Issue 123

Learning to Fly

Learning to Fly

Frank Doris

Every day is an opportunity to learn something. Even when there are days when we feel like we’re wading through molasses, we can still expand our knowledge, even if it’s just learning how to get better at wading through molasses. Being obsessed with all things audio, and lacking a degree in engineering or acoustics, I’ve spent a lifetime learning from others and by exploring, experimenting and doing stuff.

One aspect of this is putting together each issue’s “Audio Anthropology” column. In the process, I look through old audio and electronics textbooks and find information I didn’t know before. It’s a reminder that if we want to expand our horizons in audio, or music, or anything, the journey is never-ending. Yogi Berra noted, “life is a learning experience, only if you learn.” Keep an open mind and open ears. Because of scheduling conflicts (in other words, there aren’t enough hours in a day for everyone concerned), the conclusion of our interview with Walter Schofield of Krell will run in the next issue.

In this issue: Wayne Robins has a must-read review of Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Letter to You. Larry Schenbeck considers musical prize winners. Dan Schwartz tells what he’s been up to. WL Woodward has a review of the upcoming Zappa movie. J.I. Agnew gives perspective on the Loudness War. Tom Gibbs looks at new releases and reissues from Japandroids, the Replacements, Blue Note and Khatia Buniatishvili. Roy Hall visits distilleries in Scotland and Alón Sagee journeys to Mongolia. Rich Isaacs turns us onto 10 more great guitar solos.

John Seetoo contributes Part One of the Audio Engineering Society (AES) virtual Fall 2020 show. Steven Bryan Bieler considers Glenn Danzig covering Elvis. Don Lindich interviews Tom Hannaher of ZVOX Audio, a company with an individual approach to sound and hearing, and I ponder hearing loss and the need for high-end audio. Jay Jay French gets to the soul of guitar tone. Anne E. Johnson has two shining articles on Earth, Wind & Fire and the Judge, bassist Milt Hinton. Ken Sander goes on the road with British prog-rock band Renaissance. Adrian Wu asks: truth or dare? Ray Chelstowski collects cassettes and James Whitworth's character worries about them. Finally, in Audio Anthropology we have twice the fun and our Parting Shot finds B. Jan Montana under an Arizona sky.

Issue 123

Frank Doris

The Soul of Guitar Tone

The Soul of Guitar Tone

The Soul of Guitar Tone

Jay Jay French

As a guitar player for the last 55 years, hundreds of guitars have passed through my hands and I currently own about 60.

When I was younger, I had no idea what I was actually looking for besides a brand that my heroes at the time played.

I thought that they all were supposed to sound the same.

And for me, they did…kind of.

Each guitar company that has made a guitar that I’ve owned has at least one model that best exemplifies the company’s vision. In the case of the two most famous companies, Gibson and Fender, they have several models that, over the years, have played an important role of creating the sound of most of the music that most of us hold dear.

It is for this reason alone that I didn’t care for the recent (2019) Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit, Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock n Roll. (The exhibit is now at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.)

There was no context, just a lot of guitar porn.

The exhibit should have had a room, as you walked in, that had three huge photos: A Fender Stratocaster, a Fender Telecaster and a Gibson Les Paul. Next to each of them should have been a list of some of the most famous players and songs that these three guitars were featured on. Then the context of the collection would have made much more sense.

Electrifying: the 1964 Fender Stratocaster used by Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, 1965. From the Met’s Play It Loud exhibit.

Yes, there are sub-groups of guitars, but what’s the point of any of this without understanding why things sound the way they do!

Guitar players are, by and large, a rather conservative lot.

Most of us have grown up with a handful of guitar models, the sound and looks of which are imprinted deeply into our DNA: the Fender Stratocaster, Fender Telecaster, Gibson Les Paul, Gibson SG, Gibson ES-335, Rickenbacker 360/12 and Gretsch 6120.

Birth of a legend: the first prototype of the Fender Telecaster, 1949. From the Met’s Play It Loud exhibit.

These models can be heard on probably 90 percent of all the recordings that most of you know.

To be sure, there are many more guitar brands and models. I know. I have many of them. In fact, my all-time favorite “go-to” is actually a single cutaway Les Paul Junior, which, when first introduced (1954), was a budget model that sold for $99.00. I have five of them manufactured between 1954 to 1957.

Some of Jay Jay’s Les Paul Juniors with a Yamaha THR10 amplifier.

The fact that Gibson and Fender created designs that are all-time sales leaders and created so many classic sounds underscores the point of this article.

To my (our) ears, the sounds we as players know are characterized by the “tone” we listen for when trying to decide what we want to play, and those sounds that we search for are sounds that we have listened to for thousands of hours.

But, I learned over the years that just because a guitar model is the one you want, it may not sound right.

To get even more into the weeds, the way my friends describe it is that the guitar has a soul.

The particular instrument either has it or doesn’t.

Les Paul playing a modified Les Paul in 1954, with Mary Ford.

To complicate matters, not only do different models do different things (certain brands and models have basic sounds that coincide with a certain kind of musical style, like a Telecaster for country or a Les Paul for hard rock) but within the same model, one guitar can sound incredibly tuneful but a guitar made on the same day, with the same wood and the same electronics, can sound lifeless and dull.

Only after playing for years does this become apparent.

Guitars are tools and long-time pros can tell a good one almost instantly.

This is the magic of guitar playing.

The most confounding brand for me is Paul Reed Smith (PRS).

PRS came onto the scene 35 years ago with a kind of hybrid guitar that both Gibson and Fender players could relate to. By “hybrid” I mean combined features of both brands with a design elements of its own.

The quality control (meaning the “fit n finish”) of a basic PRS puts Fender and Gibson to shame and is probably the reason why these two behemoths, after both suffered severe quality and sales declines in the 1970s, have come back strongly.

I have owned several PRS guitars over the last 15 years. This is the problem: the guitar, to me, has no soul and, though PRS has its fans, most of the players I know who have played them and owned them have similar sentiments.

In short, it doesn’t know what it wants to be.

I know that that sounds crazy. Why should it have to?

The answer to that is that every guitar manufacturer wants to create and sell a product that people want. It doesn’t matter if you are Gibson, Fender or a super-boutique company with two employees that builds almost totally by hand. The guitar has to connect with the player’s soul.

The PRS guitars, no matter how I tried, including changing the pickups, can’t sound the way I need to hear a guitar.

This, of course, has never stopped Carlos Santana, one of the world’s greatest players and a huge Paul Reed Smith fan, from making great music with his PRS instruments.

It works for him! Carlos Santana playing a Paul Reed Smith guitar. Courtesy of Wikipedia/Eva Rinaldi.

In fact, during the 1990s, PRS guitars were the go-to model for just about every nu-metal band around the world (Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, Sevendust, POD, Staind, Chevelle, Drowning Pool and Saliva, plus Nickelback and Creed, to name a few). PRS finally had found its niche.

But, try as I might, PRS doesn’t get me.

To be fair, I do not play Rickenbacker or Gretsch guitars either but I know what they do, and if I played the kind of music that these guitars are generally used for (Rickenbacker for jangly alternative music – their electric 12-strings are the classic electric 12 sound – and Gretsch for more of a country/rockabilly style) I know where to go.

Tone kings: Jay Jay, John Mayall and guitarist Rocky Athas.

There is no law that says that you must use a certain guitar for a certain style, but it is understood by most players that it’s easier to get the sound they want for a particular genre faster if they use a guitar model that has “been there,” and has defined the sound of a particular musical style.

For all you surf guitar junkies, I don’t want to leave you out. Want to sound like a West Coast surf band, play a Mosrite. That will get you there ASAP!

The point is that each guitar, because it is made mostly by humans (with a little help from a CNC machine), will sound and feel different. And even “standard” parts like pickups and potentiometers can have variations in magnets, wiring or tolerances. Some necks feel like “home” while others don’t. Some wood is lively and resonant and some guitars just feel like dogs.

A great guitar will inspire you.

When it comes to owning a guitar with soul, you either feel it or you don’t.

Pretty in pink: Jay Jay’s custom Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster.

Header image: Eddie Van Halen’s 1975 “Frankenstein” guitar, from the Met’s Play It Loud exhibit.

Projects, Projects, Projects

Projects, Projects, Projects

Projects, Projects, Projects

Dan Schwartz

What the hell have I been up to, you wonder?

Just kidding, I didn’t expect my recent absence to be noted. But nonetheless, I’ve been involved with three sort of big projects:

1) Survival – a few doctors thought I was out of here earlier this year, after a nasty bit of C. Diff (Clostridioides difficile) picked up in the hospital – one of the possible side effects of cancer. But – I didn’t check out, leading to:

2) Rebuilding the front of the house, a major reconstruction of the front of our property after 50 years. Trees lifted off the house, beehive removed, front deck pulled up, entryway rebuilt, larger part of our pond restored.

3) And then, finally, what this is really about. Two months ago, I got a call from someone who I’d had almost no contact with in 20 years – a surprise because for most of 1999 we worked very closely together.

I’m talking about Susanna Hoffs, notable as the guitarist and singer of the post-punk girl group, the Bangles.

Susanna Hoffs. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/John K. Addis.

I met Sue playing bass on her second solo release,1998’s Susanna Hoffs, on which I collaborated in writing a song with her and drummer Jim Keltner (that’s how Keltner and I re-met, which is another story). Various pals and members of the Tuesday Night Music Club were on the record, along with a few others and too many producers.  A major-label release, it suffered (in my opinion) from a lack of proper guidance and shifting direction, despite having the great Susanna and tons of potential.

We all went our separate ways, the album was handed off to remix, and that was that. We had a year-old baby, Susanna and her recent husband Jay had a year-old baby – you know, life. But I kept hearing her voice in my head over the next couple years – accessible, easy, a natural vocalist. She just opens and out it comes like you’d want a singer to sing. No alcohol, no lots-of-cigarettes to get that smoky voice.

So a couple years later – we’ve recently tried to figure out a timeline, and we figure December of 1998 – I called her, to see what she was up to, to maybe suggest collaborating. I can’t remember having much of an agenda, although I almost certainly envisioned what turned out to take place – me producing her.

She remembers lying in bed with her new baby on the afternoon that I called, but she was game, and (I think she) suggested February. I set up my spare bedroom as a studio: racks of EAR professional equipment, old Lexicon processors, a plethora of old Neumann and AKG mics.

Come February, we began, along with my close friend and brilliant guitarist, Gregg Arreguin. Again, I can’t remember who’s idea it was to begin with covers, but we started with an absolutely gorgeous version of Shawn Colvin’s “I Don’t Know Why.” (I still haven’t heard the original of that.)  That came out so good that…well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

We also did a version of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach’s “God Give Me Strength,” although less successfully.

And then, having taken the measure of each other, we set to work in earnest. And you can guess where this leads.

Part Two: where it leads – to come…

Header image of the Bangles courtesy of Wikipedia/Tabercil.

Truth or Dare

Truth or Dare

Truth or Dare

Adrian Wu

Hi readers, Frank has kindly asked me if I would like to write more articles for Copper. This is a real honor, as most of the contributors are veterans in the audio and music industries. However, I think I might have some value to add to the magazine, as a passionate amateur with a scientific background.

Some of you might have read my first three articles in Issues 120, 121 and 122, which laid out my journey as an audio fanatic (I prefer this term to plain-vanilla “audiophile”). People become interested in audio for all sorts of reasons. They could be music lovers, tinkerers, experimenters or in it for purely business reasons. Everyone has their own biases and beliefs based on their own understanding of what good sound means.

We all believe certain things to be true for a variety of reasons. It could be because of conventional wisdom. It could be because someone more authoritative than ourselves has said so. It could be because of what we deduce from knowledge we already possess. It could also stem from actual personal experience through experimentation. In this day and age, when information is so easy to come by but truth is as elusive as ever, how do we know what is the truth ? As an outsider looking in, I might even have an edge over the professionals, as I don’t have any skin in the game and I can look at everything with an open mind and a fresh perspective.

I would therefore like to address some of the controversial issues in our hobby, and I can already name a few off the top of my head; measurements vs. sound quality, high-end cables, digital vs. analogue, tube vs. solid state, boutique electronic components, etc. I might not know the truth any more than the next person, but the idea is to stimulate discussion and hopefully open some minds in the process.

Before I start addressing these issues, I thought I would go into a little more detail about my professional background. I studied math, physics and chemistry up to A-levels, which is the equivalent of grade 13 in the US, with an original plan of taking up physics or engineering at university. There was a change of plan halfway, and I went to medical school instead, which was possible to do straight from high school in the UK. I took a year out during med school to do laboratory research. After graduation, I did my basic physician training in the UK, and then went to La Jolla, California for further training in clinical medicine and immunology research.

My first mentor was a basic scientist, and after two years, I switched to a lab doing translational research. This means trying to turn the fruits of basic research into something that is clinically applicable. I then returned to Hong Kong and joined the staff of the University of Hong Kong as a faculty member, continuing with teaching, clinical work and translational research. I left academia in 2003 after the SARS epidemic to concentrate on clinical work, and also took up clinical research. Therefore, I have experience in research from the laboratory to the bedside. This is relevant to audio, since engineers are also doing translational research, trying to translate the latest developments in design, materials and component technology into better products.

Audiophiles are like patients; we often operate on trust. There is an information asymmetry between the designer/manufacturer and the customer (unless the customer is also a professional), much like that which exists between a doctor and a patient. Although I try to explain to my patients why they should take a certain medication or undergo a certain treatment, most of the time the patients don’t have enough information or understanding to refute my recommendations. As an audiophile, my situation is reversed. I don’t know nearly enough to determine if the technology used in the latest DAC or cable darling is really as good as they claim and worth the money. And there are many situations where the truth is not always obvious for a variety of reasons. In healthcare, there are as many snake oil salesmen as in any other business. Students take the Hippocratic Oath, to always act in the best interest of patients, before they can become doctors. This is not the case for anyone else involved in healthcare business and it is important to bear that in mind. Some charlatans take advantage of desperate people with problems modern medicine has no answer for. Others exploit the knowledge asymmetry and cloak their fraudulent claims in pseudoscientific terms. It is often difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes, genuine mistakes are made due to ignorance or hubris. Do such things happen in audio?

The professor of biochemistry who taught me was credited for discovering the link between cholesterol and coronary heart disease. The entrance of the biochemistry building had a giant cholesterol molecule engraved into the stone flooring. Ironically, he dropped dead suddenly of a heart attack, which was not all that uncommon in Scotland, in that same building where he made the discovery.

Following his discovery, a prominent group of US nutritional scientists published results from population studies that pointed to high-fat diets as the culprit for cardiovascular disease. Results of studies from a rival group of scientists in the UK, pointing to refined carbohydrates as the more important contributor, were largely ignored by the scientific community. The same US scientists sat on the advisory board of the US Surgeon General and published dietary guidelines recommending a low-fat diet for everyone. Fat in packaged foods was therefore substituted with carbohydrates. Low-fat products and animal fat substitutes (such as margarine) became all the rage.

During the period from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s, the average daily intake of fat calories per person in the US dropped by 30 percent, and was more than made up for by carbohydrate calories, while the incidence of ischemic heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity skyrocketed. Nobody questioned the veracity of the belief that high-fat diets caused cardiovascular disease until the last decade, when evidence showing that these scientists were in fact financially supported by the snack food and beverage industries came to light.  This obvious conflict of interest was never declared during their lifetimes, and when someone went back to examine the raw data of their studies, a major scientific fraud was uncovered. Later generations of scientists raised on this belief never questioned it even in the face of glaring inconsistencies, because everybody thought the facts were cast in stone. You can read about it in the book The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes.

Laboratory analysis diagnostics. Courtesy of Pixabay/Michal Jarmoluk.

In 1914, a Hungarian scientist named Robert Bárány was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the vestibular system in the ear. He determined that the three semi-circular canals in the inner ear, arranged at right angle to each other, were key to the brain perceiving the position of the head. He demonstrated that by injecting water of different temperatures in the ear, the subject’s eyes would rotate as if he was being spun round and round, the direction of the rotation depending on whether the water was hot or cold. He reasoned that the water heated up or cooled down the fluid in the canals, causing a convection current and fooling the brain into thinking that the head was moving. This is known as the caloric test. He was using basic physics knowledge to explain an observed phenomenon. This experiment was repeated by astronauts in space decades later. The purpose was to prove Bárány’s explanation, since without gravity, there would be no convection. However, the result was the same, proving that convection had nothing to do with the phenomenon. This shows why we should be cautious when making assumptions by deduction from basic principles. This is the reason why we need controlled experiments.

My own field of allergy and immunology has not been immune (pun intended) to controversy either. Peanut allergy was once upon a time a rare disease, but when people started noticing an increase in the incidence during the 1980s, there were demands from worried parents that something must be done. Doctors often feel compelled to give an answer when asked a question, and that the answer should never be “I don’t know.” Even though there was a knowledge gap, they decided to poll all the experts to come up with an answer, in what is known as a consensus opinion.

Since peanut allergy is an acquired immune response, which requires prior exposure, they concluded that not exposing young children to peanuts should be the way to go. Therefore, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology issued guidelines recommending parents not to feed their children peanuts and tree nuts until at least the age of five years. Their counterparts in other Western countries followed suit. Over the next 25 years, the prevalence of peanut allergy more than tripled in these countries.

Peanuts are a common food for infants in Israel, and parents feed their babies with a popular snack called Bamba during weaning. The medical establishment there never followed their American colleagues’ advice. The prevalence of peanut allergy in Israel remained very low, at less than one-tenth of that of the Western countries, throughout this period. When an Israeli scientist went to work in London, he was fascinated by this difference and convinced his boss, Prof. Gideon Lack, to investigate. Prof. Lack recruited a large number of pregnant women willing to feed their new babies peanut-based foods. After two years, almost none of these babies developed peanut allergy.

It turned out that the babies in the Western countries were indeed becoming allergic due to exposure, only not to ingested peanuts but to peanut allergens in house dust. Eating peanut-containing foods could have mitigated the problem, which makes sense, because our body normally tolerates any food that is ingested. Deprived of ingested peanuts, however, the immune system’s only exposure to peanut came from the remnants left behind in household dust (mixed in with other undesirable things such as fungus and bacteria), and therefore the immune system considered peanut as harmful and therefore should not be eaten. As a result, an immune response was generated for the purpose of discouraging the individuals from eating peanuts.

The whole debacle arose due to groupthink. Each expert felt that his or her opinion was validated when other experts agreed with it. They no longer felt the need to look more deeply into the issue, when they could have easily devised an experiment to test their hypothesis before making any recommendation.

When I was a medical student, stomach and duodenal ulcers were commonly treated with surgery.  They found that after removing the part of the stomach that produces acid, the ulcers would heal.  Therefore, the conclusion was that peptic ulcer disease was caused by overproduction of acid.  These partial gastrectomy surgeries led to horrendous problems for the patients. The cure was truly worse than the disease. They then developed a technique to only cut the nerve that stimulates acid secretion.

Sir James Black, a Scottish physician scientist, worked out the mechanism for gastric acid production, and invented a drug to block the process. He received a Nobel Prize in 1988 (he also invented the first beta-blocker) and his drug, cimetidine, and then ranitidine from a rival company, became the first and second billion-dollar a year drugs, respectively. These drugs propelled the two companies into the ranks of the most valuable enterprises in the world. Patients needed to take these drugs for a long time, sometimes for life, providing a cash cow for the companies.

At about the same time, two young Australian researchers called Barry Marshall and Robin Warren identified a hitherto unknown bacteria in the stomach of ulcer patients. They called it Campylobacter pylori, which has since been renamed Helicobacter pylori. Marshall infected himself with the bacteria and confirmed that it causes gastric inflammation. When Marshall and Warren published their findings, they were not prepared for the animosity that was about to be unleashed upon them. Senior opinion leaders of the field poured scorn on their hypothesis. They were either ignored or ridiculed at scientific meetings. Their funding dried up. Whether it was because these experts wanted to salvage a theory they had staked their entire careers on, or that they were acting on behalf of the drug companies, we will never know. Marshall persevered in his quest, with an unwavering belief that he was right. He finally found a cocktail of drugs that would eliminate the infection, and when this was shown to cure the ulcers, the medical community could no longer ignore his hypothesis. Now, patients can take antibiotics to cure their ulcers, and no longer need a lifetime of acid-suppressing medications. In retrospect, the acid theory was always suspect, since the stomachs of most ulcer patients produce no more acid than healthy stomachs. The Helicobacter damages the protective layer of the stomach lining, thus allowing the acid to penetrate and cause ulcers.

The above examples show why we should always view everything with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially when it comes to opinions from experts. Often times, there are ulterior motives in any opinion or recommendation, especially when it is freely given. Next time, we will examine some of these issues as pertaining to our hobby.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay/Ernesto Eslava.

Hearing Loss and the Need for High-End Audio

Hearing Loss and the Need for High-End Audio

Hearing Loss and the Need for High-End Audio

Frank Doris

Many of us have hearing loss. I do. I used to be able to hear the 15.7 kHz whine that a flyback transformer would make in old CRT (cathode ray-tube) TVs. I first became aware that my hearing wasn’t as sharp as it used to be at a CES about 10 or 15 years ago, where an exhibitor was showing a big tower speaker system. I stood next to the left speaker and noticed a hiss coming out of it. I told the exhibitor, “hey, do you know there’s a hiss coming through your speaker?” “Yeah, we know, it’s the electronics.” Curious, I went to the right speaker, put my right ear up to it, and it was quiet. I said, “but there’s no hiss in the right speaker.”

He looked at me puzzlingly and said, “yes there is.” I couldn’t figure it out – until I realized I had listened to the left (hissy) speaker with my left ear and to the right (quiet) speaker with my right ear.

I turned and put my left ear to the right speaker. It was hissing. I could only hear the hiss in one ear. Oh crap.

Since then I’ve had a number of audiograms and have informally “tested” myself constantly – I do, after all, work in the audio industry and listen to components and music all the time. I’ve also had audiologists give me audiograms. Perhaps it’s small consolation but my hearing hasn’t fallen off to a degree that I would consider horrible, and I can still hear up to around 10,000 – 12,000 Hz, if at an attenuated level.

(Note that audiometric testing is generally done only up to around 8,000 Hz. I once asked my audiologist, “what about what’s happening above 8,000 Hz?” She replied, “only dolphins care about that.” Well, audiophiles too!)

Note that those “tests” that you can listen to online are utterly unscientific because they don’t take into account the quality of the speakers you’re using and the volume at which you’re listening. Although, the test tones at this link are useful. (I should mention that what people often think of as “treble” is actually the upper midrange, around 2,000 to 4,000 Hz.)

An audiogram showing “notch loss” hearing loss. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Chandramaas.

But by any measure, many of us have lost some hearing. Getting old isn’t for the faint of heart. (Sorry, bad analogy. When’s my next cardiologist appointment?)

Meanwhile, we’re audiophiles and music lovers; connoisseurs of sound reproduction at its finest. Here we are, spending a lot of money, time and effort to put together systems that sound glorious and convey the sound of recordings in the best way possible, with maximum resolution, tonal accuracy, imaging, soundstage width and depth, dynamic contrasts, power and delicacy. We upgrade, tweak, swap components and cables, constantly refine, perhaps over the course of decades.

But if we can’t hear all of it, are we wasting our time?

I say no, and for a variety of reasons.

I make no claims to be an audiologist or neurologist, so a lot of the following is going to be based on my own experience and will involve thinking out loud.

First of all, there are three major components in hearing – the ear, the auditory nerve and the brain. (I’m oversimplifying.) Sure, the ear is the sound-reception mechanism, the microphone, if you will, and the auditory nerve is literally the “interconnect cable” – but the brain is the processor, and, I would argue, the most important part in the meatware signal chain.

The brain interprets the raw signals coming from the ear/microphone – and if the ear/microphone gets damaged, the processor/brain/you can compensate.

Although I’ve lost some hearing, the world – and audio systems – do not sound “dull” to me. In fact, I think my ability to assess the tonal “rightness” of a system has only gotten better with time and experience. I do not feel the need to turn up the treble when listening. Is it partly because the brain compensates for hearing loss? I think so, at least in my case – when listening to a good system, I don’t “feel” like I’ve lost anything. (Is it also partly because of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to “re-mold” itself? I don’t know, and would welcome comments from those who do.)

I think we, as critical listeners, are instinctively aware of what vocals and instruments are supposed to sound like, whether our listening “window” has been narrowed or not. We’re constantly comparing the sound of our systems with the sound of reality as we perceive it. We know what our systems should sound like, whether hearing-impaired or not, and configure them accordingly.

We are trained listeners. How many times have you heard a friend say, “well, I don’t have as good an ‘ear’ as you do.” In fact, they may have better hearing per se, but as audiophiles (and those of us who are musicians), our training in knowing what to listen for certainly gives us an advantage in setting up an audio system, and, I would opine, in enjoying music reproduction. A trained ear can compensate, maybe more than compensate, for flawed hearing.

OK, so for a growing number of us, our hearing may be flawed. Does that mean we should just give up, throw in the towel and listen to Beethoven or Coltrane or Dylan through crappy audio systems for the rest of our lives? Of course not.

On the contrary, if our ability to perceive sound is more limited, then why not enjoy what we can hear to the best degree possible?

I say, if anything, that having lessened hearing is the strongest argument for having as good an audio system as possible!

To switch to a visual analogy, if you could only see through a small window, wouldn’t you want that window to be as clean and transparent as possible? And wouldn’t it be better than looking through a big but dirty picture window?

One last thing. Let’s talk about pride of ownership. A high-end audio system is a collection of finely-crafted components. Aside from the sheer sonic value, there’s the satisfaction of simply owning beautifully-made, high-quality audio gear. And not for nothing, but as my late father used to say, some of us are in the seventh inning of the game. If we can afford a great system, well, maybe we deserve one.

Even if we could literally hear such a system more acutely when we were younger, I think we can appreciate it more now.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay/Couleur.

Springsteen’s Letter to You Rocks the Spirit

Springsteen’s Letter to You Rocks the Spirit

Springsteen’s Letter to You Rocks the Spirit

Wayne Robins

I was listening to the song “The Power of Prayer” from the new Bruce Springsteen album Letter to You when I drove by a church known for posting witty aphorisms on its outside bulletin board. The message was “Faith needs no proof; proof needs no faith.” It was an “a-ha” moment: Maybe that’s what this song is about. Maybe it’s what this album is about.

This is not an argument about deism or the existence or non-existence of a higher power. But in a recent interview with Steve Inskeep on NPR’s Morning Edition, Springsteen refers to himself multiple times as a “spiritual songwriter.”

“It’s basically a spiritual record, and I consider myself primarily as a spiritual songwriter,” Springsteen says. “To be a spiritual songwriter means that you are primarily addressing the soul of your listeners. I want people to dance. I want people to be entertained… At the same time, I try to insert something that can, in certain moments, address your inner life, you know, by revealing my own inner life.”

Springsteen was using words, torrents of words, to describe the ineffable since he started writing songs. Think of the songs on his Columbia Records debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.: “Spirit in the Night,” “Lost in the Flood,” “The Angel,” “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” “For You,” and, of course, “Blinded By the Light.” Keep the titles, go holy with the lyrics, and you could have an album by The Five Blind Boys of Alabama or the early Staple Singers. A reader influenced by The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, might wonder: What does it mean to be “blinded by the light,” if not to have a spiritual awakening?

The genius of Letter to You as an album – and it is genius, one of the great albums Springsteen and the E Street Band have made over their 45 year career – is that it reconciles three of the earliest songs Springsteen had written with nine more recent ones, your classic 12-song album that creates a kind of story arc of his musical life, and yes, spiritual development.

The three early songs: “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest,” and “Song for Orphans,” were all from the demo recordings Springsteen made for Columbia Records’ John Hammond preceding the recording of the debut album Greetings. The former demos all get the same full E Street Band treatment that the new tunes receive. From soft to loud; from pensive to joyous, all in a few bars. The album was spontaneously arranged and recorded during four days at Springsteen’s New Jersey home studio in late fall/early winter 2019 (there is light snow on the ground seen in the useful Apple TV+ documentary on the making of Letter to You).

“Janey Needs a Shooter” is the strangest because people may understandably confuse it with Warren Zevon’s “Jeanie Needs a Shooter,” from Zevon’s 1980 album Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School.

The titles are not coincidental: Janey and Jeanie are like first cousins in a close-knit family. Zevon, with Springsteen’s accommodation, changed the name, wrote his own song, with Springsteen contributing new verses. “Jeanie” is a Zevon-Springsteen co-write, but they are different songs with similar moods. Reviewing Zevon’s album in Rolling Stone in 1980, Jay Cocks calls “Jeanie” “a Freudian Western about love, betrayal, and what seems like incest.”

Courtesy of Shore Fire Media/photo by Danny Clinch.

Springsteen’s “Janey” is a waif abused or manipulated by a doctor, a priest, and a policeman. The chorus, though, is the best thing about it, and you can understand why a songwriter like Zevon would be attracted to the possibilities of this enigmatic title.

“If I Was the Priest” is also a western, (much more imaginative than anything in last year’s well-intended but overthought Western Stars). It’s also a spiritual fable that in the early 1970s, when Springsteen wrote it, likely had the air of irreverence. Jesus is the sheriff, the “Holy Ghost is the host with the most” running a burlesque show, and Mary is a saloon keeper and whore. But even then Springsteen’s rebellion against the Catholic Church of his upbringing had limits: The free-spending bootleggers who get to take Mary upstairs find out that she’s an addict who nods out before the act is done. As a result, Springsteen sings, “she’s only been made once or twice by some kind of magic,” suggesting that the mystery and miracle of the Virgin Birth is intact: Conscious or not, Springsteen’s belief ran deep.

The young Springsteen also believed in Bob Dylan, evident in “Song for Orphans,” the most fascinating and fully “Dylan-esque” song, and you can see why they left this off Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. The record company, like every other label in the early 1970s, was loading up with singer-songwriters, some of whom were cursed with the appellation of “The New Dylan.” Springsteen was aware of it. His mentor at Columbia, John Hammond, was mocked for it. Having signed the real Bob Dylan, as well as Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman, the peerless talent scout Hammond was sidelined by the corporate whiz kids at CBS Records, where I worked from 1972 until mid-1974. Around Black Rock, CBS Records headquarters, Springsteen was known as “Hammond’s Folly.” The departments that drove the tremendous Columbia hit machine of the early 1970s: radio promotion, marketing, and sales, thought Springsteen had little commercial potential, that he would only sell a few thousand albums, but have some prestige among critics. (This was largely true until 1975 and Born to Run).

But while Clive Davis was in charge (before his July 1973 firing), Springsteen had some backing from top management. There is a meeting I attended famous in Springsteen lore: the weekly singles meeting, attended by department heads as well as me and my boss, Bob Sarlin, the two-person editorial staff for the label’s twice-monthly magazine, Playback. Davis sat at the head of the long conference room table and recited the entire unaccompanied lyrics to “Blinded By the Light,” while many of his VPs snickered and smirked. And they were wrong.

So “Song for Orphans” was much too Dylan-ish, which has clear echoes of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “My Back Pages,” and Robbie Robertson’s “The Weight.” But with the E Street Band, it’s now like hearing Dylan and the Band on a very good night.

The link to the new songs on Letter to You are memories of the Castiles, the Freehold, NJ, group that was Springsteen’s first taste of what it was like to be in a band, to seize that spirit in the night and hold an audience spellbound. The Castiles had a long run, from 1965-1968; the frontman was the charismatic George Theiss, who died at age 68 of lung cancer in July 2018. The departed members of the E Street Band, Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, are honored here, are notable by their worldly absence and phantasmal presence on a number of songs: The garage-rock masterpiece “Ghosts”; the evanescent “One Minute You’re Here”; and the heartbreaking closer, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” which will bring tears from a heart of stone like water from the rock hit by the staff of Moses.

But it is Theiss’s death that triggered these celebrations of rock amid ruminations on mortality. “House of A Thousand Guitars” sounds like a stand-in for an afterlife, where all the spirits gather for another toast, another drink, another encore. Technically, this is not an easy lyric to sing: It’s an awkward phrase: There’s nothing mellifluous about it. And Springsteen, pushing the air from his stomach like an opera singer might have done it, concludes the song by repeating the line “a thousand guitars” eight times. It is a triumph of endurance, of technique, of giving it all he’s got until there’s almost no breath left.

“Last Man Standing,” one of Springsteen’s greatest songs, begins with a portrait of Theiss and the Castiles, but nostalgia (“faded pictures in an old scrapbook”) is transmuted into something of the moment: of being a 71 year old man, surrounded by his essential partners in the E Street Band, still not at the end of the line, but at a peak of prowess. And for Springsteen, it’s a different kind of prayer. He put in the work, he put in the hours, he followed his dream with the single-minded dedication out of a singular need or set of needs. And he achieved those dreams beyond imagination, so much so that there still remains a mystery: how is one so blessed, and alert to accepting grace.

“Rock of ages lift me somehow/Somewhere high and hard and loud/Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd,” he sings, and notes, “I’m the last man standing now,” the only survivor of the Castiles. But there’s something unexplained about how he made it this far, as the next verse seems to signal a continuing bewilderment: “Out of school and out of work/Thrift store jeans and flannel shirt.” They came from almost nothing; he was just the guitar player in the Castiles. How did he get here?

When Little Richard first gave up secular music for gospel and preaching, he quipped about “giving up the rock for the rock of ages.” Springsteen never had to choose. He stayed with the rock. And he has been “somehow” lifted by the rock of ages.

Maybe that’s the power of prayer.

Header image courtesy of Shore Fire Media/photo by Danny Clinch.

Renaissance: Songs for All Seasons

Renaissance: Songs for All Seasons

Renaissance: Songs for All Seasons

Ken Sander

“Wrong Way Wicks,” Annie Haslam says to me.

I had just joined the Renaissance tour in the fall of 1974 that was already in progress. I was the replacement road manager and I was asking about my predecessor. “Okay,” I said, “why did you call him that?” Annie gives me an insider’s smile and tells me he had no sense of direction. The problem was when they were driving and would stop for food or gas. Upon exiting the rest stop, there were times when Wicks would head back in the direction they had just come from. Annie continued, “one time we drove for an hour before he realized he was going the wrong way.” So, there it is, Wrong Way Wicks. I should mention that Annie was incredibly funny. She could do Cockney imitations that would have us laughing so hard our sides would hurt. She was no diva, although an incredible singer with a clear voice and an amazingly wide five-octave vocal range.

Renaissance is an English progressive rock band. At the time they included Annie Haslam (lead singer), Terry Sullivan (drums), Michael Dunford (guitar), Jon Camp (bass), and John Tout (keys). They had a very special sound with haunting elements achieved by the blending of rock, folk, and classical music, and Annie’s distinctive vocals. Albums from their peak period include Prologue (1972), Ashes are Burning (1973, Turn of the Cards (1974), Scheherazade and other Stories (1975), Live at Carnegie Hall (1976), Novella (1977) and A Song for All Seasons (1978).

Nektar’s first American tour, which I had been the tour manager for [See Ken’s articles in Issue 115 and Issue 116] was finished when Miles Copeland of BTM (British Talent Managers) called me and offered me the Renaissance gig. The band was already in the early stages of their North American tour. BTM shared an office with music business attorney Allen Grubman at 65 East 55th Street in Manhattan. I went up to his office to get the touring materials – gig contracts, travel itineraries, rental car reservations and various other related papers.

British Talent Managers’ forms for keeping tours on budget and organized.

I met up with the group in New Jersey where they were headlining a bunch of college dates with audiences of 3,000 to 6,000 seats. These were good dates and after that leg of the tour was done, in retrospect, I realized that they had played over thirty college gigs in 35 days or so, all in the state of New Jersey. This was utterly unique. I had never heard of a group having done so many successful headlining dates in a row in such a small geographic area. The danger of this kind of geographic concentration (not realized in this instance) was that an overabundance of tickets would hurt each individual concert by spreading them out over a limited audience. That was not the case, as Renaissance’s audience in New Jersey was quite large and in fact, every show was sold out. In a business that would rather err on the side of caution, this was quite remarkable.

The next gig was the day after the last New Jersey show, and it was all the way across the country in Portland, Oregon. Renaissance would be opening for Chick Corea. I had to get all our equipment and personnel across the country in one day. The only way for the band’s equipment to make the trip was to have it fly as cargo on the same plane as us. This was fraught with danger as no airline would commit to a specific airplane to send the freight. They would try but no guarantees. And to make matters worse I would not know till after the flight landed in Portland if the band’s equipment was on board. Timing and luck is what we needed and I could only hope.

On the plane, I sat next to this well-dressed tall guy and I assumed he had to be an NBA player. “Do you play ball?” I asked him. He said “no, I am a musician, a bassist.” “Really,” I ask, “with who?” “I play with Chick Corea.” “No kidding,” I reply. “Yeah, I am Stanley Clarke.” “Get outta here! We are opening for you guys tonight. That is, if our equipment makes it.” He laughs and says he has been through that himself. We talk about touring and like most musicians, he loves the road. He tells me Chick Corea is a very spiritual guy and everyone in the group is working on personal enlightenment.

We get to the concert hall and the road crew calls and tells me the equipment has landed but it is taking time to get it processed and released from the airline freight office. They have already rented a truck, but the gear still has to be loaded and driven to the hall. The pressure is still on.

Renaissance is slated to go on at 8 pm and at 8 our equipment is still not there. At 8:20 the promoter is getting antsy and he is trying to get us on stage with what we have on hand. “Impossible,” I say to him. “You have to give us more time,” and he says, “no, you guys are the opening act and cannot delay the show.” I tell him that even though we are an opening act here on the West coast we are big headliners back East, and that he needs to treat us with a higher regard because someday this band could be headlining for him. “Please, I say, “give us a little more time before we have to make that decision.” He agreed. Luckily, Chick Corea seemingly was not upset and did not complain about our delay.

At 8:45 the equipment shows up and Chick Corea’s road crew pitches in and helps with the load in. Everything is set up in record time and Renaissance goes on at 9 o’clock. Phew, and they had a good show too. Unbeknownst to me, Terry Sullivan and John Tout were in the room when I was speaking with the promoter and they told the other three band members what happened. Terry later told me the band was pleased.


We had a few more dates opening for Chick Corea in the Northwest and then we traveled south to California. We had a headlining date at a college in Santa Barbara right on the Pacific Ocean. It was just beautiful and the breeze off the ocean smelled great.

My good friend, the late Barry Byrens came up from Los Angeles to meet me. Barry was Beverly Hills born and raised (he actually went to Beverly Hills High School). When I lived in Hollywood everyone I met was from somewhere else. Meeting a Beverly Hills or Hollywood born and raised native was rare. Barry was practically blind in one eye but he was well off so he could afford to be driven around in a stretch limousine. Not to mention that he liked the status it gave him. Beverly Hills is extremely competitive and can be somewhat petty when it comes to status, real or perceived. It has been said that living in Beverly Hills is like being in high school, but with money.

After the show, it was on to Los Angeles, about an hour and a half drive, and Barry says, “ride with me in the limo.” I asked one of the guys in the band (I think it was Jon Camp) to drive the rental car with the rest of the band and to follow us. The band was grumbling, saying, “we are the band, we should be in the limo.” I replied, “this is my friend’s limousine; can I not ride with him?” They agreed but did not like the fact that their road manager, their employee, was riding  in a limo and not them. I understood their point but this was not about them.

The caravan made its way down the Pacific Coast Highway, me in the limo and them following and probably bad-rapping me. Once the drive was over it was forgotten.

That night we stayed in the Ramada Inn in West Hollywood, my then-favorite hotel in Los Angeles because it reminded me of the inside of a cruise ship with its varying different levels on the same floor. It was about 1,000 feet east from where Tower Records would later be built, and across from the Old World restaurant (where one could see people like Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison eating there) and west of Sunset Plaza.

Annie had this bungee cord- type elastic workout kit. She would attach it to the door handle for stretching and tension exercises. Now, this was a time when no one worked out so the band would make up scenarios where she would get tangled up and would hear her yelling for help through her hotel room door. Jon or John said Micky Dunford would have to go untangle her. I never saw or heard this myself but it certainly was funny imagery.

It was coming to the end of the tour and Miles Copeland flew out to join the band for various meetings – and a private talk with Annie. Yeah that was personal; I don’t want to get more specific. There were a few more dates and then the tour was over, and they all flew back to England. Renaissance came back to America many more times. From the stage, she often would thank the audiences for the popularity the band had in America, acknowledging their fans’ support.

The mid-1970s was the period when they were the most successful. On June 20, 21 and 22, 1975, Renaissance sold out Carnegie Hall for three nights in a row with the New York Philharmonic joining them on stage. This was captured in the album Live at Carnegie Hall.

Renaissance continued to perform with Annie Haslam and different lineups until 1987, then from 1998 to 2002 and from 2009 until the present day. The band was slated for a 2020 tour with The Renaissance Chamber Orchestra before the pandemic hit. They have always been most popular in the Northeastern US, though they had a top 10 UK hit with “Northern Lights” in 1978. Their blend of classical, folk, progressive and other elements and Halsam’s remarkable voice remains distinctive to this day.

One of my personal favorite songs is “Mother Russia” from Turn of the Cards. It’s one of the band’s longer tracks, a tribute to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that was inspired by his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I find it both soothing, while haunting.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Richard Barnes.

Listening to the Replacements

Listening to the Replacements

Listening to the Replacements

James Whitworth

Twice the Fun

Twice the Fun

Twice the Fun

Frank Doris

Twice as much fun as a mono dance party! Stereo Dance Party by Ralph Marterie and His Orchestra, original Mercury reel-to-reel tape, catalog number MS2-13.


This book made a lasting impression on me. From the Life Science Library, 1965.


One of the many wonderful illustrations from Sound and Hearing.


“Jensen Stereo Director lets you place the sound wherever décor dictates.” And to think of the years we’ve spent trying to get speaker placement right. From Audio, August 1958.


Sound so intense it makes your hair fly out! From Audio, April 1977.

A Conversation with ZVOX’s Tom Hannaher

A Conversation with ZVOX’s Tom Hannaher

A Conversation with ZVOX’s Tom Hannaher

Don Lindich

ZVOX may seem like a bit of a different choice for a Copper interview, considering it’s a company that offers soundbars, headphones and hearing aids rather than high-end exotica. Yet ZVOX has strong roots in high-performance audio, and is committed to bringing good sound to a wider range of people, including those with hearing impairment. Following is an interview with Tom Hannaher, ZVOX CEO.

Don Lindich: Tom, I think a good place to start is with the people behind ZVOX. Your team has a great deal of specialty audio experience.

Tom Hannaher: I started in 1971 working for Dick Schulze at The Sound of Music, a chain of Minneapolis stereo stores that ultimately evolved into Best Buy. George Samuels was the sales manager for EPI (Epicure Products, Inc.) loudspeakers, and also worked for Ohm, but is best known for founding Genesis Loudspeakers. (Please note this was a different Genesis than the high-end company created by Arnie Nudell and Paul McGowan.) George’s Genesis Loudspeakers competed directly with Advent and EPI.) George was my original partner at ZVOX and managed factory relationships and worked on product development.

Tom Hannaher of ZVOX.

Sandy Bloomberg was brought in as a partner years later. Sandy was founder of the Tweeter Home Entertainment Group and of the Pro Group, which evolved into industry buying group ProSource.

Our VP of product development Jarl Salmela worked with the legendary Godehard Guenther at loudspeaker manufacturer a/d/s and also worked at MB Quart before he moved on to Cambridge SoundWorks. There, working with Henry Kloss (co-founder or founder of Acoustic Research KLH, Advent, Cambridge SoundWorks and others), Jarl made a name for himself as a designer of amplified speaker systems, which at the time were an oddity…most of the products on the market were cheapo computer speakers. He worked with Henry to create the world’s first high-fidelity computer speaker –  a satellite/subwoofer system eponymously named “SoundWorks.” It is my opinion that Jarl is one of the best designers of amplified speakers in the world.

DL: Now that we know about your team, let’s learn more about you. You founded the company and are a life-long audio enthusiast. What was your inspiration and how did you get started?

TH: While attending the University of Minnesota I developed an interest in live recording and started recording, free of charge, musicians in the folk/rock/blues/jazz scene centered around the West Bank area in Minneapolis. By the way, this was one of the places where Dylan got his start. Eventually I needed money for better microphone, and so on so in 1971 I got a job at Sound of Music, a local store that sold, well microphones and tape decks. We were the second-largest Advent audio dealer and largest Advent video dealer in the country.

From there I was recruited by Fred Goldstein at Advent and moved to Boston in 1976. I eventually became head of marketing. Advent was the coolest electronics company around at the time, and was a finishing school for the industry. Among Advent alumni, John Zeisler became a VP at Apple and is currently an angel investor in Silicon Valley. Tom DeVesto started Cambridge SoundWorks and Tivoli and founded Como Audio. Tom Holman created George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound, invented the THX movie sound standard – and is now chief audio engineer at Apple. Andy Kotsatos and Frank Reed started Boston Acoustics.

And I started Hannaher, Nobody and Nobody, the world’s smallest marketing agency. HN&N had customers like Tweeter (at one time the largest specialty electronics store in the country), Lotus Development Corporation, NAD, Kloss Video, Boston Acoustics, The Computer Store and Trillium Telephone, though Trillium has been out of business for decades now. But the biggie was Apple Computer, who hired HN&N as one of their three ad agencies in the 1980s (Chiat-Day and Krupp-Taylor were the other two). Eventually Cambridge SoundWorks became a client, and then hired me to be VP of marketing. I left CSW in 2003 to start ZVOX.

DL: What was your first product?

TH: The ZVOX 315 single-cabinet home theater system. It was a 17″ x 15″ x 5″ cabinet with three 3.25″ speakers and a small woofer. It sold for $199.99. It was featured on The Today Show in January of 2004. It was a great-sounding, simple, small system. Michael Fremer of Stereophile and Analog Planet loved it and used it as his travel music system. It is the only sound bar-category product I know of to ever receive an official Stereophile “Recommended Components” designation.

Toting around a ZVOX PortaParty Carrycase, with a Mini sound system, accessories, and room to fit your vintage 2005 iPod.

DL: What came next?

TH: We then introduced the  ZVOX 325, a more stylish and sophisticated version of the 315. (It had a remote control!) Next came the  ZVOX Mini in 2005 – a tiny, easy to transport version of our design about the size of a cigar box, and, among other products, the 550 SoundBase in 2008, which was the first home theater system built into a TV stand.

In 2014 we began adding AccuVoice technology to some products. AccuVoice is aimed at improving dialogue clarity using DSP to mimic the way hearing aids function. It was first included in the SB400 and SB500 soundbars, which also had built-in subwoofers. In 2017 we debuted what we consider to be a very distinctive product – the AV205 TV speaker, which can be tuned by an audiologist to match the audiogram of someone who is hearing-impaired.

In 2018 we expanded into VoiceBud hearing aids and more recently, wireless headphones with AccuVoice built in.

An earlier ZVOX SoundBase 350 home theater system (no longer available).

DL: These are certainly different approaches than most audio companies. What were the biggest transition points as ZVOX evolved and you expanded and diversified your product offerings?

TH: The first SoundBase system (the Model 550 and the first AccuVoice speaker (the model AV200) were the big game-changers in our history.

DL: I do know that AccuVoice technology was a big deal for ZVOX, as so many television viewers, especially older viewers, have trouble understanding TV dialogue due to the tiny speakers in today’s TVs and the way the audio mixes are done for many shows. In fact, having trouble hearing dialogue through a TV is the most common complaint sent to my “Sound Advice” newspaper column. Can you explain AccuVoice in more detail?

TH: AccuVoice technology is based on Bell Labs research done in the 1930s and on design work done by audiologists. In other words, it is hearing aid technology mated with a powered loudspeaker. Our patented technology actually separates the dialogue signals from the rest of the soundtrack (it doesn’t matter if it’s a multi-channel Dolby signal, or two-channel stereo) and manipulates those signals to make voices clearer. The primary tools used are equalization and compression, applied to the “consonant range” of dialogue frequencies. Hard-edged consonant sounds define our ability to understand the spoken word.

But that’s not all we do, although we prefer many of our other “tricks” to remain secret. We don’t want to provide a clear outline for our competitors.

Our SuperVoice technology, which we introduced in 2020, focuses on reducing background sounds. Whereas AccuVoice algorithms sharpen and clarify voices, SuperVoice focuses on softening and minimizing the non-voice signals in a soundtrack. The combination of the two approaches (when you are in SuperVoice mode, our AccuVoice technology is still in play), provides what we feel is the ultimate in loudspeaker voice clarity technology. Whether you have great hearing or strong hearing loss, you should be able to find a setting that is right for you. In our AV157 speaker with AccuVoice and SuperVoice, for example, there are 12 settings to choose from.

DL: What products does ZVOX currently offer?

TH: We have five AccuVoice speaker models, one SoundBase, three soundbars, our AV50 wireless AccuVoice headphones, and two hearing aids. Prices for our products range from $59.99 to $699.99.

DL: ZVOX has achieved commercial success but is still relatively small compared to the Sonys, Samsungs, and LGs of the world, companies that all offer soundbars that compete with yours. How have you managed to stay relevant in the face of such competition?

TH: We stay competitive with constant innovation. CNET called our very first product, the Model 315, “the first commercially successful soundbar,” so I feel we’ve had an advantage since the beginning. And we continue striving to improve peoples’ listening experiences with technologies like AccuVoice.

DL: Other companies obviously use DSP technologies like virtual surround sound, voice enhancement and even room correction. What differentiates your products in terms of striving for higher-quality audio? Another question – many in the high-end audio industry wring their hands over how to reach a new generation of listeners. Are you doing or planning to do anything specifically to address this?

TH: While we do use DSP technology to create three-dimensional “virtual surround sound,” our primary goal with digital sound correction is to make dialogue clearer. This currently defines our unique approach to speaker design and our marketing goals.

Regarding the goal of raising awareness of quality sound for younger people – we have given up on that, leaving the job to people and companies that are better-qualified. Our target is to improve the lives and the listening experiences of people over 50. We’re good at that.

DL: Have you ever considered offering audio-centric speaker systems, as opposed to TV-oriented products?

TH: “Audio-centric” products (vs. “TV-centric”) is how we started out. The 315 was designed as a music speaker with a wide soundstage in a small box. It was only by accident that we determined that the method for creating the wide soundstage also produced reasonably realistic virtual surround. In terms of new products, we always strive for musical accuracy, but sometimes dialogue clarity represents a goal that doesn’t exactly align with that – especially when accommodating people with genuine hearing loss. The “AccuVoice Level 4” setting in some of our products makes noticeable equalization changes that audiophiles (with good ears) probably would not approve of. But for many of our customers, those equalization changes are life-transforming.

AccuVoice AV200.

DL: When and why did you decide to enter the hearing aid market?

TH: In 2017. We had been exhibiting at the AAA (American Audiology Association) annual conference and trade show, trying to sell AccuVoice speakers through the audiology channel, so we had learned a lot about the business. When the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 (OTC Hearing Aid Act) was being worked on I thought, “Hmmm, I bet a lot of non-traditional companies will enter the hearing aid business if this law passes.” Then I thought, “Why shouldn’t ZVOX be one of them?” So I started meeting with vendors and talking with my friend, Dr. Tom Powers, who at the time was chief audiologist at Siemens, then the world’s largest hearing aid manufacturer. [Siemens was subsequently purchased by Sivantos Group, now part of WS Audiology. – Ed.] Within six months we were evaluating samples and developing our own hearing aid designs, which we now sell directly to the consumer. When the OTC law is implemented, we will be able to sell them through resellers.

DL: What might you be doing to address the needs of aging audiophiles and music lovers with hearing loss?

TH: I think Michael Fremer gives the best answer for this. It can be seen at https://www.analogplanet.com/content/two-weeks-zvoxs-vb20-voicebud. But essentially a hearing aid for people with moderate hearing loss can improve voice clarity without destroying musical fidelity. However, it is a nuanced thing. The two goals – musical accuracy and enhanced voice clarity – are often opposed to each other. You can wish it were not true, but the wishing won’t help.

VoiceBud hearing aids.

DL: What are the most popular ZVOX products?

TH: Right now, those would be our AV100, AV203 and AV157 AccuVoice speakers and our AV50 headphones. By the end of the year we will have sold about 400,000 speakers with AccuVoice included.

DL: This may be a question for your engineer, Jarl. Is there a key engineering or design philosophy found throughout ZVOX?

TH: We are very old fashioned in this sense. We don’t believe in focus groups or market surveys. Instead we build products that we would like to own and use. We build products that we would proudly sell to our friends and family members. Our products are not the most expensive (I find extreme high-end audio a little bit off-putting…sorry) and certainly not the cheapest.

Henry Kloss used to talk about fuel pumps for cars. In the 1960s he said something like, “A Rolls Royce fuel pump costs $388 to make and it is very good – but it doesn’t take a genius to design an expensive fuel pump that is good. A GM fuel pump costs $34 and functions much like the Rolls Royce model – that is something to be proud of.” That’s how we think – thank you Henry!

Also, we don’t like making “me too” products.

DL: Is there such a thing as a typical ZVOX customer? Where are your products finding the most acceptance?

TH: Our customers tend to be older and appreciate a combination of performance, style, simplicity and value. We have way more customers over 50 than under 30. But there are 95 million people over age 50 in the US.

DL: For a long time sound bars and bases were your only product offerings. Given your hi-fi/home theater roots and your evolution as a company dedicated to helping people hear better, do you think such products will always have a prominent place in your product line or do you plan to expand or evolve from that?

TH: We still have a good, strong soundbar and sound base business, and we like making those products. But it is a very competitive arena that is dominated by Asian TV manufacturers who have a lot of leverage in convincing big resellers to carry their products. So most of our “home theater” sales are generated by our website and marketing – not by big box stores.

At this point those traditional-style products represent only about 10 percent of our sales. AccuVoice speakers, headphones and hearing aids – that’s where the action is for us right now. In many ways we have evolved from an entertainment company into a health company. And I must say, selling products that solve problems for people, products that literally fix people’s lives, is a lot of fun. Really rewarding.

Tom Hannaher sort-of-center-front with AV200, with Jarl Salmela to his right and Kate Follansbee, ZVOX’s second employee, to his left.

AES Show Fall 2020 Highlights, Part One

AES Show Fall 2020 Highlights, Part One

AES Show Fall 2020 Highlights, Part One

John Seetoo

The major city lockdowns across the nation because of COVID-19 have created a new paradigm for industry trade shows and conferences. Now it’s all done online using apps like Zoom and various video conferencing tech. How appropriate, then, for the Audio Engineering Society (AES) to turn to this technology for its own annual October conference this year, usually held in Manhattan’s Javits Center.

To its credit, AES has come up with some innovative ways to make the virtual conferencing experience worthwhile, such as greater flexibility in scheduling (including on-demand for some events) and offering the ability to submit questions online to the featured presenters and speakers. AES also extended the duration of the 2020 event to four weeks in October.

Here are some highlights from weeks 1 and 2. In a convention of this scope it’s impossible to cover everything, so I chose some highlights I thought would be of particular interest. Also, more information about AES can be found in the interview with AES’s Gary Gottlieb in Issue 121.


One of the biggest growth areas in the audio industry has come from podcasting. A microphone, an interface, and a laptop computer is theoretically all one would need to create podcast content. Well…technically yes, but since podcasts are an extension of radio, listeners expect podcast programming to contain the same level of quality audio that radio broadcasts deliver.

The opening event for AES October 2020 was a broadcasting webinar conducted by Michael Pearson-Adams of Waves Audio. The webinar included a link to Adams’ computer screen where he showcased the use of Waves’ podcast-specific plugins and how they functioned.

One of Adams’ primary demonstrations was for Waves’ Playlist Rider, a plugin specifically designed for controlling the audio outputs for podcasts in order to deliver an optimum balance for Zoom or for recording to Spotify.

Adams also covered differences between the use of Mac vs. Windows hardware, and talked about the use of the VB-audio VB-CABLE, a “virtual cable” for connecting devices (available for Windows with 2 in/outs), and explained how tonal control variations can better achieve voice separation for added clarity in podcasting.

Dan Hughley of Focusrite followed with a discussion, named the podcaster winners of Focusrite’s studio makeover competition, and offered helpful tips for improving podcasts as well as recording in general.

The AES Show Fall 2020, virtual style, Focusrite seminar.

David Bryce, head of sales for Cloud Microphones, expounded upon their Cloudlifter devices, which deliver +20 dB of clean gain for dynamic and passive ribbon mics before the signal gets to the preamp. They are exceptionally helpful in reducing the need for excess gain when used with digital audio workstations (DAW)s and preamps with inherent noise.

David Bryce explains the Cloudlifter.

Skywalker Sound Tour

A few years ago at an AES conference, I attended a high-resolution audio symposium moderated by Grammy Award-winning producer/engineer Chuck Ainlay. However, I was unprepared for the awestruck reverence he displayed for the guest speaker: Leslie Ann Jones of Skywalker Sound. Apparently, many other audio industry luminaries share Ainlay’s sentiments. One of the most eclectic producer/engineers in the music industry, Leslie Ann Jones has worked on music of all genres from classical to punk, as well as film and television scores, video games, and music for staged ballet and other live events. She is a multiple Grammy Award winner. Copper interviewed her in-depth in Issues 82 and 83.

As Director of Music Recording and Scoring at Skywalker Sound, she was the ideal person to kick off the AES virtual studio tour series, 7 Audio Wonders of the World. As narrator and host, she led a walkthrough of the entire Skywalker Studio facility. Starting with the cavernous Tom Holman-designed scoring room, Jones demonstrated how the room can accommodate an entire orchestra or any smaller ensemble. Equipped with moveable acoustic panels, the room can physically change its reverberation depth and echo characteristics as needed. The extremely low noise floor in the recording chain results from using a simple signal chain of microphones fed directly into Neve or Air Montserrat preamps, and then out to the control room, all wired with high-purity-copper cabling.

Engineer/producer and AES Fellow Leslie Ann Jones guides a virtual tour of Skywalker Sound.

The isolation booths are spacious with excellent line of sight and large soundproof glass panels.  The booths do double duty as storage spaces for the guitar amp collection, synthesizers, and vintage Fender Rhodes and Hammond organ keyboards. Another booth stores a Bluthner 9-foot concert grand piano and a third holds a Yamaha F35 9-foot grand.

The main control room houses a 72-channel Neve 88R console, a Bowers & Wilkins 5.1 surround-sound speaker system with subwoofers, and Neumann KH 310 overhead speaker arrays for use in immersive sound mixing. The “machine room: contains an Avid Pro Tools desk for digital recording, a pair of Studer A827 24-track 2-inch analog tape decks along with two sets of Pro Tools HDX audio interfaces.

Skywalker Sound has additional rooms for different aspects of film post-production mixing, dubbing, and for smaller television or documentary projects. These rooms are equipped with Meyer Sound theater speakers set up for Dolby Atmos surround sound. (See our interviews with John Meyer of Meyer Sound in Issues 99, 100 and 101.)

A scoring room for immersive audio at Skywalker Sound.

The tour concluded with a brief Q&A with Leslie Ann Jones and Academy Award-winning sound engineer Lora Hirschberg (Inception, The Dark Knight). They answered questions on the editing and dubbing process, microphone choices on orchestral and other projects, removing unwanted reverberation from recordings, the use of remote ADR (automatic dialogue replacement) packages during the COVID-19 lockdowns, and mixing for Dolby Atmos.

Hirschberg stressed that because film sound mixes are so specialized, with dialogue, effects and music all handled by separate engineers, it was crucial to consider the needs of everyone involved and not back the client into a corner by adding too many effects to a track, which then would not be able to be removed later by the person in charge of the overall sound mix.

Processing for online audio from Waves Audio.

Audio Production Education in the COVID-19 Era

One of the biggest institutional casualties of the pandemic has been our schools. Unlike standard academic courses which can successfully transition to Zoom or other online remote platforms, courses like audio production that require hands-on access to equipment have suffered precipitously. In the interim, innovative teachers and university IT departments have developed several novel workaround solutions.

A roundtable discussion addressed this. It included Blair Likala of University of North Texas, Scott Burgess from University of Colorado, Denver, Scott Wynne of Appalachian State University in North Carolina, and New Jersey high school teacher Mark Beckett.

For schools that have allowed limited numbers of students to attend in person, supplies of personal protective equipment and Clorox wipes are mandatory. One teacher noted that in the past they’ve encouraged students to get hands-on experience with the gear, but COVID-19 has forced a 180-degree reversal policy of “touch only with gloves,” if at all.

For schools compelled by their respective states to make all of their classes virtual, some challenges cited are:

  • Dealing with IT networks that are inadequate to handle the new communications requirements;
  • Obtaining software licenses for each student to download Logic, Pro Tools, or other software required for course work;
  • Accommodating students with laptops and computers that are insufficient to run the production software concurrently with Zoom.

The teachers were unanimous in their praise for students’ individual initiatives in getting audio production experience through work-at-home projects, interning at professional studios, assisting in houses of worship, and finding work at other venues. They also remarked that since navigating these challenges was unfamiliar territory, participating in social media groups with other audio professionals and educators was one of the best resources for obtaining tips that would apply to a teacher’s particular obstacles.

Automotive Audio Product Development

Car audio system design is a highly specialized area, with demands that exceed the normal parameters of acoustics, electronics and physics compared to designing for a fixed space. Vehicle audio has to deal with engine rumbling, wind-noise considerations at increasing velocity, limited space for installing speakers, and the variables of sound reflection and absorption for the different materials used in car interiors.

In the Automotive Audio Seminar, the first speaker was Dr. Samara Mohanady, chief acoustic developer for IAV GmbH in Munich, Germany. She noted that due to the many variables inherent in different vehicle designs, a significant portion of her work involves the creation of digital models to replicate the measurements gathered from anechoic vs. car cabin measurements, as well as acoustic coupling differences, different air pressure levels and the aforementioned effects of interior construction materials. Host Roger Shively of JJR Acoustics did a good job of keeping the discussion from getting too deeply into scientific jargon and staying grounded in real life examples.

Roger Shively of JJR Acoustics giving a presentation on automotive audio.

As Dr. Mohanady’s specialty field is active noise control (ANC), her computer simulations are the result of painstaking multi-in/multi-out (MIMO) testing, which utilizes binaural and other dual-mic arrays to record sound from every conceivable area within an automobile model interior both in motion and when still. Learning about the elements that affect audio system quality was a revelation to me. They took far more parameters into consideration than the earlier days of car audio design, when a car had a single speaker connected to an AM/FM radio with an exterior telescopic antenna!

Steve Hutt of Equity Sound Investments spoke about how customers are demanding better sound from car audio systems, which often will not sound as good as a car buyer might expect. He echoed Dr. Mohanady’s reliance on the cost-effectiveness of using computer simulations rather than building multiple prototypes that are destined to become unacceptable anyway once auditioned.

Hutt stated that woofers were the prime component for establishing interior sound pressure level (SPL) ranges, with tweeters chosen more for their coverage area. Other autosound design considerations include power compression, dealing with resonances, designing around vehicle doors and taking cost and warranty into consideration.

In summary, this was a comprehensive and informative symposium on an important commercial segment of the audio industry that is often an afterthought amongst audiophiles.

Product Supply Chain Issues and Alternatives

US tariffs imposed on Chinese goods has caused most US electronics companies that rely on Chinese factories for mass production to reassess their supply chains and explore alternatives, or at least backup options.

The panel, “Exploring and Expanding Options for Audio Sourcing” included Scott Leslie (host, PD Squared), Mike Klasco (Menlo Scientific), Tony Tran (Soundcorp/Vietnam), Mark Thomsen (SB Acoustics/Indonesia), and David Lindberg (DB Entertainment/Hong Kong).

The panel mentioned how several large electronic companies, such as Apple and Google, have already transitioned some supply chain items from China to Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. They cited how Taiwan and Malaysia were popular manufacturing regions back in the 1990s but were undercut by China’s superior quality control and price savings. The current trade situation has made other Asian manufacturing regions once again worthy of inquiry. Some tips and observations mentioned included:

  • The large shift to Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia could spill over to Laos, Myanmar, Philippines, Cambodia and other nearby regions that might offer more attractive deals for less-complicated mass production products.
  • Factories located in Special Economic Zones would be able to avoid the import and export fees that need to be factored into total net manufacturing costs.
  • Vietnam was prospectively safer than Taiwan because of Chinese Communist Party invasion threats upon the latter.
  • SMT (surface mount technology, i.e., mounting components directly onto printed circuit boards) has already developed to a professional level of sophistication in Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. Medical devices such as hearing aids are regularly sourced from these regions.
  • While lower labor and shipping costs in other countries may offer attractive options, components often still have to be sourced from China, so researching a prospective factory’s access to these parts is crucial. Due to cost and QC issues in parts manufacture, China is the only place in the world that makes many electronic parts for mass production that are aimed at a retail or semi-pro market.
  • To avoid headaches, preference should be given to Southeast Asian factories who are already subcontractors to the Chinese factories that may have formerly manufactured a product.

The symposium concluded with “Understanding Your Supply Chain: A Global Perspective,” highlighting contrasting experiences in dealing with OEM manufacturing in China. Larry Fishman of Fishman Transducers (makers of acoustic guitar pickups and other products) explained the details of assuring intellectual property rights protection and accurate financial accountability when dealing with a Chinese factory, how trademark and patent litigation in China differed from the US, and how his relationships have been positive overall.

Dan Digne of loudspeaker and amplifier manufacturer MISCO hosts a seminar on global supply chain considerations.

Offering another viewpoint, Nick Huffman of Clarasonic had a decidedly negative experience when manufacturing his high-performance speaker cones in China. He was able to purchase an entire factory in Thailand for the equivalent cost of one year of manufacturing in China. His overall experience in Thailand from a cooperation and employee lifestyle perspective has been very positive by comparison. Overall, this seminar was a fascinating insight into the challenges faced by US audio companies who have expanded to the point where mass production necessitates considering overseas manufacturing contractors.

With many more product showcases and other events on the schedule, AES October 2020 will be chock full of more exciting and interesting topics, so stay tuned for Part Two of this report in the next issue.

10 More Great Guitar Solos

10 More Great Guitar Solos

10 More Great Guitar Solos

Rich Isaacs

As I wrote in Issue 117: I am not a musician – I play no instrument (I can whistle pretty well, though). I did play the drums (in high school and college), and I’ve tried taking piano lessons, but…I am in awe of those who can conceive of a sequence of notes and then move their fingers over strings or keys or air holes to make those notes happen. And singing while you’re doing that – get outta here!

I suppose it’s possible that a guitarist might listen to the following selections and say, “I’m not that impressed.” Not having a musician’s perspective, all I can say is that these do it for me, and are among my favorite rock guitar solos of all time. Some are over-the top-frenzied, but others are (to my ears) melodic, well constructed contributions to the song. I’ve chosen to leave out obvious choices that are well known (David Gilmour’s solo on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” for example). My hope is that many of you will come to appreciate some guitarists who might have flown under your radar. Entries are listed identifying Artist/Guitarist “Song” (Album). 

Kevin Ayers / Steve Hillage “Shouting in a Bucket Blues” (Bananamour)

Kevin Ayers (along with Daevid Allen, Mike Ratledge, and Robert Wyatt) was a founding member of Soft Machine. Both Ayers and Allen soon left to pursue other musical experiences. Ayers had a prolific solo career, and his early band, The Whole World, featured a very young (pre-Tubular Bells) Mike Oldfield on both guitar and bass. Ayers had a knack for finding great guitarists and Steve Hillage was one of them. Hillage was an important member of Allen’s British/French band, Gong. He went on to have numerous solo albums as well as a stint as a producer, including working with Simple Minds and other new wave/punk bands. I really like the atypical tone and flow of his licks throughout this track. (Solos are at 1:15, 2:29, and 3:14)




City Boy / Mike Slamer “Dear Jean” (Young Men Gone West)

City Boy was a criminally underappreciated band – smart pop/rock with a sense of humor and great songs. The two primary songwriters and vocalists, Lol Mason and Steve Broughton, had known each other since the age of seven. The band had one minor hit with the song “5705,” from their fourth album, Book Early. This track is from the previous release. The lyrics cleverly tell the story of a young boy smitten with his teacher. Mike Slamer’s guitar solos dance around the rhythm section. (Solos start at 1:44 & 4:25)




Ethos / Wil Sharpe “Longdancer” (Ethos: ardour)

This track was previously noted in the Issue 105 article about American prog bands, but I think the solo is worthy of another listen. (Solo starts at 4:00)




IQ / Mike Holmes “The Province” (Frequency)

IQ is my current favorite band, and Mike Holmes is my favorite guitarist currently performing. There will be a feature article on them in the future. IQ has been around since the early 1980s. Frequency, recorded between 2007 and 2009, was their first album with a new keyboard player and drummer. This long track is Grade A progressive rock with an exceptional solo at the end. (Solo starts at 10:15, and he hits an unexpected but very cool note at 11:24)




Marillion / Steve Rothery “Easter” (Season’s End)

Marillion is one of the premier bands to emerge from the New Wave of British Progressive Rock in the early 1980s, and they are still performing and recording. Their original vocalist, Fish (real name Derek Dick), was obviously influenced by Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. This track is from their fifth album, the first with new vocalist Steve Hogarth. Guitarist Rothery is a very expressive player. (Solo fades in at 2:27) 




New Tony Williams Lifetime / Allan Holdsworth “Fred” (Believe It)
Combonation / Steve Dudas “A Place in Your Life” (Combonation)

Jazz drummer Tony Williams made his mark at the age of 17 playing with Miles Davis. The original Tony Williams Lifetime featured John McLaughlin on guitar, Larry Young on organ, and, for a time, Jack Bruce on bass. In the mid-1970s, after the breakup of that unit, he recruited Allan Holdsworth on guitar, Tony Newton on bass, and keyboardist Alan Pasqua for the new band. Believe It is a solid fusion effort, and “Fred” features Holdsworth at his best. (Solo starts at 3:40)




As a side note, in 1984 there was a forgettable band called Combonation, whose album was produced by Ted Templeman (Doobie Brothers, Montrose, Van Halen). Warner Brothers was probably hoping that the band might be another Van Halen, but they never caught on. I was working in a record store when one of the employees put on this album. My jaw dropped when, during the song “A Place in Your Life,” guitarist Steve Dudas’s solo included ten seconds lifted almost note for note from Holdsworth’s “Fred” solo. The solo begins innocently enough at 2:20, with the theft occurring from 2:35 to 2:45. Compare that to what happens at 4:21 in the Williams/Holdsworth cut.




Pallas / Niall Mathewson “Rise & Fall” (The Sentinel)

Pallas is another of the British bands that got started in the early 1980s. This cut is an epic prog opus (with lyrics and a spoken word section that, unfortunately, invite derision as pretentious). However, the solo at the end is worth the wait, but the fadeout leaves you wondering why it didn’t go on longer. I’d love to have been in the studio during the session to find out – maybe Mathewson hit some bad notes toward the end. (Solo starts at 9:20)




Pekka / Mike Oldfield “The Consequences of Head Bending” (The Mathematician’s Air Display)

Pekka Pohjola was a Finnish bassist and keyboard player who also played the violin. He was a member of the Finnish rock group Wigwam, which featured British ex-pat Jim Pembroke on lead vocals. Pekka’s second solo album featured a number of great musicians, including guitarists Georg Wadenius (Blood, Sweat & Tears) and Mike Oldfield, with percussionist Pierre Moerlen (Gong). Oldfield lights up this rambling piece with a solo every bit as incandescent (albeit with a totally different tone) as Robert Fripp’s solo on “Baby’s on Fire,” which was noted in my first guitar solo article in Issue 117. (Solo begins at 10:02, after a comparatively aimless effort by Wadenius)




Duke Robillard “Duke’s Mood”  (Too Hot to Handle / Rockin’ Blues / Plays Blues: The Rounder Years)

This one is available on no fewer than three different albums (two of which are compilations). Michael John “Duke” Robillard founded the band Roomful of Blues back in 1967. He’s played with Robert Gordon and was Jimmie Vaughan’s replacement in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Robillard is a guitarist adept at many styles. “Duke’s Mood” was recorded with his band The Pleasure Kings in December 1984. Robillard solos through the entire track.




Thin Lizzy / Scott Gorham & Brian Robertson “Cowboy Song” (Jailbreak)

This is probably the best-known band of the lot, and this cut is on their biggest album, Jailbreak, but it’s so good I had to include it. If you’ve never heard this track, written by bassist/vocalist Phil Lynott and drummer Brian Downey, you’re in for a treat. The lyrics might be a bit clichéd, but dear Lord, the track rocks! I think both solos are by Robertson, but I’m not sure.

(Solos start at 2:28 & 4:21)




(Bonus Hard-to-Find Entry)

Kevin Ayers / Ollie Halsall “Blue” (Yes We Have No Mañanas/so get your mañanas today)

Peter John “Ollie” Halsall was an original member of Patto, and played with The Rutles and Vivian Stanshall (Bonzo Dog Band). He was also Allan Holdsworth’s replacement in the short-lived hard rock band Tempest. Guitarists Alvin Lee, Rick Nielsen, Holdsworth, and Andy Partridge (XTC) have cited him as an influence. Halsall played with Ayers on eleven albums over nearly two decades. This track from 1976 features lovely choral backing and a soaring solo from Halsall. On the album’s back cover notes for the song, Ayers wrote: “With special thanks to Ollie Halsall for amazing guitaring, isn’t it?”

(Unfortunately, the copyright holder has blocked YouTube from playing this track. It might be available on one of the streaming services, but not Amazon Music. It’s well worth searching for.)

Header image of Marillion courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Lrheath.

Five Weeks in Mongolia, Part One

Five Weeks in Mongolia, Part One

Five Weeks in Mongolia, Part One

Alón Sagee

It’s morning in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. I feel green, shaken and dehydrated from a rather spectacular night of diarrhea and vomiting. In matters of revenge, Montezuma has got nothing on Genghis Khan.

Comforting me, snuggled close to my exhausted abdomen is an adorable, stunted little black cat with half an ear missing.

The last year’s winter was classified as a “Zud” by Mongolia’s government. A Zud is a winter so harsh that it completely covers the grasslands with a season-long permafrost, burying the only source of food for the herds that sustain this country. Over three million sheep, goats, camels and horses were lost to starvation and frostbite. As well as half a feline ear.

My furry little Mongolian friend is in a deep shamanic trance, muttering some nasal invocation of healing to speed my recovery. Or, more likely, snoring and talking in her sleep while chasing prey in the big world of her dreams. Either way, when alone, far from home, and not feeling perfectly well, the simple unconditional company of a borrowed pet works its soft magic.

It’s a good day to tell my story…I’ll start at the end.


Arriving back in Mongolia’s capitol felt somehow empty after weeks of living and working with the nomads that sparsely populate the vast steppes of this raw and beautiful country.

A few days prior in that remote countryside, western and Mongolian eyes turned glassy during an emotional good-bye as we loaded onto the van to depart. It always amazes me how close people can get in such a short time, especially with only facial expressions, a handful of semi-intelligible words from a phrase book, and my apparently comical attempts at pronunciation of the written Mongolian Cyrillic.

I fell in love with these people. Living as their forbears have for centuries in a distinct, loosely-knit rural society, hospitality is of paramount cultural importance. Socializing is ingrained in the very fabric of their daily lives, and doors are always open. It is commonplace for total strangers to arrive unannounced and be welcomed warmly no matter what other things the family may have been involved in. They love to talk, or just sit with guests in a silence devoid of awkward expectation.

There is no word for ‘please’ in Mongolian – their unpretentious courtesy is simply a way of life.

On paper, Mongolia is a poor country, but there is no sense of poverty in the countryside. In terms of traditional society, not much has changed out here for a very long time. Our standards as to what comprises a fulfilled life simply don’t apply.


In its heyday as one of the largest Buddhist temples in Mongolia, Baldan Baravain flourished as a center for education, religion and culture for over 200 years, until communist China ended its glory. In 1937, under the pretense of needing information on the monks to assess taxes, the occupation authorities were able to compile a list of the Lamas by hierarchy. The most senior third of the temple’s monks were immediately shot. The next third was sent to work camps in Siberia and never heard from again. The youngest third of monks were allowed to return to their families. All in all, over 3,000 monks and nuns were slaughtered and their temple destroyed.

Practicing Buddhism in Mongolia only became legal again in the 1990s. In 2002, I joined a small team of Americans determined to restore the ruined temple to its former glory and reestablish the community. As altruistic as that may sound, these people had been betrayed by foreigners their whole lives and not surprisingly, the local Mongolian craftsmen and masons who were hired to help us with the restoration doubted our intentions. Rumors circulated that we were secretly building our summer palace and would kick them out once it was completed.


My journey to the ruins of Baldan Baravain started in early morning as we embarked in what I can only describe as a minibus crossed with a tank. Built in Russia, as most of Mongolia’s vehicles are, this machine is a marvel. At first, I remembered its name as “Flowbee,” but that turned out to be a vacuum-driven haircutting device touted on campy late-night infomercials (alas, it seems my spongy, advertising-soaked brain was traveling with me). Our affable young driver, Bagi, referred to it as a “Forgon,” and it is designed with a philosophy different than our western consumerist economy would understand or allow: the vehicle’s shape and parts barely change over decades. Spare parts are interchangeable across model years, making repairs in the remote countryside possible – a feature I found myself very grateful for on the journey ahead.

A few miles out of the capitol, the terrain changes to an endless expanse of green hills, the kind that impels you to run with abandon, head back, arms wide in the wind, smiling, and egged on by the syrupy orchestral music in your head.

An hour into our ride east on a roughly paved road built with Japan’s financial help, it became obvious that the funds ran out, as did the road. Bagi, our driver, calmly wheeling headlong towards a deliberate and definitive roadblock, revealed no intimation of slowing down. My knuckles turned white on the door handle. A few feet before the barrier, Bagi made a well-executed hard right and we were on what would be for us another nine hours of off-road insanity, careening through a land with little resembling a road, no traffic signs or advertising at all, and to make it really interesting, no seat belts! Dodging marmot holes, sheep and goats at 60 kph would at times have us airborne, as young Bagi, who knew his vehicle well, surfed the waves of green turf nonplussed –possibly without the knowledge that he was defying both gravity and some laws of physics at every turn.

My respect for the Flowbee (sorry, the name just stuck) and Bagi increased with every mile. The machine was obviously built for this terrain and our driver proved competent in piloting the two tons of steel and humanity. Some color returned to my knuckles.

Venturing deeper into the green, a sight off to the right took my breath away…wild horses, dozens of them, galloping on the grassland like a school of fish, leaderless, manes windswept, muscled bodies shining in the sun, joyous. It was like a dream. I wanted to go out and run with them through their home. I now understand why even around a race track these beautiful creatures run – it’s programmed into their cellular memory. They simply have to.

As a wild land, Mongolia shows its bounty of nature untouched. A dark blur on the bumpy terrain ahead caught my attention – maybe a marmot? no, too big – it was standing almost a yard tall; perhaps a species of feral dog? Since it stood in our path, Bagi actually slowed down. Holding us fast in its majestic gaze, it didn’t move as we approached, obviously unimpressed by the purring mass of steel in which we were ensconced. We stopped, three feet and an open window between its fierce beauty and my unprotected pate, the astonishingly large golden eagle locked defiantly onto my eyes, its power over me mesmerizing. As I fumbled for my camera, this regal native released its gaze and took wing, disappearing into its blue domain.

My arm, extended out the window, felt its first drops of Mongolian rain. In a heartbeat the sky relieved its clouds of their burden and drowned what earlier passed as semi-navigable tracks under fast silvery rivers. Not surprisingly, this beautiful display of nature’s power didn’t make lighter our driver’s weighty foot. Bagi just turned on the wipers and continued his unruffled command, expertly turning into the spins as our rear wheels lost their grip in the slick mud. There were never any discernible landmarks to guide us along our route, so not being able to see anything at all didn’t seem to be a problem. Out here, you either know the way or you’re vulture food.


Mongolia is one of the least-touristed countries in the world, attracting only 28,000 foreigners a year. For perspective, during its entire tourist season, this country gets as many visitors as Thailand attracts each week. In the countryside, where most of Mongolia’s 2.3 million people live, many young faces look like they’ve never seen a foreigner. I felt like quite an attraction as we passed through the occasional settlement.

My first sight of the ruins of Baldan Baravain was breathtaking. I can only imagine what awe it inspired when it was active and whole. The sun was low on the horizon, illuminating the temple with a warm glow. The valley that enshrouds the monastery is so beautiful I found myself just staring, open-jawed. As we pulled up to the camp, we were greeted by a smiling young man named Guré, the newly ordained Lama of Baldan Baravain, who would become a friend to us all.

Part Two will follow in a future issue.

Header image courtesy of Wikipedia/Marcin Konsek.

Frank Zappa – The King of Freaky’s New Movie

Frank Zappa – The King of Freaky’s New Movie

Frank Zappa – The King of Freaky’s New Movie

WL Woodward

A new documentary named Zappa will be released by Magnolia Pictures on November 27, 2020. I was incredibly fortunate to be a sent a screener for the movie in the hope I would write a review for Copper. How cool is that? I love this job!

Produced by Alex Winter and Glen Zipper, directed by Alex Winter with producing credit also going to Ahmet Zappa, this film will delight the Zappaphiles out there. Here are some thoughts without revealing too many of the movie’s secrets.

Let me first relate that there is no narrator, and no interviews with friends, neighbors, experts, or critics. Most of the narrative is interviews with Zappa himself, which are cleverly woven into the narration so you are listening to Zappa on Zappa. There are also many interviews with bandmates, wife Gail Zappa, plus Laurel Canyon “roommate” Pamela Zarubica – the original Suzy Creamcheese of early Mothers of Invention fame – and cover artist extraordinaire Cal Schenkel. Think album art like Burnt Weeny Sandwich and One Size Fits All.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

While watching I kept a detailed and vid-chronological list of who was being interviewed but I am going to put that list into the “secrets” category. I know you will be thrilled.

Suffice it to say that you will love Gail Zappa and Ruth Underwood, one of Zappa’s most important and accomplished musicians, who played mallet and other percussion and synthesizer. Insightful and intriguing anecdotes. The story of Zappa’s first meeting with stop-action artist Bruce Bickford and the extensive showing of a lot of those vids in the film and how they were made are worth the price of a ticket just by themselves.

After a video of the beginning of his last recorded guitar performance in Prague in 1991, the story begins with Frank talking about his childhood, growing up near a mustard gas plant in Maryland where his dad worked, and the subsequent move to California, with his struggles growing up in a small town. Frank’s talking through the interviews about this time in his life is punctuated with 8mm home videos Zappa filmed himself.

Frank Zappa performing with the Mothers of Invention. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, photo by Cal Schenkel.

Zappa kept all those videos and in fact had a large vault in his Laurel Canyon home with thousands of video and audio tapes from studio and concert recordings. Director Alex Winter had access to everything, and the result is a highly informative and purely fun romp through Zappa’s life with plenty of stills and films. Zappa was a dedicated pack rat, thank the good Lord.

I should point out that you should not expect extensive concert or music footage except in small snippets that support the narrative.  For instance, Zappa talks to the Prague audience in 1991 and the video is cut off as he turns to tune his guitar. Gotta look dat s**t up. This filmmaking method does make you want to look for concert footage and audio, but these are amply available.  This documentary is more a story about Zappa’s life and the creation of his music. Despite the amount of research I’ve done on this guy over the years I encountered some facts brought forth by the film that I didn’t know before, which I will not reveal because that’s not nice and I would risk exposing my ignorance.

Kerry McNabb and Zappa at the mixing console. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, photo by Yoram Kahana.

You will want to see this movie in the theater because of the visual spectacle. I will go see this in a theater just to see the beautifully-done editing on a big screen. But we all will have to buy the movie when it comes out. (It will be available on demand and on various digital platforms and on Blu-ray and DVD next spring.) This is beyond shameless commerce. On your first watching it in a theater you will repeatedly wish you could rewind. So, you will wind up watching it multiple times or three reasons. You can watch as much as you want, you can drag your on-the-fence friends to your home and indoctrinate them into Zap lore, and I guarantee you will want to watch this film multiple times.

Have fun. In fact, when the rokdoc comes out give me shout and we’ll go together. It will be a hoot.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, photo by Dan Carlson.

Header image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Roelof Kiers.

Eight Decades of Wrong Assumptions: The Loudness Wars

Eight Decades of Wrong Assumptions: The Loudness Wars

Eight Decades of Wrong Assumptions: The Loudness Wars

J.I. Agnew

Let’s cut straight to the chase: Who won the loudness wars?


(For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the term, the “Loudness War” refers to the practice of trying to make a recording sound as loud as possible and, as Wikipedia notes, “the trend of increasing audio levels in recorded music.”) The listeners are not getting better sound. The record labels are not making more money. The recording and mastering engineers are not demonstrating the best of their abilities. The artists are not being represented at their finest. So why are we still in the trenches?

Largely because jazz bands feel insecure if their album is not as loud as the latest Metallica album (true story). Record labels feel insecure if their releases are not as loud as those of other record labels and mastering engineers feel insecure about working towards what best serves the music, in case someone else who just makes it louder ends up getting all the customers. But how did we get to this point?

Well, once upon a time, electricity was a rare luxury and gramophones were hand-cranked. Acoustic sound reproduction did not offer any convenient means of adjusting the level of the reproduced sound, so under these circumstances, a louder record would indeed play back louder. This effect carried on into the electrical era with the jukebox.

Soundbox from an early Garrard acoustic handcrafted gramophone, along with a box of “Loud Tone” needles. Loudness control was achieved by using different types of needles.

The idea, which to a certain extent was quite true, was that the louder record would stand out and as such, would be noticed more. Sort of like the stranger walking into the saloon, the pianist stops playing, everybody stops talking and, well, the stranger gets noticed (and subsequently gets shot full of 45-caliber holes, unless the stranger can draw and shoot faster than his shadow, in which case only the pianist survives).

In the electrical era, bars no longer had pianists but had jukeboxes instead, where the level would be set once and would remain at that same setting for all records to be played back. The assumption was that the louder record would be noticed and everyone would rush to the stores to buy it. Whether this assumption had any bearing in reality or not is largely irrelevant now, since for many decades, the means for adjusting the playback level as required have been in universal use and are often even automated.

A prime example is radio broadcasting. In the early days, a DJ would manually set the playback level. But it wasn’t long before the FCC (the Federal Communications Commission in the United States and equivalents in other countries) became quite strict about overmodulated broadcasts (too loud and causing the transmitter to produce harmonics at other frequencies) but the market (advertising revenue) at the other end was pushing for the widest coverage possible, which meant broadcasting as loud as possible without the FCC fining the station. The technical solution arrived in the form of automated signal conditioners, devices which would push the average signal level up while also imposing a strict ceiling to prevent overmodulation. It no longer mattered much if a record was louder, as they would all end up equally loud. In fact, overly loud records started to sound awful on air, as all the automated signal processors could do was to clip the signal to prevent overmodulation.

In bars and nightclubs, DJ’s would still manually level-match the records to maintain uniformity during their set, but they are now often assisted by devices similar to those used in the broadcasting sector.

Online streaming services are also implementing automatic level-matching algorithms, which are the software equivalent to the hardware used in broadcasting.

Home listeners, on the other hand, are free to set the volume control to taste. If a record is louder, they are likely to turn it down a bit. If the next one is less loud, it can be promptly turned up again. The latest trends in home listening systems include, in addition to the traditional volume control, level-matching functions.

Back in the day when the vinyl record was the main consumer format, things were not yet as bad, since that medium does not have a strict upper level limit. But then came the CD and with it, digital audio. Nothing is allowed to exceed 0 dBFS, but the loudness wars resulted in nothing being tolerated to fall much below -3 dBFS in modern pop music either. This leaves us with a dynamic range of 3 dB…in other words, no dynamics. They have been sacrificed for the sake of higher average (apparent) loudness. It doesn’t sound better, just louder. There are even commercially released CDs with a dynamic range of just a fraction of a dB!

Up to a certain point in time, recordings would still be done in a reasonable manner and the loudness slamming would occur later, at the mastering stage. But by now, it has become more and more common to see recordings already mercilessly compressed before they even get to mastering. This cannot be undone, so the mastering engineer’s hands are tied when dealing with such recordings.

To make matters worse and to keep costs down, it is common practice nowadays to have the lacquer master disks for vinyl record manufacturing cut from the same slammed digital files that were prepared for the CD release! The two formats are very different in many ways and this only serves to ensure that the vinyl record will sound just as bad, if not worse, than the CD.

For many decades now, there has been absolutely no valid technical justification for sacrificing the dynamics and overall sound quality of an album just to make it louder. Yet, this is exactly what many marketing departments are still pushing for. What digital audio brought to all of this, along with the 0 dBFS ceiling, was a general de-professionalization of the industry. The complex and remarkably expensive electromechanical sound recording devices of the past really did require properly qualified engineers to operate them, or expensive damage would result. Modern digital audio workstations (DAWs), on the other hand, have opened up the industry to less technically-minded individuals and the recording process is now largely seen as an art, free of any technical constraints, rather than as a science.

The truth is that it has always involved both art and science. Even nowadays, you cannot take the science out of it. Granted, the DAW probably won’t break and even if it did, it is not that expensive, compared to what a disk recording lathe, a tape machine, or a good analog mixing console used to cost back in the day. But it is just as easy to make a DAW sound dreadful. The difference is that in the DAW era, it has become far more socially acceptable to produce dreadful recordings.

It is no coincidence that the worst of the loudness wars has occurred in the digital era, when it would least be needed.

Dynamic range, LP. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Audiofreak82.


Dynamic range, remastered for CD. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Audiofreak82.

Let us not forget that Claude Shannon’s seminal 1949 paper, introducing the idea of digital sampling and the subsequent reconstruction of analog signals, was titled “Communication in the Presence of Noise.” The big strength of digital audio is the remarkable ease with which a low noise floor can be achieved. This can be used to great advantage in achieving a good dynamic range in a recording, but is rarely encountered in practice due to the loudness wars.

It was not easy to maintain a very low noise floor when working with magnetic tape and grooved media, but the professionals at the time were using all the skill at their disposal to use the available tools to their full potential. Not everyone could do it well. Digital made it possible for even a beginner to be able to routinely achieve a very respectable dynamic range, but this is more often than not intentionally thrown away for the sake of “competitive loudness.”

A solid understanding of the engineering and science behind what we are doing is essential to avoid making the wrong assumptions, often made by those who are not even involved with audio, but who hold on to outdated marketing ideas of the gramophone era. Not to mention that back then there was still plenty of room to go louder without compromise. Going louder at that point in history actually improved the dynamic range, and the technology was still evolving. But we are now long past the point where the dynamic range started falling again, collapsing to lows that would have never been deemed acceptable in the gramophone era!

Really, how many of you listen to music on systems that do not offer any means of adjusting the level (a volume control)? How many of you would choose to buy an album that does not actually sound good, but appears louder than the albums in your collection that do sound good? These are two of the fundamentally flawed assumptions that the loudness wars are based on. It is about time our industry rediscovers the level of professionalism it had during its golden age, when the good engineers still worked in audio (rather than in defense and aerospace, and of course there are exceptions) and excellent recordings were not all that rare.

Just imagine a conductor of a world-class orchestra deciding that Beethoven’s 9th Symphony should be performed in fortissississimo throughout, from start to finish, in the assumption that it would attract a bigger audience (which it probably would, to witness the sheer absurdity of such a proposition). Now imagine if the majority of conductors the world over decided to do the same with all orchestral works because they feel insecure, and classical musicians only receive training in fortissississimo playing because both they and their teachers feel too insecure…

OK, I’ll stop here before I give anyone ideas that would prove detrimental to the health and safety of the brass section!

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Damian Yerrick.




Roy Hall

The man with the whisky bottle kept filling my glass. I was thrilled; a 14 year-old drinking alcohol for the first time. It was a synagogue party and I had discovered the joy of sponge cake and scotch. Ultimately, this was not a good combination, as I staggered home drunk – or as we called it in Glasgow, legless. This was my first hangover and it turned me off scotch for about nine years.

In 1971 I moved to Israel and a Scottish friend reintroduced me to the stuff – this time a single malt whisky. (This friend, I subsequently found out, used to be a Mossad agent. But that’s beside the point.) It was a bottle of 18-year-old Glenfarclas, cask strength, and it was delicious. Thus started my journey into the wonderful world of single malts. After that whenever I travelled to Scotland, to the chagrin of my wife, I visited a different distillery. This story is just one small part of my lifelong exploration of uisge beatha, the water of life.

Most Scotch whisky is foul tasting. Right off the still it is disgusting, and after a few years in the barrel it is usually horrible and only worthy of blending. A man called Andrew Usher and his brother John are credited with making blended whisky palatable. Their blend was a mixture of malt whiskies from Glenlivet and Royal Brackla, plus some other nondescript malt and about two-thirds grain whisky. They were not the first to make blended whisky, but they were the most successful. Making this rotgut drinkable put scotch on the world map.

Whisky is basically made from distilled beer. You malt (germinate) some barley, chop it up, add hot water and yeast, and let it ferment for a while. You take that “beer,” run it through the still, and voila, you have…? It’s not whisky. It’s really moonshine. Stick it in various types of used oak barrels, and pray it tastes good at the end.

To tell the truth, it’s not really as haphazard as that. Now that a few large companies make it they have found a way of standardizing their product. For instance, after germination, when the enzymes and sugars are released, heat is applied to stop this process. In the old days, burning peat, which was the cheapest-available heat source in Scotland, did this. When peat burns, a lot of smoke is created and this smoke would often penetrate the barley and affect the flavor. Thus each batch was slightly different from the previous one. This artisanal effect made trying newer bottlings most interesting (similar to comparing vintages in French wine).

Most of the distilleries in Islay in those days did their own malting but now they have the Port Ellen Maltings, a one-stop shop for seven of the eight distilleries on the island. The individual distilleries instruct the factory how many phenols they want. (Phenols are the compounds in the peat smoke that impart the smoky aromas and flavors.) This ensures a consistent amount of “smokiness” to the barley and thus a consistent taste. This tinkers with the “terroir” and, even though the whiskies still tend to be good, I feel something is lost in this standardization.

Malt whisky was the only whisky made before the invention of the patent still. Somehow, through luck and later, skill, some of the distillers started making and bottling single malt whisky that was drinkable. And that’s the best part of this tale.

The best way to experience scotch is to go to Islay yourself – go to Laphraoig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. The flight from Glasgow is short, and the plane is filled with locals. This is a small island, and these three distilleries are about a mile apart from each other. They all use similar barley and water, the climate is the same, and their whiskey barrel warehouses are all buffeted by the Atlantic Ocean; yet, their whiskies taste totally different. When I’ve visited, the only immediate difference I could discern was the shape of the stills. I learnt later that most distilleries are superstitious about the shape of their individual stills and when they have to replace them, they re-create them exactly: bashes, dents and all.

Bowmore Distillery. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jack Shainsky.

I like the whiskies that Laphraoig makes. Their-10 year-old is the most popular but I find it rather raw and unfinished. (Although its ubiquity makes it perfectly acceptable in an emergency.) On the other hand, the 15 and 18 years are superb. But my all time favorite whisky is Lagavulin 16-year-old. It has intensity and a complexity that is rivaled only by fine cognacs and armagnacs. It is so peaty, salty and seaweed-y that it is not for everyone, especially novices. But, once you arrive there, hopefully after a lifetime of tasting, you will understand what I mean.

Ardbeg make very peaty whiskies. The one that I liked the best, ‘The Beist,” is now no longer available. Some of the others are very popular but not to my taste.

Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist.

I visited the island in 2012 and the French company Remy-Cointreau had just purchased the Bruichladdich distillery. I noticed that they had casks from Chateau d’Yquem and also some used burgundy barrels – not the standard bourbon or sherry barrels. The investment in making malt whisky is enormous. You have to wait years before the product is drinkable. This can be eight or 10, 12 or even 15 years; in fact, you can’t even call it whisky before it is three years old. So there is an enormous push among distillers to produce what they call “New Style Whisky,” or, young whisky that is made drinkable. Bruichladdich have a bunch of them and they do this by putting the distillate in non-traditional barrels and hoping the flavors of the casks soften the harshness of the raw spirit. As somewhat of a traditionalist, I so far have not tasted any that I like.

Bowmore is also in Islay, and its distillery is cool. It sits in the center of the town of Bowmore and abuts the banks of Loch Indaal. It is over 200 years old and is the oldest on the island. The owners built a leisure center and swimming pool adjacent to the distillery, and gave it to the local municipality for free. The waste heat from the still warms the waters of the pool. Very ecological! Their whiskies are tasty but again, in my opinion, the younger ones are unfinished and have a slight afterburn. I would start at the 15-year-old and work upwards.

Once, on touring the facility, I noticed that they had a bottle of whisky on sale for 1,000 pounds (approx. $1,400). I queried my guide and he said, “We advertised it for 500 pounds and no one bought it. This year we doubled the price to 1,000 pounds and we sold three bottles.”

When I think back to that drunken day in 1961 I realize that I have been a lover of whisky for almost 50 years.

This romance started in earnest when I brought a bottle of malt whisky to my very first hi-fi show. It was an 18-year-old Macallan. In those days (over 30 years ago) it was affordable and rather unknown. (Now a bottle costs in excess of $200, which in my opinion is overpriced by $100.) This started a trend and to every show I have attended I bring a bottle or two. I now judge the efficacy of a show in which I exhibit by the amount of bottles we serve. A good show is eight bottles and an even better one is 10.

This generosity has caused some problems over the years.

One morning, Sam Tellig of Stereophile fame visited my booth where he drank more than one shot of whisky. He then went to lunch and shared a bottle of wine with his host. That afternoon he attended an “ask the writers seminar” and being drunk, made a real fool of himself. That evening a memo was sent out to all the staff at Stereophile.

“No writer is allowed to visit Roy Hall’s booth before five in the evening,”

Every few years I return to Scotland and stay with my old friend Ivor Tiefenbrun of Linn Products. More than once we have sat down with a good bottle of malt and reminisced. It’s a funny thing, but in sharing these special moments, even though the bottle is usually empty at the end, neither of us is ever drunk.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Bruichladdich Distillery.

Can You Carry a Concept Too Far?

Can You Carry a Concept Too Far?

Can You Carry a Concept Too Far?

Steven Bryan Bieler

You might have heard about Danzig Sings Elvis when it was released in April. If you did, then like me you thought that Glenn Danzig (keywords: punk, metal, goth, horror, loud, shirtless) was out to have some fun with Elvis Presley (keyword: sex).

Danzig lives in a world as dark as Trent Reznor’s:

If you want the answer
If you want the truth
Look inside yourself
There you’ll find the noose

(“How the Gods Kill”)

Elvis wants to be your teddy bear! How was this collaboration supposed to work?

The answer is, it doesn’t. But not for the reasons you’re probably thinking of.

When I first heard that Danzig (founder of the bands The Misfits, Samhain, and, of course, Danzig) was going to cover the King, I immediately thought of Pat Boone’s In a Metal Mood (1997). Boone, who made his reputation defusing Black music for white teenagers, took up the challenge of covering 12 hard-rock classics.

The two albums even have similar covers:

Sadly, Boone lost his challenge. The clichéd big-band arrangements and the chorus of women from the lite-rock channel were silly, but the biggest problem was Boone’s voice. The man who sold more records in the 1950s than anyone except for Elvis has a voice that’s smooth and seamless, but not steamy. His version of Van Halen’s “Panama” achieved some warmth, probably because Van Halen gave us a show tune with killer guitars. But when he gets to the spoken-word part about driving a car on a hot night and reaching down between his legs, he reminds you that he’s Pat Boone.

Boone said at the time that he was performing a parody of his own image. I enjoyed the joke, and I give the man credit for trying something different. That’s not nothing. In a Metal Mood in that sense is not bad, but also not good.

You Shouldn’t Have to Be an Elvis Scholar to Listen to an Elvis Record

Pat Boone in his private life probably doesn’t have Metallica in heavy rotation on his iPod. But Glenn Danzig sees Elvis as one of his influences. When he conceived and recorded Danzig Sings Elvis, he was serious. I understood that the moment I cued up the first track, “Is It So Strange,” and heard the straightforward vocal and the muted back-up band. I also wondered if my computer had been hacked, or if I was suffering from an undigested bit of beef.

Danzig Sings Elvis fails for two reasons. They may be the most interesting, or surprising, things about this album.

First is Danzig’s voice. When he’s not bellowing about Satan, it turns out he has a gruff tenor voice that can be tender and pleasant to listen to. He shows the hurt. He has more than a hint of country in his voice, or at least something vaguely rural. He knows Elvis inside-out. But Danzig is in his mid-60s, and his voice is not what it was.

Second is the set list. There’s a trap here, and to be fair to the artist, I don’t see how Danzig could have escaped it. The 14 songs are from Elvis’ earliest records (1955 – 1960), except for two from the early 1970s. Danzig chose not to go head-to-head with the King on the best-known songs. But instead of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog,” we get mostly obscure numbers. They were certainly obscure to me.

Someone older than me (I was born in 1955) or more knowledgeable than me (a legion of listeners) might know that Elvis had recorded a song called “Danny” that was a hit in 1960 for Conway Twitty under the new title of “Lonely Blue Boy.” It’s in this set under the latter title. Glenn, please don’t assign me homework.

That person might also know that Elvis recorded “The Girl of My Best Friend.” Several artists have. I didn’t recognize it. The singer is in love with his best friend’s girl: “The way they kiss/their happiness/will my aching heart ever mend?” All I could think of was that Danzig, as I understand him, would’ve held that best friend down and beaten the crap out of him.

There are also two songs here that I associate with other artists: “Always on My Mind” and “Fever.” Not to slight Elvis’ versions, but when you hear “Always on My Mind,” don’t you think of Willie Nelson? Doesn’t “Fever” make you think of Peggy Lee? Danzig covering Willie Nelson or Peggy Lee is not what this album promises.

I never thought I’d hear Glenn Danzig say, “You give me fever when you kiss me.”

“Baby Let’s Play House” has the only guitar break on the record, “When It Rains It Really Pours” is bluesy and not very Elvis-y, “Pocketful of Rainbows” is unexpectedly pretty, and Danzig shows why so many people have performed “Always on My Mind” and “Fever.” That’s it for the notable tracks.

“Pocketful of Rainbows” has grown on me. But overall, I can’t recommend Danzig Sings Elvis. If Glenn Danzig came to your birthday party and sang this set, you’d be happy. (Or you’d be afraid to say anything.) But if you had paid for this, you wouldn’t be. Though I can only recommend Danzig Sings Elvis to Elvis scholars and the most ardent fans, it did make my respect for Danzig grow. He tried to do something different, not as a parody but from love. That’s not nothing.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jonas Rogowski.

Milt Hinton: Dean of the Jazz Bass

Milt Hinton: Dean of the Jazz Bass

Milt Hinton: Dean of the Jazz Bass

Anne E. Johnson

When Milt Hinton was born in 1910, Mississippi was far from a welcoming place for Black people. Hinton once told a reporter that he saw a lynching when he was a child. His mother, who raised him, moved the family out of poverty and into Chicago in 1919, which by contrast put Hinton in a prime location for opportunity in the world of jazz. Thanks to his determination and his skill on the upright bass, he became one of the greatest masters of that instrument.

His mother and aunts, who all played piano, used to take young Milt to the Vendome Theater in Chicago to hear incredible acts like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Hinton started on violin, then learned bass saxophone and tuba in high school, which gave him a chance to play with Lionel Hampton. His gigging life had begun. When in 1930 he made the fateful choice to learn the double bass, he was on his way to the jazz pantheon.

The first huge break in his career happened in 1936, when Cab Calloway hired him to play bass in his orchestra. Hinton stayed with that band for 15 years, putting him in contact with everyone in the industry. It was the most innovative musicians, like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and multi-instrumentalist and arranger Benny Carter, who inspired him the most.

After Calloway’s big band dissolved in the early 1950s, Hinton supported himself with session work. He was sought after by all the greats, who gave him the nickname The Judge. As his career progressed, he became known as the Dean of the jazz bass. After a long and illustrious career, Milt Hinton died in 2000 at the age of 90.

One of Hinton’s greatest contributions to jazz history was not strictly musical. As an avid photographer, he always brought his camera to rehearsals and gigs. He took tens of thousands of photos of jazz icons in their working environment, creating a valuable archive for posterity.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Milt Hinton.

  1. Track: “Just Plain Blues”
    Album: Just Plain Blues
    Label: Staff Record Co.
    Year: 1949

Just Plain Blues was a 10-inch 78 rpm featuring the “Milt Hinton Orchestra,” one of those monikers that record companies and nightclubs invented to market pick-up ensembles of freelance musicians. This record includes Hinton plus six colleagues.

Among them is pianist Dave Rivera, who composed “Just Plain Blues.” The wonderfully lackadaisical trumpet solo is by Jonah Jones. At around 2:19, Hinton takes a short solo to help the song amble to its conclusion.


  1. Track: “Over the Rainbow”
    Album: Milt Hinton: East Coast Jazz/5
    Label: London Records
    Year: 1955

This album features a Hinton-led quartet with AJ Sciacca on clarinet, Dick Katz on piano, and Osie Johnson on drums. These were top-notch session musicians in the New York scene. The engineer is recording-studio innovator Tom Dowd, who had as much influence in jazz as he did in the rock sphere.

Their version of the Yip Harburg/Harold Arlen classic opens with Hinton meandering into the melody, which he decorates with off-hand figuration, accompanied by a delicate touch from Katz and Johnson. The best moments happen when Katz’s treble notes work in tandem with Hinton’s low register – reaching from one end of the musical rainbow to the other.

“Over the Rainbow”


  1. Track: “Blue Skies”
    Album: Percussion and Bass
    Label: Everest
    Year: 1960

Percussion and Bass is exactly as advertised, an album of duets between Hinton and drummer “Papa” Jo Jones (not to be confused with the younger “Philly” Jo Jones). There are no other players in the studio, so the listening experience can get pretty intense. Basically, you’re witnessing nothing but two fantastic musicians in a room together, jamming.

“Blue Skies” is the popular standard by Irving Berlin, which has been given the jazz treatment countless times. Jones starts out on chimes, of all things, and then Hinton, with the reverb on his mic strong enough to match the chimes’ ring, begins taking apart the melody. The next moment, it turns into a hot Latin adventure riding on a wave of semi-pitched percussion. Hang onto your hat.


  1. Track: “Sophisticated Lady”
    Album: Here Swings the Judge
    Label: Famous Door
    Year: 1964

Several great players join Hinton on the album Here Swings the Judge, including Ben Webster, Frank Webb, and Budd Johnson on saxophone, and Jon Faddis on trumpet. The rich layers of brass sound are a real treat with Hinton’s mellow bass pizzicato.

But the music glows even brighter when not everyone is playing. The subtle and sultry arrangement of “Sophisticated Lady,” one of Duke Ellington’s masterworks, is a duo for Hinton and Webster. Their version captures the essence of this matchless standard.


  1. Track: “Walking Through the Woodyard”
    Album: Bassically with Blue
    Label: Disques Black and Blue
    Year: 1976

Sam Woodyard plays drums and Cliff Smalls is on piano for Bassically with Blue, which Hinton recorded at the Black and Blue Open Air Studio in Nice, France.

Woodyard had spent much of the 1950s and 1960s playing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. “Walking through the Woodyard” was composed by the drummer as part of the sessions for Bassically with Blue although it wasn’t released until the 2003 CD version. Its jumpy, angular melody in the bass sounds like something Ellington would have liked.


  1. Track: “The Judge’s Decision”
    Album: The Judge’s Decision
    Label: Exposure
    Year: 1984

The marketing folks at Exposure Records gave this album a subtitle: Milt Hinton and Another Generation of Swing. The younger musicians were all born in the 1950s or later: Sam Furnace on alto and soprano sax, Kevin Norton on drums, Mike Walters on tenor sax, and Jay D’Amico on piano.

The album opens with the title song, “The Judge’s Decision,” referring to Hinton’s nickname. It’s a pleasing ensemble piece, with some particularly nice turns by D’Amico. Hinton shows the aspect of his playing that got him so much session work: He provides a reliable and responsive foundation for the group.


  1. Track: “King of the Road”
    Album: Hayward and Hinton
    Label: Town Crier
    Year: 1987

It’s good to be reminded that Hinton played many other instruments besides bass. His piano skills were sizeable. Hayward and Hinton is a duo-piano project with Jamaican pianist Lance Hayward, who was 71 at the time. While Hayward made most of his money accompanying R&B stars like Marvin Gaye with his soulful touch at the keyboard, he also had a smooth barrelhouse blues style at the ready, with a touch of boogie-woogie in the left hand.

As with the “Papa” Jo Jones album mentioned above, this is just Hayward and Hinton having at some tunes, raw and wonderful. The two musicians seem to be enjoying their exploration of “King of the Road,” written by country singer Roger Miller, who had a big hit with it in 1965.


  1. Track: “Sometimes I’m Happy”
    Album: Old Man Time
    Label: Chiaroscuro
    Year: 1989

Hinton was winding down his career when he made Old Man Time, a sort of supergroup career retrospective. Top-flight talent like Joe Williams, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Clark Terry, and Dizzy Gillespie came to the studio to get another chance to play with their old friend and colleague.

Here is a delightful rendition of the jazz classic “Sometimes I’m Happy.” Hinton offers up a whimsical solo starting at 2:15.

Shining Stars

Shining Stars

Shining Stars

Anne E. Johnson

When he was a teenager, Tennessee native Maurice White moved to Chicago to live with his mother. He started gigging on the drums in nightclubs, while by day he attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music. Pianist Ramsey Lewis tapped the young man to play in his trio, plus White made some side cash as a session drummer for Chess Records. But he wanted his own band.

He joined with singer Wade Flemons and keyboardist Don Whitehead to form The Salty Peppers, which didn’t go far. But in 1970, when they relocated to LA, added percussionist Yackov Ben Israel and singer Sherry Scott, and changed their name to Earth, Wind & Fire, they were on their way to becoming one of the most successful and longest-lasting groups in popular music history.

Earth, Wind & Fire (1971) was their debut on Warner Bros., with a strong start at the No. 24 spot on the soul chart. Some critics dismissed the record as too derivative of influencers like Sly and the Family Stone and The Fifth Dimension. But others noticed the interesting blend of rock, jazz, and even African music amid the soul tropes.

The original trio of White, Flemons, and Whitehead share writing credit for all the songs. While the album’s single, “Love Is Life,” found only middling success, there are other tracks worth paying attention to. “This World Today” is notable for its funky syncopation. The mighty brass responses are provided by two session musicians. Among the traits that set EWF apart from other soul or R&B groups is the prominence of White’s drumming in the arrangements.


The band put out The Need of Love in the same year, followed in 1972 by Last Days and Time, which marked their debut for Columbia Records. By this point, White was the only original member, with bass now covered by his brother, Verdine White, keyboards by Larry Dunn, and Philip Bailey and Jessica Cleaves joining the brothers on vocals. EWF continued to reach for distinctive sounds, such as Maurice’s ubiquitous electric kalimba.

While Last Days and Time contains mostly songs by Maurice White, one surprising track choice is a cover by Pete Seeger. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” was typical fare for white folk revival acts like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary. EWF makes their harmonized doo-wop-inspired take – in a slow 6/8 meter instead of the usual square 4/4 – sound so natural that you’d think the song was composed that way.


Their star continued to rise through Head to the Sky (1973) and their first No. 1 album, Open Our Eyes (1974). The big single from that latter release was “Mighty Mighty.” The personnel list includes six percussionists (many of whom also double on other instruments), so you can guess the direction their sound had taken. Larry Dunn is still on keyboards and Moog.

White’s composition “Rabbit Seed” is typical of the 30-second instrumentals he consistently sprinkled throughout his albums. It acts as a mood-enhancer, like an entr’acte in an opera.


The growth in EWF’s popularity seemed unstoppable. That’s the Way of the World (1975) went triple platinum and topped the charts for three weeks. Its single “Shining Star” enjoyed a similar trajectory. Spirit (1976) did almost as well, although its recording sessions were disrupted by the death of producer Charles Stepney; White took over production duties and remained the band’s primary producer.

Next up was All ‘n All (1977), source of the hit single “Serpentine Fire” and an album that let the band explore a different angle: Latin music. One Latin-influenced track is White’s wordless song “Brazilian Rhyme,” a seamless blend of smooth soul and bossa nova groove.


Another White brother, Freddie, jumped into the family business, playing drums on I Am (1979) and Faces (1980). The latter, a two-LP set, also welcomed Toto guitarist Steve Lukather as a special guest. It’s a richly produced and eminently danceable album.

Philip Bailey’s energetic falsetto is on display in the disco-infused “Win or Lose” by lyricist Jean Hancock, the sister of jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, and composer Jerry Peters, who often collaborated with Jean’s brother.


The next huge single was “Let’s Groove,” from Raise! (1981), followed by “Fall in Love with Me” off 1983’s Powerlight album. Critics were particularly impressed by Powerlight, praising it’s “universalism” – the way it blends so many different genres into a hybrid meta-genre that welcomes everyone – plus White’s skillful and complex production values.

“Freedom of Choice” is an upbeat dance number that gets into your bloodstream and moves your skeleton, like it or not. Yet the lyrics manage to express a serious message about the flaws in our political system. After the high-pitched main vocals, it was a breathtakingly effective choice to bring in the reedy middle and lower voices at 2:40. This brilliant arrangement keeps getting better every 16 bars.


There were signs that the band’s industry heyday was waning. Neither Electric Universe (1983) nor Heritage (1990) did as well on the charts as the previous several releases. Heritage ended up being the last album EWF made for Columbia Records.

But the inevitable shift in popular taste did not affect the quality of  the band’s output in the least. The baroque-like perpetual rhythm of the synth patterns in the song “Welcome” is a great example of EWF’s ability to combine a spectrum of styles and textures, from the arch to the most mainstream, into a convincing sound world.


After Heritage, the band re-signed with Warner Music. Oddly, the next album was called Millennium, even though it came out in 1993, significantly before the thousand-year mark. Or maybe it was prescient: its apocalyptic cover collage does warn of trouble on the horizon. Still, there are signs of hope in the opening song, “Even If You Wonder,” a bass-driven romantic pitch that’s intriguing for the chromatic melody of its chorus and the frequent key and mode switches right in the middle of lines.


In 1996, White took the plunge and started his own record label, appropriately called Kalimba. The company, which also houses a recording studio, has been used almost exclusively to create EWF albums. One of those is The Promise, from 2003.

Any group that lasts for 50 years has to interact with and learn from the changing world around it. EWF is no exception. The Promise, boasting a massive list of 30 participating musicians, includes a song by a decidedly up-to-the-minute band, The Roots. Besides the richly produced horns, layered voices, and funky guitars and basses, “Suppose You Like Me” also features some sweet, spiraling harmonica solos by Tollak Ollestad.


“Although Earth, Wind & Fire is technically still together (touring without Maurice White, who worked as the band’s producer until his death in 2016), they haven’t put out a new album since Holiday in 2014. But, hey, since we’re hurtling toward the holiday season, what better way to end than with a festive song from EWF? Most of the album is expected fare, like “Little Drummer Boy” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” But there are a couple of unique items, including this number called “Snow,” labeled as “Japanese traditional,” and featuring a troupe of Japanese women singing backup in their native tongue over the standard EWF funky beat.

Tale of the Tapes

Tale of the Tapes

Tale of the Tapes

Ray Chelstowski

When I arrived on campus my freshman year at Marist College I brought with me a wooden box filled with cassette tapes. I still have that wood box and now use it to store keepsakes. But back then it was filled with as many as 100 cassettes. I was afraid to bring any of my records to school. The idea of anyone on the dorm floor popping into my room when I was at class and messing with my collection was a non-starter. So instead I recorded the essential albums and they lived for four years in that container.

My sister had been an executive at NBC Radio’s national rock network, then called “The Source.” She would give me cassettes of special programing that were returned by stations after the shows had aired. I would tape over the punch outs and record over the radio specials. It was always a tricky endeavor. The tape lengths always varied in size because the shows did as well. Some came populated with ads, some didn’t. So there were shows that were only twenty minutes in length, while others were an hour and twenty minutes. This would always make the actual mix tapes I made impossible to copy.

One in particular was called “The Groove Tape.” My roommate Chuck and our friend Jim and I made this ballad-heavy mix and it remained in great demand throughout our time at Marist – mostly by the guys on our floor.  It probably reached the overplay point somewhere it our junior year but we could never copy it exactly because its total run time was like 107 minutes. We really had to handle it with care and insist on the same when sharing it with friends. To this day, we all still talk about the tape and have tried desperately to remember every song that it contained. I know there are at least six or seven we’re still forgetting. Some of the ones I remember are “Wonderful Tonight,” “Racing In The Street,” “Mind Games” and  “I Count The Tears.”

The original "Groove Tape" playlist!

This all went down in the early 1980s  at the very moment CDs arrived on the scene. There were a select few folks who began to return to college from breaks with CD players and a handful of discs between them. But that was rare. Cassettes were still king and because mine were so unique they tended to remain in high demand. I remember operating a service of sorts, lending copies out like library books. There were even a few radio specials from my sister that I decided to hold on to. “Memory Weekend,” with 1960s songs like “Ferry Across The Mersey” and “Poor Side of Town,” was one that was as enjoyable a listen as anything I had in that box. I wish I still had a copy of it. In fact, I wish I still had copies of a lot of the cassettes that carried me through my college experience. Almost all of them were irreplaceable in one way or another.

I met my wife six years after graduation. By then CDs and vinyl had become my platforms of choice. Even my car stereo played CDs by then, so whatever cassettes I had left were boxed up and stored somewhere at my mom’s.

The first time I took a ride in my wife’s car I was really caught off guard. She had a cassette collection that rivaled the one I’d curated in college. But hers were all pre-recorded and in pristine condition. She had gotten on the cassette wagon in college too, but because she spent a lot of time in her car, that became her primary listening environment.

So I got back into the format. I pulled some of my old gems out and started tossing them into her Honda and just like that some things kicked back into gear like they had never left. There was that bend in the tape halfway through “The Price You Pay” on Bruce Springsteen’s The River. There was that dead air that emerged on Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model that I still can’t explain. These were audio oddities that became as central to a song as a drummer’s snare drum snap or cymbal crash. After a few years in that car, the musical “editions” that I became used to were like learned twitches. When I’d hear any of those songs on anything else I’d brace for the bend or the silence.

Courtesy of Pixabay/Bruno/Germany.


The car ultimately was stolen in the parking lot of a hospital in Queens, New York and just like that, the cassette once again fell into a deep slumber for us. We still held onto our collections and every now and then marvel at how they had been such a big part of our youth.

Then about five years ago I was picking up one of my audio components from repair and noticed a mid-1980s Nakamichi RS-202 for sale in the store. It had been entirely refurbished. Most Copper readers would agree that Nakamichi was the preeminent cassette player in the day. They also had mastered a unique carriage system where upon reaching the end of its side, the tape would be thrust outward and spun 180 degrees. Then the entire carriage would pull back and snap into place and play would once again begin. To this day the entire process captivates my attention. That day that deck came home with me and once again, turned my attention to cassettes.

Ray's Nakamichi RS-202 cassette deck.

My wife wasn’t as enthused. She wasn’t so bothered by me having bought the deck. She was more concerned about what would follow. Already my CDs and vinyl records had begun to overtake the house. Was I going to start adding cassettes? How much more room was that going to command? Honestly, all of these were fair questions that I hadn’t really thought through.

In the end, I didn’t have to. By the late 1980s CDs had become so prevalent that most retailers were practically giving their vinyl away. This moment wasn’t like that at all. Streaming services might have driven down CD sales. But they seemed to have fueled those for cassettes. This time around, when I jumped back into the market ready to buy a whole bunch of music I found that the cost of cassettes had skyrocketed. Cassettes had become a true nostalgia item and those copies in excellent condition began to command real money.

Memories are made of these...

Let me give you some perspective as to why the prices have risen so dramatically. For starters, cassettes are scarce. Most people discarded what little they had left a long time ago. And while cassettes are currently the fastest-growing format on Discogs they still are dwarfed by the three big segments – downloads, vinyl and CD – because cassette production is so limited. AC/DC’s upcoming release, Power Up, and Lady Gaga’s Chromatica are among those becoming available or offered on cassette. Same with Everyday Life, the latest from Coldplay. This has propelled cassette sales to their highest level since 2004. But to be fair, these new cassette entries were promotionally-driven and more of a stunt than a commitment to the format. There are also a number of DIY artists (particularly in the hip hop space) who are using cassettes to promote their music because they are cheap and easy to distribute. Even boom boxes with cassette players are bouncing back.

There’s another reason why prices have grown so dramatically. Collectors are paying top dollar for hard to find rarities because it’s highly unlikely the original labels will go back into production to pump out new copies. The amounts these collectors are paying are staggering.  A copy of Iron Maiden’s Fear of the Dark recently sold for $552. Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut sold for $550. Depeche Mode’s De’Pe’che Mode sold for $1,500. The cassette that is purported to have commanded the highest public sale price is The Artist (formerly known as Prince)’s The Versace Experience – Prelude 2 Gold. That went for the tidy sum of $4,117! It’s the same phenomenon as the 1966 Ferrari GTB “long nose” that sold at auction this year for $3.08 million and raised the price of all used Ferraris worldwide; a rising tide lifts all boats. This Prince cassette sale seems to have lifted the prices of all pre-recorded cassettes. Earlier this year I would rarely see any used tape priced under $5.99. Most were priced at $7.99 or higher. Only a few years ago most retailed around $1.99.

I don’t think this trend is going to change and as a minor collector in the segment I’m happy about that. I had never thought about putting a value on my cassette collection before. But with myself (along with many others, I’d imagine) it’s measured somewhere between what the market would pay and what those tapes meant to me in the moment they were first played. The delta between the two at times is fairly wide. I might just have to wait things out and see if my unopened copies of The Mavericks’ What A Crying Shame and Nirvana’s Nevermind reach a price that’s really worth the parting. For now, I’m hitting “pause.”

Wonder what those promo cassettes are worth?

I Was Standing on a Corner in Clifton, Arizona

I Was Standing on a Corner in Clifton, Arizona

I Was Standing on a Corner in Clifton, Arizona

B. Jan Montana

Clifton, Arizona. I like the fact that it's always easy to find a spot to park your motorcycle. What I find disturbing is that there isn't a single audio shop to be found anywhere on the main street or in the rest of town. It's distressing.




Lawrence Schenbeck


For weeks now I’ve been planning a column on the winners of various creative-achievement prizes in music. No problem with material — it’s all there. The only problem is my attitude toward it. What makes a winner? By definition, that’s socially determined. On the other hand, actual human responses to artwork are often profoundly individual, not necessarily “social.” That may be especially true for audiophiles, who tend not to hold the kind of listening parties where you gather a dozen friends and neighbors to hear some remastered Supertramp.

Yet once in a while, even the most rugged individuals check out those Winners lists. After all, smart people of all sorts — experts and fans — come up with them. Other smart people then take note, because there are few better (or faster) ways to expand your Personal Favorites list.

One: The Pulitzer Prize. Most of us associate the Pulitzers with yearly awards in various journalism categories or in “letters,” e.g., fiction, biography, history, etc. The awards were established by a bequest from newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911), so that makes sense. There’s also a music award, given for a “distinguished musical composition [of significant dimension] by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.” (The bracketed words have slipped in and out of the description over the years.)

The Pulitzer for Music was established in 1943, but it didn’t get a lot of attention. Only in the mid-1960s, when board members began to see problems in the way Music Pulitzers were chosen, did they take action. Said action was itself fragmentary, glacial, and open to criticism (read a summary of its fitful progress here). Pulitzer juries struggled (mostly in vain) to define music “of significant dimension,” then identify the year’s most “distinguished” composition. The music award was, as John Corigliano (who finally won it in 2001) complained, a thing passed around “by composers for composers” and “mired in a pool of rotating jurors,” mainly Ivy League faculty and their friends. Donald Martino (who won in 1974) was more blunt:

If you write music long enough, sooner or later, someone is going to take pity on you and give you the damn thing. It is not always the award for the best piece of the year; it has gone to whoever hasn’t gotten it before.

Times have changed. A glance at the last few winners will quickly show just how much. Counting back from 2020, they are:

  • The Central Park Five, an opera by Anthony Davis (b. 1951);
  • p r i s m, an opera by Ellen Reid (b. 1983)
  • DAMN., a “virtuoso song collection” by Kendrick Lamar;
  • Angel’s Bone, an opera by Du Yun (b. 1977); and
  • In for a Penny, In for a Pound, a genre-hopping mix of notated and improvised music by Henry Threadgill (b. 1944).

If we time-travel a little further back, we’ll encounter slightly more familiar names like Julia Wolfe, John Luther Adams, Caroline Shaw, Kevin Puts, Jennifer Higdon, Steve Reich. You’ve probably heard some of their music.

It’s not as easy to hear music from more recent awardees. Yes, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. is omnipresent:


Lamar was the first Pulitzer recipient not associated with either the Euro-American “classical” tradition or with jazz. (Duke Ellington broke Pulitzer boundaries on the latter when the music panel voted to award him a special citation in 1965; the Pulitzer board refused to honor their request, and the award was only given after Ellington’s death.)

You can get a pretty good idea of Ellen Reid’s style and output via the music on her website. By the way, she’s not the Crash Test Dummies’ Ellen Reid but rather a groundbreaking American sound-design artist, fluent in film work, “installations,” and more. Like other recent Pulitzer winners, her p r i s m confronts a controversial contemporary issue, in this case sexual assault. She’s not a single-topic artist, but issues do matter to her: when Reid was a student at Columbia, her main music professor was George Lewis, who collaborated frequently with Anthony Davis on culturally sensitive avant-garde jazz projects; she talks about that and much more here:


I wish it were easier to access Davis’s best work via the internet. I used to play his first opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986) in my music history classes. He’s written several fine theater works since then, including Amistad, Tania, and Wakonda’s Dream, all of which work with stories from American history (Dream centers on a present-day Ponca family in Nebraska). You can find Amistad and a Boston Modern Orchestra Project album of Davis’s orchestral music on Qobuz. Here’s a revealing interview. And here is an excerpt from that BMOP album:



It was fun seeing Henry Threadgill’s name pop up; I started collecting his jazz albums thirty years ago. Surprise, surprise: there’s a ton of Threadgill available on Qobuz, including In for a Penny. It’s definitely worth a listen (the stream is apparently set up to play excerpts only). I wanted to hear more, so I downloaded the album. It’s definitely “of significant dimension,” 79 minutes long and portioned into six movements. Two are introductory — what Threadgill calls “exordia” — and four are “epics,” concertos really, each focusing on one player in his group ZOOID and offering a string of picaresque adventures supported by the entire quintet, including the maestro on alto sax, flute, and bass flute. Here’s a bit of the first exordium:

Reminds me a bit of early-20th-century New Orleans polyphony, with its lively, joyously interlaced counterpoint in the upper voices over the tuba and drums anchoring, punctuating, driving it all forward. ZOOID plays with remarkably tight ensemble work, considering that much of what you hear is improvised. Listen to this excerpt from “Ceroepic,” the percussion concerto:

For a track list and personnel, click here; for the Pulitzer statement, here.

Two: MacArthur “Genius” Grants. One very nice thing about the MacArthurs is that they don’t separate music creators from music performers. (In the old European art-music rulebook, only a few geniuses are allowed to create music; everyone else merely performs it.) The MacArthur folks look for promising people in mid-career and offer them a stipend. Recipients can hit the pause button (if they need to) and go do something really creative. Or they can buy groceries with their money and just keep doing what earned them the grant. Check out the foundation website, which lists the 2020 crop of MacArthur Fellows, including phenomenal jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, still young, still growing, an ideal collaborator, muse, or main attraction. Her 2018 duet album with pianist Sullivan Fortner needs to be in your collection.


Other musicians who’ve won MacArthurs in recent years are guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson, violinist/social activist Vijay Gupta, singer/songwriter Rhiannon Giddens, and Master of Nearly Everything Tyshawn Sorey.

Three: The Grawemeyer Awards. We got the Nobel Prizes because Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite, felt kind of guilty about it. He wanted to do something that might help humanity. I’m not sure whether Louisville industrialist H. Charles Grawemeyer (1912–93) felt guilty about anything; he appears to have been a humble man who led a beneficent life. At the heart of the Awards established in his name lay “his simple conviction that the judgment of lay persons — not academic experts — ought to be decisive in the selection of award winners.” (words from U. of L. President Donald Swain).

You can read more about the history of the Grawemeyers here. Their parade of winners since 1985 includes big names (Lutosławski, Ligeti, Penderecki, Boulez) and relative unknowns (Zivkovic, Bons, Hoeller), conservatives (Corigliano, Tan Dun) and radicals (Andriessen, Saariaho, Norman). Maybe the true wild card in the mix is the lay committee that must weigh in before a decision is made. Is it possible they exercise their instincts in a better way than any number of tenured professors might have done?

Winner of the 2021 Grawemeyer Award has already been announced: Chinese-American composer Lei Liang (b. 1972), whose orchestral piece, A Thousand Mountains, a Million Streams, was cited for its evocation of “the threat posed by climate change and the opportunity it offers for redemption.” Read more about Liang’s music here. Mountains was premiered in 2018 by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project at Boston’s Jordan Hall. A multichannel high-resolution SACD is available.

Fun facts: Liang teaches at UC San Diego, Anthony Davis’s longtime academic roost. He is also research-artist-in-residence at the Qualcomm Institute, UCSD’s chunk of Calit2, the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. That sort of link-up with the tech world has increasingly become the norm for 21st-century composers. Liang’s saxophone concerto Xiaoxiang was a named finalist for the Pulitzer in 2015; it’s also on the BMOP disc. Within it, the composer uses extended wind techniques to evoke a human voice torn between mournful sobbing and defiant silence.

A Thousand Mountains, Liang’s largest orchestral work to date, has been compared to Richard Strauss’s Alpensinfonie for its use of brief, linked movements that (in this case) describe moments in the eco-life of a great wilderness.

The YouTube link below will access Liang’s entire BMOP album for you. It opens with the one-movement saxophone concerto, follows that with the five-movement Five Seasons, and ends with Mountains, tracks 7–21. All are worth hearing; my personal favorite is Xiaoxiang.


I meant to get around to the recently announced Gramophone Awards, but we’ve run out of space, so this link will have to do. Maybe we’ll take it up next time.

Header image: Anthony Davis, courtesy of Eduardo Contreras, San Diego Union-Tribune.

Four Great Albums - One Just Sounds Terrible

Four Great Albums - One Just Sounds Terrible

Four Great Albums - One Just Sounds Terrible

Tom Gibbs

Japandroids – Massey F*cking Hall

Japandroids is an indie/post-punk duo from Vancouver, Canada; the band consists of Brian King on guitars and lead vocals and David Prowse on drums. The band formed in 2006, but found the early going quite tough; both members felt they weren’t achieving any level of commercial or artistic success touring, and three years later were just about ready to call it quits. Even though they’d just completed their debut album, Post-Nothing, for Canadian indie label Unfamiliar Records. But then the album got the attention of American online music publication Pitchfork, who praised the duo and got the record a tremendous amount of exposure in the US and worldwide. Even though they’d essentially broken up, Japandroids were soon signed to Polyvinyl Records in Chicago, and Post-Nothing, which was released in Canada on vinyl only, was soon released on CD. And ended up on multiple best-of lists throughout the indie music world, even cracking the Billboard “Heatseekers” chart at No. 22. The ensuing tour revitalized the band, and they played to adoring audiences worldwide; their last two albums sold extremely well and were also met with tons of critical praise. Pitchfork recently referred to Japandroids as purveyors of “brilliantly braindead rock.” ‘Nuff said!

Japandroid studio albums tend to be very bare-boned affairs, consisting of King’s guitar and vocals and Prowse’s drums and backing vocals; about the only studio trickery that usually occurs is some multitracking of those vocals to give them a bit more oomph on the finished records. King plays strictly Fender Telecasters; he has a ’73 that’s his main axe, but tours with a ’75 Telecaster for backup purposes. He travels with a custom Hiwatt amplifier head, equipped exclusively with Sovtek tubes, and he predominantly uses Marshall stacks (a trio of them) in the studio. Since Japandroids tend to fly into most of their touring gigs, they travel light, and King has found that using a small selection of pedals and whatever amp stacks happen to be on hand at most clubs or can be gotten locally, usually provides more than satisfactory results onstage.


Massey F*cking Hall documents Japandroids’ October 2017 live appearance at the legendary Toronto venue, which has played host to just about every major artist out there, including landmark live albums from fellow Canadians Neil Young and power trio Rush. Japandroids love playing energetic live shows in front of highly engaged crowds, which of course, haven’t been happening during the pandemic. So Massey F*cking Hall is a shout-out to all their fans who’ve been missing the energy of their live shows. The show opens with the anthemic “Near to the Wild Heart of Life,” which – unless you’re a Japandroids junkie – is maybe the greatest rock and roll song no one’s ever heard. It absolutely bristles with energy; the chorus offers the memorable refrain “And it got me all fired up, to go far away, and make some ears ring from the sound of my singing, baby,” and follows with “so I left my home, and all I had…I used to be good, but now I’m bad.” The tune “Arc of Bar” is one of the many highlights of the record; it features an arpeggiated guitar solo sample that’s repeated and really sounds like some sort of keyboard is being played. King’s use of effects pedals throughout the tune adds layers of interest to the solo Telecaster, and gives an overall impression of many more players being present onstage other than just guitarist and drummer. It’s shockingly impressive, and helps to replicate in their live shows the sound that’s accomplished on tape in the studio. King and Prowse both thrive on the added rawness that the concert environment often bestows on their tunes.

No information was available for a CD release; the two-LP set is available in both black and clear vinyl, surprisingly for the same ($32.99 USD) price, and can be ordered from their website and a host of other places. All my listening was done via Qobuz’s 24/96 digital stream; this isn’t an audiophile quality recording, and it definitely won’t qualify as one of the great live recordings of all time, either. That said, the album’s sound is impressively full-bodied, especially when you consider that it’s only King’s massive amp stacks and Prowse’s on-point, staccato drumming filling the cavernous Massey Hall. There’s no bass player, and I couldn’t discern that King was using any pedals to simulate a bass either; regardless, the sound is shockingly dynamic. Others have complained that it’s not a completely accurate representation of a Japandroids live show; the band seemed a bit overwhelmed by the size of the Massey Hall crowd (about 3,000 seats) compared to the typical few hundred rabid fans in a club on any given night. However, their playing was off-the-chain, and the record really got my attention, and had me digging into their back catalog of albums, all of which are outstanding. Japandroids are the real deal — and Massey F*cking Hall is very highly recommended!

Anti-Epitaph Records, 2 LPs (download/streaming [24/96] from Bandcamp, Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)


The Replacements – Pleased To Meet Me (Deluxe Edition)

The Replacements, despite having developed a massive following and fan base over the years, were probably the greatest bunch of screw-ups and misfits to ever occupy the alternative music scene. That was essentially their modus operandi throughout their career, and part of what endeared them so much to their fans, but they never seemed to achieve the level of commercial success that most critics – who regularly lavished them with praise – projected they were on the brink of. That was supposed to all change with their major label debut (on Sire) and fourth studio release, Tim, in September, 1985. Despite being produced by Tommy Ramone and once again being heaped with critical praise, the record didn’t sell particularly well, peaking at only No. 183 on the Billboard charts. The band didn’t help things with their frequent erratic public behavior; they had what would probably be their highest profile televised appearance ever with two songs on the January 16, 1986 Saturday Night Live broadcast. Once again, their unpredictable stage presence (which was probably a lot of their appeal to their core fans) was their undoing; they swore constantly – a huge no-no on live television in the day, and they consequently were banned from appearing on SNL for life. Not long after, guitarist Bob Stinson – whose unstable behavior and drinking had risen to excessive new levels – was either fired, or quit; no one really seems to know what happened. What was supposed to have been the ’Placemats moment of triumph landed them right back in the toilet, and they failed to gain any substantial following from all the additional exposure.

Despite being in somewhat of a state of disarray, Paul Westerberg was intent on delivering the major label album he knew the band was capable of when they convened in Memphis’ Ardent Studios in November, 1986. The band had already laid down demo tracks for most of the songs – which included the contributions of now-departed guitarist Bob Stinson – and any of his work on the album was quickly excised from any of the demo songs that found their way onto the finished record. Alex Chilton, of Big Star fame, was originally slated to produce the new album, but didn’t prove up to the task. Jim Dickinson, who produced the Big Star albums, was brought on board, and the band – which was now essentially a trio – plowed through the studio sessions to produce their fifth album, Pleased To Meet Me, which was released in April, 1987. Paul Westerberg played most of the guitar leads, and producer Jim Dickinson added the Memphis Horns to several tracks and played keyboards. Guitarist Bob “Slim” Dunlap joined the band for the ensuing tour just after the conclusion of the recording sessions.

Please To Meet Me was again met with an overwhelmingly positive critical reception, and the album sold respectably, moving about 300,000 units and ending up at No. 131 on the Billboard charts, although die-hard fans complained of a band sellout with their “new sound.” Which had a less raw edge than the band’s previous trio of records on the Minneapolis Twin Tone label. The record definitely missed the outstanding contributions of guitarist Bob Stinson. Even though he wasn’t the only member of the Replacements to suffer from drug and alcohol abuse, it’s pretty universally acknowledged that at the point of Stinson’s departure, his skills with his instrument were greatly diminished. And the Replacements lost much of their edge.

The Deluxe Edition package features three CDs and an LP; everything here has been remixed by Justin Perkins, who was involved in the remixing of the excellent Dead Man’s Pop multi-disc set last year. The LP contains the studio tracks as they originally appeared in 1987; the three CDs contain the studio tracks, as well as the demos that include Bob Stinson’s guitar work, along with other demos with the band as a trio. And there are additional studio outtakes, as well as single remixes of some of the tracks, and a rough alternate track mix of the album – which was scrapped in favor of the eventual release. More than half of the material here is previously unreleased, so it’s definitely a treasure trove for Replacements fans. Everything is available mix-and-match, but if you buy the whole package, you also get a nice booklet with photos and a new essay about the making of the album, along with a commemorative placemat (true fans will get the whole “placemat” thing!).

The 24/96 Qobuz sound was superb, and didn’t suffer from the excess of compression that seems to plague so many reissues these days. I thought the Bob Stinson demos were revelatory, and sounded particularly great — it really makes one wonder, you know, what if? The finished album is definitely a big departure from the Replacements sound of yore, but Pleased To Meet Me is still essential listening, and the new Deluxe Edition comes very highly recommended.

Rhino/Warner Records, 3 CDs/1 LP (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)


Various Artists – Blue Note Re:imagined

Blue Note has a long history of allowing young lions to liberally sample from their extensive catalog, or even – in the case of 1993’s British jazz-rappers US3’s double-platinum Hand On The Torch – completely reinterpret classic tunes, all in the hopes of exposing new, younger audiences to the glories of their storied catalog of classic jazz. That tradition continued with hip-hop DJ Madlib’s 2003 Shades of Blue, where he remixed classics from the Blue Note catalog – in another attempt to bring the music to a wider audience. And Blue Note was always keen to, rather than simply say, “you have our blessing,” insist on making those excellent efforts Blue Note label releases. So here, in an otherwise dismal 2020, we have Blue Note Re:imagined, which again focuses on reinterpretations of Blue Note classics by a selection of younger British artists. I knew there was a burgeoning London-based jazz scene, but really, with regard to their appreciation for classic jazz – who knew!

The departure here from the previous forays into Blue Note re-conceptions is that most of the presentations here are pretty much straight-ahead jazz re-workings of the classic tunes, rather than transmigrations of them into a format more palatable for a younger audience. While the appeal will definitely still be there for younger fans, Blue Note Re:imagined is targeted at a more mature audience. There’s a fair amount of focus on reinterpretations of works from the likes of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, and Bobby Hutcherson.

The album kicks off with Jorja Smith’s outstanding vocal interpretation of “Rose Rouge” from St. Germain’s 2000 The Tourist album — while not exactly classic Blue Note faire, the quadruple-platinum album sampled heavily from the label’s back catalog, and influenced a generation. There’s a really nice saxophone break that forms the song’s centerpiece, and Jorja Smith brackets it with a nicely soulful vocal turn. Ezra Collective, who’ve won a slew of British jazz awards, offers a more playful approach to Wayne Shorter’s classic “Footprints,” which is in pretty stark contrast to Shorter’s own more pensive versions both solo and as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet. Ezra Collective turns the tune into a more joyful blowing session; it never loses its identity, but definitely takes on a completely new meaning. London’s Alfa Mist, who got his start creating hip-hop grooves from Miles Davis samples, offers a compelling take on Eddie Henderson’s “Galaxy.” There’s a definite groove going on with plenty of subterranean bass that builds to a simmering electric piano vamp that layered with muted trumpets that do a high-flying act; the effect is nothing short of mesmerizing. And Mr. Jukes’ heavily sampled synth-and-keyboard offering of Herbie Hancock’s classic “Maiden Voyage,” while definitely built for a new generation, still captures the essence of the classic.

Blue Note Re:imagined is a really compelling listen, and it sounded great via Qobuz’s 24-bit CD-quality digital stream. And at an 85-minute run time, it’s a very generously proportioned listen as well! This album is magically both new and familiar, and manages to be inventive and also completely entertaining. Right now, I’m listening to Shabaka Hutchings’ remake of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Prints Tie,” and the clarinet that subs for Hutcherson’s vibraphone is absolutely spellbinding. Highly recommended.

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


Khatia Buniatishvili – Labyrinth

Georgian (former Eastern-bloc nation) classical pianist Khatia Buniatishvili is for me something like the classical music version of Diana Krall; she’s an incredibly talented musician, who could easily allow her performances to build her reputation for her. That said, she’s often photographed and marketed in a way that’s much more akin to a fashion model than a serious artist – very much in the same way as Ms. Krall has been over the years. And I do think it’s had a deleterious effect on Krall’s career, and threatens to do the same with Ms. Buniatishvili’s burgeoning career, as well. The funny thing is, when you look at the many publicity stills of Khatia Buniatishvili, they’re about as over-the-top glamorous as possible, but she also has a pretty heavy social media presence. And many of the photographs there are, well, pretty pedestrian-looking. As a friend of mine often says, “the poor thing can’t help the way she looks,” but you’d think her handlers would have a firmer grip on posts to her Instagram account!

Photocourtesy of Khatia Buniatishvili


Labyrinth strikes me totally as a product of the current pandemic. Another solo piano outing – her catalog output thus far has featured an almost steady stream of alternating orchestral recordings, followed by a solo piano work of either large scale (Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition) or another collection like this of miniatures. Which have either been composed for the piano or transcribed, and I can’t fault that approach – it only makes sense in a world of declining interest in classical music in general to try and reach as many people as possible with versions of music they’d probably enjoy hearing. So there’s nothing here that’s particularly groundbreaking, but it’s a generous helping (80 minutes) of the familiar, and perhaps of works that are also familiar, but presented in a very new way.

My biggest complaint here – and purely for the record, I want to state that I own all of her previous albums – is the sound quality of the recording, which I have come to expect as being nothing less than top quality from Sony Classical. The pre-release videos for Labyrinth show this kind of hazy, gauzy depiction of KB inside a maze, and hazy, gauzy sound is definitely what you get here. Her previous albums have offered remarkable audible depictions of her at her piano, with live-in-your-room realism; that’s not exactly the case here. And there’s this kind of hazy electronic buzz that seems present on every track – my guess is some sort of problem in the electronics chain during the recording. And to make things worse, there’s a constant level of hiss that’s just unacceptable for a modern recording of note such as this one. I expected more from Qobuz’s 24/96 digital stream, but I doubt the fault is theirs; it’s probably more due to the lack of adequate studio staffing during the pandemic. YMMV.

Sony Classical, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)