even more. He also saved my parents from a future of humiliation and financial woe as they paid for my studio apartment, electric pianos, and lessons well into my 40s. Best of all, they would never have to hear me explain my joblessness at family functions with, “I have a job – my music.”

Octave Records’ New Album, Temporary Circumstances

Octave Records has just released its second album, Temporary Circumstances by singer/songwriter/pianist Jessica Carson and the band Clandestine Amigo. Featuring Jessica’s reflective songs about lost love, resilience and even defiance against the idea of being defined by one’s mistakes, Temporary Circumstances is recorded in pure high-resolution Direct Stream Digital (DSD) using the Sonoma multi-track recording system. It’s mastered by Octave Records’ Gus Skinas using Octave Records’ DSDDirect Mastering process, where the mastering occurs at the same time as the mixing, thereby eliminating a generation.

Temporary Circumstances is available in a limited-edition release of 1,300 gold-pressed hybrid SACD discs with the master DSD layer and a CD layer, as well as on a 2-disc 45 RPM virgin vinyl edition limited to 500 copies. In addition, the album is available as a download bundle including DSD64, DSDDirect Mastered 192kHz/24-bit, 96kHz/24-bit and 44.1kHz/16-bit PCM.

The musicians include songwriter Jessica Carson (vocals and piano), Michael Wooten (drums), Giselle Collazo (vocals), Chris Brunhaver (bass) and Kyle Donovan (guitar, vocals). The album was produced by Jessica and Giselle.

The foundation of the album began with Jessica recording her piano parts on a Yamaha 7-1/2-foot concert grand piano at Animal Lane Studios in Lyons, Colorado. Next, the vocals and other instruments were tracked at Octave Records’ recording facility at PS Audio. These included Chris Brunhaver’s upright bass, viola and violin played by Miguel Ramos, and “The Burroughs” horn section featuring Alec Bell (trumpet), Scott Flynn (trombone), Hayden Farr (baritone saxophone) and Briana Harris (trumpet, horn arrangement).

Jessica Carson.

Jessica’s lead vocals and Giselle’s harmony vocals were recorded simultaneously using a single Tim de Paravicini-modified AKG C24 stereo mic and a Bock Audio 507 mic. A few vocal overdubs were added later but what you mostly hear are live, unedited, honest vocal performances.

Everything was recorded and mixed and ready to go – then Paul McGowan heard it and asked if a full band could be added to a few of the songs. Clandestine Amigo went back into the studio to add electric bass, drums, and acoustic and electric guitars. The result: sparse but full-bodied arrangements that let the personality of each vocalist and player be heard with clarity.

Chris Brunhaver and Giselle Collazo.

Giselle noted, “the arrangements fit the songs, but without being distracting or having any overplaying. We kept going back to the question: ‘how does this serve the songs and get an emotional effect from the listener?’ You won’t hear any ‘multitrack congestion’ on this record!” The recording was done using a Sonoma digital audio workstation (DAW) in pure one-bit DSD. The C24, Bock 507, DPA 4006 and Sony C-100 microphones were fed into Forsell SMP-2 and Grace m108 mic preamps and an EMM Labs/Meitner ADC8 A/D converter, then to the Sonoma. Temporary Circumstances was mixed on a Studer 963 console. The album was monitored on ATC SCM50 and Infinity IRS V loudspeakers driven by PS Audio BHK Mono 300 power amplifiers. It was engineered by Gus Skinas, mixed by Gus Skinas, Giselle Collazo and Jessica Carson, and mastered by Gus Skinas.

Engineer Gus Skinas.

The goal of recording and producing Temporary Circumstances was to combine musically accurate, state of the art sound with inviting and compelling music. As Jessica Carson notes, “I know what the songs mean to me but I think they’ll mean something different to every listener.”

Click here to order Temporary Circumstances by Clandestine Amigo.

Talking With Gayle Sanders of Eikon Audio and MartinLogan

Gayle Martin Sanders was one of the co-founders of electrostatic loudspeaker manufacturer MartinLogan, along with Ronald Logan Sutherland. (They combined their middle names to name the company.) The company first exhibited at the 1982 CES and soon became a major force in electrostatic/hybrid speakers with models like the Monolith, CLS (Curvilinear Line Source), Sequel and beyond. Sanders moved from the company in 2005 at first retiring but then getting restless and returning to audio in 2019 with the founding of audio system manufacturer Eikon Audio.

Following is Part One of a two-part interview.

Frank Doris: When was the first moment you really got hooked on high-fidelity sound?

Gayle Sanders: I’m dating myself now, but my father and I experimented with some of the first mono to stereo conversion systems in 1958, which was revolutionary back then. We built our own speaker systems using Norelco 12-inch coax (I think) drivers that we bought from Burstein-Applebee in downtown Kansas City.

Dad was an engineer, so we did things like building a go-kart – we welded up our own frame with a modified Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine attached. Since it was winter and there was snow on the ground, I convinced mom to let me take the go-kart downstairs and drive it. it was fantastic listening to music in stereo as I four-wheel drifted round and round the basement, barely missing our washing machine! The entire basement filled with exhaust fumes. Today we’d probably be kicked out of the neighborhood for doing something like that!

Anyway, I was an audio nut from the beginning but it wasn’t until I experienced my father’s friend’s system that I became forever changed. He had a pair of Klipsch La Scala loudspeakers, McIntosh pre and power amps and a Thorens turntable with an SME arm. The power! The bottom end! The attack (of the instruments), the ability to create this wonderful soundstage – I had no idea a system could recreate an event so powerful and emotional. That was an “imprinting moment” for me. [Gayle and I had joked about when we both heard a good audio system for the first time, and that it was like a baby duck being imprinted by the first thing it saw, thinking that was their mother, by sheer instinct. – FD]

One of Gayle Sanders’ first stereo rigs.

It changed me, but it was much later that it became clear that the pursuit of absolute perfection in reproducing sound would be my life’s calling.

FD: How did you meet Ron Sutherland? And how did you decide that electrostatic loudspeakers were “it,” and that you were going to pursue making them?

GS: My first exposure to electrostatic loudspeaker (ESL) technology goes back to the 1970s. I had finished college, and found myself selling audio in a wonderful store, David Beatty Stereo on the Plaza in KC. We had all the high-end products of the day and were on the cutting edge when new designers hit the market. Lloyd Bloodgood was the distributor for Stax ESL headphones and I auditioned them when they first arrived in the US. They were a revelation. Oh my god! When you put on those phones you heard detail, depth, and refinements that were light years beyond anything up to that period.

Retailing days: Gayle with a Technics turntable.

Fast forward a few years and Arnie Nudell hit the market with his new company Infinity Systems and a speaker system known as the Servo-Statik 1. For those of you not familiar with the history of Infinity, they started their fantastic career with a product so fricken revolutionary it was like going from a Model T car to a Mach 1 jet fighter. The market is still catching up. Anyway, that system consisted of RTR electrostatic tweeters combined with electrostatic midrange drivers designed and fabricated by the infinity team. The system also included an 18-inch floor-loaded servo-controlled subwoofer of their own design, driven by dedicated custom-designed amplification and (who had ever heard of it?!) with a servo control to monitor the motion of that monster woofer and correct it on the fly. Whaat? I was floored!

I went nuts for that system. When set up correctly, the power, the soundstage, the holographic image rendering and the resolution were light years beyond anything else up to that point.

All things considered, the Servo-Statik 1 would still be considered a reference system today – but it had some big problems. It had very little horizontal dispersion so it was a “one man” system in terms of listening in the sweet spot. It also broke constantly. The ‘stats deteriorated practically right before your eyes. Arnie and his team quickly moved on, and I got an appreciation of the significant hurdles yet to come if one wanted to bring electrostatic loudspeaker technology into everyday life.

Gayle Sanders and Ron Sutherland at the debut of the Monolith, CES 1982.

It wasn’t for another 10 years that I naively thought I could solve the daunting problems ESLs posed. In the 1980s I was designing and building speaker systems for bands, discos and private users at night and managing a stereo shop during the day. I was living in Lawrence, Kansas and had the engineering library at the University of Kansas at my disposal. I launched myself into researching all things electrostatic, from Navy documents to the wonderful papers Peter Walker of (electrostatic loudspeaker and electronics manufacturer) Quad had written.

I was also able to take advantage of all these aerospace materials that were becoming available. I could go through the Thomas Register (a directory of industrial suppliers) and at the time, all these companies who developed materials for organizations like NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were trying to get them into everyday use. And so they were open to anybody and everybody calling in, wanting to experiment with those materials. I was able to get people to crank up their R&D for the benefit of my little electrostatic project!

Electrostatics up until then had a reputation of being unreliable, but I was able to get my hands on new materials like Teflon, conformal coatings, new adhesives and transformers, and once you implement those, you can hit an electrostatic speaker hard and it can take it.

Soon I was building my first ESL panel. Those of you who have had a chance to visit the MartinLogan facility in Lawrence, KS have seen that first transducer. That’s when I met Ron Sutherland. Ron had graduate degrees in both physics and electrical engineering. We met at Kief’s Gramophone Shop, an audio shop I was managing at the time, and as we chatted about our passion for sound he volunteered to design our first power supply, crossover and transformer configuration to energize my transducer. Together, we were off and running.

Early MartinLogan manufacturing facility.

After a year of research and cobbling together the elements we had our first prototype. That first ESL transducer was something to behold. It looked like a bad screen door stuck together with plexiglass strips and contact cement. I had found some half-mil polymer film and managed to figure out how to etch it with graphite powder to get just the right conductive surface for the transducer diaphragm, and then sprayed the metal front and back frames that held it with a product called Rid-Arc (which was supposed to Insulate the stators and of course did not as you will see) to keep the diaphragm from arcing. So it was one ugly transducer!

I can still see us that night when we finally put things together and played our first prototype. It had been two years of work and the final monster at last sat in my living room.

It worked the minute we set the tone arm down. I was gobsmacked. Ron just stared at it as gorgeous music poured from this beyond-ugly beast. As we hugged and cried I shouted, “Let’s turn it up!” and of course, I then cranked it up to 13 and immediately the entire panel lit up in on one glorious lightning strike. KABOOM! And then, silence.

A puff of smoke curled itself around the panel and wafted to the ceiling. I looked at my Hafler DH200 amplifier that I had laboriously hand-assembled (from a kit) and saw a similar puff of smoke emanating from its vents. So much for our first transducer – the first of more than a thousand experiments. Well, at least 200. I learned that what causes electrostatic speakers to blow is extremely high voltage. You’re basically creating a lightning storm in the power supply, the transformer or the transducer itself.

But we were undaunted, and kept refining the design until we had success.

FD: What were some of the early success stories and failures of MartinLogan? The CLS was a sonic revelation when it first came out. The first time I heard one I was flabbergasted. I’ve read the story of how you decided to make it a curved-panel speaker, but could you elaborate for us?

GS: The CLS led me through one of the biggest success, failure, and resurrection-back-to-success journeys in my life. It actually started before our Monolith project, but it was way too difficult to create to be our first launch product. At the time I could see it as something on the horizon, but I knew the pathway was going to be long, treacherous and just as hard as the journey to develop the special high-efficiency, wide-dispersion, crossover-less, rugged ESL that had already taken me two years to develop.

CLS full-range electrostatic loudspeaker.

It’s so simple…right? All you have to do is create a full-range single-panel electrostatic transducer capable of reproducing all frequencies…an almost massless transducer with blazingly fast transient response reproducing all frequencies from highest to lowest. Without a crossover?! The diaphragm has to change motion up to 40,000 times in a second, as fast and as perfectly as that super-low-distortion amplifier tells it to move and yet – move mountains of air.  I mean, way beyond just the air in a normal living room, at frequencies where the wavelength extends from 10 feet long at 100Hz, descending into the nether regions of bass, and reaching to wavelengths that are longer than 40 feet at the lowest depths of bass. Deep bass is literally instantaneous barometric pressure change, amplified to the point where you can feel it in your body and soul. And subwoofers had not been created yet (with the exception of Arnie Nudell’s servo sub 10 years earlier).

So the MartinLogan story did not start with the CLS. From the beginning, the Hybrid Monolith speaker (with an electrostatic midrange/tweeter mated with a conventional dynamic cone woofer) made more sense. Limit the stat panel to 100Hz and above and let a traditional dynamic woofer handle the lower frequencies…perhaps not a perfect loudspeaker but hey, a damn good speaker that will rock the world. Good enough for me and that was easier and more practical than developing a full-range ESL. So, the Monolith was born. We introduced it at CES in 1982. Later, the Sequel was basically a Monolith cut in half! That was a big success story for MartinLogan.

One of the first Monolith loudspeakers.

Once we launched the Monolith, I would stare at that transducer – at the time it was rather crude looking and the membrane was opaque – and would envision what it would be like to create a pure, see-through speaker with just that ESL panel. That was the idea behind the CLS. Naturally, the company was still in start-up mode with limited financial resources, so it made sense to begin design work on the full-range CLS with the same metal framework material that we had purchased for the Monolith.

By then we had developed a rugged, high-efficiency (90dB) transducer and I had now invented and perfected a way to achieve uniform dispersion by developing the CLS Curvilinear Line Source. We literally curved the transducer to achieve a time-coherent 30-degree line source. That was a significant challenge. To curve the diaphragm is like trying to curve a polyester bag and make it hold that shape in free air. Trying to make it taut and hold that quasi-cylindrical shape plagued me for years.

One morning I woke up and as I was strumming a guitar I noticed that it embodied the same issue, and realized – If I could stretch the diaphragm in one direction (longitudinally) then I could literally implement an arc across its length and the system would become stable in that quasi-cylindrical mode. The idea was sound but the implementation took another few months, but before long I created not only one of the first high-efficiency, reliable electrostatic transducers, but one that finally achieved ideal dispersion. Not only that, as a dipole, it retained a vertical line source dispersion mode, which offered a host of advantages in terms of minimizing room interaction.

But I had to push the available technology at the time to the boundaries of materials science and physics. I began a huge effort to tackle the challenge presented by a full-range ESL – new stator materials capable of higher levels of rigidity, and advanced transformer designs capable of extreme voltages, among other things. Two years, every night working away. Failure after failure, but bit by bit I began extracting maximum performance out of that technology. We blew up a lot of ‘stat panels, transformers, and amplifiers that year, I’ll tell you, but by 1984 I could see what would become the CLS (later the CLS II) performing its magic for almost all but the lowest frequencies.

It was not an easy speaker to set up – move the placement fractions of an inch and things change – but when set up correctly, the performance, the ability to suspend disbelief, was incredible. I think it still sets a standard today for creating that ability to look beyond the sound and into every detail of that three-dimensional space, with multicolored dimensionality. It was breathtaking, just like my first experience with the Stax SRD-1 headphones.

Monolith, later version.

The day came to launch the new CLS at, I believe, CES 1986. By then Ron had left to start his own company, Sutherland Engineering, so I was on my own. The future was uncertain but I thought the world would love this new creation.

The launch was amazing. People were overwhelmed with its performance and we were truly off and running. Running hard. However, this revolutionary product with all of its advanced materials held within it a sinister problem. In the beginning it wasn’t apparent, but over time, a nagging problem would eventually show its ugly head and create a nightmare for me and everyone involved.

My first vision for the CLS was one uniform diaphragm with a 30-degree horizontal curve that produced a perfectly uniform diaphragm reproducing all frequencies. The problem that manifested itself over time was that the diaphragm tension would change, and as it changed, a resonance would occur. And that diaphragm had to produce huge excursions, yet remain uniform in behavior at all times. When this resonance developed it became a big nuisance – and over time, it happened to each and every CLS.

By this time we had over 200 pairs in the field. My dealers, distributors, their customers – everyone was calling me, angry as hell. They felt betrayed. And I felt a huge responsibility to each and every person involved. Finding a solution became my number one priority. But for the next few months, no matter what solution I tried, nothing worked. Day by day I approached that moment when I would have to give in to failure. If this happened, not only would it devastate my life, but also everyone in the wonderful team at MartinLogan, our dealers, our distributors, our customers…they all stood to be devastated by this huge challenge. It was all on my shoulders.

To be continued…

How Hi Would You Like Your Fi?

“High Fidelity” is an ambiguous term. How much Fidelity is required to be considered High Fidelity? “Fidelity” in a listening system refers to its ability to reproduce sound that is true to the original event. In recordings, the original event is the actual performance of the musicians, but what actually reaches the listeners at home is a representation of that event, as it could be captured onto a suitable storage medium by a given engineer. The fidelity of the recording to the actual event is not always very high, but we can assume that the product that reaches the market is as intended by the producer. The home listener cannot influence the recording process and the creative decisions taken at that time, other than by preferring to purchase certain recordings over others, with the increased sales volume usually translating to more recordings done in a similar manner.

On the listening side of things, then, high fidelity means that the listening system will play back a recording as it was intended to be heard, which means that it should sound similar to what the producers heard in the studio. The more similar it gets, the higher the fidelity of the listening system to the original.

In Issue 120, Philip Newell stated, “it has been shown in various large international studies that the average [frequency response] of all domestic listening experiences is virtually flat.”

If we were to document a sufficiently large number of domestic listening system frequency responses to ensure statistical integrity, we would discover that although the responses of the individual systems are not usually flat on their own, the statistical average of a large-enough sample of responses would actually be flat.

If one system is a bit bass-heavy and another a bit bass-light, the deviations from flatness would cancel out statistically and the average response of these two systems would be flat. This does not in any way increase the fidelity of either system, or render them more accurate.

By definition, being bass-heavy or bass-light represents a lack of accuracy. Neither of the two would reproduce the originally intended sound of a recording and would instead “color” all recordings according to their response errors.

A true high-fidelity system must demonstrate fidelity towards the original recording, so it must have a flat frequency/phase response as well as a flat dynamic response, so as not to impose its own character upon each recording. Any deviation from flatness, either due to the audio components and loudspeakers themselves, or due to their interaction with the domestic listening environment (the influence of the room acoustics), therefore reduces the fidelity of the system.

There is not much that can be done at the recording side to compensate for the large variety of domestic listening systems and their individual deviations from a flat response. Where the statistical average becomes important, though, is in reinforcing the argument for using accurate monitoring with a flat frequency/phase/dynamic response in all stages of production.

Accurate monitor speakers are a necessity in a recording studio. Image courtesy of Wikipedia/Thelmadatter.

The listeners who do use truly high-fidelity systems will certainly be able to enjoy the intended sound as it was recorded and mastered, but also, those with less accurate listening systems who will not be able to hear the intended sound will at least hear something that is hopefully not too far off from the original recording as heard by the producer. The statistical average works out to a flat response because of the large variety in response errors in all possible directions.

If we were to work on a recording in the studio using reduced-fidelity monitoring, we would encounter two major issues: first of all, it would become very difficult to judge how much of what we were hearing was really there in the recording and how much was augmented or concealed by the individual response errors of the monitoring system. It could easily happen that the end, home listeners would hear things that the producers were not even aware of. Trying to “shape” the sound would be a rather futile exercise, as we would end up merely compensating for the errors of the monitoring system, which would not translate well to other systems with different deviations from flatness.

The second issue is directly related to statistics. If the monitoring system happens to be bass-heavy, a recording that sounds just right under these conditions may translate well to a similarly bass-heavy domestic listening system, but would be guaranteed to sound completely asthenic on a different, bass-light domestic system. Even worse, it wouldn’t even sound right on an expensive high-fidelity system. Actually, the statistical probability of such a recording sounding good on any system is in fact quite low!

By comparison, a recording produced using accurate monitoring would sound bass-heavy on a bass-heavy system, bass-light on a bass-light system and just right on other, more accurate systems. It would be unlikely to sound totally inappropriate on any reasonable reproduction system and the overall listening experience would tend to improve in direct proportion to the amount of effort and money invested in the listening environment, which makes logical sense. The listeners with the highest expectations will usually invest more in accurate systems and will be rewarded with a suitably refined listening experience.

So, why aren’t all listening systems accurate, then?

A truly accurate listening system is difficult to design and implement, tends to be expensive, large and heavy, and the room in which the system is operating is an integral part, but the requirements for rendering a room “accurate” would rarely be considered acceptable in a domestic setting.

Even if we are to take a pair of loudspeakers of outstanding accuracy, when measured in an anechoic chamber or in a studio designed around them, simply placing them within a typical domestic living room will likely be enough to destroy their accuracy. The loudspeakers work together with the room as one system. One must complement the other. If uncompromised accuracy is the goal, the speakers must be designed for the room and the room must be designed for the speakers. Even the HVAC system and electrical installation must be designed as part of the total system environment. This is how world-class studios are designed, but rarely does anyone go to such lengths for their domestic entertainment.

But what if we did?

So, let’s assume that money and space are in ample supply, the entire family is in agreement and we have assembled an all-star team of experts to design our dream listening room, capable of truly accurate music reproduction. We begin with a large empty shell with a 24-foot ceiling height, only to end up with a much smaller sized listening room. The acoustic treatment necessary tends to consume enormous amounts of space. We haul in and permanently install gigantic loudspeakers, having first ensured that the foundations of the building can cope with the loading, which would normally only be encountered in heavy industrial facilities. Each decorative item, including furniture, must be carefully designed in.

Room treatment doesn’t have to be aesthetically challenging! Acoustic Art Panels from GIK Acoustics.

After many months of work, our listening room is finally complete. We take a stack of records and expect to be completely blown away…only to discover that about 90 percent of the recordings we own actually sound rather disappointing. We start noticing all the little details we had never before heard. Breathing sounds, footsteps, clothes rubbing, rumble, a car honking in the distance, an airplane flying above, unintended notes, an unnatural frequency balance, obvious edits!

These are often a result of inadequate studio monitoring when the recording was made. Or perhaps recordings made under time pressure. Most listeners will never notice. Most domestic listening systems will never reveal such detail.

But while 90 percent of the recordings out there will probably not be very satisfying when all the detail is revealed, the 10 percent of the truly excellent recordings will be quite an experience! It then becomes a matter of hunting down that 10 percent, seeking thrill after thrill.

A truly accurate system cannot possibly make everything sound good. It cannot be flattering. It must be merciless in exposing every little flaw in a recording. This is a fundamental requirement in the recording side of things. But monitoring a recording is not done for pleasure. Domestic listening, on the other hand, is usually considered entertainment.

Quoting Philip Newell again, but this time from his book, Recording Studio Design: “Really, nobody in their right minds would want to hear an unintentionally bad sound for the purposes of seeking enjoyment.”

Is it entertaining to have all the flaws of a recording exposed?

This is largely a matter of personal opinion.

Will you choose the blue pill, or the red pill?

Do you really want to know what is going on under the surface, or do you prefer the pretty picture which will allow you to sleep easier at night?

 

Header image courtesy of Pixabay/CSTRSK.

Visión Musical: The Mavericks’ En Español

“That voice!”

I had just posted the newly released video of “La Sitiera” from The Mavericks’ new album En Español on one of the forums I visited that day, and this was the reply that stood out to me.

That has stuck in my head ever since. Not because it was any new revelation to me, but that even a music lover not familiar with The Mavericks and especially the soaring tenor voice of Raul Malo immediately recognized one of the strengths of the band, which celebrates its 31st anniversary with its latest album, En Español.

 

As the title promises, En Español is an album recorded entirely in Spanish. Such an album seems unlikely from what started as a Miami-based country band that racked up a string of top 40 country hits, beginning with the hit record “What A Crying Shame” and culminating in perhaps their most popular song: “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down,” which features Tejano legend Flaco Jimenez guesting on accordion. Starting with their following album Trampoline, the Mavs would bump up the Latin music influences with each new release, demonstrating how the flexibility of the band and Raul Malo’s musical vision refused to keep them pigeonholed in the narrow confines of Nashville’s predominantly country music leanings.

After a run of albums, the band went on hiatus (with a brief regrouping in 2003). Malo released a series of solo records that further stretched his musical interests, and took part in other projects such as Los Super Seven. Upon regrouping in the early 2010s, The Mavericks made up for lost time with the In Time album, a reintroduction to the band that showed them at the top of their game. They would then release a string of themed albums that combined and expanded upon their wide-ranging interests. Mono was a pop music recording mixed and mastered in monaural. Brand New Day touched on a few topical subjects such as equality (the title track), the joys of marijuana (the delightful Tejano-flavored “Rolling Along”), and a Cuban-influenced jab at current events with “Easy as It Seems.” Hey! Merry Christmas serves up some wonderful new holiday tracks along with two covers of familiar tunes.

Their 2019 album, Play the Hits, gathers up cleverly arranged cover tunes that influenced the band throughout their career. Changing things up and avoiding familiar rehashes of these familiar songs, Malo and company turn Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” into a lazy horn-driven shuffle with some Duane Eddy guitar seasoning, add a Tejano flavor to the Patty Loveless hit “Blame It on Your Heart,” and update the old Dale and Grace chestnut “I’m Leaving It Up to You.” In addition to a reverent cover of the Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells tune “Once Upon A Time” as a duet with Martina McBride, Raul brings the house down with his heart-on-the-sleeve rendition of Freddie Fender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” accompanied only by guitar and accordion.

That same restless musical spirit and wide variety of song choices manifests itself with this latest album, En Español. According to Malo, this is an album he has wanted to make with The Mavericks for quite some time. Granted, his voice is so front and center on this album that you might mistake it for one of his solo recordings. Yet you could not ask for any better band behind him than The Mavericks, and he envisioned this album with the band in mind. Not only is there the familiarity of their trademark sound behind him, the band members are flexible and open-minded enough that they are the perfect ensemble to back el maestro on this outstanding set.

The idea for an all-Spanish album was in the works for years, but the seeds began to grow in earnest when Malo, a first generation Cuban-American whose parents left Cuba around 1960, was the subject of the PBS production “Havana Time Machine,” where he visits Cuba for the first time. He performs with local musicians, meets the members of the Cuban rock band Sweet Lizzy Project (who he would later assist in bringing to the US and mentor), and performs with The Mavericks. Following that, the idea blossomed and grew into what became this album.

Not content to make this an all-Mariachi, all-Salsa, all-Cuban or all-Tejano album, Malo manages to touch on many varieties of Latin American and Cuban music throughout the album.  The stunning cinematic opening track sets the tone for the set, the grand arrangement a far cry from the version waxed by Cuban bandleader and singer Abelardo Barroso decades ago.  Likewise, the album’s playful closer, “Me Voy a Pinar del Rio,” dates back to a 1956 recording by Cuban singer Celia Cruz with the group Sonora Matancera.

Two other tunes I’ve known for most of my life are “Sabor a Mí” and “Cuando Me Enamoro.” The former, composed by Mexican singer and composer Alvaro Carrillo, was originally popularized by Trio Los Panchos with Eydie Gormé, with Mexican singer Luis Miguel making a hit out of it again in 1997. The latter was originally written in Italian (as “Quando M’Innamoro”) and sung by Italian singer Anna Identici as well as the American vocal group The Sandpipers (where I first heard it), but has been covered in many languages over the years; the most popular English rendering is likely Engelbert Humperdinck’s “A Man Without Love.”

 

Somewhat newer, “Me Olvide de Vivir” is a tune that touches closer to the heart – originally sung by Julio Iglesias, the tune was a favorite of Malo’s grandfather, and was played often around the household. It is another of those freely-flowing tunes that has a cinematic feel with Raul’s soaring tenor and a touch of strings.

Among these and other classic tunes, Malo co-composed five new tunes with collaborator Alejandro Menendez Vega who assisted with the Spanish lyrics, making use of an old Argentinian rhyming dictionary to help with the verses. One of the new songs, “Suspiro Azul,” was also co-composed with Lisset Diaz and Miguel Comas of Sweet Lizzy Project. These new tunes fit the rest of the album perfectly, thanks to the touches the band applies to these tracks.  The originals “Poder Vivir” and “Recuerdos” were the first two single releases from the album; the latter adds a nod to Mongo Santamaria’s “Sofrito” in its coda.

 

One great thing about this album is that even if you don’t know a single word of Spanish, the album is welcoming and listenable. The band members’ considerable talent and familiarity with each other make the presentation a very cohesive whole – their chameleon-like ability to adapt to any of the musical styles presented here, yet still sound only like The Mavericks, is commendable. Co-founding member Paul Deakin still keeps up a reliable backbone on the drum kit, and longtime keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden provides supple keyboard lines throughout.  Guitarist Eddie Perez, who joined circa 2003, doesn’t get a chance to shred here, but becomes an essential supporting musician in the fabric that the band provides behind Malo’s vocals.  Kudos to the rest of the Mavericks band for their contributions as well!

Don’t let a simple thing like a language barrier get in the way of enjoying this excellent album. Beautifully performed and executed, it is one of this year’s best albums. Apparently, the music-buying public agrees – it debuted at number one on the Billboard Latin Pop chart. Not a bad accomplishment for a band that started playing country music over three decades ago in Miami!

The album is available in CD and download versions (you can get the hi-res version from Qobuz), and on two 2-LP variations – a standard black, or a marbled blue vinyl version available only from local record stores. The limited edition signed version pictured here, pressed on blue/pink/black splatter vinyl, sold out quickly. The album’s packaging includes English translations of the lyrics.

A Brief Public Service Message:

The Mavericks and Raul Malo have been active on social media, promoting themselves and the band as often as possible. Malo has even released a long-running series of “Quarantunes” ranging from solo pieces recorded in his Nashville home to studio productions featuring The Mavericks. Via Nugs.TV, they have so far hosted two one-hour video on demand presentations.  With all this and the new album, they have kept interest up and, despite these challenging times, were still able to produce an album for us.

Unfortunately, they cannot tour for En Español this year – any “live” performances are being done in-studio without an audience. The lack of touring this year has pinched The Mavericks and every other band and artist out there who depends on touring. Even more disturbing is that the support staff – the roadies and truck drivers, the tour managers and engineers, instrument technicians and personal assistants – have had no work at all during this pandemic. Being such a specialized field, these are not jobs that are easily replaced by changing employers.

By supporting your favorite bands and artists during these difficult times, you can help ensure that when they return to the road, they will be able to rebound that much faster when they are able to bring their music to your towns. What really helps is if you buy directly from their own sites – the profits from the sale go directly to the band. It might cost a few dollars more, but it’s well worth it, don’t you think?

 

Images courtesy of The Mavericks’ management.

My Audio Journey, Part Two

Copper reader Adrian Wu lives in Hong Kong and has spent time in the UK and elsewhere, as you will see. He is a contributor to the Asia Audio Society website, dedicated to reference-quality sound and reproduction. In Part One (Issue 120) he shared his early audio experiences, his introduction to high-end audio and recording, and his enthusiasm for vintage gear. His journey continues here.

In my quest for ever-better sound I had purchased a pair of vintage Brook 12A amplifiers – but they came with a story. These amps use 2A3 output tubes in push-pull configuration, and were supposed to be Paul Klipsch’s favorite to drive his Klipschorns. The seller told me that the amplifiers he was selling were defective, the reason for the low price. He had bought them in a non-functioning state and had hired a technician to restore them. However, they sounded distorted even after restoration.

The Brook 12A amplifier.

The original wiring of the Brook was a rat’s nest, unlike the British and German amps I had encountered. After I received the amps, I confirmed that the sound was indeed distorted. I downloaded the schematic and checked the wiring. Everything appeared to be in order. I studied the schematic carefully and noticed that the polarity of one bypass cap was reversed. The cathodes of the 2A3s are directly connected to ground via the heater transformers, which means the control grids are at negative potential. The cap that bypasses the grids to ground should therefore have the positive terminal connected to ground, instead of the negative terminal as shown on the schematic. The technician must have used the same schematic (there was only one schematic on line as far as I could find), and made the same mistake. It would have been fine if he had used non-polar electrolytics. After reversing the polarity of the capacitors, the amps sounded like magic. I wrote to the seller to give him the news, and he was not pleased!

The next question was, which components should be used to restore the Brook? I tried Jupiter wax capacitors (the original version), which was a mistake, as they didn’t do well with the heat generated by the amplifiers. There was a temptation to use American components of the same vintage as the amps, such as the Sprague Black Beauties, but I worry about the reliability of these ancient components. I ended up putting in antique Siemens paper caps, since I had the right values on hand. For resistors, I used my favorite Kiwame carbon films. These retain the tone of the carbon composition resistors while maintaining stability, and they don’t burst into flame either. For chassis wire, I removed the cheap wire the technician put in, and used new production cotton-sheathed copper wire to maintain the antique look.

Interior of the Brook 12A amplifier, showing the Siemens coupling capacitors.

The pair of Telefunken V69 amplifiers I also bought around this time period actually came as a V69 and a V69a. The difference being that the older V69 has EF12 metal pentodes at the front, and the V69a has EF804S (glass) tubes. Coincidentally, my recording partner had a mismatched pair of V69/V69a amps as well. We therefore did a swap, and he kept the V69s, while I kept the V69as. The amps I bought had been sitting in a basement somewhere in Germany for 40 years. The metal had rusted, but with a bit of elbow grease, the layer of rust was removed from the very sturdy steel cage. The amp is a beautiful example of German quality and precision. Paper capacitors were used throughout, with not a single electrolytic to be found. All the resistors (wirewound) had retained their original values. All the caps were encased in ceramic, and therefore should last forever. I went through and checked everything several times, and decided to bite the bullet and just turn them on to see if they worked. I did not even use a Variac (to gradually bring them up to operating voltage, which is recommended when powering up vintage gear); I just plugged them in and flicked the switches. No bang, no smoke, even the indicator lights worked. I adjusted the tube bias and played some music. There was no noise, but there was some distortion. However, it was amazing that these amps with their original tubes were stored in a dank basement for 40 years and still worked almost perfectly without restoration.

Telefunken V69a amplifier with new chrome faceplate.

The frequency response of the amps was way off. It turned out that the insulation of the input transformers has broken down after all those years. Teflon wasn’t available for transformers in those days, and they used paper insulation. The dampness in the basement had destroyed the insulation. I contacted Telefunken USA and they were very kind to agree to rewind the transformers for me using the original specifications, but with Teflon insulation. The measured performance of the amps went back to the original spec with the restored input trannies.

The amps came with the standard battleship gray faceplates of all the Telefunken studio gear of the time. I had the plates replicated but with a chrome finish, which looked more in place in a domestic setting.

I have compared the three vintage amps I own for driving my restored Quad ESL electrostatic loudspeakers and a pair of Tannoy SRM10B studio monitors. The Leak TL12.1 has a lovely midrange; the bass is a bit soft, but it sounds very engaging and musical. The Brook 12A has a more detailed sound, with more clarity and transparency, especially in the upper registers. It is really lovely for strings and vocal. As for the Telefunken V69a, these amps use pentode output tubes, whereas the Leak has triode-connected KT66 and the Brook has directly-heated triodes. The V69a have better bass, with more impact and a more solid foundation. Music takes on a larger scale. This amp is also very detailed and transparent, but sounds a bit lean when compared to the Leak. I feel they are tonally more neutral though. I would prefer the V69a for rock and large scale orchestral music, the Brook for chamber music and female vocalists, and the Leak if a warmer sound is desired.

Going back to my day to day system: after moving back to Hong Kong from the US, the conrad-johnson PV10a preamp and Aragon amplifier now needed step-up transformers. Having  upgraded my front end with a Michell Orbe turntable, Graham 2.2 arm and Lyra Helikon cartridge, I wanted to improve the other parts of the system as well.

Michell Orbe turntable.

I first met Tim de Paravicini at the Heathrow Penta Hi Fi show in the mid-1980s. He demonstrated his amplifiers with a Revox reel to reel tape player and stacked Quad ESLs, which was certainly unusual at the time and hard to forget. I’d kept in touch with him from time to time, and had always wanted to own his designs. During a trip to London, I went to Walrus Systems in London (now closed) and auditioned some of the EAR amplifiers. I ended up buying the 834P phono stage and the V12 integrated amplifier. The V12 was interesting as it used parallel push-pull ECC83 small-signal tubes for output! The current incarnation uses EL84s, and I have not heard it, but the original version had a rather distinct sonic signature. They actually worked rather well with the ESL, giving a very transparent, involving presentation.

As I got more into vintage audio, I found out that I could buy non-functioning or poorly functioning audio components, restore them to original specifications, and sell them for profit.  Since I have more fun restoring and optimizing them than keeping them, this was a good way to sustain the hobby without the headache of finding somewhere to store the equipment. Hong Kong has a very vibrant audio scene and it is very easy to sell vintage and good-quality audio gear. For popular items, I could usually sell them within a day of placing an ad on the popular Review33 website. I was able to source equipment through classified ads abroad and this allowed me to gain knowledge through experimentation to find the best components for restoration.

I also got to know various local artisans such as transformer makers that few people knew existed. Various Leak and Pye amplifiers came and went, and my hobby was financially self-sustaining. I also started to look into turntables, specifically Garrards. My first 301 came about after I spied a Schedule 2 machine on a slate plinth (made by the now defunct Slate Audio) with an SME 3012/II arm and Clearaudio cartridge at a second hand shop in London for the grand price of 1000 pounds. The turntable had already been serviced and the whole thing was plug and play. I sold the cartridge and mounted my Lyra Helikon. It had the drive and the solidity that I felt was lacking in the Orbe. The music had more presence due to the improved dynamics. I decided this one was a keeper and sold the Orbe instead. I subsequently upgraded to a late grease-bearing model, selling the Schedule 2 to a Japanese enthusiast for a good price. As for the SME, as it had a plastic knife-edge bearing, it was a good excuse to upgrade to a bronze knife, and I rewired the arm with silver wire and added a bronze base for good measure. I stayed with this table for 15 years, only recently exchanging some of its parts for a Classic Turntable Company 301. The superior main bearing, sturdier chassis and perfectly balanced platter brought a huge improvement. The improved speed stability results in better dynamics and tonal stability, the lower noise floor manifests as better transparency, and the frequency response also became more extended. This turntable is probably the greatest bargain on the market, especially when compared to the reissue 301 from SME.

The SME reissue of the legendary Garrard 301 turntable.

I left academia after six years, having experienced the SARS epidemic while working at a public hospital. It was an experience I thought at the time I would never see again, but how wrong was I! I was also totally fed up with the politics of academia. After a few years, with the kids getting older, I thought it would be a good idea to move to a larger apartment closer to work. It was a perfect excuse to realize my long-planned project: horn loudspeakers.

As the apartment needed to be gutted and totally renovated, I engaged a friend who was an acoustical architect to design the lounge (my wife is an architect, but she was very tolerant!). This friend worked for a number of years at the Arup Group in the UK and was responsible for the design of a number of concert halls and performance venues before returning to Hong Kong to set up his design firm. He also advised the late Mr. Winston Ma (former owner of First Impression Music) during the construction of his listening room near Seattle in the late 1990s. I got to know my friend when I wanted to use a concert hall he designed for a recording session. The hall quickly gained a reputation as having the best acoustics in the territory.

After the first site visit of the new apartment, he liked what he saw, since the room was irregular, and had no parallel walls but had the correct dimensions. He designed the air conditioning system, a subject of great importance to me as AC noise has always been a problem in many recording venues, so much so that we try to avoid doing recordings in the summer. Four-inch acoustical foam was placed strategically inside the walls and the ceiling. He also designed a ceiling to break up the standing waves, a design that sent my wife into a tizzy, and which the contractor declared was impossible to build. We ended up with a compromise, a ceiling that slopes at different angles in four directions. It actually does not look so weird once we got used to it, but it always elicits some reaction from new visitors.  He even designed the LP shelves on one wall to control the first reflections from the loudspeakers, with the records stored at a precise angle of 23 degrees.

The built in bass trap doubles as a storage unit (or is it the other way around?). The idea was to make it a normal living room with only subtle hints of acoustical treatment. When I check the RTA (real time analysis, a measurement of the frequency spectrum of an audio signal) from time to time, I am still amazed at the smoothness of the frequency response. And the AC is completely silent. Most importantly, being in an apartment, the room is soundproofed with a subfloor floating on rubber insulation (to isolate it from the walls, which transmit noise to other floors of the building), and the same type of doors that are used in recording studios were installed for the front entrance and the corridor leading to the bedrooms.

In the meantime, a pair of new horn speakers were planned. I had heard various horn iterations over the years in friends’ systems. Trips to Tokyo also presented opportunities to visit horn builders as well as antique audio dealers. I visited Jean Hiraga in Paris while he was still the editor of the magazine La Nouvelle Revue Du Son. He had set up at the time a pair of Altec A5 Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers, with his own crossovers, driven by Hafler solid state amps (no 300Bs!). The source was the original Philips CD player (probably modified, but my French at the time was not good enough to ask for details). Not exactly how I imagined it would be given his reputation. However, the sound was quite a revelation. Very dynamic, life-like and musical. He gave me a tube data manual (in French) as a gift. I also visited La Maison de L’Audiophile during that trip. Jean subsequently visited Hong Kong and gave me advice while I was setting up my horn system.

Altec A5 loudspeakers, “The Voice of the Theatre.”

During a trip to LA, I visited Dr. Bruce Edgar, creator of Edgarhorn loudspeakers. He was a very kind man and full of knowledge and experience. Unfortunately, he was in poor health at the time, having just got out of hospital after a leg infection, but he still spent an afternoon with me. I finally settled on the combination of an EV (ElectroVoice) T350 tweeter, a JBL2450 midrange (picked up at a good price in Hollywood) and Altec 515C bass drivers. I had trouble finding a good pair of vintage 515C. I then found out that an outfit called Great Plains Audio was servicing Altec drivers, and they had just started to produce some new drivers. I called the owner and explained to him what I wanted, but he was a bit bemused to learn that I wanted the Alnico version. He could not understand why since he did not believe it was in any way better than the ferrite version, and it loses magnetism over time. Anyway, I convinced him that there was a market for it, and he agreed finally to produce a prototype. Months passed, and he finally contacted me, telling me that he had a pair of prototypes that performed to the original spec. I bought them, and the 515C has been a regular item on his catalogue ever since.

I had considered various high-frequency drivers such as the JBL 077 and various Fostex models, but I had been impressed with the sound of the EV T350 at a friend’s place. Pretty much the only thing that can go wrong with these drivers is the voice coil, and amazingly, EV still produces these phenolic diaphragms. I bought a pair of 400 Hz rectangular exponential horns and reflex bass cabinets from a builder (Tatematu Onko, no longer in business) in Japan, the latter designed specifically for the 515C. I decided to use active crossovers, which allows for easy adjustments, maximizes sensitivity of the speakers and avoids adding reactance. I built a three-way crossover from Marchand Electronics initially, and subsequently switched to an Accuphase F-25 analogue frequency divider.

To backtrack a bit, a few years before I started the horn project, I got to know Allen Wright.  In my quest to learn more about amplifier circuits, I came across his writing on the internet.  Allen was an Australian guru who started his career as a technician at Tektronix. He designed the amplifier used in oscilloscopes, which were all tube-based in those days. These amplifiers needed to be extremely quiet and linear up to the megahertz range. He then decided to tackle audio and set up his own company, Vacuum State Electronics. He was very well respected within the DIY circle, and was in high demand for doing modifications and upgrades, as well as consulting for manufacturers.

He was developing his Realtime Preamplifier at the time, and wanted beta testers to iron out problems. I became one of his 10 beta testers, and was sent the components and the chassis to build the preamp. The design is very complicated, with a phono section that has an input sensitivity of 0.1mV. It is a dual mono, balanced differential design based on the E88CC tube. It has a shunt regulated power supply. Allen had a set of principles that he steadfastly adhered to. These included:

  1. A fully differential circuit.
  2. Zero negative feedback.
  3. Internal wiring with the thinnest conductors (solid wire and foil), preferably in pure silver
  4. He advocated using the cheapest RCA plugs and sockets (the conductors in audiophile connectors are too thick), or preferably, the Lemo Redel connectors (non-magnetic connectors normally used in MRI scanners and the defense industry).
  5. Teflon dielectric.
  6. All electrical “anchor points” are tightly regulated, which means the extensive use of current sinks and current sources to achieve the highest impedance possible.
  7. Choke-filtered power supply with solid state rectification. Fast-recovery diodes for high voltages, Schottky diodes for low voltages.

Vacuum State Electronics Realtime RTP3D preamplifier.

The whole experience was an excellent learning exercise, not only in the theory of audio electronics, but also in the art of point-to-point wiring construction. It took a good two years to finalize the prototype. The preamp is very quiet, dynamic and tonally neutral. I used it as my phono preamp for several years before buying a factory built RTP-3D version. Last year, I modified the prototype to serve as my tape head preamplifier.

For power amplification, I am using two pairs of Allen’s DPA300B tube amps. These amps have a differential input stage using a pair of the Russian 6H30Pi in cascode to drive a pair of 300B power tubes in push-pull configuration. These amps serve the tweeters and mid-range drivers, while a Mark Levinson No. 27.5 amplifier drives the bass.

Back to the loudspeaker discussion: a few years ago, I was introduced to a friend who had built a speaker system using field coil drivers made by G.I.P. Laboratory in Japan. These are recreations of the ancient Western Electric drivers, and are extremely expensive. The system had very impressive dynamics, but he was still working on integrating the various drivers, and the system was not very coherent as a whole.  However, what it did do well got me interested in field coils. [A field coil loudspeaker uses an electromagnet which needs to be powered by DC, as opposed to more conventional speakers that use permanent magnets. – Ed.]  The GIP drivers were out of my price range, but Line Magnetic in China also produces similar drivers at a somewhat lower price level.

However, I don’t believe 80 years of advances in science and engineering could not improve upon these ancient designs.  Classic Audio Loudspeakers in Brighton, Michigan produces a line of modern field coil drivers using state of the art materials such as beryllium diaphragms, and the designs are based on Altec and JBL drivers. This meant I could get drop-in replacements to use in my current set up with minimal adjustments required. After detailed discussion with John Wolff, the designer of these drivers, I bought a pair of 6475, which is based on the JBL475, the consumer version of the 2450, and a pair of 1501, based on the Altec 515.

Classic Audio Loudspeakers 6475 driver.

The higher breakup frequency of the beryllium diaphragms allows me to operate the midrange drivers up to a higher frequency, and I moved the crossover frequency up an octave to 7kHz. There was an immediate and marked improvement with the new drivers.  There is more detail and the dynamics, both at the micro and macro level, are greatly improved. The bass notes are faster and more tuneful. One can perceive the vibrations of the membrane of the tympani after each strike of the mallet. The tonal color of the instruments seems more natural and real.

I also changed from the T350s to the Acapella ion tweeters, something I had been very interested in doing ever since I heard them several years before. These tweeters use high-energy electrical plasma to vary air pressure and create sound.  What I liked about the T350 is that the phenolic diaphragms avoid the hard edge that metal diaphragms can impart on the high frequencies. Yet the ion tweeters go further and impart a totally natural, ethereal quality to string tone, female voice and percussive instruments. The better high-frequency extension also gives an enhanced perception of space and depth.  I estimate that the ion drivers made the greatest difference to my system, even though the frequency response of my ears rolls off above 12 kHz!

Acapella ion tweeter.

As I feel I have finally accomplished a satisfactory result with my speakers, I have moved on to deal with the recordings that I have made over the years. I needed a master recorder for editing and playback of the tapes. The Nagra IV-S is good for neither task; its playback electronics are more of an afterthought, and it does not allow for precise positioning of the tape for editing. The Nagra T-Audio recorder was initially developed as a scientific instrument, and later adapted for the television and film industry. Due to its substantial cost when it was introduced, it was too expensive for most music studios. The listed price in 1983 was £26,000, enough to buy a modest house in London!

Luckily, by the mid-2000s, analogue had fallen out of favor, and I was able to pick one up, fully refurbished with new heads, from Nagra for 8,000 CHF (about $8,800 US). I was attracted to its small footprint and the amazingly precise mechanical function, which makes tape editing very easy. However, the playback electronics of the machine, while competent, are not up to audiophile standard. The extensive use of 1980s-vintage op-amps and complicated compensation networks give the sound an unnatural, electronic character, although the dynamics and scale of the sound are outstanding.

Nagra T-Audio tape recorder.

There is now a trend for audiophiles to bypass the native electronics of professional recorders, and this was what I did. I wired the playback head with solid core pure silver wire directly to my prototype preamp, after modifying the RIAA EQ network for IEC and Nagramaster equalizations. (Most commercially available 15-ips tapes nowadays use IEC EQ, and all my own recordings use Nagramaster EQ.) It took some experimentation to optimize the frequency response, but the end result is highly satisfactory. The writeup about the modifications has been published at my group’s website (the Asia Audio Society) for those who are interested in the technical details. Tape playback avoids the pitfalls of LPs, such as distortion, noise and dynamic compression. It also sounds more natural and musical than the majority of digital recordings.

Commercial recordings are becoming available on 15-ips reel tapes from companies such as Tape Project, Analogue Productions and others. I also have a collection of master tape copies of some of my favorite music, which I have obtained from a couple of recording engineers in Europe.

I feel I have finally arrived at a sound that I find quite satisfactory, and I can just enjoy the music without worrying about what I need to do next (for a while).

However, I have been neglecting my turntable for quite a while! And I have not even started looking at digital…

Adrian Wu’s current system.

Interview With Gary Gottlieb of the Audio Engineering Society

Unlike other scientific fields that are related to physics, the products that result from audio engineering can often be said to have an almost magical component that makes the fusion of acoustic principles and electronics art as well as science. The Audio Engineering Society (AES) has been a driving force in professional audio and its members offer a panoply of experiences and knowledge. As a result, AES has had to serve in many capacities, and continues to evolve.

The AES Show Fall 2020 will, like so many trade shows, take place virtually this year, from October 4 – 31. John Seetoo took the opportunity to talk with Gary Gottlieb, AES Eastern Region Vice President, and Co-Chair, AES Historical Committee and Conference Policy Committee. Gottlieb was also was one of the judges in the Student Recording Competition at the 132nd AES Convention in Budapest.

Engineer, author, and educator Gary Gottlieb, AES Eastern region Vice President.

John Seetoo: From a historical perspective, in what ways has AES had to be a referee in settling disputes between factions? The disputes may have been over technical standards, practices, legal requirements or anything else.

Gary Gottlieb: Audio engineering bridges the gulf between the aesthetic and the technical, and while many observers suppose these two are in conflict, I actually believe they move in harmony. AES serves those whose leanings are technical as well as those of us who lean towards the aesthetic aspects of audio. We started as a science-based organization and expanded over the years to embrace our artistic side. While we remain dedicated to the science underlying our art, we acknowledge that technology drives art as well as art driving technology. These philosophies work together to help all of us, and substantial conflict is rare. Where there is conflict, AES provides a forum for resolution.

Hip Hop icon Grandmaster Flash delivers the Keynote address during the opening ceremony of AES New York 2019.

JS: In a related question, in what ways has AES had to act as a watchdog?

GG: One of AES’s core functions is the development of standards. In that context we are always the industry watchdog as we set workflow-enhancing standards for equipment interconnection and best practices that benefit practitioners throughout our industry. Beyond establishing standards it is not AES’s responsibility to act as a watchdog, the one exception being that we are a civil, convivial group, and when hate speech of any type erupts, we deal with it effectively and efficiently. In conjunction with our Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and on social media, AES has had a strong voice in addressing human rights issues and supporting equality throughout all communities.

JS: In what ways has AES needed to adapt to new technological breakthroughs? Please cite the instances when AES was a leader and when it was a laggard, and how AES rectified its slow reaction in these instances.

GG: Since so many of these breakthroughs have involved AES members, we are typically ahead of the curve. We are usually aware of new technological developments and we frequently have the chance to preview and influence early prototypes of upcoming technologies at our conventions and conferences. When it comes to the tech side of our industry I cannot think of a time when we lagged behind.

JS: In the early days of AES, were engineers who specialized in music recording viewed as rivals to engineers who specialized in film sound recording and to those in broadcasting and in live event sound reinforcement? From my experience during the 1980s, music engineers, film sound engineers and live venue engineers all had a tendency to stay in their respective fields with little crossover.

GG: Today’s AES has successfully brought audio professionals with diverse specialties together under a big tent.

Engineer/producer Sylvia Massy shares mixing and production tips during a “Mix with the Masters” session on the AES New York 2019 exhibition floor.

JS: Given the unique skill sets involved in each different sector, what were the opinions that each held towards the others in the past?

GG: There were some groups of audio professionals who were included into the organization more slowly than others, although I do not believe this was intentional or based on any preconceived differences between groups. When I joined AES in the 1980s I had friends who ran sound in the theatre district. They had never heard of AES, and now they are members. It was because of isolation, not animosity. Over the years, many groups beyond music recording and production, including those involved in sound reinforcement, remote recording, broadcast, home studios, forensics, archiving, preservation, and education have all come together to share our skills and celebrate both our commonalities and our differences.

JS: Was there a perceived pecking order that may have stemmed from industry pay scales, the difficulty of working in one field versus another, or other factors?

Staff from the Professional Audio Design booth at AES New York 2019 demonstrate gear including Sontronics microphones, Augsperger studio monitors and AMS Neve consoles.

GG: I have never been aware of a pecking order based on pay scale. Certainly, within any given discipline there are the stars and there are the grinders. I defer to my friend with 22 Grammys. I do not sense any jealousy or other hierarchical issues within groups, although I am certainly sympathetic to how tired my boom operator friend’s arms must get.

JS: At what point did the skill sets merge and producers expected engineers to provide an overlap of different job sector requirements that still met professional standards?

GG: This is an interesting question. I have given talks on the evolving and merging roles of producers and engineers. In the 1980s the two were more distinct, with the producer responsible for money and artistic control and the engineer responsible for all technical elements, typically with artistic influence. Due to the democratization of technology in the 1990s when every producer bought software and learned how to be an engineer, engineers also stretched to absorb more of the producer’s roles. As far as meeting professional standards, AES strives to educate all parties to ensure that we can all work on any aspect of the production. Over the past few decades, audio pros have also needed to develop video and internet media distribution skills to better serve their clients.

Audio restoration and archiving specialist and then-AES president Nadja Wallaszkovits records a Focusrite Pro podcast with Focusrite hosts, marketing manager/producer Daniel Hughley and global marketing manager Ted White.

JS: With the resurgence in vinyl, the popularity of streaming, and the entrenchment and continued support for compact discs, SACD, analog tape, downloads and other formats, what are the current challenges faced by AES in terms of the fact that listeners are enjoying a wide variety of media?

GG: Technology has always been a moving target, and it always will be. Luckily, AES members include those who are creating innovation, whether it is for emerging technologies or in better ways to archive and reproduce older formats. These challenges are embraced by our members. By providing a platform for the incubation of new technologies, by shaping it through work on establishing technical standards and by providing education, AES fuels our membership’s passions.

JS: Are equipment manufacturers cooperating in adhering to such specs or have there been maverick inventors that have gone “off the reservation” in their pursuit of idealized sound quality?

GG: There will always be those among us, especially in the audio community, who strive to create a more perfect piece of equipment or a quieter and more stable medium for recording. I revel in this drive for improvement. I am unaware of anyone I would regard as a renegade. Professional audio manufacturers are fundamentally science-based, with room for accommodating subjective preferences on the creative side.

Student attendees of AES New York 2019 participate in an Audio Builders Workshop DIY gear-building session.

JS: Has the lower sound quality of compressed audio such as mp3 versus CD, for example, created a resurgence of interest in older technology like tube amps, as well as newer innovations, such as Class D amps (which allow for drastically reduced size and ease of portability) and high-resolution audio?

GG: There has always been a variety of audio formats and a variety of quality levels. When I was younger, we had cassettes as a portable option. They did not sound as good as the albums we listened to at home. To an audiophile, the question runs deeper than mp3 vs. CD, since CDs are only 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution, which is far from their ideal. The battle between convenience and quality is a consumer choice.

AES is a proud proponent of quality audio. Our job is to provide everything in every format with the best possible quality within the parameters of that particular format. A lot of older technology has always been lauded and highly regarded; however, that is only one small and often misleading part of a much larger discussion.

Mastering engineer Michael Romanowski leads a session in the Neumann demo room at AES New York 2019.

JS: How do you see the resultant domino effect of the ubiquity of digital technology in creating an explosion of recordings made in home studios, and what changes do you find that AES members have made to accommodate this trend?

GG: I mentioned the democratization of the recording process. In other words, home studios are now affordable for many people who were previously frightened off by the million-dollar price tag of a major studio. On the one hand, a talented engineer can create a Grammy winner at home. On the other hand, those of us who have trained for years can be undersold by kids with computers in their bedrooms. I love the sheer amount of art that is being created as a result of this situation, although we do need to continue to work hard to ensure that quality remains a primary consideration. The AES and our members recognized the validity of this community of home recordists years ago, and we have embraced them as audio professionals and offer education tailored to their needs.

An AES New York 2019 attendee tests microphones at the Telefunken booth.

JS: What do you see as trends in headphones and speaker design?

GG: I find headphone and speaker design to go in two distinct directions. While I will not mention any particular manufacturers, some have worked hard to continue to improve technology and provide a rewarding experience to the listener, while others have focused on offering bragging rights for the listener rather than quality. Most professionals want flat, transparent reproduction, while consumer gear is often designed for a sonic signature that would mislead a mix engineer. While there is a staggering number of manufacturers and models and competition is fierce, quality is generally up.

JS: Publications and education are important priorities for AES. What are some highlights from AES’s publications and seminars? Also, which AES programs do you think are among the most successful, and why?

GG: There have been so many landmark events at AES conventions that it is daunting to try and isolate a few. Every year there is something groundbreaking: new technologies, new methodologies, or different views of our industry’s history, spanning the introduction of vinyl formats to the compact disc to mp3 to digital audio networking. As far as the most successful endeavors of AES, I am partial to those which connect the past to the future. As such, I hold both the works of the Education Committee and the Historical Committee in the highest regard. The comprehensive technical program at our conventions amazingly just keeps getting better, letting attendees learn from the best minds in the industry, from those driving innovation across all audio specialties. Recent AES events that have addressed topics like audio for augmented and virtual reality, audio applications of machine learning, headphones and automotive audio. The Journal of the Audio Engineering Society is the world’s leading publication for the presentation of the latest audio research. We’re pushing 20,000 articles in our e-library, representing the sum total of audio knowledge. We’ve also just launched the revamped AES Live: Videos archive with a modern user interface and more content. Those publications and AES Live are fully available to all of our members as a benefit of membership.

Want to dig deep into audio technology? An AES Convention is the place for you.

JS: In the past, there was a time when the separate camps of audiophiles and audio engineers held each other in disdain. The gaps between the two on preferences in sound quality, knowledge of acoustic physics, and other topics have closed in several ways, but the division still seems to exist on some fronts. What is your take on this topic, and what do you think the role of AES has been in its midst?

GG: Audiophiles and audio professionals are two different groups. Audiophiles are discerning listeners who are more adept at dissecting what they hear. Audio professionals are practitioners. I have never experienced disdain from or felt disdain towards audiophiles. I appreciate all consumers, since without them my industry would not exist. If there are gaps beyond the obvious ones, they certainly are closing as information about audio becomes easier to obtain.

Information about Gary Gottlieb can be found here: http://www.aes.org/aes/garygottlieb

 

Header image: a recent Audio Engineering Society convention. All images courtesy of AES.

Workingman’s Dead…at 50

First off, I am proud to announce two projects of mine that you may be interested in:

I will start my own podcast in about a month. It will be called The French Connection and I’ll be talking about all things music and beyond…it will cover my many and varied interests such as: musical artists, the music business, motivational speakers, guitars, health, politics, watches, wine and more.

Coming in 2021, my first book will be published, titled A Twisted Business: The Soul of Twisted Sister and the Art of Reinvention.

And now, back to the business at hand.

So many great anniversaries,

So many great albums.

So many great artists…

This was not the one I thought I would be writing about but I have had second (and third and fourth) thoughts about my history with the Grateful Dead.

Recently, through the help of my friend Justin Kreutzmann, the son of Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, I had the great fortune to speak to Betty Cantor, the longtime Dead live sound engineer and co-producer of Workingman’s Dead. (More about that later.)  That album is now 50 years old.

Let’s, for the sake of this article, just pretend that I am writing about a band that had more of an influence on me than every other artist except The Beatles, Stones and Bowie and that I loved.

I can’t deny that I’ve spent more hours listening to the Dead, both live and on record, than any other band in my life. Period. It is with this background that I approach my opinion of Workingman’s Dead.

For starters, this is not about the remastered 50thAnniversary Deluxe Edition. Yes, the timing of this article feels right because it is 50 years ago this summer that the album came out, but this is also more about this band and this album at this time.

It’s not about how the remaster sounds or the bonus live LP of a 1971 GD concert at the Capitol Theater in Portchester, NY. (Sure, if you are a Deadhead, then you might just know that yes, I was at that GD concert that night…)

 

I had asked my record company president at Rhino, self-confessed Deadhead Mark Pinkus, to send me a copy of the 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, but alas, COVID-19 has prevented the staff from going into the company building in LA to retrieve a copy for me.

I couldn’t wait.

I decided to listen to the high-quality version from the Warner/Rhino Dead vinyl box set released several years ago. I also listened to my original LP from 1970. My feelings about this album transcend whatever extra sparkle a remaster could give me anyway.

Why? Because, unlike the remastered Beatles albums that I have reviewed, and which I have listened to every month of every year over the last 50 years, I hadn’t listened to Workingman’s Dead in its entirety since October 1972, the month and year that I decided that I was through with the band.

Of course I had heard “Casey Jones” and “Uncle John’s Band” many times on the radio and in bars, but not the rest of the record. Also, back in those “good old days” one tended to listen to at least one uninterrupted side of an album, if not both. Most of the time, I used the album cover to roll my joints on. So, the occasion of the album’s 50th anniversary prompted me to re-listen.

In the summer of 1970 I was 17 going on 18 and staying with a drug buddy of mine named Jerry. We had met at a drug rehab clinic about six months earlier. We would sit around with three other guys who were drug addicts at various stages of addiction, listen to the counselor, then go back to my parents’ house to get absolutely wasted. It was a great time.

Fire Island, New York. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone.

Ah…the summer of 1970, hanging out in Fire Island. If you don’t know about Fire Island, then you have missed out on one of the great summer hangouts in the USA. It’s a barrier Island off of Bay Shore Long Island, accessible mostly by ferry. There are no cars allowed, just bicycles and wagons to carry luggage and food from the ferry docks and the local supermarkets. (If you’re a band playing there it’s quite a challenge to bring your equipment.)

Some of you may have heard of Cherry Grove. Cherry Grove is among the most famous gay communities in the US. It is on the east end of Fire Island and I mention it only to give geographical context to those not familiar with the area.

My friend Jerry had a house in Fair Harbour, the town just west of the largest town, Ocean Beach. My parents used to summer out there and I had been going every summer from 1966 onward.

The vibe of Fire Island is hard to describe. Kind of like Key West in its laconic summer feeling. Very few live there all year around because of its limited accessibility. When I was hanging out in the 1960s, cartoonist Jules Feiffer had the big house on the dunes, on the street that divided Ocean Beach and the community known as Seaview. That was always a local landmark.

To a teenager, free to just hang out and listen to (or play) music, it was paradise. Just get wasted, hang out at the beach to watch the sunrise to start the day, go to a place called Sunken Forest where there was a secret boardwalk path to a platform in which you could watch the ocean on one side and the bay (during sunset) on the other. This was done, on acid, with regularity all summer long…for us, it was paradise.

During that summer of 1970, Workingman’s Dead provided the soundtrack. The Grateful Dead lineup on that album included Jerry Garcia (guitars, banjo, vocals); Bob Weir (guitar, vocals); Ron McKernan aka “Pigpen” (vocals, keyboards, harmonica); Mickey Hart (drums, percussion); Bill Kreutzmann (drums, percussion) and Phil Lesh (bass, vocals).

That is why I know this record so well, and why I wanted to revisit something that had at one time meant so much and then…poof…just disappeared from my consciousness.

It is almost impossible to listen to this record now without recognizing it as one of the precursors of the music format known today as Americana. For modern-day Americana, this music style really began just two years earlier with the Band’s Music from Big Pink.

I can only imagine the pressure from the band’s record label, Warner Bros., on the Grateful Dead to somehow break through with some kind of commercial hit record. No one could argue how great a live band they were but…it just wasn’t translating onto vinyl. But according to Betty Cantor, the Dead had insisted on the release of a live album to follow 1969’s Aoxomoxoa. The label fought it.

Following the release of 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, the Dead insisted that a live album be released prior to the next studio album (Workingman’s Dead). As such, Live/Dead was released November 1969 with Workingman’s Dead being released in June 1970.

Then-label president Joe Smith came down with the order. The next album had to have songs, real songs, four-minute songs.

The pressure was on the band, according to Betty. For the label to be satisfied, they had to achieve enough commercial success to have their music played regularly on FM radio. How ironic for Jerry Garcia, who had started out in a folk/jug band, to not be appreciated as a “true musician” and rather, be considered some kind of R&B acid-soaked improvising version of Syd Barrett (original guitarist for Pink Floyd). Add to this the fact that, for their vocals, the band had started to want to sound something like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. But vocals, to the Dead, were always an afterthought.

The fact is, as was brought home to me as I listened to this album over and over, the Dead were never very good singers. They were passable on their best days.

They were earnest and well-meaning but compared to CSN&Y and The Band, not in the same league. In my opinion, The Band may have had the best vocals of any American band outside of the Beach Boys, with CSN&Y coming close behind. I remember reading articles about CSN&Y working with the Dead on their vocals at the time. Whether they actually did is not as important as the result, being a much more cohesive vocal delivery on Workingman’s Dead that really matured six months later on American Beauty.

Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape all had way better vocals than the Dead. I just didn’t think about it 50 years ago, but now it’s plainly obvious. Garcia’s vocals are really a matter of taste. I did like the whole package back then so I hadn’t really noticed the vocals in particular in those days. To be fair to the Dead, though, what they lacked in vocals they more than made up for by their incredible musical improvisations.

When it came to driving an audience crazy, the Grateful Dead could do it with the music. But knowing bands as I do, I know that they wanted to be more than just an acid soundtrack. Every band wants to have the kind of songs that become standards. They badly wanted to elevate to that level. Meanwhile, back on the east coast, The Band was about to go three albums deep by releasing Stage Fright that August.

Back to the present: here is the good news. My appreciation of the incredible playing of Garcia and bassist/vocalist Phil Lesh has only increased as I’ve revisited Workingman’s Dead. I always was a fan of Lesh, but with the resolution of my current system, his bass-playing foundation and unique style of improvising is just that, The Foundation of the Dead. With the perspective of a 50-year break, are my current observations of Workingman’s Dead:

The album’s first track, “Uncle John’s Band,” tells you that this is going to be a different album. It’s hummable and easily digestible. You can hear how hard they were working to make the vocals sound the best they could. It’s an opening track that tells you that the Dead were serious about having some kind of commercial success; something that would go down easy on FM radio, like “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” or “The Weight.” That was a tall order as CSN&Y pretty much had that road all to themselves by the summer of 1970. Well, “Uncle John’s Band” ain’t either of those songs but it’s good enough.

 

“High Time” is the track that’s the least impressive. Here, they try to convince you that their efforts to improve their vocals was really taking them to another level. Well, to me, it just wasn’t worth the waste of the wax, sorry. The following song, “Dire Wolf,” is, however, a great song, and brings to the fore the irony that Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter could impart to the Dead’s material.

“New Speedway Boogie” is not really a classic boogie as such, but it’s another very good track. However, If I was the album’s producer I would have had Pigpen sing it as he would have brought a much better sense of time and place to this track.

“Cumberland Blues” is truly the boogie song and Jerry and Phil kill it. This is the kind of song that tells you where the band could go if they were let loose, which they did live many times. I keep going back to this track, as it just really lets loose and you can hear the band push.

 

I asked Betty if both of the band’s drummers, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, played on all the tracks. She said that Bill did and Mickey provided extra percussion when needed; sometimes drums, sometimes other percussion instruments. During the recording of the album, both sets of drums were set up, though. I’m mostly drawn to Phil’s playing, however. It all comes emanating from the loping bass lines of Dr. Phil. Phil Lesh is the glue and in rediscovering this album it has never been more apparent to me.

“Black Peter,” while a rather slight song, moves along in a bar-soaked haze that allows for a breather. Great albums pace themselves like this, or at least they used to.

The best natural singer in the band is also the least-recorded – Pigpen. Pigpen is the Ringo Starr of the band. The guy who brings the party. He isn’t only earnest, he’s totally authentic. The difference between Pigpen and Ringo however, is that Pigpen is actually a really good R&B singer. It’s in his blood and you can hear it. Pigpen was the best singer in the band and Betty agreed with me on that.

“Easy Wind” is a biker song if there ever was one, and Pigpen was the band’s biker rep. During the jam during “Easy Wind,” just floating below the surface, you can almost hear them wanting to slide into “Turn on Your Love Light,” Pigpen’s live-performance highlight, at a moment’s notice.

This whole re-listening experience is causing the remnants of all that acid that may still reside in my cranium to get released. It brings a smile to my face. My wife is stunned that I’ve been playing a Dead album. Not just once but 20 times…in a day.

“Casey Jones” closes out Workingman’s Dead. For those who never experienced the band live, “Casey Jones” is another beast entirely. Here, though it would become one of the band’s signature songs (along with “Truckin’,” “China Cat Sunflower,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Dark Star” and many others) it is just the closing track, however excellent, but live, it pushes and pushes like a locomotive, and takes the audience right along with it.

 

Been there many times…

For the techies among you, according to Betty, the album budget was roughly $15,000. It took three weeks to record at Pacific High Studios in San Francisco, and was done on 8 tracks on an Electrodyne/Quad-Eight console. The Dead trusted Betty to oversee the mastering and she had sole control over the final sound.

However, the latest Workingman’s Dead remaster was done without any consultation with her. This is not unusual. Steve Miller told me that his label doesn’t even tell him when re-releases are coming out!

As a recent subscriber to Tidal, I was able to compare the original vinyl mix of Workingman’s Dead with the 2013 remaster at 44.1/16-bit through Tidal. I also compared my original 50-year-old vinyl and a 2010 version from the 5-disc vinyl box released at the time.

I preferred the 50-year-old pressing. It had greater sonic range and better bass definition, and the volume levels were higher. Of course, given the fact that up to around 1,000 copies of any record can be pressed from a single lacquer, it’s impossible to know where these respective vinyl versions were in the pressing order. That can make a difference in many ways.

The 2013 remaster through Tidal was fuller-sounding with much better bass articulation, and the acoustic guitars had better separation.

I have no Grateful Dead CDs to compare to any other format and haven’t heard any of the latest 2020 vinyl remasters since they were not available to me at the time of this writing. [At press time, a 24/96 version is available on Qobuz if you have a subscription. – Ed.] And since I don’t have every remastering of Workingman’s Dead, this article is more about the song and album experience than a definitive statement on the relative merits of the album’s sonic evolution through various reissues.

What I can say is that, for me, this whole exercise was so much more than just revisiting this album. It brought back to me a huge portion of my life as a Deadhead and its impact on my musical journey.

Maybe it’s because of our current COVID-19 existence that the nostalgia of this album or the summer of 1970 has so much meaning. Regardless, it has been a great experience to revisit an album that meant – and again means – so much to me.

Workingman’s Dead at 50. It’s made me a Deadhead again!

Todd Rundgren’s Nearly Human

Over the years, Newport, Rhode Island has been home to many of my life’s best memories. No trip to town was ever complete without a pop in to The Music Box, once one of the finest record stores in the Northeast. I can’t remember ever leaving empty handed. Unfortunately it closed its doors for good this past New Year’s Eve and on its last day I reminisced with the owner about the famous people who had come by over the years to thumb through his bins, and shared some of my most memorable “finds” from his store. To this day, Todd Rundgren’s Nearly Human is the most significant.

I bought Nearly Human on an unforgettable August weekend in 1989. The record had just been released in May and the single “The Want of a Nail” connected with me quickly. There are those songs that, when you hear them for the first time, you realize that buying the entire record was going to be inevitable. This was one of them. In those days, there was no just hopping on a computer and downloading a track or an album. It meant actually going to a record store. For people like me that means carving out a few hours. Shopping for records isn’t like running into a grocery store for milk and eggs. I camp out. That day in August I knocked out a few hours at The Music Box and my first grab was Nearly Human.

Todd Rundgren had always fascinated me. For starters, I have always had a soft spot for all kinds of Philly soul. The first being the Philadelphia soul of songwriters and producers like Thom Bell, Linda Creed, Norman Harris, Dexter Wansel and the production teams of McFadden and Whitehead, and Gamble & Huff. The other is the blue-eyed soul of Hall & Oates and Todd Rundgren.

Over the last 50 years Todd has remained one of our most consistent singer/songwriters. Across his many bands and incarnations he has brought a familiar and bright soaring orchestration to his music. With his best known work it’s almost become a signature sound. But he has also remained on the periphery of popular music. Rundgren has released just enough hits to be a familiar name but never enough to be considered a superstar. That doesn’t seem terribly important to him. He is instead regarded among the best of musicians as a genius, and has produced some of the most successful rock records ever, like Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell to name just one. That recognition has always seemed to be what drives Todd, along with having the freedom to follow his own path.

At the time, Nearly Human was the first album he had released in over four years. Like many of his records the songs here deal with self-doubt, loss, and spirituality. The songs are carefully selected because they play a role in the general dynamic of the record. Not because they could be a hit or court rock radio. It’s always a tremendously pure endeavor with Rundgren. That was the case with Nearly Human.

 

Rundgren had done some work producing the band Bourgeois Tagg, who was known at the time as an incredible live act. Working with them in the studio convinced Rundgren that his next record should be recorded live. No overdubbing. As groundbreaking as it might have appeared at the time, it had been a process that had been the norm up until the mid-1960s. But by the late 1980s no one was doing anything live. Music was assembled, recorded instrument-by-instrument on multitrack recorders, and stripped together, becoming something distilled and clinically removed from its soulful origins in the process.

Rundgren has often said that music at its best is a platform for people to communicate things that are sometimes too difficult to express with words alone. With all of the then-new recording technology that had become available, most music began to miss a certain live performance element that helped make that expression real. By cutting the album live, Todd knew that he could better capture that energy and amplify the meaning of each song. With that he headed to California to begin recording.

The approach to each song was old school and unique in its simplicity. Each day was devoted to only one song and he would begin by assembling his musicians and running through take after take of the track. Once they seemed to have a handle on what he was looking for, Rundgren would leave them to rehearse on their own. In a separate room he would assemble as many as 30 singers and they would work through the vocals. Finally, he would then bring everyone together and they would begin to move through the song as a complete band. Start to finish, each song took eight to 10 hours.

While this may not sound that complicated, it’s almost impossible to pull off. Today, session players know that they can go into a studio and lay down a track as their own schedule permits. It doesn’t matter when they do it; it doesn’t matter if anyone from the band is even there. That’s how they book their work. Todd wasn’t able to get a lot of people that he really wanted on the record. They just couldn’t make his live recording process fit around their other commitments. As difficult as it was for him to pass on these players, his overall vision was more important. Todd wanted everyone in the room looking at each other as they performed. As you listen to the record you can hear why.

The band he assembled for this record is as good as it gets. First, he started with the core of Bourgeois Tagg –  Brent Bourgeois on keys, Lyle Workman on guitar, Larry Tagg on bass, and Michael Urbano on drums. Urbano would later gain more attention as the drummer for Smash Mouth and the touring drummer for Cake. From the Tubes he recruited Vince Welnick on piano and Prairie Prince on drums and percussion. On sax he brought on board the incomparable Bobby Strickland. Lastly, on background vocals he assembled a chorus of over two dozen different session singers and one surprise guest in the late Clarence Clemons. The first single, “The Want of a Nail” features soul great Bobby Womack whose shout-outs gives the song even more weight and resonance. The song charges along like a freight train, perfectly kicking off the record and re-establishing Rundgren as the bearer of the blue-eyed soul crown.

A musician who is masterfully skilled on almost every rock instrument, Rundgren is often overlooked for the range and expressiveness of his vocals. Here he owns each song, knowing just when to push the vocals forward and when to hold them back. With the more delicate pieces like “Parallel Lines,” Nearly Human offers his best group of ballads since the previous, and superb, Hermit of Mink Hollow album and tracks like “Can We Still Be Friends.”

The record includes cover songs as well. He transforms the old Tubes song “Feel It,” taking it to Philly by adding beautiful choruses and a fat sax solo by Strickland. It sounds like something straight out of the Philadelphia International Records catalogue circa 1975.

 

There’s even something for fans of his old band Utopia. The song “Can’t Stop Running” reunited Rundgren for the first time in five years with his Utopia bandmates Kasim Sulton, Willie Wilcox and Roger Powell. They apparently just showed up at the studio one day, surprising Rundgren. He quickly put them to work where they helped him lay down what might be one of the best Utopia songs ever.

Rundgren went out on the road to promote Nearly Human with an 11-piece band along with backup singers and guest performers. Even then it was rare to see an artist head out on the road with such a large outfit. It doesn’t make much financial sense. But the tour was met with rave reviews and unfortunately was only captured on film during performances in Japan.

It’s unclear why the album was named Nearly Human. It may simply reference the manner in which the album was recorded. In the end, it doesn’t matter much, because in what has been argued to be Todd Rundgren’s best album ever, he demonstrated a commitment to his craft that broke with convention. From the songwriting process to the expansive live tour, Rundgren is presented as a master at work with an eye for detail that can’t be overlooked. With Nearly Human he delivers some of the most beautiful, best-performed music of our time. So much so that when you let it spin what you’ll hear is not only nearly human. It’s almost godly.

Name That Column Contest!

PS Audio recently launched its record label, Octave Records. (Read about Octave’s first release, Don Grusin’s Out of Thin Air, in Issue 113.) Octave will be releasing records regularly in audiophile-quality DSD and SACD stereo discs. Octave’s business model also ensures that artists retain a greater portion of earnings than standard record label deals.

Copper will give you a head start on upcoming releases (starting with Clandestine Amigo, our next one), the stories behind the artists and the technical details of the recordings – in a column yet to be named.

That’s where you, the readers, come in!

Octave Records is having a contest to name the column. The winner will receive a 16 x 24 photo on canvas of Copper photographer James Schrimpf’s photo of musicians Dale Watson and Chris Crepps, used as Issue 105’s Parting Shot. James’s work has been featured in many galleries, shows and publications and he has worked for more than 30 years as an artist, photojournalist and photographer.

Simply submit your suggestions for the column name to letters@psaudio.com. The contest will run from now through October 31. Then we’ll choose the lucky winner!

In other news: we welcome a new staff member, writer Steven Bryan Bieler. Steven is a novelist living in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, his dogs, and his CD collection. He blogs about music at rundmsteve.com.

Bob Stuart, inventor of Meridian Lossless Packing digital audio technology and MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) digital audio encoding has been awarded the Prince Philip Medal. The medal is given biennially by the Royal Academy of Engineering to an engineer who has made an exceptional contribution to engineering as a whole through practice, management or education. Congratulations Bob!

In this issue: Don Kaplan takes a fresh approach on how to listen. Roy Hall looks back on the Munich HIGH END show. J.I. Agnew concludes his interview with acoustic design consultant Philip Newell. Jay Jay French drinks in British blues singers. Anne E. Johnson considers the music of Thomas Tallis and ZZ Top. Alón Sagee tells a story of two hands clapping. Don Lindich interviews Bill Voss of Technics, and John Seetoo wraps up his series with Quilter Amps/QSC Audio founder Pat Quilter.

Tom Gibbs is thrilled to hear a good-sounding Stones reissue, among other new releases. New contributor Steven Bryan Bieler hears voices. WL Woodward is home for the pandemic. Robert Heiblim concludes his series on bringing products to market. Ray Chelstowski has an explosive look at K-tel Records. Ken Sander offers a Stories story. I find that audio systems are consistently inconsistent. Reader Adrian Wu takes us on an audio journey encompassing continents, and decades of gear. We round out the issue by staying in our room, experiencing changing weather and going to Nepal.

Our Staff

Contributing Writers:
J.I. Agnew, Ivan Berger, Steven Bryan Bieler, Ray Chelstowski, Jay Jay French, Tom Gibbs, Roy Hall, Robert Heiblim, Rich Isaacs, Anne E. Johnson, Don Kaplan, Ken Kessler, Don Lindich, Tom Methans, B. Jan Montana, Rudy Radelic, Wayne Robins, Alón Sagee, Ken Sander, Larry Schenbeck, John Seetoo, Dan Schwartz, Bob Wood, WL Woodward

Cover:
“Cartoon Bob” D’Amico

Cartoons:
James Whitworth

Parting Shots:
James Schrimpf, B. Jan Montana (and others)

Editor:
Frank Doris

Publisher:
Paul McGowan

Advertising Sales:
No one. We are free from advertising and subscribing to Copper is free.

In My Room

 

I wish my audio system could do this! From Electronics Made Easy, 1956.

 

I want this. That is all. From Audio, June 1953.

 

Guess he’s not getting the gig. From Audio, November 1960.

 

Get on the good foot! From Audio, September 1979.

 

A small book that’s big on information. From the Acoustic Research 40th birthday party event, October 27, 1994.