Issue 11

Opening Salvo

Opening Salvo

Paul McGowan

Welcome to Copper #11!

Wherever you are, we hope it’s not as hot and dry as it is here in literally-on-fire Colorado.

Here in mid-July, most folks are approaching some sort of break or vacation. We’ll keep plugging away, but the world of audio shows is about to go on hiatus, following the highly-energetic Capital Audiofest (and we’re happy to offer an amazing photo spread from CapFest by Eric Franklin Shook).

The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is the next major show in North America, coinciding with the turning of the leaves here in early October. TAVES, in Toronto, quickly follows in November, and rumors are rampant about a show in NYC. We’ll see.

Next thing you know, CES, the show that wouldn’t die (but maybe should), will come along in January. And we start all over again.

Meanwhile: stay cool, hide in the basement, read Copper, and listen to music!


In My Room

In My Room

In My Room

Frank Doris

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.

More About Tinnitus

More About Tinnitus

More About Tinnitus

Paul McGowan

Pleased to read the article regarding tinnitus. Tinnitus is a problem that confronts many people with or without hearing loss. There is no one cause for tinnitus; it can be the result of noise exposure, hear trauma, medication, etc.

Tinnitus can be due to problems in the peripheral or in the central auditory system.

Tinnitus should not be considered lightly. Unfortunately, it may be the sign of a tumor located in the area of the auditory nerve and,thus, should be medically investigated, preferably by an otologist. I recall having a patient who was in his early 20s and a professional musician come to my office. His report was that he had experience hearing loss and had tinnitus, bilaterally. Upon exam he had A classic noise induced hearing loss, bilaterally, with most of the hearing loss between 3000 and 6000 Hz which was probably due to the years of exposure to high levels of sound. However, when sent to an otologist his radiologic studies showed the presence of an VIIIn tumor in one ear.

The point here is that this history and audiogram exam would provoke one to stop the exam process once the hearing loss was revealed, since the configuration of his audiogram was typical for noise exposure and bilaterally symmetrical. However, that was not the case and fortunately the tumor was uncovered.
In sum,then, tinnitus must never be assigned to hearing loss, or noise exposure, or drug usage, but must be fully investigated.

Laurence Rosenblatt, Ph.D.

The Perpetual Pilgrim

My nephew, Andres, has turned his audio hobby into a religion. He takes his quest for the ‘Ultimate Sound’ as seriously as the quest for eternal life. He is consumed by audio nervosa and spends his free time studying audio magazines and websites to find absolution for his past buying decisions, and blessings to make changes. Recently, he even sacrificed the value of a pilgrimage to Rome in favor of new interconnects — based solely on a decree from his most trusted bishop, a ‘Golden Eared’ reviewer in one of the magazines.

He invited me to spend the weekend at his apartment to solicit confirmation for his pricey investment. When I got there, he raved about the ‘night and day’ difference using the vernacular of reviewers: romantic richness, sweet delicacy, fatigue-free tonal lusciousness, liquid voluptuousness ………… I’m beginning to suspect he needs a girlfriend.

I could neither confirm nor deny any audible improvement as I wasn’t sufficiently familiar with the sound of his system, but I was skeptical of his claims. So I decided to conduct a test. Overnight, while on a bathroom break, I switched his anointed interconnects with my Radio Shack ‘Gold’ cables — which can be purchased for the price of a Roman candle.

While sipping coffee the next morning, Andres opened his stereo cabinet and played his favorite SACD, The Mission soundtrack, from beginning to end. He turned up the chorale to concert hall volumes and praised the sound.

He had no idea he was listening to the profane ‘Rat Shack’ cables. It was clear that the ‘night and day’ differences he raved about was not apparent the day after the night. His belief that the new cables were in play was sufficient to justify his enthusiasm. This experience confirmed to me that people do not have reliable perceptual capabilities. Perception is cognitive and the brain tends to be the dominant factor – the brain tells them what they experience more than their senses.

The most publicized case in point concerns Trader Joe’s house wine, ‘Two Buck Chuck,’ as Charles Shaw’s Chardonnays are known. They got less respect than Rodney Dangerfield until the 2007 California State Fair’s Commercial Wine Competition. There, 64 judges awarded it the prestigious Double Gold award. That placed it first not only over 350 other Chardonnays, but on top of the entire collection of 3,029 wines! Wine tasting competitions are always conducted blind. Would the judges have ranked “Two Buck Chuck” as highly had they been able to see the label? When faith in price, status or reputation is eliminated from the equation, judgments change.

How different might the annual ‘Recommended Component Buyers’ Guide’ be if audio components were evaluated like wines? Would ‘night and day’ differences be confirmed or non-existent in a double-blind testing protocol? It’s one thing for a reviewer to claim a component is superior, it’s quite another to prove it. When a reviewer recommends expensive upgrades without evidence of their primacy (and expensive equipment is virtually always deemed superior in the media), he is asking followers to part with their money on the basis of faith.

Nonetheless, Andres agonizes over the words in the ‘Recommended Components List’ like St. Augustine over the Scriptures. He has a divine belief that these products are accurately appraised by sound quality — despite a complete lack of evidence to that effect. For the most part, products with good reviews sell, and those without, don’t. That’s a lot of power to put in the hands of a few pundits with questionable hearing, motives and methodologies. How many good products have gone by the wayside due to the prejudices and preconceptions of reviewers? Conversely, how much snake oil is still on the market for the same reason?

In a recent e-mail, Andres wrote, “I still don’t feel like I have my arms around my system, the big picture, yes, but the subtle things that ultimately define it, not yet…….hoping in the process to do that endless loop of keeping my ears tuned, attentive, and aligned with others.”

I have no idea why he thinks his young ears have to be “aligned with others”? What is it that he wants to get his “arms around.” Like sex, music is an emotional, not an intellectual activity. Constantly nit-picking the equipment ruins the experience.

Someone once said, “You can’t know what’s best is unless you have heard everything.” Andres will never have sufficient time nor energy to audition everything. Even if he could, he’ll never know how his ultimate system would compare to the live event unless he’d attended it. And even if he had, his health, mood and the location of the seat he chose would affect his memory of the performance. That’s taking for granted there was a live performance, and he’s not listening to a synthetic creation of the recording engineer.

Even assuming his acoustic memory of the live event is impeccable, the recording flawless, and his ‘dream system’ provided perfect fidelity, his listening room acoustics will distort the sound enormously — as any pair of studio headphones will demonstrate.
Andres needs to see the light and accept the fact that every facsimile of the live event is corrupted and deficient. If his system is capable of turning him onto the music, if it takes him to a blissful state, his prayers are answered. This endless search for the Holy Grail will only keep him a perpetual pilgrim.

B. Jan Montana

Italian Window

Italian Window

Italian Window

Paul McGowan

Canon 5D

Son Of 10 More Forgotten Artists

Ken Kessler

Again with the self-indulgence: Of late, I’ve been listening to weird stuff like Tiny Tim, only to find 1) that his recordings were amazing, even in mono, and 2) that second-hand copies of the CDs can run to three figures. I am not suggesting that this second, inflationary aspect will ever affect some of my personal “forgotten” or “overlooked” faves, like the J. Geils Band or Leslie West, but in the list below, there are surprises galore for those of you who adore amazing recordings as much for their sound quality as for the musical content.

Nothing judgmental here about guilty pleasures, though I wonder about anyone, aside from Ecstasy users, who can sit through mindless, ambient, synthetic swill like Yello and Air, no matter how dazzling their recordings sound in audiophile terms. I’d much rather listen to something like the recently-reissued/remastered The Yardbirds Live at the BBC, with sound dire enough to make one question one’s received wisdom (in the UK, at least) that the BBC was the pinnacle of recording quality.

Suffice it to say, I lean toward the music more than the sound, but have no venom to spew at those who prefer to listen to, say, Amanda McBroom or turntable test LPs over anything by Aretha Franklin or Dusty Springfield or Julie London. There may even be people who prefer Manischewitz or muscatel to Mouton Cadet. Live and let live, say I.

And, no, I haven’t challenged your patience by including Tiny Tim on this list, but if you want a real shock for your woofers, check out the bass on the CD, God Bless Tiny Tim: Deluxe Expanded Mono Edition (New Sounds/Rhino CRNOW45). I’m still recovering from the surprise.


21) Del Shannon A heartbreaker, this, because it was rumored that he was lined up to replace Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys, but he committed suicide in 1990 at the age of 55. Shannon, like Mitch Ryder, Gary U.S. Bonds and other early rockers whose careers were revived by respectful third generation musicians such as Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, suffered a career lull, only he didn't stick around long enough for an Orbison-like rebirth. Shannon wrote some incredible hits, for himself and others, so don't think of this fab balladeer/rocker as just “Runaway” or “Hats Off To Larry”: a man of taste, he was the first US artist to cover a Beatles composition, “From Me To You”, even before they invaded these shores, while Peter & Gordon had a massive hit with his “I Go To Pieces”


22) The Flamin’ Groovies I’ve lost count of the number of incarnations of this band that have recorded during their on-again-off-again, 50-year-plus history. Like the Smithereens, the Raspberries, et al, this San Francisco-born outfit was devoted to the music of the British Invasion (their hearts belonged as much to the Rolling Stones as the Smithereens do to the Beatles and the Who). Unfortunately, they emerged at a time when Flower Power and musical excess were the coming thing; their penchant for sharp, tight, pop/rock pastiches didn’t sit too well with snooty hippies. Over the decades, they’ve built up cult followings in France and the U.K., worked with the likes of Dave Edmunds, issued minor masterpieces and even covered – with panache – Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”. Any one of these rockers will put a smile on your face, all on CD if you can’t find original LPs: Supersnazz (1969); Flamingo (1970), Teenage Head (1971) or Shake Some Action (1976).


23) Marshall Crenshaw As with the Flamin’ Groovies and the Smithereens – you may be seeing a pattern emerge here – Crenshaw was also a child of the Beatles, having performed as John Lennon in the stage musical, Beatlemania, in 1978. He also has an ear to Buddy Holly, which may explain his choice in eyewear. (He played Holly in the film, La Bamba.) Again, as with every artist in the Beatles Wannabee sub-genre, success has been patchy, but Crenshaw can claim the authorship of at least two pop classics, in “Someday, Someway” and “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time” and for those of you for whom sonic virtues matter most, Mobile Fidelity has released his first album.


24) The Searchers It goes without saying that the above two would-be Liverpudlian bands adored the Searchers, as does Tom Petty, while even the Byrds have on occasion acknowledged their penchant for 12-string guitar was a result of this band’s deliciously jangly sound. Still touring in two forms, with founder member John McNally has been in every line-up since 1957, while Mike Pender – a from 1960-1985 – performing with his eponymous, rival outfit. Consistent over more than a half-century are staggering harmonies and impeccable taste, their roster of songs including “Needles & Pins”, “Sweets for My Sweet”, “Sugar & Spice”, “Don’t Throw Your Love Away”, “When You Walk in the Room”, “Take Me For What I’m Worth” and many others. For a real treat, try to locate their two criminally-overlooked masterpieces recorded for Sire in 1979-81, The Searchers and Play For Today, the latter released as Love’s Melodies in the USA.


25) Brenda Lee Time and again, I’ll hear some staggering country-flavored gem, like Juice Newton’s “Break It To Me Gently”, only to recall that the original was recorded by “Little Miss Dynamite”: Brenda Lee. A child prodigy, she was signed by Decca at the age of 11, charted 47 times in the 1960s, is a member of the Rock and Roll, Country Music and Rockabilly Halls of Fame, and is a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. Lee remains the only female artist to chart songs in every genre (including pop, blues, rock, gospel and country), so Madonna and Beyoncé, show some respect. Her voice is powerful, oozing emotion with every breath, and she can rock you or rip out your heart. Audiophile labels: her catalogue beckons just as much as does Patsy Cline’s. Pure class.


26) Leslie West/The Vagrants Why not Mountain? Because the trio’s riff-rock classic “Mississippi Queen” gets ample airplay on oldies and hard-rock stations, and therefore isn’t obscure enough for this listing. West’s first outfit, the Vagrants, though, are forgotten by all but Baby Boomers who grew up in and around New York City in the mid-1960s, while respect for West’s solo and studio work remains the province of fellow guitarists. His versatility and fluidity are breathtaking, and his solos never less than dazzling, while appearances on albums by everyone from Johnny Winter to the Who to Joe Bonamassa to Ozzy to, well, too many to list, will knock you out. Start with Got Blues, then sit back and marvel.


27) J. Geils Band Just because I grew up in New England and saw these guys countless times before they signed with Atlantic is no reason for me to champion them, but I remain mystified by how they seem to have drifted out of the public’s consciousness, save for the uncharacteristic hit, “Centerfold.” Better they should be remembered for one of the most powerful and incendiary blues/rock debuts of all time, right up there with the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band LP. Peter Wolf’s vocal delivery and proto-rapper patter may be the most memorable aspect of the band’s sound, but Magic Dick’s harp playing is so unbelievably “virtuoso” that, according to legend, no less an authority than Muddy Waters praised him in excelsis. For my money, some of the best party albums ever, up there with Ryder and Bonds, while Sanctuary remains a forgotten masterpiece.


28) Jackie DeShannon Another artist remembered as a one- or two-hit wonder when it’s certainly not the case, DeShannon did a whole lot more than chart on her own with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and her own composition, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart”. Like Brenda Lee, she was a child prodigy, and remains a prodigious writer: she co-penned “Bette Davis’ Eyes” and wrote “When You Walk In the Room”, which gave the Searchers a massive hit. DeShannon’s 20-plus solo albums have covered everything from folk-rock to “girl group”-type pop, she toured with the Beatles, was “involved” with Jimmy Page and has a voice as versatile as demanded by her genre-jumping. One of popular music’s best-kept secrets. 

29) Nick Lowe This man has had so many careers, including cult status in the USA thanks to his affiliation with Yep Roc, that it’s hard to know where to begin. As a producer, he made his mark with indie and punk bands in the UK, working with Graham Parker, the Damned, Dr Feelgood, the Pretenders and Elvis Costello. As a performer, Lowe was a member of Kippington Lodge in the tail-end of the British Invasion era, which segued into Brinsley Schwarz, thus heralding pub rock, formed Rockpile, married Carlene Carter, which gave him country chops and hooked him up with his father-in-law, Johnny Cash, for a couple of classics including “the Beast In Me” in the latter’s last days, etc, etc. An engaging live performer, he delivers wry, thoughtful, melodic sets somewhere between a British Randy Newman and a non-volatile Nilsson. With a c.v. that contains “Cruel To Be Kind”, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” – superbly covered by Keb’ Mo’ – and a host of others, he’s one of the most consistently satisfying of the forever-under-the-radar artists working today.


30) Joe Brown I have no idea if Americans know Brown for anything other than his tear-inducing version of “I’ll See You In My Dreams” at the closing of the memorial concert for George Harrison, but Brown is one of the very few British rock artists to precede the Beatles who wasn’t a third-rate Presley close. A superlative guitarist, he played numerous sessions, backed Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent during their British tours, released over 30 albums since 1959, charted regularly during the early days alongside Cliff Richard & the Shadows and became a lifelong friend of Harrison when they met back in the days before Beatlemania. Harrison was best man at Brown’s wedding in 2000, and Brown appears on Harrison’s Gone Troppo and Brainwashed. Oh, and his daughter is the singer Sam Brown. Now playing the nostalgia circuit and championing ukulele, he’s much loved in the UK because he’s down-to-earth, and sings in an undiluted Cockney accent. Find a copy of Live in Liverpool or The Ukulele Album to hear the true heir to Burl Ives. A delight.

Death Of The Brand

Bill Leebens

The term “brand” is thrown around pretty indiscriminately these days. Newbies in the workforce are urged to “build their brand” (which I would imagine is mystifying advice when one is slopping Special Sauce onto Big Macs); marketers obsess over “brand identity”—and you can trust me on that one.

What does it mean? What is a brand, exactly? — and why would I be writing about its death?

Anyone who has ever seen a John Ford western knows what a brand originally was: an indelible mark, a burn scar really, indicating ownership of cattle—or, horrifically, of a slave. A unique, readily-identifiable symbol of ownership was wrought into iron by a blacksmith, producing a literal branding iron. The iron was heated over red-hot coals and was then used to mark a poor cow/bull/steer/calf as proof of ownership by a particular individual or ranch. Such irons were also used on other livestock, of course; fuzzy sheep could be problematic.

“Brand” gained wider meaning when goods were shipped in wooden crates. To identify particular products or makers, an iron shaped in the form of initials or a unique trademark was heated, and the iron was used to burn a mark into the wood. Just like branding cattle, minus the mooing and the pain. The practice morphed into using ink or paint with a stamp or stencils, and eventually, printed labels (think of those glorious chromo-lithographed orange crate labels).

Even after actual branding of crates ceased, the term “brand” remained associated with a company’s name or line of products. The practice continues to this day.

Back in the day, a familiar brand was an assurance of quality and an indicator of reliability. In the early 20th century, Americans (and eventually, Earthlings in general) learned to associate the Ford brand with automobiles that were austere and unglamorous, but dependable and damned-near indestructible. Keep in mind that this was in an era when cars were largely toys for the wealthy, and were neither reliable nor indestructible.


Model Ts may have been inexpensive, but they weren’t cheap: Ford pioneered the use of high tensile strength vanadium steel and other then-exotic materials when other makers were barely a step away from the blacksmith’s anvil. (If you think Steve Jobs pioneered the concept of “saying no to the hundred other good ideas you have”—study a Model T some time. They are spare, starkly-functional creatures.

With the concept of brand led by Ford and (perhaps) warped by others, the 20th century was the century of the brand. Henry Ford preferred to let his products speak for themselves, but many companies spent more on marketing and advertising than they did for engineering or product design, and they vigorously defended their brands. Sometimes, the defense was difficult to understand: why wouldn’t you want people to use “Xerox” as a synonym for “photocopying”, or “Kleenex” as a synonym for “tissue”?

The thinking was that ubiquitous and indiscriminate usage of a brand-name would lead to the brand-name becoming generic and meaningless. I learned this first-hand when I moved to the South as an adolescent, and discovered that “Coke” referred to any sugary carbonated drink. If everything is a Coke, the brand-defenders reasoned, then “Coke” means nothing, and the brand becomes worthless.

It is a curious rationale, seemingly at odds with the goals of marketing and sales, but ultimately it is a pragmatic one: if a company can’t consistently differentiate its products from other, similar products, how can they ensure that buyers will choose their particular brand of products?

Dominance of major brands crumbled in the latter third of the 20th century , paralleling broadcast television’s loss of dominance. As consumers became aware of how much of the cost of major brands was the cost of advertising and marketing , rather than the cost of production of the goods, alternatives appeared. One somewhat-surreal alternative proliferated from the ‘70’s through the ‘90’s: generic brands, which were basically not brands at all. Packaging of generics was, well, generic: a simple name like “Corn Flakes” or “Creamed Corn” was printed in black on white boxes or labels. Packaging graphics consisted of the item name, maker info, and a bar code (new during that period). Period.

Producers of generic products can survive only if they have a large number of guaranteed sales outlets, as generic products are unable to differentiate themselves in a competitive environment. Can you imagine 20 different non-brand white-box “Corn Flakes” duking it out for shelf space at Walmart? No: usually, the producers of a chain’s “house brand” also produced the lower-cost (and possibly lower-quality) generics. Without the guaranteed outlets, such products couldn’t make it. Ultimately, the appeal of such white box goods faded, possibly due to their wildly-varying quality and difficulty of differentiating the good from the bad (“were the good ‘Corn Flakes’ from Kroger, or Ralph’s??”).

Name-brand products include the costs of preferred store placement, flashy displays, and bonuses to store managers (sometimes as cash “spiffs”, often as trips or merchandise) in their marketing costs. Such items are simply viewed as costs of doing business. For example, heavily-advertised Mucinex may sell for $8-10 at Target or Walgreen’s, while its generic equivalent, guaifenesin, can be found at Dollar Tree for a buck. The two are equally effective; the higher-priced name brand yields larger margins for both maker and seller, but also has to pay millions for advertising and promotions. Without the guarantee of hundreds of Dollar Tree outlets, the maker of the generic would likely be forced to go the higher-cost, higher-margin route.

In the audio world, electronics chains have always had house brands: Lafayette Electronics had Criterion, Radio Shack had Realistic, and today, Best Buy has Insignia (and others). As anonymous OEM suppliers are able to produce increasingly- sophisticated electronics products for an ever-greater number of “manufacturers” under an infinite number of brand names, there is a real risk of audio products becoming commoditized, appearing interchangeable.

As if that’s not daunting enough, the huge direct marketplace of Amazon provides direct access to millions of customers for companies that would previously have limited themselves to being OEM makers. Scanning through Amazon listings, many products look very similar indeed, differentiated only by brand name and perhaps minor cosmetic differences. Many of the products look the same because they are the same, made in the same factory to the same design with the same parts and components. The brand names are largely unfamiliar and may only exist for one production batch.

How, then, can buyers choose? Price is a major determinant, of course, and is coupled with feedback from other buyers. For many buyers, brand names are inconsequential: hesitation over here today-gone tomorrow “brands” is largely overcome by Amazon’s liberal refund policies. And in the big picture—let’s not even think about Alibaba.com….

So: are brands dead? Is this piece’s melodramatic title justified?

Truth be told, the lower end markets have always been more price-dependent than brand-reliant.

In years past, entry-level hi fi buyers would’ve waited for the Washington’s Birthday sale at Radio Shack, or some similar promotion. So penny-counters will likely read the fine print in Amazon listings, or buy used, or wait for b-stock or promos. None of that is new. The sheer volume of ephemeral brand names in today’s market, though, is new, and many of those products are essentially the same, despite the fact they may bear a dozen different names. That serves to reinforce the idea that brand names don’t matter.

Further upmarket, though, companies live and die on the basis of their ability to engender loyalty from their customers. Brand loyalty is no longer as strong in the automotive world as it once was; certainly, one rarely hears of “Ford families” or “Chevy families” as was commonplace in the ‘60’s and earlier.

Big ticket audio products are another story, though: brand loyalty is how companies survive. Loyalty may be based upon the simple desire for everything to match; by fondness for a “house sound”; or by the desire to move up in the product range, based upon a favorable experience downrange. When economies are challenged or challenging—as they are now—brands that have a lengthy history and are viewed as familiar, stable, and reliable, have a huge advantage over new companies. Status is also an issue: products from new brands are rarely seen as aspirational, unless those products are outrageous and hugely expensive.

The bottom line is that bottom lines are suffering at many companies in many markets. Things are tough all over, and price matters. At the low end of the market, price is generally a more important factor in making a sale than a brand name. Bigger ticket sales are more brand-reliant, with the buyer seeking more status or long-term value from their purchase. When more is being spent, familiar brand names generally offer more peace of mind than do unfamiliar ones.

Nobody ever said it would be easy!




WL Woodward

When I started out playing bass, like all novices I was pretty lousy. Luckily, you always played in the back behind loud guitar players, best friends who talked you into playing bass in the first place so they could whack a doodle or two.

I eventually ran across bass friends who pointed out what I was doing wrong and drummers who didn’t know what I was doing wrong but knew something sucked and who was responsible. These guys taught me to listen and learn from real bass players. After decades of listening, study and practice I became a lousy bass player. Not pretty lousy, just that. Hey, you have to appreciate Life’s simple gratifications. I didn’t get worse.

Early on I got lucky. A real bass player and mellow Bridgeport machinist I worked with in South Windsor came out to see me play with a country folk band. Because of the dumb shit noodling I was doing between songs (the frustrated guitar player, and it was obvious) he talked to me between sets. He had to be quick. We had a 15 minute break with a free bar tab.

In 3.5 minutes, and subsequently at work, Jerry talked and taught about listening to the bass, and great bass players. He loaned me the first Jaco Pastorius solo album, incongruously called Jaco Pastorius. Jerry had to know he’d never get it back. I still have it. I think if he thought I would give it back he wouldn’t have loaned it in the first place. Love you Jerr.

Alright, reading that diatribe I have to dig out that disc. Be back.

Sorry, that took longer than I thought. Looking for Jaco I came across Johnny Winter And Live.

That Jaco solo album truly blew me away, still does. You do not have to be a bass player to get this. Just do it.

Sometime later I went up to Jerry at the shop. Jerry, as I said, was a machinist. I was an inspector doing first articles, random piece inspections and generally pissing the machinists off.

“Hey Jerr! I loved that album!”

“What album?” Jerry was a great guy and a pretty good machinist, but after all, a bass player.

“The Jaco. Damn, man I might owe you my life. Who does he play with?”

“YOU have that album? I’ve been looking for..son a bitch when did I loan that to you?” He said loan. I thought fast.

“It was at my birthday party right after my gramma died.” Double whammy. I was counting on two things. That Jerry would not remember being at a birthday party that never happened and that Gra was still alive.

Instead he turned me onto Weather Report.

In 1976 Jaco joined an interesting jazz fusion band with guys from the Miles Davis bands, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. What was interesting became sublime, insane. The rhythms and blasted brilliance in the first albums I bought, Black Market and Heavy Weather, put a place mark in the jazz fusion book with their name being unique.

Side note: Just noticed that “i before e except after c” isn’t really a rule. It’s more of a guideline.

I had always assumed two things that amazingly were untrue:

1. Jaco Pastorius, as crazy pure and innovative as he was, had to be classically trained or at least exposed. Truth was he grew up in Florida playing around the club circuit. There is a story that when he had his first child, in the hospital through glass peering into the baby room, he turned to a friend and said, “I’m going to be the greatest bass player in the world. Gotta take care of a family.”

He did become the greatest electric bassist in the world. Last I counted there were 10 bass players on the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame list, and only one played electric, our boy.

Pssst. Downbeat. Really? Vic Wooten, Stanley Clarke, and John Patitucci aren’t on that list?

Anyway, Jaco pulled shit out of that thing no one had ever heard before. A large part of it was his amazing soul, but it was helped by innovation. Jaco at some point pulled the frets out of his Fender Jazz himself, or he bought an FJ with the frets already removed (I like the first story) and a sound was born.

2. I got the order of the albums wrong. That first solo album took place before Weather Report. The dude was playing club dates around Florida and moonlighting giving bass lessons at U of Miami. In 1974 he started playing with a young Pat Metheny, and people started listening.

In 1975 he met the drummer from Blood, Sweat, and Tears, and that bright guy named Bobby Colomby thought recording this guy in a solo effort was a good idea. Now. I said people were listening. But Jaco was a bass player, doing a solo album, a first solo album in Florida. I never did a solo album, but I would have been grateful to be accompanied by goats.

The people on that first album. He opened with a Charlie Parker tune called Donna Lee, just bass and congas. On the second song, an upbeat R&B funk deal called Come On Come Over, he had the Brecker Brothers, Howard Johnson and David Sanborn on horns, Herbie Hancock on keys, and Sam and Dave on vocals. Sam and Dave. Yeah, musicians were listening. Maybe not actual people, but the cream of that world. Herbie played on 5 more cuts, and guys like Lenny White, Wayne Shorter and Hubie Laws threw in.

For a guy bumming around the Gator circuit this is amazing. I had always thought these guys jumped in because of Jaco’s work in Weather Report. Nope, turns out that album GOT him the Weather Report gig.

At the time I was playing a blonde Fender Jazz that I bought from a guy who got it in a drug deal. Brand new in the case. Paid a hundred bucks gladly. After moving to Colorado Springs from the east coast in 1980 I took the girl to Chris at Rocky Mountain Music and asked him to pull the frets.

Chris thought I was deranged but did a great job. Finished that maple neck and filled the fret slots with real rosewood dust.

Rosewood dust. Those were the days.

W L Woodward is the Director of Operations at PS Audio. He has been married since 1974 to his high school sweetheart and should practice his guitar more.

Capital Audio Fest

Capital Audio Fest

Capital Audio Fest

Paul McGowan

The Capital Audiofest was held the weekend of July 8-10 at the Hilton Washington DC/Rockville, in Rockville, Maryland. Know for its friendly, informal atmosphere and DIY roots, this year the CapFest moved more into the mainstream, with appearances from a number of major manufacturers.

Highlights included premieres of the second-gen megabuck Muons from KEF and the top-of-the-line Titan turntable from VPI. There were a number of giveaways which drew a lot of attention, including one for a $12,000 Alta Audio/VPI system—look at the crowd that one drew!

In 2017, CAF will attempt to avoid DC’s notorious sweltering summers by moving to November. Based on this year’s show, it should be a strong turnout!

Daedelus showed their beautifully crafter speakers with an impressive array of Border Patrol electronics. Daedelus showed their beautifully crafted speakers with an impressive array of Border Patrol electronics.
Both Alta Video and VPI were seen and heard in several rooms, and gained a lot of goodwill. Both Alta Video and VPI were seen and heard in several rooms, and gained a lot of goodwill.
Lifestyle company Fern & Roby showed speakers with cabinets hewn from solid wood, and a hefty turntable with a cast-iron base. Lifestyle company Fern & Roby showed speakers with cabinets hewn from solid wood, and a hefty turntable with a cast-iron base.
The huge KEF Muons, looking as though they just arrived from outer space, shone in a system with VPI's new statement turntable, Titan. The huge KEF Muons, looking as though they just arrived from outer space, shone in a system with VPI's new statement turntable, Titan.
CAF was bigger than ever. Look at this crow awaiting the announcement of the winner of a $12,000 VPI/Alta system! CAF was bigger than ever. Look at this crow awaiting the announcement of the winner of a $12,000 VPI/Alta Audio system!
Stereophile's Herb Reichert blissed out to the Dans: Dan Clark's Mr. Speakers Ether headphones and Dan Wright's ModWright Tryst headphone amp. Stereophile's Herb Reichert blissed out to the Dans: Dan Clark's Mr. Speakers Ether headphones and Dan Wright's ModWright Tryst headphone amp.
The ever-dapper Ken Furst represented Alta Audio The ever-dapper Ken Furst represented Alta Audio
Head Zu-keeper Sean Casey demoed hickory-finished Definition Mk. IV speakers with a mix of vintage and new gear. Head Zu-keeper Sean Casey demoed hickory-finished Definition Mk. IV speakers with a mix of vintage and new gear.
Vintage/Emia Not all the gear shown was new. This grouping may have escaped from a lab! Dave Slagle's modified Garrard 401 looked nothing like the usual Garrard, and the tube gear... who knows? Vintage/Emia
Not all the gear shown was new. This grouping may have escaped from a lab! Dave Slagle's modified Garrard 401 looked nothing like the usual Garrard, and the tube gear... who knows?

Issue 11

Issue 11

Issue 11

Paul McGowan

Andrew Norman: Pinball Wizard

Andrew Norman: Pinball Wizard

Andrew Norman: Pinball Wizard

Lawrence Schenbeck
As I write this, I am sitting in a grade-school art teacher’s classroom in Poughkeepsie, New York. It’s deserted except for me and my laptop, but in classrooms all around me teachers and children are actively, deeply, vocally engaged in learning. I can hear their little voices. And the occasional big voice.

“Alright. The last two boys, go ahead. Please.”

In this classroom, they’ve been learning how to make rainbows from paper and paint. They’ve been studying line, space, shape, form. They’ve been learning to Speak kindly to and about others and to Show RESPECT for others, school property, and all art supplies. (Yes, Conrad, all art supplies. So put down the crayon you’re mashing into Cynthia’s hair.)

There’s a little poster here, with some Zen calligraphy at its center. Above the swirling brush strokes, SHO-SHIN; below, FRESH MIND.


Wouldn’t that be nice? To be a third grader again, to walk into art class and greet Ms. Wilkins and sit down and see SHO-SHIN and think FRESH MIND?

Today’s exercise in FRESH MIND comes to us from Andrew Norman, bright young American composer who’s already been many places and done astonishing things. No third-grader he. In fact he’s made such a splash in the contemporary music world you may wonder why I hadn’t yet mentioned him.

Well, better late than never. Let’s consider music from three recent recordings. That should be enough. We’ll begin with Play, a symphony in three movements labeled Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3.

(Yes, Conrad, Levels, like in Candy Crush Saga. No, I don’t know why there aren’t lots more. Ask Mr. Norman.)

Regarding Play, Mr. Norman writes:

I wish you all could see Play performed live. . . . It is as much about watching choices being made and thoughts exchanged and feats of physical coordination performed as it is about listening to the melodies and harmonies and rhythms. . . .You’re not going to see how players often freeze in place, mid-breath and –bow-stroke, waiting to be turned on again by the flick of a percussive switch. You’re not going to see how the tiny ballet of pitchless finger-shifts at the beginning of Level 2 or the epic battle of slapsticks later in that movement play out in spatial, kinetic, choreographic terms on the stage. And you’re not going to see the 28 individuals who each offer a single solo note to create the work’s final phrase.

Get it? The conductor is not the only person shaping the performance. Players make choices also, and their choices shape the choices of others. At first Play seems to take us inside a cartoon crazy-house, its gleeful manic energy bouncing off the walls, shooting shards of music at us. But it has quiet moments too, and materials ordered as carefully as the architecture of any 21st-century skyscraper. Listen:

Norman again:

I definitely thought of and planned Play in terms of story arc and narrative and characters and conflicts. . . . I started at the work’s climax . . . and I worked backward from there, constructing threads of a story that might each plausibly lead to such a moment.

There you have it. Planning counts. Even more important, though, is the composer’s purity of spirit, his audacity (which is actually a measure of the trust he places in his audience). Not a single cautious note masquerades as Good Taste anywhere in Play.


Short of live performance, the best way to experience Play is through the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s stunning high-res album (BMOP/sound 1040). Aside from the phenomenal sound, you can tell that every single musician is committed to the performance. That matters even more than usual. I like BMOP’s packaging: a nice card-stock trifold album with useful program booklet including essays by the composer and Daniel Stephen Johnson. You can subscribe to their recording series and get a new SACD every couple of months. I’m going to do it; this is repertoire unavailable elsewhere and definitely worth hearing.

Back to Andrew Norman: If you want something more intimate, something that gives you a closer peek at his OS, I heartily recommend Music in Circles (Parts I & II) from yMusic’s sophomore album Balance Problems (New Amsterdam NWAM059).

yMusic is a group of New York musicians (string trio, flute, clarinet, trumpet) who play new musics that draw variously on pop, electronica, classical, world-beat, and more. (Yes, I know there are other groups out there plowing the same field—but these folks are exceptionally good at it.)

What’s useful about Music in Circles is that its narrative moves at a slower pace. You can follow it more easily. Circles moves seamlessly between noise and pitch, beginning with utterances rooted in violin spiccato (mostly noise). The music slowly gathers power and eventually climaxes in bursts of harrowing lyricism—more musical than anything you would have anticipated, given the opening strains. It’s emotionally satisfying. If you don’t think new music can be beautiful, check this out. (Be patient; give it several listens.)

We have just enough space to introduce one more of Norman’s storms. This is a concerto. He has already written a couple for piano and orchestra, including Split, which rocked NY Phil audiences last November. Can’t wait to hear it. In the meantime we have Switch, a dynamic percussion workout for Colin Currie, available in a new Reference Recordings high-res album (RR FR-719 SACD) with Thierry Fischer’s rejuvenated Utah Symphony. What a trip!

More about the whole album next time. For now, here’s a clip of Switch. Currie says playing it was like being trapped inside a giant pinball machine.

Welcome to a more interactive classical world: video games, channel surfing, tweets, trolls. Norman’s music both embodies our splintered culture and provides a measure of cathartic release from that culture. That’s one neat trick from one fresh mind.

Lawrence Schenbeck was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee. In spite of that, he became a historical musicologist. He is the author of two books, many more scholarly articles, and countless liner notes, music reviews, and "casuals." He lives in the Atlanta area with his family and too much music, Tchaikovsky being the least of it. Literally.

Jensen: The Man, the Company, Conclusion

Jensen: The Man, the Company, Conclusion

Jensen: The Man, the Company, Conclusion

Bill Leebens

In Parts 1 and 2 we discussed Peter Jensen’s journey from his birthplace in Denmark to California, his involvement in the creation of the moving-coil loudspeaker, and his role as co-founder of the Magnavox company.

In 1927, Jensen left California and Magnavox and moved to Chicago. There he founded the Jensen Radio Manufacturing company, which produced loudspeakers for radio manufacturers. Within two years, the new company was providing OEM speakers for 60% of independent radio manufacturers in the US. Somewhat ironically, the company had to license from Magnavox, technology that Jensen had invented.

Given his pioneering spirit, it wasn’t surprising that Jensen continued to investigate ways to improve his invention. He soon realized that it was essentially impossible to cover the full audible range of sound utilizing one speaker driver. Aside from the added complexity of an additional driver, keep in mind that nearly all speakers built before the end of WW II utilized electromagnetic (or “field coil”) magnet assemblies; the “permanent magnets” that existed were neither truly permanent nor sufficiently strong to work well in quality speakers. In addition to the standard signal leads, each speaker driver required connections to a power supply for the electromagnet. Baby boomers and those younger may find the connections found on the back of vintage loudspeakers bewilderingly complex.

But I digress. By 1929, when his company first introduced a speaker system labeled “Imperial”, Jensen produced separate woofers and tweeters (and yes, those terms were often used to describe low- and high-frequency drivers even then). In addition to their inclusion in a stunning black lacquer and maple art deco 2-way system called the “Imperial Reproducer”, Jensen’s drivers were used in console radios that defined the state of the art, built by the grandly-named E.H. Scott and McMurdo Silver. Lest you think that the pursuit of high-fidelity sound is a recent pursuit, Scott’s top model, the Quaranta, sold for $2500 in 1936! —which, translated to 2016 dollars, is over $43,000.

Considering that the complete Quaranta weighed over 600 pounds, the buyer got a lot for his money: in addition to the AM and Shortwave receivers (whose performance defined the state of the art at that time), the system contained a Garrard record changer, and a Presto cutting lathe with a ribbon microphone, for in-home recording sessions. Jensen’s contributions were in the 5-driver 3-way speaker system: a massive 18” woofer, comparable to the model 4181 which Jensen manufactured for Western Electric theater systems, 2-12” Magnavox midranges (yes, 12” mids), and 2-Jensen horn tweeters which look suspiciously similar to the Western Electric model 597 tweeter used in WE’s best theater systems.

Aside from the novelty of a 3-way speaker system in 1936, consider that the speakers were triamplified as well, with the bass amp handling 30-125 Hz, the midrange amp handling 100-6,000 Hz, and the treble amplifier covering 3,000- 16,000 Hz. The frequency range of the speakers exceeded that of the Quaranta’s sources, as neither AM radio nor 78 rpm records often extended above 5,000 Hz during that era.

The drivers that Jensen manufactured for Western Electric were component parts of the most elaborate and sophisticated theater and PA systems then built, which in many ways are superior to today’s theater systems. Much of the fundamental research on human hearing, psychoacoustics, intelligibility of speech and sound quality was done by Bell Labs scientists, whose work shaped the designs of their colleagues at WE.

Jensen’s 18” woofer, manufactured for Western Electric as their model 4181, was a massive device whose cast frame and bulky field coil assembly looked more like the creation of a blacksmith, rather than something designed by an acoustician or electrical engineer. Demand for the 4181 and its Jensen equivalent are still strong; intact, clean units go for over $4,000 on Ebay.

In addition to being part of the biggest, baddest multi-way systems, Jensen developed the first true coaxial speaker system, in 1942. The next year, 1943, Jensen again moved along to start a new company, Jensen Industries.

Post-war, the new company focused upon the burgeoning hi-fi and musical instrument markets, and developed complete speaker systems as well as raw drivers. From the ‘40’s through the ‘60’s, Jensen speakers could be found in guitar amps made by Fender, Gibson, and other leading companies. In the ‘50s, and early ‘60’s, Jensen’s 500-series coaxial speakers and G-610 triaxial were often recommended for hobbyists building their own speakers, or for use in custom consoles due to their combination of high performance and compactness. (Those raised in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s likely recall Jensen coax and triax car speakers, which were among the first and most popular aftermarket car speakers.)

The upper end of the ‘50’s market was covered by the Imperial systems, large horn-loaded enclosures with prodigious bass, still built by hobbyists for that reason. As was common practice during the period, the enclosure could be ordered with a variety of driver configurations, starting with a coax unit and ending with a 3-way system. The full-tilt 3-way Imperial sold for $570 in 1957, equal to almost $5000 today.

Massive enclosures like the Imperial (and its rivals, the JBL Hartsfield, Klipschorn, and Altec Laguna) fell from favor with the transition from mono and stereo and the appearance of high-performance smaller speakers like the AR-3 and 3a (and the higher-powered amps such systems required). The tweeter section alone of the Jensen Imperial was about the size of most complete AR systems of the period.


Peter Jensen died in 1961. A lifelong smoker, he succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 75.

While the company continued to manufacture speaker systems for decades after its founder’s death, it essentially became a me-too brand, building speakers that offered solid value but uninspiring performance: the audio equivalent of, say, Buick.

As was true of far too many legendary hi-fi brands, the company was sold so many times that constructing an accurate history is nearly impossible. Archives appear to have vanished decades ago.What’s left of the Jensen brand, these days? The brightest spot in that story is that Jensen speakers for guitar amps have been faithfully reproduced since the 1990s by an Italian company.

On the hi-fi side, all that remains is a line of cheesy accessories and mobile electronics sold under the Jensen brand name. The brand’s fate is similar to that of the Advent, RCA, and Acoustic Research Brands, which are also owned by Voxx Corporation—once known as Audiovox. Acoustic Research has at least recently introduced a competent digital audio player; Jensen has had no such luck.

Peter Jensen—and his legacy of innovation—deserves better.

Bill Leebens has bought and sold vintage gear since the days when it was new. He regrets that a goodly number of classic American components now reside in Japan, because of him. Mea culpa.

My Kingdom for a DAC

My Kingdom for a DAC

My Kingdom for a DAC

Richard Murison

One of the nice things about digital audio is that it’s so simple to understand. We ‘sample’ (measure) the analog waveform many tens of thousands of times a second and store the results as binary numbers. When it comes to playback, we simply use the binary numbers to recreate the original waveform. And we can refer to whats-his-name’s theory to insist that the process will have perfectly recreated the original waveform. So much for digital audio. Now let’s move on to politics….

If it were as simple as that I’d be out of a job – albeit an unpaid job. So let’s take a closer look at one aspect of nice-‘n’-easy digital audio – how a DAC works. As usual, I’ll stick with the CD Audio format to illustrate my explanation. So we’re looking at a stream of 16-bit numbers, 44,100 of them every second, and we’re turning them into an analog waveform. The sample rate presents an immediate challenge. We can very easily figure out what the actual voltage is that our 16-bit number corresponds to. The challenge is not only in setting the output voltage to precisely that value, but doing so within 1/44,100th of a second.

It turns out that there is a very simple circuit that can do that for us. It is called an R-2R ladder, and I’ve included an example below. Basically, you have a chain of resistors all wired together that have values of either R or 2R (it doesn’t actually matter too much what the actual value of R is). One of the 2R resistors is tied to ground, and each of the others to an input formed by one of the bits of our audio bit depth. Each 2R resistor is linked to the next by a single R resistor. So for 16-bit audio there are 16+1 of these 2R resistors and 16-1 of the R resistors. When each bit of the 16-bit number is applied to its respective 2R resistor (i.e. a voltage of either +1V or 0V is applied, depending on whether the bit is a 1 or a 0) the output of the ladder magically becomes the actual voltage encoded by the 16-bit number. The R-2R ladder appears to be the perfect circuit for an audio DAC – or is it?

In order for the DAC to be accurate, it requires that each of the R resistors must be absolutely identical, and the 2R resistors all have to be exactly twice the resistance of the R resistors. What accuracy do we need? Well, if we are dealing with 16-bit audio the resistance values need to be accurate to one part in 2 to the 16th, which is 1:65,536 (and correspondingly tougher for 24-bit audio). As best as I can tell, the most accurate resistors available commercially are rated at ±0.005%, which corresponds to an accuracy of 1:20,000, or ~14-bits, which is not good enough.

Furthermore, the resistance value changes with temperature, which means that to maintain that accuracy the resistor needs to be mounted in a very carefully temperature-controlled environment. And note that the act of measuring the resistance involves passing a current through it, which has the unavoidable effect of heating the resistor. At the limit, this heating effect perturbs the value of the resistance by more than the accuracy to which you are trying to measure it! The problems don’t stop there by any means, but my description of them does.

These and other problems make it extremely difficult for a DAC manufacture to implement a real-world R-2R ladder DAC, which is why there are so few of them on the market, and also why they are so costly. So what is the alternative?

Well, we’re apparently stymied by our inability to generate output voltage levels with sufficient precision. But we’ve come across a problem like this previously [at least we have if you’ve been diligently reading these columns!], and we already know the answer – by massively oversampling, followed by low-pass filtering, we can generate a high-precision signal even though it is obtained from low-precision constituents. So the solution is to convert the incoming signal to DSD and generate our analog output voltage as a high-frequency pattern of 1’s and 0’s – which won’t depend on the accuracies of resistors. When we pass this through a low-pass filter we will recreate the original analog signal at something close to the original precision.

This, in a nutshell, is how virtually every single modern DAC works, but with some variations. First of all, strictly speaking, the term DSD implies a sample rate of 2.8224MHz, and almost no DAC chipsets will use that sample rate. Most will use a sample rate up in the 10’s of MHz. Secondly, DSD is a 1-bit system, and (for reasons I won’t get into here) most commercial chipsets utilize multi-bit (typically 3-bit to 5-bit) data. These DACs use on-board SDMs to convert the incoming signal – whether PCM or DSD – to its own internal ‘DSD-like’ format before converting to analog and filtering. Although the level of signal processing required is truly prodigious, as well as fiendishly complex, once the initial design work is done it can be reduced to a single IC, which can be manufactured in volume for pennies. It makes for a compelling argument, one to which virtually all DAC manufacturers now adhere.

Now we can move on to politics ….

Richard Murison enjoyed a long career working with lasers, as a researcher, engineer, and then as an entrepreneur. This enabled him to feed his life-long audiophile habit. Recently, though, he started an audiophile software company, BitPerfect, and consequently he can no longer afford it. Even stranger, therefore, that he has agreed to serve in an unpaid role as a columnist, which he writes from Montreal, Canada.

Encountering The Kutandara Tribe

Encountering The Kutandara Tribe

Encountering The Kutandara Tribe

Duncan Taylor

It’s hard to not stare when you meet a new tribe.

You know what I mean: you see a group of people, different from the norm but tightly-knit, and you just want to study them a little.

I stumbled across a new tribe a couple years ago, one grounded in a shared love of the music of another continent. I had heard of this band over my years in Boulder, but I never had an inside view until they came to record at my live video studio.

Boulder claims a lot of cool, unique businesses, including a school of African music called Kutandara Center. When I started peeking into the Kutandara world, it felt like I was missing out on a party. The school’s culture was so immersive that I caught the same vibe from everyone I talked to: raw, shared excitement about the music and the culture that they all shared.

I was approached by the school to see if we could record their main performance band, also called Kutandara. It featured a couple of instructors and plenty of bright-eyed kids wielding mallets and dancing to the music. A big question mark for me right away was whether the group’s seven marimbas would fit into our tiny live recording studio.

Now, this was months after I recorded Steve Mullins and Doug Walter of Rim of the Well, and I vividly remembered how much of our room was swallowed by one marimba.

(Sidenote here: I noticed a request for more music from RoTW in a recent letter to Copper. Visit http://stevemullinsmusic.com/rim-of-the-well to buy a CD, or contact Steve there to see if he’s got some high-res recordings up his sleeve.)

Doug’s marimba was of a certain type, and possessed a commercial polish. Kutandara had several they wanted to bring, including one or two that were a bit larger than Doug’s. Most of their instruments looked like they were hewn by hand.

So I visited the marimba school to eyeball the situation. Their practice room wasn’t any larger than our recording room, and they were using every square inch to fit their host of marimbas in there. The mic situation was a compromise — they hung a single small-diaphragm mic from the ceiling above each instrument.

I had briefly tried this approach with Doug, and didn’t like the flatness of the resulting sound. If I switched from a cardioid pickup pattern to omnidirectional, I felt like I lost some of the transient impact of the mallet hitting the wood, and the bass response wasn’t much to get excited about.

For those reasons, and the fact we’d have no room for video cameras, I started to rule out that method of recording while walking around the practice room. Due to our approach at Second Story Garage, we often got high-octane, happy-energy performances from our visitors—and those needed to be seen. Watch the videos below, and I think you’ll agree that seeing Kutandara do its thing is better than just hearing it.

A bit of negotiation followed. I considered plenty of options, and even thought about bringing the band out into the newsroom of Boulder’s newspaper, the Daily Camera, and recording live amidst the feverishly typing journalists in that very large open space.

Ultimately, Kutandara and I struck a compromise: I really wanted them in the studio, and I wanted to mic the marimbas just like I had mic’ed Doug’s. And we really needed to fit as many people into the room as we could, while leaving a space for the cameras. So the band said they would work on new arrangements over the next month that featured only three marimbas, rather than seven. Ambitious, I thought, but really the professionalism that I witnessed at every step with these guys made me feel confident we would get a good finished product.

The day finally came, and even with three marimbas I was a little wide-eyed as we were loading in. But everything in life gets solved step by step, and we got straight to work setting up the instruments. As always, I like some mic bleed and I like recording with a band all in the same room. But I’m not a madman — I still try to use clever mic technique to minimize negative impacts of this approach where I can.

For instance, with Steve and Doug, I brought Doug’s music stand closer to Steve’s mic because it provided a sound shield which kept a lot of marimba energy out of the guitar mic.

With Kutandara, I knew the big wooden marimbas would load up the room with energy, so I had to delicately balance the mic distances so I’d keep some mallet attack in the sound without overloading the mic capsules.

Now that I’ve gotten to this point in the retelling of this recording session, let me tell you. If you’ve never been in a small room in the middle of three African marimbas being wailed on, I can tell you it is quite a sonic experience. There are tones low enough to make your clothes vibrate, and some that buzz your skin like a Sharper Image massager. There isn’t a ton of energy in the presence range besides the mallet-strikes, so the overall volume doesn’t seem very loud. In spite of that apparent volume, the actual feeling of the sound energy is astonishing.

The group brought several African instruments for use in their two songs. On “Nhemamusasa,” you can see the two girls in front playing the mbiri, a gourd with tuned metal tines inside which is played with thumbs and fingers. The girl on the right in both videos shakes the hosho, which are shakers made from dried African fruits.

Once the marimbas were placed and we had everyone mic’ed and feeling good about the monitor mixes, we took off. Typical of our best sessions, Kutandara completely made me forget that they were playing newly-learned arrangements, and they nailed their songs in the first takes.

Of course they did.

When you watch the video you see no sense of nerves, or of struggling to access memory. You just see love for the music, love for the culture and the words, and love for one another. I’m so glad we had this tribe come to visit; even though I wasn’t attending the school, I felt as if I learned from them.

Take a look below—I think you’ll agree.

It's No Contest

It's No Contest

It's No Contest

Bill Leebens

The long-running television show American Idol was often accused of single-handedly destroying American popular music. In its fifteen seasons AI (no, not “artificial intelligence”, although that might seem apropos) yielded 345 records which were chart- toppers on Billboard…a magazine which once meant something, back in the era of physical media.

Cynical souls like me would argue that American Idol wasn’t solely responsible for the destruction of American pop music. Pop had started an inexorable slide downhill years before the show’s appearance, hastened by machine production, songwriting by committee, and the widespread acceptance and distribution of lo-fi MP3s. Idol just served as a highly-visible target for haters, exemplifying all that was facile and plastic and disposable in the music industry.

Many well-established musicians have spoken dismissively of Idol and similar shows as “winning a popularity contest”, which may be sour-grapes-speak for “I spent 20 years on the road to make it and those perky little creeps just had to look pretty and flirt with Paula Abdul or Ryan Seacrest”. It is true that many Idol “champions” were barely remembered a week later (Nick Fradiani, anyone? I didn’t think so), much less years later, but a few winners like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson have built lasting careers.

Granted, most who appeared were insubstantial talents, and the country’s taste for such competitions has faded from when Idol was the top-rated TV show for years and years— but aren’t amateur talent shows an old American tradition? Certainly, my high school had one every year (although ours was unusual in that it generally featured a future multiple Grammy-winner…), and I assume most others did, as well.

If you go back to the days of vaudeville, talent contests were often part of the show (the new-millennial equivalent being, sadly, karaoke or open-mike nights). Movies of the early talkie era portray losing contestants as being yanked off-stage by The Hook, a large shepherd’s crook of sorts looped around the neck or waist of the unfortunate losers; even then, cruelty was a major element of talent competitions.

While many amateur talent shows appeared at the beginning of the radio era, the best-known and longest-lived was the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, which started on air in 1934, and ran on network radio from 1935 to 1952. Even Bowes’ death in 1946 couldn’t kill the popular show.

Being on radio, an audible replacement for The Hook was needed; contestants who found disfavor with Bowes were halted by the dramatic crash of a gong. Frank Sinatra was spared the gong as an early winner on Bowes’ show, as part of “The Hoboken Four” in 1935. Sinatra’s group was part of a touring Amateur Hour roadshow company (shades of Idol, 75 years earlier), but soon departed to seek his fortune. Apparently, he found it. Years later, Sinatra—a notorious teller of tales—told audiences that Bowes loved “The Hoboken Four” so much that the group returned to the radio show week after week, re-named every time. Maybe so, maybe not.

Remember The Gong Show, decades later?

Following the death of Major Bowes the show was taken over by his protégée, Ted Mack, and made the transition to television beginning in 1948. Unbelievably, the show ran until 1970,and helped launch the careers of opera singers Robert Merrill and Beverly Sills, as well as Pat Boone, Gladys Knight, and Ann-Margret.

What’s the point of all this? Just as every aging generation seems to gripe about ungrateful teenagers, every recent American generation seems to think that the latest thing that’s destroying music is…well, the latest thing. In reality, it’s simply plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: the more things change, the more they stay the same.


Bill Leebens is Editor of Copper and Director of Marketing at PS Audio. He has been in and out of the audio business for over 40 years. Each time he returns to it, he becomes more cynical. He does not intend to go quietly.

The New Old Way

The New Old Way

The New Old Way

Dan Schwartz

We can all remember those moments when everything in our systems comes together --- when everything just WORKS.

The last time I recall it happening with real clarity was when some engineer friends were over and I was playing Eno and Byrne’s My Life In the Bush of Ghosts, in particular the track “Moonlight in Glory”; I was living alone in my house at the time, so nobody was around to complain about the speakers being out in the middle of the living room. I had Mark Porzilli’s Memory Player back then and was playing a file from it, and the music really hovered in the air.

Wendell Diller remembers moments like that too. Some of us may know, or know of, Wendell. He’s the head of marketing for Magnepan, one of the truly venerable (and venerated) marques in high-end audio. I noticed him years ago because usually when I read a manufacturer’s comment in TAS that made me laugh, it was from him to HP. So HP put us in touch a few years back.

Anyway, Wendell remembers, too. He recalls Maggies being used by dealers, in particular Lyric’s Mike Kay, to blow the minds of the uninitiated. This is going back almost 40 years. The goal for Mike, as Wendell describes it, was to turn someone into a long-term customer rather than to merely sell Magnepans. He estimated they sold maybe one pair for every hundred potential customers – but they got a reputation for being the go-to speaker when trying “to make a lasting impression”.

That last bit is in quotation marks because it’s Wendell’s idea for bringing people back into stores. There are folks who are glad for the gradual disappearance of a dealer network, but there are many others who lament the loss. Certainly, we can all agree that the proliferation of websites, of headphones, of Best Buy and web dealers has changed the landscape, and often it’s changed for the worse. I miss --- and Wendell misses --- the communal experience. (It’s really why I became a musician). He wrote to me, “I didn't realize it at the time. I thought those Good Old Days when Harry and Gordon (Harry Pearson of TAS and J.Gordon Holt of Stereophile, of course. --Ed.) were in their prime, would go on forever. I have been able to change and adapt, but I really miss those days.”

So he’s set out to do something about that. Phase One was an ad taken out in Stereophile and TAS with the banner headline, “Making a lasting impression”. Phase Two was their demo system at THE Show- Newport, where Magnepan showed, in the dark, a very effective 3-channel set-up comprising three .7 speakers, three mono Bryston 7B-ST amps, and the Maggie/Bryston SP processor that derives three channels from the two on a disc. And Phase Three will have wrapped by the time you read this. It consists of a tour to remind dealers of what they’re selling: entertainment.

A good system, we know, is a time-machine, a device for transporting us (with a little imagination) to the recording venue. What Wendell is trying to do is remind dealers and their customers of that; of why we all get into this in the first place. If he sells some speakers in the process, great --- but that’s beside the point.

Wendell told me "I’m not quite sure why I decided to do it.” In an email, he said, "When I reflect back on the total expense and combined effort of Part 1-3, I have to ask myself if it will make any difference?... In one sense, the dealers do not need to differentiate themselves. In many markets, there is no other store anything like them. (In too many markets there is only Best Buy / Magnolia). Our ‘preaching’ may not have any effect….”

Nostalgically, part of me wants this to be about vinyl --- but it’s not. When it really works, the source doesn’t matter, it’s just music --- really, really good music. Wendell is on a mission to remind us of that.

Dan Schwartz is a parent, sort of a husband, and has been a musician of some years, having played on quite a few records - and even a few good ones. He's recorded or played with Rosanne Cash, Bob Dylan, Jon Hassell, Brian Eno, Bernie Leadon, Dave Navarro, Linda Perry, Sheryl Crow, Stan Ridgeway, and was a member of the Tuesday Night Music Club. In his spare time, he used to write for Harry and Sallie at the absolute sound and the Perfect Vision. Professionally, he keeps trying to leave music, but it keeps coming to get him.