Issue 132



Frank Doris

You can only put so much of an input signal into an amplifier before it won’t deliver any more output. The amplifier starts clipping. If you look at a sine wave on an oscilloscope, instead of having nice rounded peaks at its highest amplitude, the top of the wave literally looks like it’s clipped off. The result: distortion.

My brain acts the same way. We’re all subjected to endless phone calls, e-mails, text messages, commercials, robocalls and other distractions. When I get overloaded with the endless bombardment, my brain starts clipping. It simply won’t accept any more input! The solution – although easier said than done, avoid situations where I know I’ll run out of headroom.

In this issue: Wayne Robins reviews the landmark Bob Dylan – 1970 collection. Ray Chelstowski interviews Jorma Kaukonen. Anne E. Johnson covers the careers of Alicia Keys and Josquin des Prez. Octave Records offers its first jazz release, Gabriel Mervine’s Say Somethin’. Russ Welton contemplates transparency in audio, while Alón Sagee ponders Mount Everest. Adrian Wu takes a deep dive into reel to reel tape. Ken Sander picks up an interesting hitchhiker (his name is Alice). Tom Gibbs covers new music from Mogwai, Tindersticks and The Pretty Reckless.

WL Woodward delves further into the career of John Mayall. Rich Isaacs continues his interview with synthesizer pioneer Dr. Patrick Gleeson and I talk with Andrew Hoffman of Audiophile Archive and Grading Services. Galen Gareis concludes his series on cable design. J.I. Agnew is in the middle of a very big move. Nils Lofgren bounces by John Seetoo and Stuart Marvin celebrates unsung musical hero Nicky Hopkins. Rudy Radelic embraces music streaming. Jay Jay French was there when many live concerts were recorded. Our AV squad encounters a seeker, expensive audio gear, free audio gear and a high-performance driver.

The Seeker

The Seeker

The Seeker

James Whitworth

Put to the Test

Put to the Test

Put to the Test

Peter Xeni

Nils Lofgren – A Retrospective Look at a Musician’s Musician

Nils Lofgren – A Retrospective Look at a Musician’s Musician

Nils Lofgren – A Retrospective Look at a Musician’s Musician

John Seetoo

Once upon a time, I was a young assistant manager at Globus Brothers Studios in New York City. They were the creators of the Globuscope 360, a servo motor scan camera that could capture ultra-wide panoramic shots. The studio specialized in panoramic and stop motion photography, as well as blue screen video. Their cameras have been used by the Smithsonian, the US Department of Justice, the Yale University Art Gallery, and numerous other exhibition venues. Some of the best-known images using the Globuscope 360 are the numerous stop motion action shots of Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton during the 1980s.

As it turns out, one of the more unique projects that I was asked to assist on was for a trampoline photo shoot. The studio manager said it was for “some rock musician guy named Nils Lofgren.” The manager looked at me and said, “You’re close to the same height as him and you’re in pretty good shape. Come in the day before and bring some gym clothes. I want you to be his body double so we can get the lighting and framing all set.”

I was excited. As a fan of Nils since I heard his “authorized bootleg” in the 1970s, I was looking forward to meeting the man himself – a talented singer/songwriter, superb guitarist, and a creative and reliable musical collaborator: no lesser legends than Neil Young, Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen have all concurred on that last point.


A native of Washington, D.C., Nils Lofgren was somewhat of a musical prodigy. Starting at age five on the accordion (which he has still played on occasion in the studio and onstage with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band), he soon took up the guitar and got Jimi Hendrix fever, with the Fender Stratocaster and Uni-Vibe (a pedal simulating a Leslie rotating speaker)-heavy Band of Gypsys-era guitar tone combination becoming a part of his own signature sound.

While still in his teens, Nils formed Grin, a power trio. At age 17, he met Neil Young and they became friends, leading to an invitation from Young to play guitar and piano on the LP that would become After the Gold Rush. Nils was then invited to join Young’s backing band Crazy Horse. He would continue to play with Neil Young intermittently throughout his career, as part of the Tonight’s The Night band in 1974, during the 1982 Trans tour and at other times including presently with Crazy Horse.

Grin released some critically acclaimed, but commercially unsuccessful albums from 1971 to 1974. Their most well-known song, “White Lies,” received some FM radio airplay.


One of the concert highlights from Grin’s shows, which later became a mainstay in Lofgren’s solo performances, was the song “Moon Tears.” A 2004 Grin reunion concert shows that “Moon Tears” is still as potent a hard rock song now as it was 40 years ago. Showmanship is not in short supply at a Nils Lofgren concert as the cross-harmony guitar solos at (3:32) display:




When Grin disbanded in 1974, Nils Lofgren got a solo artist deal with A&M Records, and his self-titled debut got rave reviews from Rolling Stone and NME (New Musical Express). Always the perennial music fan and eschewing the pretensions of rock stardom, Nils’ standout track was a fan’s heartfelt plea to Keith Richards not to go to Toronto, where he was facing drug charges at the time. “Keith Don’t Go” is probably the song most people know Lofgren for (and the live acoustic version has become an audiophile-classic demo track)





Lofgren’s studio records failed to catch on, even as he developed a loyal following through his exciting live shows. A&M released a limited edition “authorized bootleg” Back It Up!! (1975) of Lofgren’s concert set (expanded on the 1977 2-LP Night After Night) that was only distributed initially to radio DJs. It received more airplay on FM radio than his studio recordings.

Though diminutive in stature, Nils was a skilled athlete, being a longtime basketball junkie (his song ”Bullets Fever” was dedicated to the NBA Washington Bullets and was later updated in 2017 to “Wizards Fever” to reflect the team’s current name) and a diehard Washington Redskins (now the Washington Football Team) football fan.




In high school, Lofgren was a competitive gymnast. Trampoline backflips were a regular part of Lofgren shows, something even Bruce Springsteen decided to keep during performances with the E Street Band throughout the 1980s to 2003.




Nils’ prowess on guitar gained the respect of both his peers and his personal heroes, including Washington D.C.-based American Axe virtuoso Roy Buchanan:




Nils Lofgren also befriended the normally curmudgeonly Lou Reed. Lofgren says the two bonded over a passion for NFL football, with D.C. native Lofgren a longtime Washington supporter while Reed was a Dallas Cowboys fan. They wound up writing together, with a few of their collaborations appearing on Lou Reed’s The Bells (1979). “City Lights” is probably the best of the Reed/Lofgren songs from that record:




With his A&M contract reaching its maturity and renewal unlikely, Lofgren teamed up with producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Lou Reed and many others), to record Nils. Despite catchy songs that garnered FM radio play, like “Steal Away.” “No Mercy,” “Shine Silently,” a cover of Randy Newman’s “Baltimore” and even a couple of Reed/Lofgren tunes, Nils only reached  number 54 on Billboard’s US charts. “Steal Away” became the first single.


Lofgren’s subsequent records on new label MCA continued the downward spiral of diminishing commercial success in spite of good songs. Night Fades Away (1981) barely made the Billboard Top 100, squeaking in at 99. Wonderland, (1983) an arguably better album, didn’t even reach the top 200.




In admittedly dire financial straits when his MCA contract expired, Lofgren was looking at the prospect of becoming a rock and roll never-was casualty, but his amiability and stellar musicianship was remembered by the former leader of New Jersey bar band Steel Mill. Both Steel Mill and Grin had previously auditioned for concert promoter Bill Graham and won opening billing slots at Graham’s Fillmore East in the early 1970s.

When Steve Van Zandt left the E Street Band for a solo career with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, Bruce Springsteen remembered Nils Lofgren from the Steel Mill and Grin days, and called up Lofgren to try out with the E Street Band. Nils was soon invited to become a permanent member of the band, which was just about to commence its mammoth 1984 Born in the USA tour.

The phoenix-like rebirth of Nils Lofgren’s career led him to signing with Sony/CBS. His new album was to be titled Flip, and CBS decided to have Lofgren do one of his trademark backflips for the record cover.


After a day of jumping on the trampoline as Nils Lofgren’s body-double to get the proper camera elevation and light rigging coordinated, I was told that Sony wanted someone to shoot video footage of the photo session, so I was assigned to that job.

Nils was very friendly, and eager to get a workout on the trampoline, having been cooped up in the studio for the past week mixing his new album. He had several different-colored guitars and a collection of multicolored outfits, along with an art director and a stylist.

Nils handed me a couple of cassettes and asked me to play them on the sound system to set the mood. They were mixtapes of some then-current favorites with a lot of cuts from The Police.

I set up the video camera and started shooting footage as Nils began doing backflips while the multiple strobe lights went off. The stop-motion camera was tasked to capture Nils’ full backflips throughout their entire arcs, from leap to landing.

After about 15 takes, the art director called for a wardrobe and guitar change for a different color scheme. Nils was barely winded.


Despite sharing Springsteen’s label, Nils Lofgren’s Flip only made it to 150 on the Billboard US charts and in the mid 30s on the UK charts (where 1977’s I Came To Dance and Night After Night had also charted previously).

Lofgren’s UK stature is curiously disproportionate to his underwhelming US success. The late James Honeyman-Scott from The Pretenders and The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, both huge guitar heroes in the UK, have frequently name-checked Nils Lofgren as one of their favorite guitarists and singers.

While Nils Lofgren has continued to release fine solo records when not playing with the E Street Band or Neil Young, major success on his own has continued to elude him. Since his live shows are still a steady draw, a number of his releases have been live concert recordings. Some of the records have been all-acoustic, including a covers collection of Neil Young songs, The Loner – Nils Sings Neil (2008), with his acoustic guitar version of “Like a Hurricane” getting some critical notice.


His 2019 release, Blue With Lou, finally unveiled all of the never-before-revealed additional songs written during his collaboration with Lou Reed back in 1979.




The music video for the song “Pretty Soon” features a tap dancing sequence by Nils, a skill he started to learn following his hip replacement surgery in 2008. The gymnastic stunts had taken their toll, but tap dancing was another physical skill he developed, which would be used again when Neil Young called him up to replace Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on guitar and vocals with Crazy Horse for the new album, Colorado (2020). In addition to guitar, Neil Young convinced Nils to record a tap dancing solo on “Eternity”:




With a new record and 2021 tour scheduled with the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen will once again be on stage with Nils Lofgren on guitar. Unlike Springsteen’s folk rhythms and roots-rock electric solos or Steve Van Zandt’s R&B/garage rock approach, Nils Lofgren’s guitar style is very different. He plays with a thumb pick and fingers, which allows him to execute his calling-card cascading artificial harmonics, a technique more usually associated with jazz guitarist Lenny Breau or country legend Chet Atkins. How do I know this, one might ask?


After what must have been the 50th backflip and fourth wardrobe change, Nils was starting to get tired. I had by then run out of videotape and wandered down to the ground floor to get a better view near the trampoline.

As Nils started another flip, his hand reached out as it looked like he would descend near the edge of the trampoline instead of the middle. He landed awkwardly with a foot between the springs and I caught him, preventing him from hitting the trampoline rail, while my other hand kept his prized 1961 Stratocaster from crashing against the concrete floor.

Nils thanked me and seemed more grateful about saving the guitar than him! I mentioned to him that I also played guitar and he took a break and gave me a one-on-one impromptu lesson on how he plays the harmonics with the thumb pick, including letting me play his Strat. Nils Lofgren: a humble guy and a  true gentleman.

That’s how I know.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Takahiro Kyono, cropped to fit format.

Totally Transparent

Totally Transparent

Totally Transparent

Russ Welton

When it comes to conversation, occasionally we may preface what we say with, “To be honest, I….” This figure of speech seems totally natural to us and endeavours to add validity and trustworthiness to what comes out of our mouth. In fact, we would almost never start a conversation by saying the opposite. “Well, if I was going to lie to you, I would say….” But then, even if we did, it would also serve to underscore that what we were saying was honest and representative of what we wanted to express. You could say we enjoy and benefit from transparency.

It’s what we desire and want in our communication, and it’s what many of us strive to elicit from our listening experience from hi-fi. But just what is transparency anyway and is it even possible to achieve in the purest sense of the word, let alone in audio?

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary has a number of definitions of transparency. One is, “the quality of something, such as glass, that allows you to see through it.” This definition serves well to help an observer understand the reality from a situation as it really is, even if there’s a physical barrier present. You could say that in some sense it would be as if there were no barrier there at all.

Another, perhaps more interesting definition is, “the quality of something such as an excuse or a lie that allows someone to see the truth easily.” Here, the barrier is obvious and because it is so evident, you can see around it or understand the truth of a situation because you factor the lie into your evaluation. Have you ever experienced someone telling you a story which is so exaggerated that you just know the truth has been embellished? However, their storytelling style adds color and holds your attention as a result. We’ve all experienced this, from the presentation of an entertaining ventriloquist’s dummy to the fisherman’s tale of “the one that got away.”

The problem is that it’s not always as easy to get transparency when there are layers of frosting or dirt on the glass or variations on the story being told. The band Extreme produced an album entitled Three Sides to Every Story, highlighting the fact that perspective can be different based on the view of the observer, aside from what’s actually present and what the desired result is of what someone wants to convey.

Like this rainy window, some audio systems aren’t as transparent as we might like them to be. Courtesy of Pexels/Andrew Neel.

What’s the point? These analogies can apply to audio. To get a true transparent representation of the sound we want to hear from our systems is a great challenge, and more often than not, the sound will be designed according to the house style of a given product manufacturer and who their target audience is. This will influence their choice of the components used in their products, whether drivers or tubes or passive components, and ultimately the sound or voicing that they want you to hear.

And that’s OK. After all, it’s their product, and their story being told their way.

“Voicing,” (to adjust for producing the proper musical sounds, according to one dictionary definition), is significant. For example, some manufacturers will specifically tailor the band of frequencies in their power amps where the human voice and vocal range sits, to be boosted or made slightly warmer. Why? It’s done to appeal. The vocals in a recording are usually the first point of reference for many listeners, particularly as this is where so many human emotions are conjured and conveyed. And if a component is emotionally engaging, then the relative importance of transparency in the overall reproduction of the mix may even be considered of less significance. When you listen to such a system, you may conclude that it sounds good, because the emotion of the piece has reached out and touched you and so the goal of the designer has been achieved.

So, this raises the question: do we even want transparency anyway? Should the head (perfectly clear audio reproduction) rule the heart (imperfect but engaging sound)? We are talking about music here…

For me at least, in many ways it’s a matter of balance, and importantly, being able to make an honest and informed comparative assessment of an audio component, preferably over a period of time. So how can you strike a good balance? If possible, listen to lots of equipment and take advantage of the knowledge of trusted sources of professional advice.

The famous Irish rock band U2 penned a song, “Get Out of Your Own Way,” which serves to identify a healthy ethos for preamp and power amp designers when it comes to transparency in audio gear. One the one hand, you don’t want the product to be so much of a barrier to the integrity of what is genuinely there on the recording that its performance suffers, but neither do you want a component that’s extremely revealing of sonic detail but is so clinical that the sound lacks any personality.

The original Quad electrostatic loudspeaker, a benchmark of transparency to this day.

Experienced audiophiles know that value of direct comparison between products can be invaluable, not of least of all because such comparisons can reduce the biases we may have adopted through our fickle sonic memories and from previous personal preferences. It also makes it easier to make comparisons between a component that’s lacking in transparency and another product is where the differences in definition and clarity can more easily be heard.

Many times, the choice between transparency and other important factors, such as a good tonal balance, can be a trade-off, and of course budget is always a consideration. But sometimes, the process of comparison will enable a superior piece of equipment’s character traits to simply leap off the page. Let’s use this analogy: a diamond can be suitably impressive. But when it’s placed alongside another, more cleanly-cut diamond with better clarity and fewer inclusions, you can see the difference. The better diamond reflects more light – it shines more. It has better quality and is more transparent. Sometimes you can have it all. (And, no – I don’t own any diamonds.)

Is the initial diamond any less impressive? I guess that relates to the emotions linked to who is wearing it.


Here’s a look at transparency and voicing from a different musical aspect.

This became a tradition among some flamenco guitar players upon receiving a new guitar. A new instrument may sound subdued and muted, dry and stifled. It may have limited reverberation and sustain, along with a lack of presence and projection from the soundboard. In order to help break in the guitar and encourage the instrument to develop its voice, the practice is to place a small battery-powered transistor radio inside the instrument and have the radio play flamenco music for hours on end. Over time, the guitar would open up and become more sympathetically resonant with similar frequencies to those of what it had been subjected to from the radio. The vibrations would align the wood structure of the guitar, which would then more readily reproduce the body and character not just of a flamenco guitar, but of one that had been played for many more hours than had physically been invested by the owner.

Andrés Segovia breaking in a guitar the old-fashioned way in 1962.

If the guitar had not been broken in sufficiently, the owner could tell simply by playing it and could feel if the instrument was fully speaking to them as it should. Was it sustaining and had the bass frequencies become fat and round? Was there harmonic detail in the trebles and single notes? If not, the owner would place the radio back inside to continue tailoring the guitar’s tonal personality until it had become fully developed. This process helped to speed up the maturation of the instrument. Are you sceptical? Then check out this Guitar World review of the ToneRite play-in device for acoustic guitars.


If you can know how you are shaping your sound as you build your system, and what “voicings” you’re seeking and how they’ve been applied to an audio component, you can be more confident in the refinements you make along the way. And the more transparent or neutral your foundations are, the more easily you can hear the subsequent changes are that you make to your personal system.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay/StockSnap.

Josquin des Prez – A New Approach to Musical Expressiveness

Josquin des Prez – A New Approach to Musical Expressiveness

Josquin des Prez – A New Approach to Musical Expressiveness

Anne E. Johnson

Music history often points to particularly innovative and influential composers as bridges from one stylistic era to another. There’s Beethoven, breaking through his elegant and rule-bound classical training to practically invent Romanticism in music. And Wagner can reasonably be considered one of the first modern composers, even though his technique had a strong Romantic foundation. Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521) is a bridge from the late Middle Ages into the Renaissance. While his name might not be a household word, his importance is hard to overstate.

Much about Josquin’s life and career remains a mystery. A native of the Duchy of Burgundy, he was born in either modern-day Belgium or France. He probably studied composition with the great Johannes Ockeghem, whom I previously wrote about for Copper in Issue 124. As an employee of the Duke of Anjou, he would likely have worked at Aix-en-Provence and Paris; it is known that he spent some prolific years in Ferrara, but which years those were is under debate.

What matters most is that Josquin invented a new approach to expressiveness in music, taking the polyphonic power of choral music developed by the likes of Guillaume DuFay and Ockeghem and adding to it the use of chromatic notes and rhythmic devices to reflect the emotional meaning of the words he was setting. Claudio Monteverdi tends to get the credit for opening music’s emotional floodgate in the early 17th century, but Josquin arguably pried that gate open 100 years earlier.

A number of recent recordings explore Josquin’s sacred and secular music, most prominently a two-disc set by the Tallis Scholars under the direction of their founder, Peter Phillips, on the group’s own label, Gimell. Except for a few tracks, these are not new recordings, but reissues for Hyperion dating back to the late 1980s. But that’s no reason to dismiss them; these classic interpretations of Josquin have never been bested.

The series’ most recent disc contains three Masses. Among Josquin’s many distinctive gifts was his love of embedding puzzles in his scores, which have become fodder for generations of scholarly fun. The Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae contains a soggetto cavato (literally “carved-out subject”), a musical motive spelled with solfège syllables. Without burdening you with too many details, this is not quite the “Do, a deer” solfège used today for major and minor keys, but a medieval system based on interlocking patterns of six notes. The musical subject in this case represents the Latinized name of Josquin’s patron, Ercole d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. The puzzle was an intellectual challenge for Josquin’s amusement; it doesn’t affect the sacred text of the Mass.

The Tallis Scholars’ elegant, carefully crafted performance of the final movement, the Agnus Dei, demonstrates clearly why this ensemble has represented the standard in early-music choral interpretations for decades.


Also on this disc is the Missa D’ung aultre amer, one of hundreds of 15th- and 16th-century Masses that combine liturgical words with music from a secular source. This one is a tribute to Josquin’s teacher, Ockeghem, using the latter’s secular song, “D’ung aultre amer” (“Of Another Love), as musical material to be passed around from voice to voice in imitative counterpoint. This was a common practice at the time. What’s unusual about this Mass is the Benedictus section of the Sanctus movement. Instead of continuing with the borrowed material, Josquin suddenly quotes extensively from his own polyphonic motet, Tu solus qui facis mirabilia (“You alone who do wonders”).

The Tallis Scholars helpfully included the motet itself:


Another fine vocal group, Stile Antico, recently released Josquin des Prez: The Golden Renaissance on Decca to mark the 500th anniversary of Josquin’s death. Among the record’s offerings is the famed Missa Pange lingua, in which Josquin takes a Gregorian chant, “Pange lingua gloriosi” (“Sing, tongue, the glory”), and uses it as imitative material in all the mass movements.

The leaderless London-based Stile Antico numbers among the top early-music groups formed in the past 20 years. Their intonation, phrasing, and balance of parts brings clarity to Josquin’s complex counterpoint, as you can hear in the Kyrie.


Another treat on this album is the first-ever recording of Josquin’s song “Vivrai je tousjours” (“Must I Always Live”). It’s a wonderful example of the extreme expressivity of Josquin’s music. As a promotional video by Stile Antico puts it, the setting is a banquet of emotions: “sometimes angry or exasperated, sometimes pleading or conciliatory, or sometimes simply wallowing in sheer melancholy.” The performance captures all those details.


While Josquin’s vocal polyphony is endlessly spectacular, it’s important to remember that his music also existed on a secondary track during his lifetime, in arrangements for instruments. The 16th century was the final period when instrumental music had not quite come into its own. (The Baroque period changed that forever.) Much of the music played on instruments in the Renaissance and earlier was based on vocal music, and Josquin’s multi-voiced songs were favored among players of lute and guitar (and the related gittern and vihuela).

Some of those contemporaneous arrangements still exist. On Josquin & Antonello, his new solo lute album for the Concerto label, Michele Cinquina has collected arrangements by many lutenists and guitarists of the time. Marco dal’Aquilo’s (c. 1480-c. 1538) rendition of the love song “Chuor languor” demonstrates the complexity of Josquin’s vocal architecture, captured clearly if a bit too methodically on Cinquina’s fingerboard.


This record also includes rarely heard instrumental versions of Josquin’s sacred music. The motet “Circumdederunt me” was rendered for lute by Simon Gintzler (c. 1490-1550). Cinquina’s performance groups the notes of each phrase in such an idiomatically lute-like way that it’s hard to believe this was once meant to be performed by a church choir.


Only a small percentage of 16th-century instrumental arrangements of Josquin have survived, partly because many were probably improvised rather than written down, and partly because the arrangers weren’t deemed important enough for their manuscripts to be preserved. Therefore, some current performers have taken it upon themselves to make their own arrangements. For Josquin des Prez: Inviolata, on the Inventa Records label, Jacob Heringman plays his own settings for lute and vihuela.

This is the second Josquin album by the American-born, England-based lutenist. The previous one was 20 years ago. Inviolata focuses on Josquin’s sacred music, where there is a particular dearth of arrangements. Among the works Heringman tackles is one of the composer’s greatest hits even today, appearing in countless college music history texts, the magnificent motet Ave Maria, virgo serena (Hail, Mary, Serene Virgin). Heringman’s playing is expressive and pliant, and his arrangements not overly complicated, allowing the essential beauty of the Josquin sound to ring clear.


Don’t Fear the Streamer

Don’t Fear the Streamer

Don’t Fear the Streamer

Rudy Radelic

We live in good times. As I sit here in front of my system this evening, I appreciate what decades of progress have brought us. I discovered an artist on Qobuz and streamed an album over my system this evening. I also have a couple of favorite CDs queued up – CDs that I have ripped to a server and can play back through my network. And vinyl? Some evenings, sure, I’m happy to spin my records, especially since many were never (and will never be) released digitally; some I have recorded to digital so I can play them at any time, anywhere I happen to be.

I’ve been a music listener my entire life, and my tastes have evolved along with the physical formats available. I was playing records and a handful of pre-recorded cassettes back in the 1970s. I saw CDs emerge as a predominant format, starting in the early 1980s. I’ve watched other formats come and go, dabbled in a few myself, and stuck with what I knew best – LPs and CDs.

I first started on a digital renaissance back in the 2000s, as I was ripping a handful of CDs to use on early MP3 players. I also envisioned that the next major format for music after CDs would have no moving parts, perhaps playing music from a copy-protected memory chip (like an SD card). I never imagined, though, that the latest format wouldn’t even be physical – we now download music as digital files.

Listening options that weren’t possible decades ago are available now. Storage is cheap, so we can store many music files on a hard drive or server. We now have enough bandwidth coming into our homes to stream hi-res music and a few 4K video streams simultaneously. The time became ripe for music streaming when these technologies (and their affordability) converged.

Cambridge Audio CXN V2 network player.

Level Up!

Streaming is embraced by the masses these days. For many, it is their primary if not their sole source of listening to music. But my focus here is not the mass market – mine is on the discerning music collector who may own music in a few different formats, whether vinyl, CD, tape or whatever else they’ve collected over the years.

I had considered trying streaming for years, but never could get past the poor sound quality.  Today, some services offer lossless music. I was glad, after trying (and disliking) the others, to see Qobuz finally make an entrance into the US market, with lossless streaming at CD resolution and in true high-resolution.

Streaming has enhanced my listening experience by having so much music available. I am a music buyer and will download a title I like, or I will find it on vinyl. I have a few different ways in which I discover new (to me) music, and streaming has changed that for the better.

Rewind to the mid-1980s when CDs were gaining in popularity. I would buy at least one CD per week and often two, as there were new releases and reissues that interested me. My trips to Sam’s Jams every Friday evening were a routine I still miss to this day, hanging out with fellow music lovers, listening to new releases on their system (the store was cool enough to have an old tubed Dynaco system powering the speakers in their jazz room).

What I every so often found was that the new releases which caught my ear at the store ended up being duds. Maybe only one or two tunes appealed to me. Or the album or artist never engaged me. At any rate, they’d be stored away on the CD rack, skimmed over every time I looked for something to play. (The same happened with LPs as well, long before the CD era.)

With streaming, I can avoid the duds. I can play an album as many times as I want, to see if it grows on me or if I find I don’t care for it. If I read a good review of an album, or get a recommendation from a friend, I can go home and give the music a play on my own time to see if I can live with (or without) it.

I also get in moods where I explore a wide swath of music. For the past few months, I have been exploring the CTi Records catalog. Streaming has been a perfect way to sample a broad range of these albums, and I have added several to my collection because of this. Last winter, I was getting deeper into the many orchestral recordings that Bernard Haitink conducted throughout his career and found many recordings available to experience his work.

There are two additional ways I find streaming useful. First, if visiting an audio show, audio dealer, or a friend’s house, having access to music I am familiar with is invaluable for auditioning components and systems. I no longer need to tote a stack of records or CDs with me, or hope that they have it on hand.

Travel is another way I use streaming. I used to fill up a CD carrier or two on a trip, and most of the time didn’t like most of what I chose to bring with me once I was out on the road. Granted, I use both an SD card and USB memory stick in the car these days (about 650 GB of lossless music, some in hi-res), but when I settle down at the hotel or condo, I have access to much of the music I already own. My CDs stay safely at home now.

Debunking Common Arguments Against Streaming

With streaming so readily available now, why are some music listeners so opposed to it? I’ve come across a few arguments. Some are myths or misunderstandings. Others are (let’s be honest here) stubborn adherence to the past and a refusal to embrace the future. Below are a few common arguments I see regularly about streaming in general.

I don’t want to listen to lossy MP3s over streaming!

If you subscribe to the mass market streaming services, you will get lossy files. Spotify, Amazon and Apple Music are all lossy with their mainstream offerings; Amazon does have an HD version of their service, but their streaming service will only play back on proprietary software with little hardware support, certainly nothing that many audiophiles can integrate easily into their systems.

McIntosh MB50 streaming audio player.

Today, there are services like Deezer, Tidal and Qobuz which offer lossless CD-quality or better streaming. Qobuz goes one better and offers pure and genuine hi-res streaming up to 24-bit/192 kHz. On top of that, you can often integrate some of these services into equipment that many Copper readers already have access to. Anyone using Roon, for instance, can integrate Qobuz and Tidal streaming into their own personal library.

Streaming costs too much! I’m not spending $15 per month on a subscription service!

Based on what I wrote earlier, this argument falls flat. How many times have you purchased an album, with good intentions, that was a dud? I have boxes downstairs with a few hundred good intentions. I don’t miss the albums, but I do miss the money I spent buying them. Streaming would have avoided this, by allowing me to preview the recordings beforehand.

Even in a broader sense, consider your personal budget. $15 is the cost of lunch out a couple of times per month, or a few fancy coffees from the barista on the corner. We spend hundreds on tweaks that do little or nothing, but can’t part with $15 per month for the music to feed the system? It’s a weak argument.

Aurender A100 music server.

Streaming is for kids who use phones and earbuds to listen to music, not audiophiles!

We won’t get into the methods for streaming music here, but there are multiple ways to play back your lossless streaming music through your system. Sure, maybe the younger set uses earbuds to listen with their smartphones. But that thinking is a decade out of date now. There are dozens of components available now that can stream music into our systems in full, lossless quality.

Streaming services have nothing I listen to!

Do streaming services have everything, especially in hi-res? No. They can’t. Each streaming service negotiates with labels and distributors to get licensing deals to provide customers with the music. Despite Qobuz being the newcomer, their licensing has broadened over the past couple of years, and there is rarely something I can’t find on Qobuz that others might have. Each service may have a handful of releases that are unique to them but for the most part, the bulk of what is available on one service is available on all of them.

I’ll never play music I can’t hold in my hand!

This is the one argument that makes me shake my head at the stubbornness of collectors. Nobody is taking away your records. Nobody is telling you that you can’t listen to your CDs anymore. Nobody is preventing you from buying new music in any format you see fit.

Audioengine B-Fi multiroom music streamer.

Streaming is how you can listen to that brand new release on release day, without complaining daily that Amazon hasn’t delivered it yet. Streaming is the way you can listen to that latest release or reissue everyone else is raving about to see if you’d like to own it, or decide for yourself that it’s overrated or not to your taste. Streaming is also convenient for those wondering if certain versions of songs (different mixes, takes or performances; mono vs. stereo versions; different masterings, etc.) appear on certain recordings, without having to buy an entire CD of redundant music you may already own.

Streaming services don’t pay the artists!

That is a valid argument – we all know that today’s model of music consumption and compensation is in a sad state. Try to think of it this way: even for all that music you sample once or twice, those plays generate a (very) small amount of income for the artist and composer. Given all the ways we can access “free” music, at least it’s something. And even there, we should be supporting our favorite artists by attending their gigs (when those come back) and buying their new releases and merchandise (preferably from their own online stores, where they make an extra profit).

Choosing from Phantom Fears or Enjoying the Music

The short version? You have nothing to lose by trying streaming. Most streaming services have free trials. You can also find ways to temporarily try streaming through your main system. (For instance, if your DAC has a USB input, you can often attach your computer, tablet or smartphone to the DAC and stream music from an application the streaming provider offers for your device.) Don’t just sign up for the trial and then forget about it. Use it. Daily. Try searching for music you’re curious about. Read recommendations and reviews on Qobuz (which creates its own editorial content).  Go on a “music bender” and explore a lot more music that you may never have been aware of.  Take a chance and look outside your tunnel vision!

Streaming, for me, isn’t about the technology or the concept of it. It’s about expanding my enjoyment of music – something that streaming has done to enhance my musical experience in this all-too-short lifetime.


Alicia Keys – She’s Ready

Alicia Keys – She’s Ready

Alicia Keys – She’s Ready

Anne E. Johnson

From grooving on Chopin and Satie at the piano and listening to her mom’s jazz records as a girl to selling 12 million copies of her first pop single when she was 20, Alicia Keys clearly loves and understands a huge range of music. The New York native’s combined heritage of Sicilian, Scots-Irish, and African American also lets her represent a wide swath of humanity through her art.

Columbia Records saw that potential when they signed her in 1996 at age 15. But that record deal was not the dream-come-true she’d hoped for. Keys was unhappy with the label’s attempts to wrest creative control from her. They pushed her to co-write songs with in-house composers, whom she felt didn’t listen to her instincts. So she took control: she bought some recording equipment and kept her eye peeled for a way to escape her contract. In 1998 she met Clive Davis, then the president of Arista Records, and he was thrilled to buy out her contract and give her the artistic power she craved.

When Davis was fired from Arista in 2000, he took Keys with him to his new label, J Records. Her debut album, Songs in A Minor (2001) stunned critics and the music industry alike, quickly climbing to the top of the charts. Thanks to Davis’ marketing ingenuity, Keys had already contributed songs to some successful films – Dr. Doolittle 2 and Shaft – so her name was out there, and her audience primed. The single “Fallin’” also led the charts and was one of the year’s best-selling songs. Then the trophies started pouring in: five Grammy Awards, an NAACP Image Award, and a World Music Award. Davis had made a wise investment.

The fact that the opening track of Songs in A Minor is a hip-hop version of LvB’s Moonlight Sonata says everything you need to know about the many facets of Alicia Keys. The album draws on jazz harmonies, R&B rhythms, classical technique, and gospel passion. The only song that’s actually in the key of A minor is “Jane Doe,” co-written by Keys and Kandi Burruss, best known as a member of the all-female R&B group Xscape. Burruss also sings on the track.


With help from Kerry Brothers, Jr. and Kanye West, Keys produced her next album, The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003), which also raced to No. 1 and won three Grammys. This album is a kind of music-history lesson, with influences from past decades of American – particularly African American – popular styles. You can hear some old R&B tropes in the instrumentation, melody shape, and rhythm of “Dragon Days.”


It was another four years before the release of As I Am (2007), another No. 1 smash. Its biggest single was the Grammy-winning “No One.”

For “Tell You Something (Nana’s Reprise)” from that album, Keys worked with rapper/songwriter Novel, who has quite the musical pedigree: his father is Motown songwriter/producer Mickey Stevenson, and his grandfather was Solomon Burke, one of the founding fathers of soul. It’s a gentle song, full of longing, reminiscent of 1980s Whitney Houston.


The Element of Freedom came out in 2009, produced for J Records by Keys, again with help from the Kerry Brothers, assisted this time by Jerry Bhasker, who had made several albums with Kanye West. In an interview with The Times of London, she said she was listening to a lot of British music of the late 1970s and 1980s when she wrote the songs, bands like The Police, Fleetwood Mac, and Tears for Fears.

Half of the album’s tracks were released as singles, but among those that weren’t is “Like the Sea,” a complex amalgam of classical piano and rap that uses polymeters to surprise the ear.


J Records was shut down in 2011, and its artists shifted over to RCA. Girl on Fire (2012) is Keys’ first RCA release. As proof that Keys and her audience were growing up, the album and its songs were categorized as adult contemporary. Despite that, or more likely because of it, the record was a huge success on the charts, and it won the Grammy for best R&B album.

One of the album-only tracks is “When It’s All Over,” a gritty, freeing post-relationship song centered on jazz harmonies at the piano, with a lot of interesting layers of sound from a Moog synthesizer, also played by Keys. The song ends with the speaking voice of her son, Egypt, a toddler at the time, child of Keys and her husband, hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz.


Here (2016) was generally loved by the critics, and it proved an effective platform for Keys to express the perspectives of Black people in America. She shifts point of view from song to song.

For example, in “Illusion of Bliss,” she reveals whose shoes she has stepped into with the last line of her first verse: “I’m a 29-year-old addict.” It’s a song filled with empathy; Keys works hard in her lyrics to imagine what it’s like for someone who doesn’t believe she’s strong enough to crawl out of the hole she’s in, since that hole is the only thing protecting her from feeling life’s real pain.


Although Keys’ output of completed albums has not been especially fast, she seems to be writing constantly. Sometimes she releases singles not attached to albums, such as “Raise a Man,” from 2019. Drawing from the harmonies of gospel, soul, and spirituals, she uses a conversational rhythm in her language as a vehicle for this candid romantic lyric that develops into social commentary about a mother’s responsibility toward a son.


The most recent album, Alicia, was scheduled for release in March 2020 after two years of studio work. But, like many performing artists, her rollout was obliterated by the COVID pandemic. RCA kept putting off the release, teasing with a string of singles. Finally the album appeared in total in September, making an initial splash and then disappearing from the charts.

The content has deep social and political undertones, timely for late 2020. “Truth Without Love” takes on the inequality of “truth” in a society that applies different definitions of the word to different segments of the population.


Keys’ distinctive style here, which might be termed lyrical rap, takes full advantage of rhythm, harmony, melody, and poetry to lay down a powerful message. In fact, that’s not a bad way to describe all of her music.

Header image of Alicia Keys at the 2008 Summer Sonic Festival courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/DiverseMentality, cropped to fit format.

Getting High

Getting High

Getting High

Alón Sagee

I have come to believe that the solo traveler exploring this planet, unburdened by the constraints, sensibilities or itineraries of others, is able to attract a certain serendipity as a travel companion. This tireless and generous partner moves with us quietly, spending its time creating opportunities and interactions for its host marked by strange coincidences and awe-inspiring moments of beauty – if, of course, we follow its subtle cues.

For many, solo sojourns are often embarked upon between relationships, career changes and graduations. Somehow, traveling alone allows one to swat away old mental cobwebs and make clear the next step to be taken. It’s like therapy, only much more fun.

I rarely visit tourist attractions when I’m out in the world, preferring to get acquainted with each country’s native peoples armed with only a trusty phrasebook. Every even comical attempt to communicate in the local language goes a long way. This practice has proven to create a bridge of smiles and genuine interaction with local residents.

I do my best to keep myself away from tourist herds and their native harassers. In your travels, if you’ve ever been set upon by aggressive touts and vendors who consider western travelers to be walking ATMs, you know.

Choosing the road less touristed has proven infinitely more satisfying and inspiring, guiding me in the exploration of over 30 countries to date.

One of my favorite destinations is Nepal, especially the Himalayas, where Sagarmatha, the Goddess Queen of the Universe, watches over her domain and metes out fierce justice from her high perch. Her mountain abode is better known to westerners as Mount Everest, upon which I spent three weeks in 1990. It was a magnificent, terrifying experience, surpassing even my lofty (sorry) expectations.

I had musings of climbing to her 29,000-foot summit. Really. But only until I found out that an unsponsored vagabond like myself would need to cough up $65,000 for Sherpa guides, porters, pack yaks, food, water, shelter, medicine and enough oxygen tanks for the whole crew, just in case we wanted to breathe up there.

The multinational expedition I did join was a bargain in comparison. Its destination was a peak called Kala Patthar, which, at just under 20,000 feet, would obviate the need for oxygen, as well as the discomfort of walking past the frozen bodies lying along the snowy route to the top, forever resplendent in their bright and expensive gear.

On this expedition were a few Aussies, a Kiwi medical doctor, three young upper-crust British women (who seemed comically out-of-place), a Dutchman and myself, representing North America. Nine of us altogether…a motley assortment of foible-rich travelers, some of whom (OK, it was the mostly the British women) bewildered us with their bickering and complaining, invariably missing the majestic beauty that was all around them. The upcoming weeks were going to be difficult physically, mentally and emotionally – did they not know this? In their defense, apparently, putting on make-up at high altitude helps to stem the apprehension…who knew?

However, when the make-up came out, the Aussies just lost it – immediately taking it upon themselves to rattle the clique with a hilarious and relentless salvo of good-natured ribbing. Branding them as “Whinging Pommes,” which is a smirk-inspiring, playfully derogatory moniker the Aussies used to describe our British climbing companions.

My backpack sported a small, understated Canadian flag patch since I had been living in Toronto at the time. Generally, Canadians are known as being so nice, polite and courteous that ribbing them would be just…wrong. When I shared that I was actually an American, living and working in Canada, I immediately received a fusillade of bad jokes about all things imperfect and intrinsic to the American traveling abroad.

Mount Everest as seen from Kala Patthar, Nepal. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Pavel Novak.


Our weather-worn twin prop 12-person plane took off from Katmandu without fanfare, heading to the trek’s starting point, the mountain town of Lukla. At 10,000 feet, its airport is infamous for being the most dangerous in the world.

Flying in a relatively light, older and slow two-prop aircraft between massive and usually foggy mountains, one should expect some turbulence – threading as we were between and far below these magnificent peaks. I had known that big mountains create wind shear and turbulence in abundance, but to say this was a bumpy ride doesn’t quite do it justice. The British women were crying and at times let out blood-curdling screams that punctuated each violent tilt and wobble that threatened to throw us out of our seats. It was terrifying, but since I was sitting right behind the pilot, my resolve was strengthened by his calm control.

As we flopped our way through these enormous valleys, the mist finally opened into a clear window that allowed us to see Lukla’s airport for the first time. I couldn’t take in a breath. The British women went pale looking through the cockpit window as we approached the shortest landing strip I’ve ever seen, carved precariously into the mountainside with a few buildings flanking it and well, a mountain at its end. A short runway was bad enough, but nothing had prepared me for what occurred next.

A few hundred meters from the runway, the pilot pointed the nose of the plane down (!) and it looked like we were heading for an unscheduled visit to the side of a mountain. With white knuckles grasping my seat cushion I held on to the vision of the calm and steady hands of the pilot just a few feet in front of me. He probably has a family, I thought…probably not a suicidal psychopath at all. I did wonder if he was playing with us so he would have stories to laugh about with his drinking buddies…

Just when it looked like a point of no-return was at hand, he pulled up hard and aimed us at what was most uniquely frightening about this airport – the short runway was uphill! We had to approach the strip from below at just the right angle and then land wheels-down onto a slope rising in front of us, and stop before the rocky monolith at its end.

All of us were covered in nervous sweat and gratitude as our feet found the solid, unmoving grassy ground of the Himalayas.

A yak at Third Lake in Gokyo, Napal. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Mahatma4711.

Header image: Mount Everest as viewed from Kala Patthar. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Markrosenrosen.

Open Reel Tape – The Ultimate Analog Source?

Open Reel Tape – The Ultimate Analog Source?

Open Reel Tape – The Ultimate Analog Source?

Adrian Wu

With the advances in digital audio technology of recent years, is there still a role for analog audio?  In my previous article (in Issue 131), I argued that many recordings made during the early decades of stereo still rank as some of the best recordings ever made, from both a technical and an artistic point of view. Many of these recordings have been digitally remastered since the early 1980s.  However, early Red Book CD recordings are inadequate as a high-quality music source. The more recent remasters in high-definition digital formats have improved tremendously, and can be even better than LPs due to the avoidance of compression and other artifacts specific to LPs. That said, even with high-definition digital formats, some people can still detect certain characteristics of digital sound that they find objectionable. Many new releases of old analog materials have also been remastered in such a way so as to accommodate how most music lovers today listen to music, which is through earphones, computer speakers and car stereo. The original analog master tapes should therefore come closest to the original intent of the artists, without whose permission the recordings would not have been released.

Talking about permission, there are certain recordings that were released over the objection of the artists or after their death. I once attended an autograph session after a piano recital by Krystian Zimerman. When I handed him an LP of Brahms Piano Sonatas, he asked me if I could sell it to him. Rather surprised, I asked him if this was a rare LP that even he did not own, and he explained that he had objected to the release of the recording but he was overruled by Deutsche Grammophon, his record company (it was early on in his career). He therefore tried to buy them all back and have them destroyed! I then asked him if he would autograph my copy, and he reluctantly put a tiny autograph on the corner of the jacket (see photo). When my wife handed him another recording, a CD, he put a large signature right across the cover!

Can you see Zimerman’s autograph on the left lower corner?

Another example is the celebrated recording of Clifford Curzon and Benjamin Britten playing Mozart Piano Concertos no. 20 and 27. Sir Clifford withheld permission for release, and the record was only released after his death. The recording is wonderful, so the reason for his objection remains unclear. I just wonder how many of the reissues today would get the nod from the original artists?

I got into open reel tapes for practical reasons. I started making recordings in the late 1990s after getting to know a couple of friends who had secured the permission to make recordings of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. Professional digital recording equipment was expensive in those days and in my view not very good, and one of the partners was really into digital anyway, so we just let him take care of it. Professional analog tape recorders were cheap since all the pros were switching to digital. I bought a Nagra IV-S with a QGB 10.5-inch reel adapter for 2,000 pounds at a BBC sale and had it professionally refurbished. This Nagra and the less reliable Stellavox SP9 were the most portable professional open reel tape recorders available.

Nagra IV-S analog tape recorder.

The reliability of the Nagra is legendary; there is an anecdote of a reporter who dropped the recorder from a helicopter about 100 feet off the ground while covering the Vietnam War. When he retrieved it after it was safe to land, the machine was still recording and with no more damage than just a cracked lid! The indestructibility of these professional machines means they remain a good option for audiophiles, which I will address in my next article. I also managed to buy a large lot of new blank tapes at a great price when Quantegy (formerly Ampex) went out of business. Even after the cost of digital recording and playback equipment has dropped, open reel tape still remains my primary playback source due to its superior sound quality.

The magnetic tape recorder was invented in Germany and was used for recording the speeches of the Führer (and other purposes). This enabled him to make high-quality recordings of speeches for radio broadcasts at the safety of his hideouts while making everyone think that he was in Berlin, as he was paranoid about assassinations. My physics teacher worked at the GCHQ during the war (the British equivalent of the NSA in the US); he was part of the team that developed radar, and he was ordered to investigate the tape recorders retrieved from Germany after the war. Jack Mullin, a US military engineer given the same task, went on to work with Ampex (at the time a small manufacturer of aircraft motors) with the knowledge he gained from these German machines and seed money from Bing Crosby, to develop and distribute tape recorders.

A German Magnetophon tape recorder from the 1940s. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/George Shuklin.

These new machines were first employed by the film industry, but the music industry quickly adopted the technology, and commercial pre-recorded tapes started to appear in the late 1940s. Tapes were much more expensive than LPs even in that era, and were meant for serious audiophiles.  These commercial tapes were 1/4-inch wide on 7-inch reels, ran at 7.5 inches per second (ips) and initially had two tracks for stereo in the 1950s. Four-track tapes were introduced in the late 1950s and these tapes contained twice as much program material, but at the expense of a lower signal to noise ratio due to the track width being halved. The tapes were copied at high speed, which compromised sound quality. Nevertheless, when played back on properly maintained machines, these old tapes can still sound excellent. After the much more affordable (but quality-wise much inferior) compact cassettes appeared, open reel tapes faded out of the consumer market. However, analog open reel tape remained dominant in professional audio until the advent of digital recording (and even then, early digital recorders used reel-to-reel magnetic tape).

Some of my 4-track pre-recorded tapes. Unfortunately, I no longer have a machine that can play these.

Open reel tape has never really gone out of fashion in some corners of the audiophile community.  Some people, such as the late Tim de Paravicini (see our article in Copper Issue 127) always demonstrated their equipment with tapes as the music source. These tape aficionados exchange their own recordings with each other, and some studio engineers who possess master tapes of commercial recordings can sometimes be persuaded to make copies. Old pre-recorded open reel tapes can still be found on eBay and if you’re lucky, at flea markets, thrift shops and elsewhere.

Paul Stubblebine, a renowned mastering engineer, came up with the idea of licensing commercial recordings for release on open reel tape format. Together with mastering engineer Michael Romanowski (both of Paul Stubblebine Mastering) and tube amplifier designer Dan Schmalle, he founded The Tape Project in 2007. Recordings were painstakingly transferred in real time to 1/4-inch tape running at 15 ips, which is the professional standard for distribution. They bet on having enough audiophiles with an interest in this format to sustain the business, which was a brave decision, as there were almost no open reel tape machines in production at that time (the only company producing machines that I was aware of at the time was Otari, and these were professional recorders). They sold the tapes initially for too little in my opinion; the first subscription series of 10 titles (20 tapes) cost $2,000 (in 2007), which barely covered the cost of the material.

The sound quality of these tapes is stupendous since The Tape Project obtains the original studio masters from the record companies, makes 1-inch 2-track running masters directly from these precious original tapes, and then copies off the running masters with a bank of Ampex recorders. The tapes sold to customers are therefore the same generation as what is typically used to produce LPs. Just keeping the recorders in top condition must be a full-time occupation. They also did something nobody else has managed to do since; they persuaded Universal Music to allow them to release two Kenneth Wilkinson recordings from the Decca catalog. This license for a time-limited release was negotiated by the legendary Winston Ma of First Impressions Music, but the license has already expired, making these two tapes collector’s items. In addition to the two Decca titles, Waltz for Debby by Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus are must-haves. Both are still available, but there is a waiting list as the company’s production capacity is limited, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the years after The Tape Project started selling pre-recorded tapes, many others have joined in.  These producers can broadly be divided into companies that license commercial recordings, record labels that release materials from their own archives and record companies that produce new materials specifically for release on tape (as well as LP and digital).

The first category includes Analogue Productions, one of the leaders in the field of audiophile reissues. Owner Chad Kassem has been reissuing LPs from major record labels, especially RCA and Mercury, since the 1990s. He works with the best engineers in the business, and took over the mastering facility of Doug Sax’s The Mastering Lab after the celebrated engineer passed away.  With his deep connections in the music business, it is unsurprising that Chad was able to secure licenses for some of the most desirable recordings ever. The list of tapes released so far reads like Harry Pearson’s (The Absolute Sound) Super Disc list.

While the original issues of some of these LPs, in my opinion, do not live up to the hype, hearing the tapes leaves me in no doubt about the greatness of these recordings, and to lament the fact that LPs made during the 1950s and 1960s were too primitive to show the recordings at their best. For the tapes, the original 3-track masters are mixed down to create stereo production masters, which are then used to make the commercial copies in real time. When listening to the tapes, one notices for the first time details that are missing from the LPs (at least on my system). The sheer scale and weight of the sound is breathtaking. Instruments take on a solidity and presence as if the soundstage is a relief sculpted from granite. The rich and natural tonal palette, the awe-inspiring dynamics, the subtle nuances of musical inflections and the ambience together draw the listener into the music.

The one word to describe the sound is effortless. Crescendos going from the quietest to the loudest SPLs do not show any sign of strain, and seem not to have any limit. There is a naturalness that makes you forget you are listening to a recording. Stereo sound just doesn’t get better than this. The one thing I have noticed about the Analogue Productions tapes is that they are transferred at a higher level than usual, taking advantage of the extra headroom of modern tape formulations. Ten RCA “Living Stereo” recordings have been released, including audiophile favorites such as The Power of the Orchestra, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Scheherazade and Lieutenant Kije, Stokowski’s Rhapsodies and the incredible Witches’ Brew. My other Analogue Productions favorites include Janis Ian’s Breaking Silence and Hugh Masekela’s Hope.

Another source I came across more recently is Reel to Reel Tapes Russia. This company has licenses to reissue some of the recordings from the vast Melodiya catalog. Melodiya was the Soviet state-owned record company and monopolized the recorded output of all the great Soviet artists including Richter, Gilels, Kogan, Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Mravinsky, Kondrashin and others. Many of these recordings were released by EMI in the West. I was particularly attracted to the recording of Leonid Kogan playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, which is one of the most sought-after vintage classical LPs in existence. The sound quality of some of the Melodiya recordings is excellent, and the company apparently continued to use vacuum tube equipment until the 1980s. I guess their engineers were not happy with the sound of early transistor equipment!

Horch House is an Austrian company with a small catalog of tape reissues from various music labels. I bought several titles when the company first launched in 2014, before the brief hiatus when they reorganized their business. Their reissue of William Steinberg conducting Holst’s The Planets on DGG is excellent. The reissue of the famous Eterna recording of Carmina Burana is a bit disappointing; the solo parts were well recorded, but I feel the full chorus sounds compressed.  These two reissues are no longer available. The two other titles I own, RCA’s The Reiner Sound and Itzhak Perlman playing the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major, are still available. However, The Reiner Sound is not at the level of those RCA Living Stereo recordings reissued by Analogue Productions. The sound does not have the same level of presence and impact as the best examples.  I feel the Living Stereo recordings made by Decca on behalf of RCA (mostly engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson), which The Reiner Sound was not, are generally superior. The Perlman Brahms: Violin Concerto is good, but EMI recordings of that era are less consistent sound quality-wise than the Decca recordings.

Two small record labels have made available their analog recordings in tape format. The copies are made to order. Fonè is an Italian company that makes mostly classical recordings, most notably of the violinist Salvatore Accardo. All the recordings are produced in-house, with a purist approach of simple micing and minimal manipulation of the sound. The other company is Opus 3, a Swedish audiophile label that has been producing classical, jazz and blues recordings since the late 1970s.  Their approach is also purist, relying on the natural acoustics of the recording venue to achieve sonic realism. I have some LPs from these two companies from years past, but I have no experience with their tapes. Judging by the quality of their LPs, I expect their tapes to be of an equally high standard.

There are more than 30 other small music labels that produce new analog recordings that are issued on tape, LP and digital formats.  Yarlung Records and UltraAnalogue Recordings are the two best known, and both produce classical recordings. As their recordings are new, and the tapes are not exactly cheap, I would recommend downloading them in digital format first to familiarize oneself with the recordings before committing.

Here is a list of companies currently producing pre-recorded open reel tapes: https://thereeltoreelrambler.com/resources/where-to-buy-music-on-tape/

There might be millions of reels of music tapes in the archives of record companies, mastering studios, radio stations and private collectors. Studio masters are closely guarded by record companies, but the fire at Universal Studios in 2008 that destroyed hundreds of original master tapes proved that security is perhaps not as good as it should be to safeguard these cultural treasures. On the other hand, safety masters, distribution masters and production masters are much more readily available. One comes across sellers on eBay claiming that the tapes they sell are genuine “master tapes,” but beware of fake “master tapes” copied from digital sources or even LPs.  Some of the genuine master tapes for sale are not in good shape, and require restoration by a specialist before they can be played. The glue used on tapes produced from the 1970s to the 1990s to bind the magnetic layer absorbs moisture and develops a fault called “sticky shed syndrome.” Also, be aware that some production masters were equalized for transfer to LPs; production masters meant for cassette or CD production can be a safer bet.

A problem that hinders the adoption of this format is the cost of new tape reissues, which is now generally around $225 per reel, and each reel normally only accommodates one LP side’s worth of music. However, ultra-premium LP reissues are not cheap either. The UK-based Electric Recording Company releases 300 copies of each of its title at around $500 per LP, and they sell out within days, with some of these reappearing on the secondary market for as much as $1,500 each.

Audiophiles are willing to spend five- or even six-figure sums on record playback equipment. However, the sound quality of even the best turntable/tonearm/cartridge combination will always be confined by the technical limitations of the LP format. Although I have more than a thousand LPs, there are only a few dozen of them that I play regularly. In that context, I would rather spend the money on the best format for these recordings. And as we shall see in the next article, it is possible to buy an open reel tape machine that will substantially outperform a top turntable system at a fraction of the cost of the latter, and with better consistency of performance.  After all, the music on your LPs was most probably transferred to lacquer with one of these tape machines (except for direct to disk LPs), so the sound of the LPs is unlikely to be better than that of the tapes played back through these machines, however outstanding the turntable system used. In the next article, I will discuss how to acquire a domestic tape playback system.

Header image of UHER SG631 analog tape recorder courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Erhard Barwick, cropped to fit format.

Hitchhiking with Alice Cooper

Hitchhiking with Alice Cooper

Hitchhiking with Alice Cooper

Ken Sander

It was late 1968 when my friend, the late Barry Byrens, said to me, “Linc,” (he loved calling me that), “you need to get rid of that motorcycle and get a car, a convertible.” At the time I was subletting a cabin in Laurel Canyon and in fact had not thought about a car. I liked my motorcycle, but it was winter in LA and riding the bike at night was chilly.

Ken Sander looking pretty mod back in the day.

Two days later I was at his house in West Hollywood up in the hills at 8929 St. Ives, just above Gil Turner’s liquor store at Doheny and Sunset Blvd. Barry had the newspaper open and said, “I found you a car at this car lot on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood.” He drove me down there in his Lincoln, a hardtop convertible.

We got there and it was a 1964 copper-colored Chevy Corvair convertible. Barry, me, and the salesman took it for a test drive. On a side street south of Sunset I tried to turn the car around and stalled it. It had a stick shift, so I pushed in the clutch and brake. I turned the key to restart it and the Corvair rolled backwards a foot or so and hit a fire hydrant. I don’t think I pressed the brake hard enough. Getting out, we saw a small ding put in the trunk just above the license plate. I was horrified at what I had done, but the salesman said “no sweat” and we continued the test drive, then left.

Two days later Barry found another Corvair convertible but this one was a light blue 1966. We went down and after the test drive, I was sold. It was $999. I plunked down $250 down and the payments would be $48 a month. I drove it back to Barry’s house. Later that day the salesman from the first car lot called and said, “your car is ready to be picked up.” I looked at Barry (I did not know what to say) and he took the phone from me. Barry said, “he doesn’t want the car!” “Why not?” the salesman asked. “He just doesn’t want it,” and then the salesman started getting pushy. Finally, after a back-and-forth Barry says, “he doesn’t want it because it has a dent in the trunk!” The salesman was speechless, and Barry told him to fu*k off and hung up.

A 1966 Corvair like the one Ken owned.

My best new toy ever, it is my first car, and driving with the top down is a beautiful thing. Barry was right. One night I am driving up Doheny Drive going to Barry’s house to hang out and I see a hitchhiker. He has long hair and looks like one of us, so I pull over and pick him up. He introduces himself as “Alice Cooper.” Interesting, I think to myself; there must be a story here. “Unusual name,” I say to Alice, and he explains that it is his stage persona and the name of his band. “This is not a sexual identity thing either,” he quickly adds. He goes on to explain that he had recently formed the band and they were in rehearsal here in Hollywood.

Alice Cooper in the early days.

I tell him I am from New York City and he says he is from Phoenix. I say that is not far from Los Angeles, and Alice answers that in fact it is very far from LA We both have a laugh at that one. They are getting ready for their debut. I had met more than a few musicians in Los Angeles who had told me that they were forming a band and rehearsing – and never heard of them again. But I got the feeling that this Alice Cooper guy was more realistic and solid, so I thought it might happen with for him. We got to Alice’s destination and he asked me to stop and drop him off.

I loved this Hollywood life; so friendly with everyone just hanging out. Whenever I had no plans for the evening, I would go to Ben Frank’s on Sunset to hang out. the parking lot was always packed with girls and long-haired guys, a couple of hundred young folks just milling around and getting to know each other. In New York we had something similar to that at the Bethesda fountain in Central Park, where the hippies, freaks and musicians would hang out, but the scene would only be happening on Sunday afternoons.

One night I am at Ben Frank’s with Jon Lane, my (late) friend from New York City who was visiting me, and these two girls I had seen around came up to us and asked if we wanted to go party with them. Tempting, but we were hungry and were planning to go inside to Ben Frank’s and have dinner, so we passed. A couple of nights later we were back in the parking lot and this kid I kind of knew came over to us and said, “you know Audrey and her friend, right?” The guy tells me they had died. What? Yeah, he says, they overdosed on heroin; the police found them. Jonny turned to me and said, “that could have been us.” Even though we didn’t do smack, they might have convinced us to try it.

That, I was beginning to find out, was the other side of Hollywood life. As open and friendly as things were, there was another side that was dangerous, with quick turns and sudden deaths. All kinds of different people come to Southern California. New York City is the melting pot of the world, and Los Angeles is the melting pot for young Americans.


Maybe a couple of weeks or so later I see Alice Cooper hitching again. He jumps in my car and I told him I was going to a friend’s house to hang out and if he wanted, he could come too. It wouldn’t quite be a party but there would be people there listening to music and most would be smoking. Alice says, “I don’t smoke pot.” I replied, “really?” He answered, “I don’t have a problem with it but I personally do not like it.” “Oh, so what do you do? “I love beer’ Budweiser in fact.” I am not sure if they will have beer and Alice says, “let’s stop somewhere so I can pick up some Bud.”

I think we stopped at Gil Turner’s and he ran in and bought a six pack of Bud. Then we drove to my friend’s house and joined the scene. That was the thing about LA – you could just drop in on anyone you knew, and it was okay. You would show up they would invite you in and ask if you wanted to smoke.

After about a half an hour I look over and see Alice on the floor sitting with his back leaning against the wall and drinking a can of beer. He had two empties on the floor and was working on his third. No one was drinking with him; it was a pot crowd, but he looked comfortable, fit in and seemed like he was enjoying himself. The evening went on and after a couple of hours I left with a girl and we went to my cabin in Laurel Canyon.


One afternoon the rock group Love showed up to the cabin and we all hung out and partied. Love, led by the brilliant but eccentric Arthur Lee, were one of the leading bands on the LA scene during the mid to late 1960s. However, Arthur Lee wasn’t with them when they showed up. I asked about it and the band said that they had parted ways. The often-unruly Lee was quick to fire musicians.

I have been told that Roger Daltrey said that Arthur Lee was on the spectrum. In their earlier days, the members of Love lived in a decrepit Hollywood mansion once owned by Bela Lugosi, and consumed large quantities of drugs. Arthur Lee and Love evolved from the group formerly known as Grass Roots (not the Grass Roots that had many hit singles) and were known in LA for their spirited and entertaining live performances. Arthur was immensely proud of his racially-mixed band, one of the first in rock and roll. In late 1966 the three hottest bands in Los Angeles were The Byrds, The Doors and Love.

Love’s Forever Changes was released in 1967 and was and still is considered a masterpiece. The name of the album comes from a story Arthur had heard. This guy had broken up with his girlfriend. She exclaimed, “You said you would love me forever!” and the guy replied, “Well, forever changes.” The album was brilliant but did not sell as well as expected. Arthur, being very volatile, changed band personnel frequently. (In 1995 he was wrongfully convicted of a gun charge and, being his third strike, his career was interrupted by a prison sentence until 2001. After prison, Arthur formed a new band and toured and made some records. However, even though he was much more disciplined, he never again achieved his earlier promise. Sadly, he passed away from leukemia in 2006 at the age of 61.)


Some weeks later I am driving my Corvair with the top down and see Alice Cooper walking up on Sunset. I yelled to him asking if he needed a ride. With a friendly wave he said no and kept on walking east towards the Old World restaurant. The next time I saw Alice was when I was in Chicago on tour with Nektar in 1974. By this time he had become a huge star with songs like “I’m Eighteen” and “School’s Out.” We said a quick hello to each other in the lobby of the upscale Chicago Holiday Inn on Lake Shore Drive.

In 1994 I was an on-air technology correspondent and host for The Cable Doctor Show, and was covering the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. I saw that Alice Cooper was making a celebrity appearance. “Meet Alice Cooper and his Mother.” An unusual scenario, but there he was in an exhibitor’s booth, posing for Polaroid pictures with his mother. I went over and he introduced me to his mom and said, “you look different with short hair! And what is with the jacket and tie?” In response I told him I was a technology journalist on television, but that he looked exactly the same, and as you can see, that made him smile. That smile reminded me of when I first met him. He certainly has come a long way for a kid named Vince from Phoenix. I think this is pretty much the way he planned it.

Alice Cooper, Ken Sander and Alice’s mom, CES 1994.

Postscript: Alice Cooper is still making new music. On February 26 he released his latest album, Detroit Stories.

Octave Records Goes Jazz: Gabriel Mervine’s Say Somethin’

Octave Records Goes Jazz: Gabriel Mervine’s Say Somethin’

Octave Records Goes Jazz: Gabriel Mervine’s Say Somethin’

Frank Doris

Octave Records just issued its latest release on March 5: its first jazz album, Say Somethin’ by trumpet player Gabriel Mervine. The album of originals and standards was recorded live with no overdubbing on the Sonoma pure DSD recording system by Mervine and his quartet, to capture the spontaneity and interplay between the musicians with stunning fidelity and realism.

Gabriel Mervine began his professional career at age 13. He’s a member of the Colorado Jazz Repertory Orchestra and has worked with Natalie Cole, Christian McBride, Terence Blanchard, the Temptations, the Who, Fred Wesley and many others. On Say Somethin’ he’s joined by Tom Amend (piano), Seth Lewis (upright bass) and Alejandro Castaño (drums) The music ranges from the upbeat grooves of the title track, “1964” and “Furor” to more contemplative songs like “Friends” and the quartet’s cover of “A Foggy Day.”

Gabriel Mervine.

Say Somethin’ is available as a hybrid stereo SACD disc that is playable on any SACD, CD, DVD, or Blu-ray player. It also has a high-resolution DSD layer that is accessible only using a PS Audio SACD transport, or by copying the DSD tracks on the included DVD data discs. In addition, the master DSD and PCM files are available for purchase and download from this link.

Gabriel noted, “It’s been such a trying year and our goal in making Say Somethin’ was to play music that would bring people some peace of mind, while striking a good balance between simple and complex.”

The album was recorded at Animal Lane in Lyons, Colorado, one of the world’s few 32-track Sonoma recording studios. The sessions were done live with no overdubs on the Sonoma pure DSD system and mixed using a vintage Euphonix analog console, then brought back into the Sonoma system. The album was produced and engineered by Steve Vidaic.

Gabriel’s Bach Stradivarius trumpet with 3C Bach mouthpiece was recorded using Neumann M49 cardioid and Royer 122 ribbon mics to capture all nuance and warmth of his playing. The piano, bass and drums where recorded using the most suitable, highest-fidelity mics for each instrument, from a vintage RCA 44BX ribbon and DPA 4009 omnidirectional mics for the piano to a rare Tim De Paravicini-modified AKG C24 stereo microphone used as the overhead drum mic. Other equipment used in the production of the album includes Forsell, Grace and Soundelux microphone preamps and Warm Audio WA76 and Teletronix LA2A limiters.

Say Somethin’.

The result is a recording of remarkable clarity, presence, spaciousness and wide dynamic range, all captured live as it happened.

Say Somethin’ is available as a limited-edition release of 1,000 hybrid SACD discs, or as a download bundle including DSD64, DSDDirect Mastered 192kHz/24-bit, 96kHz/24-bit and 44.1kHz/24-bit PCM formats.

I talked with Gabriel about his musical influences, his goals in making Say Somethin’, and more.

Frank Doris: What inspired you to start playing trumpet?

Gabriel Mervine: I got interested in music at a pretty young age. The drums first caught my ear. But by the time I joined a middle school band program, the band director said, “hey, we’ve got too many folks playing drums.” I got tossed a trumpet, and to be honest, I really wasn’t into the horn. But a couple of years prior to that, I couldn’t think of what to be for Halloween. And my mother put me in her old marching band uniform. I walked around with a bugle and learned how to form the embouchure for a trumpet. Our middle school jazz band was really good and a lot of fun and our band director was a huge mentor. So, he was a large part of the reason I ended up doing what I do for a living.

Seth Lewis on bass.

FD: In the album liner notes, you note that you have this old mouthpiece that you’ve used for a long time.

GM: When I was in my twenties, I was on the road and always hearing other trumpet players or seeing ads online for a new horn, a new mouthpiece. And you get into this never ending quest. After going seemingly full circle, ordering custom mouthpieces and custom trumpets, I reached a point where I pulled out my first horn and this mouthpiece a friend had given me when I was in college. And I was just like, man, this feels great. It got me to thinking, maybe I should just focus on me and not on constantly trying to find the perfect instrument.

FD: What was it like to record this album?

GM: it’s been such a trying year, and I was kind of just feeling uninspired creatively. A friend, Brianna Harris, got me connected with Octave Records, and they just said, “there’s a room set up here and we’d love to have you,” and all of a sudden I just started writing again. I tried to write music that struck a balance between interesting compositions, but was easy enough that we would just be able to get together and play after having been on lockdown. Once we got together, Tom, Seth and Alejandro just totally stepped up everything.

Tom Amend, piano.

On a couple of the tunes we did a few takes just to get it right. But the second take was usually the one. This was the first album I’ve done where there are no overdubs at all. Nothing’s been edited in any way.

FD: It has that feel of the 1950s and 1960s Blue Note albums where everyone just got in the room and played.

GM: It felt so good to just be in a room playing music with other musicians. It was something I hadn’t gotten to do much of, because everything has been closed. it was a really cathartic experience.I strayed a little bit from the original goal of what kind of music to put on the record, but to be honest, it had been such a stressful year and I kept finding myself listening to classical piano and the Oscar Peterson Trio and stuff that’s really soothing. Music that brings some peace of mind was my goal in making the album, although there are some high-energy and more explorative cuts as well.

Alejandro Castaño, drums.

FD: Who are some of your other influences?

GM: Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Roy Hargrove, and of course, you can’t get around Miles Davis. But I’ve been playing music for a living as a freelancer since I was 20, which means I do some jazz work, pop, classical, Latin, and a lot of funk music from the seventies. It all kind of really got up in my head.Sometimes I think, “what enables me to play this instrument for a living?” It’s the fact that you get a tone that people want to hear.

FD: What advice would you have for up and coming musicians?

GM: Number one, just find ways of loving it; find the part that you enjoy and grow from there. Almost every day, I’m excited to practice trumpet because it’s always a journey of growth. Music is like this constant mirror. Maybe art and expression are constant mirrors of self-awareness that we’re always looking into.

Also, go out and be a part of the music community. I would hear bands, [get to know the people in them] and go home and check out their albums or the cover music they were playing. The next time I’d come to their gig I’d ask if I could sit in. When it came time came for them to hire a horn player, I would be fortunate enough to get the call, because they’d heard me and gotten to know me. I never did it in a hustling, business kind of way. I just wanted to learn and be part of the scene. But eventually the calls started coming in.


Where Were You When The Lights Went Out?

Where Were You When The Lights Went Out?

Where Were You When The Lights Went Out?

Jay Jay French

You probably wished you were hanging out with me…read on…

Recently, as I was walking through an antique store in Geneva, New York, I came upon a box of old vinyl (there is at least one of these in every one of these stores).

The first album at the front of the pile was an RCA Records album of Elvis live at Madison Square Garden, June 10, 1972.

I was at that show and didn’t have great memories of it either. I just knew that I had to buy it, listen to it and see if my memories were consistent with the often-told story of the show.

When I returned home to Manhattan I thought about the fact that it was cool that I was there. It was at that moment that I realized that many of the shows I’ve actually been to were turned into live albums. I quickly went through my collection and amassed the following live albums of shows I had attended.


The Weavers – Reunion at Carnegie Hall, May 2nd 1963 (with my parents!), Vanguard VSD 2150

I was 11 and it was my first concert. I loved the Weavers, but I met Pete Seeger backstage and he wasn’t very nice to me. I never forgot that he seemed dismissive. Hey, I was 10…

John Mayall – The Turning Point, at the Fillmore East, New York, July 12, 1969, Polydor 24-2004

Had no idea that there was not going to be a typical blues band at the show. It was just John Mayall with Jon Mark on acoustic guitar, Steve Thompson on bass and Johnny Almond on tenor and alto sax, flute and mouth harp. Basically all-acoustic. The show was unbelievable. I walked out knowing that I had seen something very special. The opening act, a solo artist named Duster Bennett, got booed off the stage. I had never seen that before at the Fillmore.

The Rolling Stones – Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! at Madison Square Garden, November 27 and 28, 1969 (they played three shows including an afternoon matinee on the 28th), London/ABKCO M57176


This was the Stones at their very best. Totally incendiary. A riot ensued during the matinee show when everyone rushed the stage. This is what rock and roll is supposed to be. Totally subversive and dangerous. We were all at the mercy of Jagger. (Satan laughing with delight…thanks Don McLean!)

Jimi Hendrix – Band of Gypsys, Fillmore East, New Year’s Eve 1969/70, Capitol Records STAO-472

Went in hoping for an Experience. I had 10th row center seats. Buddy Miles (on drums and vocals) held Jimi back way too much. The show dragged on until Jimi went nuts, turned on an additional Marshall amp and tore through “Purple Haze,” “Foxey Lady” and “Manic Depression” and ended with “Wild Thing.” He was playing that night. To me. It was the greatest guitar exhibition I have ever seen and I’ve seen ‘em all!


Grateful Dead –Workingman’s Dead (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition), Capitol Theater, Port Chester, NY, February 21, 1971, Warner Bros. Records/Rhino Records R2 624973, 603497848539

On acid (what else is new) and another classic show. I hitched a ride back to Manhattan. I got home alive; that’s all I can remember!

The Band – Rock Of Ages, The Academy of Music, Manhattan, New Year’s Eve 1971/72, Capitol Records SABB-11045

An incredible show by one of the greatest bands to ever exist. Majestic is the only word I will use. At the top of their game. The added horn section was superb.

Elvis Presley – Elvis As Recorded at Madison Square Garden), June 10, 1972, RCA AQL1-4776

A total letdown. This was not the Elvis of the 1968 comeback special. This was the Vegas Elvis, complete with an opening comedian. In between the acts, a guy selling T-shirts and programs hawked them from the stage. The white jumpsuit Elvis was wearing tells you all you need to know. Elvis sang lots of pop covers (“Proud Mary,” “Never Been to Spain,” “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” “The Impossible Dream,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Polk Salad Annie” and others). But his classics were all shoved into a seven-minute medley. ’Nuff said…

Mott the Hoople – Live, at the Uris Theater, New York, May 9, 1974, Columbia X698 (PC 33282)

If you can believe it, Queen opened these shows. They were an incredible opening act but nothing was going to stop Mott, who were at the top of their game. During the encore, a drunk John Bonham tried to get on the drums to play “All the Young Dudes” and a fight broke out backstage when he was tackled by a roadie, That was exciting! The theatrics were beautifully staged. Anyone who was there has great memories of this set of shows.


Cream – Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6 2005, Reprise Records 9362-49416-2

Three old men playing Cream songs. It wasn’t Cream. It was skim milk.

Airfare to the UK – $1,000

Tickets (fourth row courtesy of EMI) – $1,500

Listening to Cream play through Fender amps and guitars (instead of Marshall amps and Gibson guitars) – worthless.

Could there have been more shows that I attended that wound up on record? Sure. I was at hundreds of shows between 1967 and the end of 1974. At that point, our band began and I was working too much.

Like I said, you probably wished you were hanging out with me.

For reasons that I truly can’t explain, I made a conscious effort, as stoned as I was, to remember what I was seeing because I felt that what I (along with hundreds, if not thousands of other participants) was watching was historically significant. That what I was watching meant something more than the 90 minutes of time that it took to watch these shows.

I saw so many great concerts (the vast majority not made into live albums but important nonetheless), that they shaped my rock and roll dreams.

I was fortunate to live in New York City during these times. I was fortunate to be able to walk down the street to the Fillmore East, or into Central Park in the summer for the Schaefer Music Festival concerts, or go to the Academy of Music or the Pavilion at the World’s Fair site in Queens, or to MSG, or wander onto the Great Lawn in Central Park…

I was there at the right place at the right time and my memories of these events remain meaningful still.

Those nights at the Fillmore and the Academy of Music especially, when I was watching Leon Russell, or Neil Young and Crazy Horse, or the Mothers of Invention or Moby Grape, BB King, The Band, The Incredible String Band, Johnny Winter, the Jeff Beck Group, Ten Years After, the Kinks, Jethro Tull, Family, The Nice, Jimi Hendrix, The Dead, Janis Joplin, Country Joe and the Fish, The Airplane, John Mayall, Led Zep, the Who, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Canned Heat, Iron Butterfly, the Youngbloods, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Chicago (the Chicago Transit Authority), Pacific Gas and Electric, Trapeze, Joe Cocker, NRBQ, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, Soft White Underbelly, Blues Image, Man, Savoy Brown, the Foundations, Love, The Allman Brothers, Lighthouse, Cold Blood, Ravi Shankar, Taj Mahal, Fleetwood Mac, Van Morrison, Edgar Winter’s White Trash, the Byrds, McKendree Spring, Head Over Heels, the Hampton Grease Band and the New York Dolls, Roy Buchanan (at the new Fillmore East) and others are etched in my memory.


Also, special mentions: Carnegie Hall, where I saw The Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Frank Sinatra, and MSG where I saw John Lennon, The Stones, Jimi, Ike and Tina Turner, Blind Faith, Free, Wings, Led Zep, R.E.M., AC/DC, Fleetwood Mac, Elton John,  Beck/Clapton, Adele, Tim McGraw/Faith Hill,  Oasis, Roger Waters, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder…

At the Nassau Coliseum I went to concerts by Pink Floyd, KISS, The Allman Brothers., Queen, Thin Lizzy, My Chemical Romance and Led Zep.

I saw shows at the Beacon Theater by John Fogerty, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, Hall and Oates, Earth Wind & Fire, Steely Dan, Steve Miller, Alice Cooper, and Vanilla Ice.

Radio City Music Hall was where I witnessed Prince, Run DMC, Naughty by Nature, INXS…Ungano’s nightclub…Clapton, Winwood, Dr. John, Free, Mountain, the MC5, Muddy Waters…

…and I can’t forget The Ramones at CBGB.


Header image courtesy of Pexels/Wendy Wei.

Bob Dylan – 1970 50th Anniversary Collection

Bob Dylan – 1970 50th Anniversary Collection

Bob Dylan – 1970 50th Anniversary Collection

Wayne Robins

In 1969, Beacon Books released a collection of essays called Rock and Roll Will Stand, edited by Greil Marcus. It’s mostly interesting or not scribblings by Marcus, America’s unmatched culture critic on the topic of Bob Dylan, and his Berkeley friends. I still have the book here somewhere, temporarily misplaced, but the gist of one of the chapters is: “Will Jay and the Americans Beat Bob Dylan in the KYA Battle of the Bands.”

It was meaningful because it posed a sincere question, the answer not obvious. In the early and mid-1960s, KYA (1260 AM) had a record review contest in which it would play five new songs five nights a week, listeners would phone in and vote their favorite, and presumably, the five winners faced-off on Saturday night to choose the KYA “Ace of the Week.”

What KYA called the nightly “Battle of the New Sounds,” Murray the K on WINS (1010 AM) in New York called his “Champ Record of the Night”; on Saturday night, teens would phone-in to select from the five “Champs” the “Boss Record of the Week.” Upsets were frequent, especially when local favorites went up against Elvis Presley, then in his post-Army popularity resurgence. The Earls, featuring singer Larry Chance, had already topped Elvis with their Boss Record of the Week, “Life is but a Dream”, in 1961. And Jay and the Americans beat Elvis one week in 1963, with a song that never even charted called “Strangers Tomorrow.”

I will tell the story of my cousin, Jay Black, who changed his name from David Blatt and joined the Americans after Jay Traynor, who sang “She Cried,” left the group, some other time. If Jay and the Americans could beat a resurgent post-Army Elvis Presley in a battle of the bands-type contest, what chance would Bob Dylan have against the ground troops of a local favorite with a ferociously loyal fan base from Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island?

Figuring if he couldn’t beat them, he would join them, Bob Dylan sings Jay and the Americans’ hit “Come a Little Bit Closer” on Bob Dylan – 1970. It’s a pretty good version. You can see why Dylan might have liked the record: It has that pop-Latin twist (“in a little cafe on the other side of the border”) that Dylan would put to dramatic effect on the Desire album (“Romance in Durango,” “One More Cup of Coffee”). The women singing backup are into it; Al Kooper, playing organ as he did on “Like a Rolling Stone,” sounds seriously ready. Bob seems to be enjoying it through the opening verse, singing from memory, but bending the phrases effectively. But it’s over in 77 seconds, his attention does not hold, and they’re on to something else.

Bob Dylan – 1970. Courtesy of Sony Music.

A lot of the album is like that. This is not The Basement Tapes; it’s more like the Kitchen Sink tapes, in which Dylan’s omnivorous musical interests and influences, his encyclopedic knowledge of folk and pop and rock songs, are played informally and sometimes in fragments. Dylan’s multiple releases of pop standards, including the Sinatra-themed Shadows in the Night (2015), Fallen Angels (2016) and Triplicate (2017), are behind him. What Dylan 1970 offers are odd, random, guitar-pull versions of the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream,” Sam Cooke’s “Cupid,” Harry Belafonte’s “Jamaica Farewell,” and a silly but amusing medley of the Shirelles’ “I Met Him on a Sunday” and the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron.”

This three-CD set was originally released in a limited edition on December 4, 2020, as part of a series of releases going back to 2012 whose primary purpose was to extend copyright protection on Dylan performances. This package was released commercially in the United States on February 26, 2021. There’s both a lot here, and not much here, as there often is when the function of business meets the perpetration of art.

If there is a selling point, it is that the set contains the nine tracks Dylan recorded with George Harrison on May 1, 1970. Harrison included his version of Dylan’s “If Not for You” on his debut post-Beatles three-album set, All Things Must Pass, later in 1970, but neither Dylan’s New Morning version nor Harrison’s feature the two together. And they don’t do it here, either.

Bob Dylan. Courtesy of Sony Music. Photo by Al Clayton.

Though the set is presented chronologically, from March 3 to August 13, 1970, something seems off about the way the Dylan/Harrison songs are offered. If they performed nine songs on May Day 1970, why aren’t they bunched together, in a series, one through nine, as natural as a baseball lineup? Why do the credits read: “George Harrison, guitar, vocals (Disc 1, Tracks 20 & 24 and Disc 2, Tracks 2-3, 6-7, 10-11, & 16.”)? Oddly, their rehearsal take on “Time Passes Slowly” is sandwiched between versions of “If Not for You.”

The good stuff with Harrison is, not surprisingly, two Carl Perkins songs, “Matchbox” and “Your True Love.” Harrison could play Perkins in his sleep, and sometimes it seems it may as well be. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for these nine tracks together, neither Dylan nor Harrison brought their “A” game. It’s just the way it seems to be. Their best version of a Dylan song is “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and it’s not something anyone other than an archivist would return to.

There are multiple takes of a number of songs, more than you want to count: At least five takes of “Sign on the Window,” seven takes of “If Not for You,” five, that I can count, of “Went to See the Gypsy.” Now “Gypsy” is the cornerstone of my Dylan belief system, my Dylan ethos. New Morning, one of the first reviews I wrote when I was the music editor for the alt-newspaper Boulder magazine (formerly Boulder Express) when I returned to college after an involuntary gap year, in 1970. Please don’t call it sophomoric: I was a college junior, but unlike my hippie cohort at the University of Colorado, I valued Elvis Presley.


I was moved by Presley’s 1968 comeback TV special; I was cognizant of Elvis’ return to performance at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in the summer of 1969, after a long hiatus and period of isolation. Dylan was going through a similar, shorter period of avoidance of personal appearances, after his motorcycle accident on July 29, 1966, after Blonde on Blonde was released and consolidated his position in the rock pantheon. By 1970, the Beatles had broken up, Elvis was making a comeback after years of terrible records and movies, and Dylan was likely ruminating on the damage that fame had done, which is why “Went to See the Gypsy” is about Elvis Presley.

You can argue this all you want, but I consider this stare decisis, settled law.


“It’s about Dylan, dreaming of young Dylan, dreaming of Elvis,” I wrote in the November 18, 1970 issue of Boulder magazine.[1] It’s not about Dylan actually meeting Elvis: the photos on the internet appear fake. It’s about the “now he’s here, now he’s gone” spectral presence that Presley had mastered in performing. (“Elvis has left the building.”) “He did it in Las Vegas and he can do it here” gave faith to Dylan that he too would get back on the stage again, on his own terms.

Jimmy Webb, by the way, has a 1993 song called “Elvis and Me,” based on a true story, that sounds much like what “Went to See the Gypsy” suggests. In an interview, Webb told me his song is about seeing Elvis in Las Vegas, being given a slip of paper to the after-show party in Presley’s penthouse. After some chit-chat, Webb turned his back and Presley was gone. Colonel Parker, Elvis’ manager, walked Webb to the door, and told the songwriter something like: “The next time I see you better be at the Brentwood Farmer’s Market.” In other words, you are not going to write songs for Elvis because I don’t have a stake in the publishing, you will not make plans to get together with Elvis, and if I see you, it will be a chance meeting, like at the farmer’s market. It’s been my “blow-off” line ever since.

On this record, Dylan performs two versions of the one song he wrote that Elvis Presley recorded commercially: “Tomorrow is a Long Time.” (There’s a home recording of Elvis singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” on the web.) With typical Presley mismanagement, “Tomorrow” was not a breakout single for Elvis when he recorded it in 1966: the timing would have been perfect. Instead, “Tomorrow is a Long Time” was buried on the soundtrack to the Presley movie Spinout. It’s a beautiful version, by the way, as close to a secular spiritual as Presley had ever sung.

Dylan also covers two Presley songs here: Two versions of “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” one side of Presley’s final Sun single and later released in 1959 on A Date With Elvis; Dylan also sings one of Presley’s trademark hits, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

There are some nice folk songs here: “Universal Soldier ” by Buffy Saint-Marie, for example, though I am more familiar with the Donovan version, the same Donovan who an irascible Dylan taunts in a London hotel in the documentary Don’t Look Back. There are respectable versions of Eric Andersen’s “Thirsty Boots,” and Tom Paxton’s “I Can’t Wonder Where I’m Bound.” There are a bunch of traditional folk songs, some really useless space fillers (“Untitled Instrumental #1,” and #2), and a take of “Woogie Boogie,” the dregs of the otherwise estimable (in my revisionist opinion) Self-Portrait. “Long Black Veil” is a very sturdy alternative to the version made famous by Dylan’s former sidekicks The Band, but three takes of colorful swamp rock tune “Alligator Man” is, like much of this record, two and a half versions too many.

[1]I wrote about 4,000 words about this for the academic journal Rock Music Studies, Volume 2, Issue 2, (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) published online 13 January 2015, about how the 2013 release Another Self-Portrait reflected Dylan’s channeling Presley on issues of fame, creativity, and privacy. https://doi.org/10.1080/19401159.2014.994306

John Mayall Part Two – The Turning Point

John Mayall Part Two – The Turning Point

John Mayall Part Two – The Turning Point

WL Woodward

As mentioned in a previous column (Issue 130), John Mayall was traveling back and forth between England and America, where he became enamored with the Los Angeles lifestyle. In 1969 he experienced two momentous occasions. He had broken up the Bluesbreakers, opting for a quieter, more laid-back style without drums. And, he took possession of a house at 8353 Grandview Drive in Laurel Canyon.

In 1968 Mayall had vacationed in LA and met several Laurel Canyon residents, not the least of them Frank Zappa. The list of musicians who lived in Laurel Canyon from the late 1960s to early 1970s plays like a Who’s Who in 60s rock. Among them were Cass Elliot, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, Carole King, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Canned Heat, Glenn Frey, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, and Harry Nilsson. This collection of clowns lived within blocks of each other. The cross-pollination of this group of people as they partied and played together became an incalculable part of the folk/rock sound that would define that LA magic.

On Mayall’s return to England he recorded Blues From Laurel Canyon. Except for reunion recordings, this would be the last album with a classic Bluesbreakers lineup, with Mick Taylor and Peter Green on guitars, Colin Allen on drums and Steve Thompson on bass.

Here’s “Walkin’ on Sunset,” which is about, well, walking on Sunset.


On that vacation trip Mayall had put money down on the Laurel Canyon house, but he had to wait for the escrow to clear. When he returned in 1969 his intent was to stay and form a new musical direction that used mostly new players and no “rock” lead guitarist and no drums. The result was the aptly named album The Turning Point. With Jon Mark on acoustic guitar, Steve Thompson on bass and Johnny Almond on saxes, flutes and mouth percussion, the result was a departure from the more rock-based sound of the Bluesbreakers. In July 1969 they recorded the album live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. The mixed and mastered album was released in October 1969.

They recorded a haunting “Saw Mill Gulch Road” with Mayall on slide. Remember, this was at the Fillmore East in the same year that saw bands like Led Zeppelin rolling through. Those were the days.


When Mayall finally took possession of the Laurel Canyon house he went crazy with renovation.  Over the next five years he reworked the magic in the home, adding a pool, rearranging the interior and adding a Tudor-style bar, using railroad ties he cut and mounted himself. The bar had room for the bevy of entertainment cronies flocking to the house in the after-hours. He named it the Brain Damage Club, and by all accounts the tavern lived up to its name.

After the subsequent Empty Rooms LP, Mayall retooled his band once again and recorded my personal favorite album, USA Union. This was also my first Mayall album and I purchased it just after it was released in October 1970. I still have that copy. Mayall recruited Harvey Mandel on guitar and Larry Taylor from Canned Heat. The brilliant stroke was adding Don “Sugarcane’” Harris on violin.

When Mayall first visited LA he met Frank Zappa and struck up a friendship over a shared interest in blues and R&B. Mayall stayed at Zappa’s home in Laurel Canyon during his trip to LA and they spent days going over Frank’s prodigious collection of recordings. In October 1969 Zappa had released Hot Rats on which he used Sugarcane for some amazing violin tracks, and Mayall was blown away.

In 1969 Zappa knew he wanted Harris for his Hot Rats sessions but had trouble finding him. Sugarcane Harris had a history of drug abuse, with a serious heroin addiction that often landed him in jail.  Zappa finally contacted Harris’ mother and found that, yes, her boy Don was once again in the slammer. Zappa bailed him out and Harris did albums with Zappa like Hot Rats, Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Burnt Weeny Sandwich, all classics that would not be the same without Sugarcane Harris.

Mayall recruited Harris for USA Union and the result is predictably marvelous. This cut is “Nature’s Disappearing,” a song about climate problems that back in 1970 was horribly prescient. Everyone gets to breathe on this. I love the laid-back feel of this album but also Mandel and Taylor channeling their Canned Heat roots.



Shiver me timbers.

Here’s a great example of laid-back intensity. “You Must Be Crazy” has only guitar, bass and violin for instruments, with Mayall laying on vocals. This one rocks. Dig Sugarcane Harris running his electric violin through a wah-wah pedal.



OK, just one more, I promise. I include “Off the Road” only because the tune features Larry Taylor on bass. We don’t talk about bass enough, which is weird because that’s my main squeeze.



I thought it wonderful that Mayall let Taylor breathe on this one.

Shout out to engineer John Judnich on this album. I would love to talk to Mandel and Taylor about their playing on these sessions. Coolness.

Polydor, Mayall’s record company masters, were pushing for more albums while Mayall’s popularity was high. The next LP was an ambitious double album, Back to the Roots, that would include old friends like Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor. Mayall was happy with the sessions but after mixing the album, felt the result was too much like a traffic jam. You can just imagine having Clapton, Taylor, and Mandel soloing on the same tune. Mayall later remixed the songs from the original 24-track tapes and released this as Archives to Eighties in 1988.

In 1972 Mayall was channeling the rock fusion movement and released Jazz Blues Fusion. It was well received and it’s well worth a listen. In October, 1971 Mayall started a new project, picking up Shakey Jake Harris on harp and vocals, Ron Selico on drums, Larry Taylor on bass, and the incredible Freddy Robinson on guitar. Joining Mayall at the board again was John Judnich.  Mayall loved the result but the resulting 1972 Shakey Jake Harris album, The Devil’s Harmonica, sank without a trace. I tried to find some video but was unsuccessful. I went looking for the recording on the internet. Mayall is credited as the producer and guest artist. You can get the vinyl for $12.99 but the CD will run you $903. Huh?

From 1972 to 1981 Mayall toured like a madman but also managed to release 11 albums.

A tragedy occurred in 1979 when some teenagers messed up with fireworks.

Every time Mayall returned from a grueling road trip his respite was his home in Laurel Canyon.  On each return he would have an idea on improvements. He had purchased surrounding lots for $3,000 each so no one could build around him. That’s what I said. $3,000 for a lot in Laurel Canyon. He paid $30,000 for the property originally. Ok, let’s stop thinking about that. On return from a tour in 1978 he hired a gardener and turned the back lot into an English garden, complete with arbor and walkways.

On September 16, 1979, it all burned to the ground. Mayall recalls sunning by the pool with his girlfriend in the morning and getting a phone call from a neighbor warning of smoke up the hill from their house. They went out back and the smoke was worse than described, and police helicopters were swirling around alerting everyone to evacuate. Mayall saw nearby houses igniting and a tree in his yard smoldering. Everyone hopped in cars and skedaddled.

Two hours later all was gone. Twenty-four homes were destroyed including Mayall’s beloved Grandview refuge. A blow worse than losing the home was the loss of all of Mayall’s possessions. Gone were his books, paintings, albums, instruments (!!!), live recordings, clothes, pictures, and memorabilia. Rough day.

In 1982 Mayall reformed the Bluesbreakers with Mick Taylor and toured extensively, releasing an album, Return Of The Bluesbreakers, in 1985. We have a clip here of the band playing “My Time After a While” live in 1982. This may be the only time I’ve seen Mick Taylor playing a Fender Strat. And check out who is back on bass.



The following years gave us 16 more albums, including his latest, Nobody Told Me, in 2019.  He was 85 years old at this point for crying out loud. Here’s a pic of him playing live in Seattle in 2019.

Ridiculous, but ravishing.

Mayall always used his personal experiences as food for his muse. There were several albums, including USA Union, which featured his reactions to his long, tumultuous relationship with Nancy Throckmorton, a photographer who sang backup vocals with Mayall and did a lot of his album art. The excellent autobiography Blues from Laurel Canyon describes many songs that are rooted in something that happened during a particular day or in his love life. Those reminiscences are worth the read right there.

Mayall recalled Big Bill Broonzy, one of Mayall’s heroes, talking about songwriting. Broonzy said he just thought of something mundane, like a kitchen, then thought of all the things that happen in that kitchen. The cooking, the talking, the fighting, and the warm love. Suddenly you had a song. Mayall is great at it and we are so fortunate to have so many examples of his warm love.

Speaking of which, here’s one of the sweetest of love songs. Again from USA Union, written for that Nancy, “My Pretty Girl.”




Header image of John Mayall courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Javieritopito.

The Big Move, Part Two

The Big Move, Part Two

The Big Move, Part Two

J.I. Agnew

In Part One (Issue 131), J.I. Agnew wrote about the difficulties of moving an entire recording and mastering facility, complete with machine shop, grand piano, literal tons of equipment and other items. The story continues here.

Industrial buildings have to be functional. They need to offer easy access for loading machines in and out. But they tend to be dreadfully ugly and somewhat uninspiring as creative environments. So, in choosing our new facility we went for fashion over functionality. We wanted to steer well clear of industrial areas, and their associated noise and lack of charm.

Our new building was chosen for its inspiring looks, charming architecture and beautiful location. But with its narrow, arched entrances, many steps, uneven ground, and narrow country lanes all around for miles, loading in the essential infrastructure was a real challenge.

Our 1961 Moore jig borer and 5,000 lb.-capacity forklift truck, ready for action.


What made matters worse was the fact that among what needed to be brought in were several American machine tools, made in the Golden Age of this industry between 1930 and 1970, which was incidentally also the Golden Age of disk recording lathes. These machines were clearly not designed to fit through narrow arched doorways in buildings of notable architecture in Europe!

The 1954 Hardinge HLV super-precision lathe in the new building.

These massive chunks of cast iron offer very few possible lifting points, and to further complicate things have levers, dials, handwheels, and shafts protruding in all directions!


The spindle housing of the Moore jig borer.


I was reminded yet once again why USA-made machine tools of this era are so rare in Europe. Apart from the fact that their dials are graduated in inches (which is an advantage for me as I mostly work with vintage machines that were designed in the USA, and design my own equipment in inches out of habit), their dimensions and weight (as well as their quality of construction, compared to modern alternatives aimed at a price-conscious market) are what a Cadillac Eldorado is to a Yugo 45.

A V-8 powered Cadillac Eldorado and a few lawnmower-engine Yugo 45s (along with an older Zastava 750) parked outside a typical example of a socialist apartment block in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where everyone could have the same car and identical apartments, as observed on one of many interesting business trips, during which the author built character…
The Moore jig borer, the forklift and a huge crane approaching...

By far the worst machine to move was the Moore jig borer, a 2,500-lb beast that was too tall and also too wide to fit through any of the building’s entrances!

We had to partially disassemble it, removing handwheels, levers and one of the leadscrews, before attempting to bring it in.

The crane and forklift working together to tilt the Moore jig borer.


It had to be laid down outside and carried on its back, suspended from the long-reach forks of a forklift truck using slings. Due to the height of the machine, when laid on its back it made a rather long load, extending forward from the forks. While our own forklift is rated for 3,300 lbs., this applies to a straight lift of a load whose center of gravity sits close to the mast. Despite being reassured by a very experienced forklift truck operator that, “you’ll know when you’re overloading the forklift when the rear wheels lift off the ground,” I decided that in the middle of a pandemic, with the health system already beyond full capacity, the last place I’d like any of us to end up in was in hospital! So, we rented a bigger forklift truck, rated for 5,000 lbs. and powered by a Perkins diesel engine, along with a massive crane.

The Moore jig borer suspended on its back, guided through the arched entrance of the machine shop.

The crane lifted the jig borer straight up, using the single lifting eye bolt at the top of the machine, which was, unluckily for us, missing when the machine first arrived. A special eye bolt had to be imported from the United States, since neither any EU-based nor any UK-based suppliers produce or stock eye bolts with the UNC-standard threads the Moore uses for its hardware.

While it was suspended from the crane, the forklift truck simultaneously lifted and pulled on a sling threaded through holes in the base of the casting that made up the body of the Moore, to tilt the machine while it was suspended in the air. Both crane and forklift then gently lowered the jig borer on its back, on a wooden cradle designed to prevent the weight of the machine from resting on its motor.

Possibly the most inappropriate entrance in the world for huge industrial machinery. We live in hope that once the editor of Veranda decides to extend the scope of the publication to machine shops, ours will be the first feature!
Having miraculously escaped the heart attack I almost had by the above, the forklift truck then lifted the machine in the laying-down position and pushed it through the narrow entrance, placing it on an industrial trolley, then to be pushed in by hand. But all this was nothing compared to what it took to lift that jig borer back up and into its final position, inside the building, with no access possible for a forklift truck. The jig borer is actually so tall that in its normal upright position, there is little clearance left between the machine and the ceiling of the machine shop! It took two industrial cranes and several hours, until, countless profanities later, it was finally standing in its final location, where it could then be reassembled!
The Moore jig borer on its back, strapped onto a special trolley on which it was pushed by hand inside the building.

Why do we even need such a dinosaur of a monster machine tool?


The apron of the Hardinge HLV lathe, with longitudinal feed wheel, cross-feed ball-crank handle, power feed motor, feed clutch levers, half-nut engine lever, carriage lock lever and sight glass for maintaining the oil level.

Our few neighbors were, by now, permanently standing around our properly, staring in disbelief as truckload after truckload of impossibly obsolete chunks of old iron were being hauled in. One of the crew members said he even saw money being exchanged between them, presumably bets being placed about what on earth all these machines were for. “Do you think they’re building a nuclear power plant?” “Perhaps they work for the government!” “No, I bet they’ve just completely lost it and collect old useless things that nobody needs!”

Some days later, with the neighbors still observing us, the bravest one among them asked me, “say, what do you need all that…er…stuff…for?” To which I replied, “we’re in the audio business.” To say that he was puzzled would be an understatement.

Despite their massive appearances, the machine tools we have are actually only intended to produce relatively small parts. The biggest parts to be found on turntables, disk recording lathes and tape machines are about as much as these immense machine tools were meant to work with.

A collection of small parts for disk recording lathes, machined by the author.


These exceptionally over-engineered machines are designed for maximum accuracy. All of them have spindles whose measured run-out (degree of rotational accuracy) is in the sub-micron range (less than 0.00002″ TIR or total indicator runout), only detectable by means of very expensive measurement instruments. The Moore jig borer has a positioning accuracy of 0.00003 inches (0.000762 mm) and the Moore Ultra-Precision Rotary Table we are using with it has a maximum angular positioning error of 2 seconds of an arc, each being equal to1/3600th of a degree!

Our Moore Ultra-Precision Rotary Table. It is about as heavy as me!
This level of precision is necessary to produce turntable and tape machine parts, audio transducers, and other precision assemblies in order to achieve the utmost in sound quality. This statement is not just my own personal opinion. Many decades before me, Western Electric contributed to the development of the outstanding Monarch 10EE precision lathe, which they then used in the manufacture of their own cutter heads, disk recording lathes, loudspeaker drivers, the tooling used for their vacuum tube manufacturing, and so on. This level of manufacturing capability is a real asset, enabling a no-compromise approach in the design of audio equipment.
The Monarch 10EE precision lathe, developed in part by Western Electric.


The machining of extremely small precision parts to tight tolerances does not only require accurate  machine tools, but also a highly controlled environment. Vibration must be kept to a minimum, which requires rigid mounting of the already heavy machines to a massively rigid support structure, such as the ground floor slab of a reinforced concrete building that is designed for heavy loading and able to withstand severe earthquakes while fully loaded. The air temperature and humidity levels must be kept absolutely stable all year round, to prevent the precision parts from having thermal expansion and contraction effects (literally, their dimensions get bigger in higher temperatures and vice versa) that would compromise accuracy.

In addition, stratification – the tendency of rooms to be colder near the floor and warmer towards the ceiling – must be kept as low as possible by means of thermal insulation and a properly designed HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system, to maintain an equal temperature at all points within the room. This is especially important with taller machines like the jig borer and milling machines, where positioning and measurement devices (leadscrews and dials) for the machine table ( the horizontal X and Y axes) are mounted at a different height to the spindle and columns ways (the vertical Z axis).

One of the generously-dimensioned dials of the Moore jig borer, allowing the operator to directly read down to 0.0001", with a comfortable handwheel and the silky-smooth action of the Nitralloy leadscrew.

While the heavy reinforced concrete structure of the building is excellent for vibration control, its greatest weakness is its relatively high thermal conductivity. The reinforced concrete structure essentially acts like a giant heat sink, coupled to the immense thermal mass of the earth, with the exposed building structure going through slow daily cycles of being heated by the sun and cooled by rain, snow, convection, and so on. Large metallic objects – like our big machine tools – directly mounted to the floor would tend to slowly change temperature, following the temperature variations of the concrete, regardless of the stability of the air temperature within the room.

Conventional means of thermal decoupling would compromise the mechanical rigidity of the machine-floor interface. We therefore designed and built special proprietary machine pedestals, which would thermally decouple the machines from the floor while maintaining the rigid foothold required for vibration control.

The custom pedestal on which the jig borer is mounted to operate as a thermal island.


The pedestals are sandwich constructions of suitably rigid materials with properties that inhibit thermal coupling from one to the other. The sandwich is then affixed within a protective steel cover, on which the machines sit, but which is not allowed to contact the concrete floor. We call this concept “thermal islanding,” since the machines act as thermal islands, unable to effectively sink or source heat other than from the air surrounding them and the operator handling them. Their large thermal mass, due the amount of cast iron, helps maintains a steady temperature during operation. The Moore jig borer has a Weston thermometer built into the spindle housing, allowing the operator to monitor temperature while operating the machine, to be able to predict when accuracy might be compromised.

The Weston thermometer on the spindle housing of the Moore jig borer allows the operator to take thermal expansion effects into account, for maximum accuracy.

The exact same considerations also apply to the optimal installation of disk mastering lathes, if ultimate performance is to be attained. Essentially, the disk mastering lathes are mounted on the same type of rigid pedestals for thermal decoupling, which are mounted directly on the concrete slab, and the acoustic decoupling (soundproofing and acoustic treatment) is then constructed around the pedestal, to provide the lathe with a rigid foothold, which would not be possible if the lathes were just to be placed on a floating floor of the type usually found in recording studios that do not need to cut records.

In addition, since sound is vibration, sound waves impinging upon large metallic surfaces of machine tools or workpieces are capable of introducing vibration which could compromise accuracy in very demanding situations. As such, it was decided to also acoustically treat the machine shop, to ensure that sounds produced within the machine shop do not have a detrimental effect on other machines nearby.

A toolmaker’s microscope on our 1930s Lorch optical lathe.

Optical measurement instruments such as metrological microscopes and interferometers can be particularly sensitive to vibrations at acoustic frequencies.


The electrical control panel for the Moore jig borer. The spindle speed is varied by means of a mechanical expanding and contracting pulley system, packaged as the General Electric Polydyne unit.
The several three-phase motors used to power the workshop machinery also require dedicated electrical installations, incorporating thermal overload protection, current overload protection, surge protection, starting arrangements, direction controls, speed controls, emergency stop buttons, power outage stop automation and various other safety features. These features were needed to not only comply with the legal requirements for workplace safety, but actually exceed them, as we’ve deemed necessary after years of experience working with such equipment and observing their failure modes. After all, the less that workers need to be concerned about their own safety, the more they can focus on their work, and a high degree of concentration is essential for producing highly accurate parts.
The electrical control panel for the Hardinge HLV lathe, which also uses expanding and contracting pulleys for spindle speed control and an autotransformer for feed speed control.



To be continued…


Cable Design and the Speed of Sound, Part Three

Cable Design and the Speed of Sound, Part Three

Cable Design and the Speed of Sound, Part Three

Galen Gareis

In Part One of this series (Issue 130), Galen Gareis of ICONOCLAST cables and Belden Inc. began an extensive exploration into a critical but not often discussed aspect of cable design: the velocity of propagation (Vp) of audio signals. In the second segment (Issue 131), he looked at practical ways to change the velocity of propagation and improve signal linearity for the benefit of better cable performance, and examined other subjects. In this final installment, Galen looks at resistance, the effects of various dielectrics, wire geometry, skin effect and other considerations, and summarizes his findings.

Also, introductory material on the subject by Galen and Gautam Raja is available in Copper Issues 48, 49 and 50.

What About Resistance in Audio Cables?

The value of resistance, R, in both impedance and in Vp (velocity of propagation) equations matters at low frequencies. We generally think of resistance as insignificant and it isn’t. In fact, as we drop in frequency, R becomes more and more significant. The same is true in Vp across low frequencies. R is important to a cable’s performance if its value is selected well. Capacitance can be increased to improve the denominator in the low-frequency Vp equation, but we also need to consider the effects of capacitance in creating amplifier problems. If a cable’s capacitance is too high, it can create serious problems with power amplifiers, including instability. This can make amps bright or harsh.

Amplifiers are measured with resistive loads. The specifications you see aren’t really true when driving a speaker cable and speakers, where there is added reactance. The real-world amplifier’s performance is worse than the best case 8-ohm load tests. We don’t want to aggravate that issue with the speaker cable if we can keep reactance mitigated and still achieve the advantages of a cable with low time-based distortion.

We can’t always rely on ignoring what we think is “passive.” After all, R is real and since you want to manage Vp across the frequency range, the value of R is critical. And what you do to the cable to raise the value of R will also impact inductance, L, and capacitance, C.

Let’s take another example and see if XLR and RCA interconnect cables exhibit the same rise in impedance with frequency.

ICONOCLAST RCA and XLR cables are designed to have the exact same impedance and phase; thus the sound quality will track one to the other. I didn’t want to make two different sounding cables, just two different physical designs.

Wow, look at the 100 Hz impedance – 2,200-ohms – and boy oh boy, does the impedance rise as frequency drops. That’s a physical reality caused by the change in Vp. Is this a problem, though? What’s happening?

Both cables have 12.5 pF/foot capacitance and 0.15 uH/foot inductance. Those are extremely low values for interconnect cable. The RCA design’s DCR (direct current resistance) loop resistance, to a first-order approximation, is the same as the coaxial cable’s 25 AWG center wire. The coaxial’s double braid has such a low resistance that it is electrically invisible. The there-and-back loop DCR pretty much “sees” just the center wire’s DCR. The low double-copper-braid DCR also mitigates ground loop noise issues. It can’t stop them altogether, because, due to the cable’s construction, this is really its ground point reference value.

The XLR uses two 25 AWG wires or four 30 AWG wires (in the case of our Series II cable). In either design, the loop DCR matches the RCA conductor equivalent. We halve the resistance by using more wires so the there-and-back DCR is like one 25 AWG wire or four 30 AWG wires. This is why the loop DCR matches that of the RCA.

The reactive basis in RCA and XLR cable is matched by duplication of the loop area and this sets the capacitance, too. This was not done by accident. The chart below models the dielectric efficiency, and the needed parameters to do so. 0.0179” wire was the best mathematical model for performance in this single wire design with the tube area (inner tube on the RCA or one of the four dielectric chambers in the XLR).


This chart shows the asymptotic nature of the dielectric efficiency curve. The design “centers” close to the peak, and does so with the best wires’ size (smaller size and higher resistance) for minimizing Vp differential.

Note that the chamber volumes, the tube inside diameter on the RCA interconnect and each of the four chambers inside the XLR, match @ 0.00755 SQR*INCH.

Audio interconnect cables terminate into a theoretical infinity load. The industry decided that infinity is 47 kohms as a standard, and higher resistance is even better. If we look at the load value presented to the cable, the load is so large that the cable becomes nearly not there electrically. Essentially, there is no current flow, and voltage signals are transferred across the end of the cable as though it was terminated into “nothing.” The very low R and C in the Vp equation are what cause the impedance rise. Since the load is extremely high, the cable’s open-short impedance isn’t an issue as the signal essentially drops across the load and not the cable.

Our Series II RCA and XLR interconnects address the issue of Vp linearity by increasing the AWG resistance to 30 AWG wire, and raising the capacitance to 17.5 pF/foot. This flattens the Vp non-linearity. We can’t go to too high a capacitance, as voltage transfer functions like to “see” low capacitance. In order to maintain phase integrity through the audio band, the signal likes to “see” low inductance, and the cable’s quad-wire design lowers inductance to 0.11 uH/foot while improving Vp linearity (smaller higher DCR wires in parallel). Like all cable designers, we have limits to how and where we move the cable’s non-linearity region.

Application of Knowledge

What does all this mean?

We need to increase capacitance and/or increase resistance to flatten Vp through the higher-frequency audio band.

Low-impedance matching between amps and speakers is hindered by rising capacitive reactance as frequency drops.

Improving Vp linearity only by using higher capacitance increases impedance at low frequencies by changing the capacitive reactance.

Capacitance has to be mitigated to improve low-frequency impedance. We should use wire resistance rather than design capacitance in managing higher-frequency Vp linearity if possible.

There is a limit we can reach before other variables are compromised, like inductance, total loop DCR, dielectric efficiency and DCR voltage-divider properties. Each cable parameter has to be carefully solved separately and then overlaid onto the Vp differential results to see how the overall cable works. How we reach the best balance of R, L and C can result in some unique analog cable designs when we really try to reach best-in-class analog performance.

Regarding wire geometry; most people don’t really understand everything about how the use of many and/or small wires in a cable really works. However, using multiple wires has several advantages.

Smaller wire cross-sections improve conductor current efficiency and smooth out the velocity of propagation (Vp) curves. The current-through-wire cross-section is closer and closer to being the same across frequencies, as wires get smaller and smaller. If a wire could be made that was one atom wide and worked, we would have no issues at all with skin depth.

Small wires improve conductor efficiency at the higher frequencies, where the skin (wire self-inductance) effect pushes the current towards the wire surface. At low frequencies the proximity effect pushes (current in the opposite direction) or pulls (current in the same direction) current to one side of the wire. Both aspects hinder full utilization of a wire’s area.



Solving Vp differential in the different wires in a cable as frequency rises isn’t straightforward. The wire’s self-inductance makes the center of a larger and larger wire act more and more like a high-impedance path to current flow than the center of a smaller wire. And, as current flow goes up, proximity effect alters how current wants to flow in the wire’s center. Both change the effective resistance at that specific frequency. For an easy approximation we use the DC resistance value, and this is clearly not “correct.” But, the approximation errors to improve Vp linearity, the true Rs (swept resistance) value goes up as frequency goes up, and that’s what the cable needs.

The measurement of one unit of skin depth, per the definition of skin depth convention, is when the current in the subsurface of a wire is 37 percent of what it is on the wire surface at specific frequencies. However, if a wire is small enough, it may never see current drop to 37 percent. Conversely, a really large wire may see near zero current in the wire’s center at specific frequencies, with the 37 percent value happening somewhere between the wire center and the wire surface.

We can improve wire efficiency through the audio band by either making the wire smaller, or removing the center of the wire, where the copper isn’t used as efficiently anyway. In fact, at RF frequencies, where the skin effect is in full force, we replace the copper with cheaper materials like steel, CCS (Copper Covered Steel), SPCCS (Silver Plate Copper Covered Steel) or CCA (Copper Covered Aluminum). In other cables, we plate the copper with other materials to replace the copper’s properties with something better.

Some audio cable designs in fact use hollow wire, but these are larger-diameter structures with the lower DCR working against flattening the Vp curve. Small multiple wires are needed in analog cables for the best performance; ICONOCLAST uses four in the RCA interconnects, 16 in the XLR interconnects and 24 for each positive and negative side (48 total) for our speaker cable. The total number of strands used depends on the voltage divider rule referenced previously; the current in each polarity drops voltage across that “section.” We don’t want the voltage across the cable, we want it to be across the load. If the cable is of low-enough resistance, or the current in a wire is low enough, the voltage drop is mitigated.

But in all designs, more so on speaker cables, we can “trick” the voltage drop issue by dividing up the current between all the small wires. Current will split equally into each identical parallel-resistance wire, and thus have a lower individual current value. Voltage is current times resistance;  E= I*R, so the voltage drop on each small wire is pretty low as we drop the current, I, even if we increase the resistance, R.

Most interconnect cables work with one small wire per conductor, as they use 25 AWG or so signal wires. They carry little to no current, so a low DCR wire isn’t, to a first approximation, necessary. However, the math says Vp linearity can improve if we try.

The use of numerous insulated wires increases capacitance, which seems initially good for flattening the Vp curve, but that changes L in the opposite direction and significantly too if you’re not careful, which is bad for phase response. The pesky third R, L or C inter-related variable is always there no matter which other two you choose to address. To manage inductance as capacitance rises with the use of more wires in a cable’s construction, we employ star-quad phase-cancellation technology to limit inductance in both our speaker and Series II interconnect cables.

The single polarity of a Series II XLR interconnect (see the diagram below) uses four bare 30 AWG wires. The electromagnetic (EM) fields cancel as the current in all four wires is in the same direction. Opposing arrows show the EM field cancellation. Both the Series I and TII XLR interconnects use an overall star-quad configuration to further reduce the EM field. The Series II has the advantage of using this technology twice, reducing inductance from 0.015uH/foot nominal of the Series one to 0.11 uH/foot in the Series II cable.

In the TPC, SPTPC and OFE speaker cable, a clever use of bonded pairs in a special weave forces a periodic star-quad arrangement like the XLR, or near so, to form inside each positive and negative side of the cable. Currents are all in the same direction, like the XLR, resulting in EM field cancellation. This reduces the inductance from 0.126 uH/foot a single bonded pair by itself, to just 0.08 uH/foot in a finished speaker cable.



 Since we’re working in the audio frequency range we utilize the entire cross section of the wire, and we want it to be efficient at all frequencies. This is called diffusion coupling. This means the use of solid wire is best. We can’t remove the wire center as audio frequencies use this area. If we used a thin copper tube wire, we’d have far larger cable and costlier designs with no advantages.

Unlike RF, where we can whittle away the center area, we don’t want to do that at audio. We need to use one or more wires depending on the design to reach the proper DCR and Vp differential without excessive capacitance and inductance, and keep current across the entire wire as uniform as we can. 

More About Speaker Cable Design

Our ICONOCLAST speaker cable utilizes many small 24 AWG wires that have a relatively low 45 pF/foot capacitance. I chose to use a higher capacitance to lower the Vp differential across the frequency range, with 24 higher-DCR 24 AWG wires per polarity (shown). Both of these attributes improve the Vp differential as we saw in the Vp analysis math.

The design of the speaker cable allows us to precisely control the capacitance. Using such a large number of small wires meets the “voltage divider” bulk DCR properties of the cable and the use of our field-cancellation technology lowers the inductance to 0.08 uH/foot. Teflon insulation is used to allow tighter wire spacing and, to hold capacitance down and to decrease loop area. The cross-weave design cancels magnetic fields to further drop inductance.

Interconnect Design Details

Earlier the aspects of how to achieve proper dielectric efficiency was shown for the RCA and XLR interconnect.

Our Generation One XLR and RCA cables use a small 25 AWG wire and have a low 12.5 pF/foot capacitance. The small center wire improves the Vp differential, while the air (hollow air core) dielectric allows tighter spacing at a given capacitance, which yields a lower inductance of 0.15 uH/foot, facilitated through a small loop area.

  Our Generation Two XLR and RCA cables use a four wire 30 AWG “conductor” to increase the separate wire path DCR to lower Vp differential even more. The capacitance DOES go up however, to 17.5 pF/foot. The smaller 30 AWG wire with higher a DCR combined with increased capacitance lowers the Vp differentials even further. The changes, capacitance increase and smaller wire (higher DCR) leverage the Vp differential over “bandwidth” from lower capacitance. Listening tests show this to be a better-sounding cable.


A Series II dual-star-quad design (see right diagram) lowers inductance to 0.11uH/foot to keep phase through the audio band lower than the Generation One design. These design attributes allow a technically better analog cable to be made than our Series One (left diagram).

Our RCA and XLR interconnects have the same loop DCR in each design. How is this done? The RCAs loop DCR is essentially the center signal wire, as the braid has almost zero DCR. This is why the center wire DCR is so, so important: it’s the “R” in the Vp differential equation.

The star-quad 4×1 XLR interconnect (above left) features a full loop that uses two wires in parallel. This results in a DCR that is the same as one wire’s measured value. We cut the DCR in half in each direction, so a full loop is now the same as one wire’s.

The 4×4 XLR (above right) uses four separate wires per leg, of higher DCR value, which lowers the Vp differential. Since we use four wires in parallel, the loop DCR is lower than the 4×1 XLR even though we increased the apparent signal wire DCR with four insulated current paths. The XLR wire size is critical to performance in the audio band. The loop DCR is equivalent to using four 30 AWG conductors in parallel.


The ideal cable is always a balance of competing electrical properties. The electrical property of resistance isn’t as benign as we would like to think, and resistance has to be factored into a well-performing cable configuration. This can result in some complex but effective designs.

Inductance and capacitance are problematic, as they have a push-pull relationship. One goes up when the other goes down. We need to configure designs that are low in L and C from the start. In my studies, allowing capacitance to rise somewhat is necessary to enable the desired result of flattening the velocity propagation curve, but can’t allow capacitance to reach unacceptable values that would affect an amplifier.

All the mentioned variables are real. The net results of the effects of R, L and C in a cable are important. The ideal cable can’t really be made, though, because cables are a reactive component that interact with the other components in an audio system.

If we consider the tertiary, or unmeasurable aspects of a cable, such as wire metallurgy material contributions and polarization speeds of dielectrics and the like, they have to rest on a solid foundation of the primary and secondary effects that we can control. ICONOCLAST is made considering both mathematical calculations and real-world measurements, in order to make the best-possible cables that current-manufacturing processes can meet.

That cables sound different isn’t a mystery to me. If the variables that relate to time-based effects are improved, the sound of the cable can be improved. As we like to say, sound designs create sound performances.

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Jorma Kaukonen: Playing Fur Peace

Jorma Kaukonen: Playing Fur Peace

Jorma Kaukonen: Playing Fur Peace

Ray Chelstowski

Jorma Kaukonen has been wowing live audiences for decades with his remarkable guitar skills and his unique take on American roots music, blues, Americana, and of course rock and roll. As a founding member of two legendary bands, Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, Jorma has made a musical mark that is revered as widely among his peers as it is among his fiercely loyal fan following.

During quarantine Jorma has been hosting a weekly free concert from his Fur Peace Ranch on its YouTube channel. The New York Times recently said it was among the top online concerts launched during COVID-19. Out of these sessions has come the inspiration behind a new record, The River Flows, tied to his long-standing collaborations with John Hurlbut. The River Flows was produced by Jorma at the ranch in Meigs County, Ohio and mixed by three-time Grammy winner and Hot Tuna drummer Justin Guip. Together they have made a record filled with fantastic takes on songs made famous by artists they admire, along with a few originals. It’s a celebration of great music, tremendous acoustic guitar work, and a close friendship that began almost 40 years ago.

John Hurlbut + Jorma Kaukonen, The River Flows album cover.

The record provided a rare moment where Jorma could step back and allow John to take charge of the music. This shift afforded Jorma the opportunity to just focus on his guitar contributions and put forward some really tasty leads that makes these songs sparkle. As he shared with us, this was arguably the first time he has had that kind of artistic freedom since leaving the Jefferson Airplane in 1972.

We caught up with Jorma and talked about the making of the record, the impact of his YouTube concerts, his life-long friendship with Jack Casady, the birth of his signature Martin guitar, and his now infamous relationship with Janis Joplin. We also had a chance to hear about what is coming next when the current touring ban is lifted.

Ray Chelstowski: The New York Times rated your YouTube series Live from the Fur Peace Ranch as a Top 10 COVID-19 webcast series. How did you approach the project?

Jorma Kaukonen: We’ve been doing this since the first week of April. What we have here at the Fur Peace Ranch is a 230-seat theater and a video production facility because we tape performances for our local NPR station; so we had the infrastructure. As soon as it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be touring and that the Ranch probably wasn’t going to be opening for a while then it became like a Judy Garland thing, “let’s do a show!” Except we didn’t have to go to somebody’s barn.  We had it all right here and everything sort of evolved from there.

Now as soon as we started doing this the sharks smelled blood in the water. They were like, “we can do this and monetize that,” and I went, “every time I get involved with one of these streaming services to monetize something it never works.” We decided to instead just do these ourselves and put it out for free. In the end we got so many donations that I was able to pay the production staff for the entire time that we’ve been doing this. It just came about because it gave us something to do and reaffirm my identity as a guitar player. One thing led to another and it’s really become an important part of our lives. We got a lot of positive feedback from people and I give it back to them. This gives us a reason to do what we do. So it’s a team effort and we’re thrilled.

RC: You seem to be enjoying building the set lists and playing songs from throughout your career.

JK: So, one of the other things that it’s given me is the opportunity to go back and revisit old stuff and to practice guitar, because performing live isn’t practicing. That’s a different thing all together. I started to rediscover things that I could still relate to that I hadn’t played in a long time. That’s been a really interesting part of the challenge and has also been rewarding in a lot of ways.

Jorma Kaukonen and John Hurlbut. Photo credit: Scotty Hall. Jorma Kaukonen and John Hurlbut. Photo credit: Scotty Hall.


RC: This process must have been very freeing.

JK: Yeah absolutely! The other thing that the players out there will understand is that when Jack [Casady] and I are doing what it is that we do we’re really good at it. But since I haven’t had a show to take on the road I’ve had the chance to take some time re-examining some old paths that I haven’t walked on in decades. And that has been rewarding. The other thing is that since the quarantine shows happen to be 90 minutes long, we end up gabbing, so you don’t have to pack it up with songs. I’m spending a lot of time through the week working on songs for the next show, and that’s something I wouldn’t be doing if I was on the road.

RC: So you say that the YouTube series has you practicing guitar even more. Some guys like Jeff Beck leave guitars throughout their house so they can’t avoid practicing. Others like Jonny Lang don’t pick up the guitar until they are ready to head back out on the road. What’s your practice regime like?

JK: Well first of all I have two dogs and a teenage daughter so I don’t leave guitars sitting out. The other thing is that even if it weren’t for the potential guitar disasters I have never been a guy who leaves a guitar out. But the case is never far away. Now I don’t know much about what Jonny Lang would do when he’s not working. And even though me and the guys do electric gigs, I almost never pick up an electric guitar except when we are getting ready to go on tour. So I can really relate to Jonny. But there’s never a day that goes by where I don’t spend a considerable amount of time with my acoustic guitar. I know that a lot of my buddies that primarily play electric guitar don’t agree, but for me that’s where the noose lies. Playing electric guitar is fun to play with the guys, not fun by myself.


RC: Bruce Cockburn has told me that his practicing is now focused on those areas of his playing that have been most impacted by age. Do you use practice in a similar way?

JK: I totally agree with Bruce on that. That’s just a fact of life. Teresa Williams, [musician] Larry Campbell’s wife, is a great singer (great guitar player too in her own right) and has done some vocal workshops for us. One of the things she said that really resonated with me was that as an artist when you’re young you’re bustin’ your ass to learn your craft. Then the train gets rolling, and in your middle years, because you’re still kind of a badass you can coast for a while. Then in the later part of your life as things get physically harder to do you need to practice again just like when you were younger.

I’m very fortunate that even though I’ve had some changes in my hands I have very little arthritis. But there are some things that are more difficult for me to do. I may practice hard-to-do things, but in a performance situation I am going to focus on the things that I know I can execute cleanly, because tone and cleanliness has always been really important to me.

RC: It’s been said that the new record was inspired by your almost 40-year friendship with John Hurlbut. What were you both trying to achieve with these songs and this acoustic approach?

JK: Johnny and I have been have known each other long time and have played together this way for a number of years. At the ranch over the last decade we’ve done performances where I’d say, “throw a song at me and let’s see what happens,” But as I’ve gotten to know his music better, I’ve seen that he has a purity of intent that as an artist I think is somewhat rare. He has no pretensions. He just loves what it is that he does. We’ve spent so much time together that I’ve learned to read him really well and I just thought that Johnny and I needed to do a record.






The Culture Factory got involved and they picked it up immediately. Then we got our buddy Justin Guip, who’s the drummer in electric Hot Tuna, to produce the album and we cut all songs in just two days. There’s no movie magic, there’s no digital editing, there’s no fixing. We just got the performance we wanted and that was important to me. I’m not critical of “brick laying” [overdubbing] with music. We’ve all done it. I just wanted the music to speak for itself.

To accompany someone else in the same kind of head space that I would have used when I was in Jefferson Airplane was utterly liberating in a really profound way. When I do my own thing or play with Hot Tuna I’m doing my thing. But to play with other people where the burden of the song isn’t on me is so liberating that it allows me to do some creative stuff that I probably wouldn’t have done with Hot Tuna.

RC: On the record you include songs by Curtis Mayfield, Ry Cooder, The Byrds, and Dillard & Clark. But the record has a real John Prine vibe to it. When he passed you and John did a tribute to Prine, correct?

JK: Yeah, we did “Angel from Montgomery.” John and I shared a dressing room when we did the “Love For Levon [Helm]” benefit and I had talked about getting him to the ranch. The storytelling frame of mind that John had, or that Guy Clark had, for example, helped create songs that are popular but they’re not pop songs, they just allow you to look into someone’s heart. Every one of those songs that’s on the record is part of a story that I can relate to in a really personal way. But as far as picking the songs, that’s all Johnny.

RC: You have collaborated with many great guitarists. Larry Campbell, G.E. Smith, and Warren Haynes quickly come to mind. What do you look for when picking someone to work with?


JK: I’m not a studio musician and not looking for guitar virtuosity. What I’m looking for is someone who can tell the story in a solid way. When Johnny plays, he’s not an unsophisticated guitar player. His approach is very minimalistic. I think what he was doing was exactly what those songs needed. As a guitar player there are certain common ways we do stuff depending upon your style. Johnny plays with a flat pick and the way he holds it is so bizarre. It’s not like seeing someone with seven fingers (laughs). But it is different and it works.

I kind of take issue with the term “cover a song.” When I was young we didn’t think about writing songs, we just learned songs we liked. To me, covering a song implies doing a song the way the original artists did. Johnny doesn’t do that. He has a song that he likes and it becomes his!

RC: How does someone you collaborate with become part of the staff at the Fur Peace Ranch?

JK: That’s a little bit different. Warren Haynes is arguably one of the greatest living guitar players. He’s also a fantastic singer. Most of us are used to hearing him in an electric format. When he came to the ranch he was teaching an electric class but when he did his show he did it acoustically. When we have guests like Warren the stage is his. Whatever he wants to do is great. If one of our guests wants me to play and they have a place for it I’m happy to do so. If it doesn’t fit into their show I’m happy to step back and listen.


RC: You grew up all over the world. Did that have an impact on the music you’ve made?

JK: I would guess. I’m from the [Washington] DC area, that’s my hometown. Everything that touches our life influences us in some way. Growing up we lived in Pakistan and Pebble Beach; I lived all over the place. I don’t think as I got into music that I set out to make that part of it, but our environment changes us. The fact that I listened to all of those different kinds of sounds no doubt influenced me in some way.

RC: How has your relationship with Jack Casady evolved over time?

JK: We read each other really well because we’ve spent so much time together. I think one of the things that’s really affected our interaction profoundly is that even as kids we always respected each other as people and as artists. We’re really different guys but we’ve never had a band meeting, we don’t argue about stuff, we just always put the art first. And, we listen to each other.

Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen, 2009. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Thom C. Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen, 2009. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Thom C.


RC: Tell us about your signature Martin guitar.

JK: I’m not a guitar designer and my life has been dedicated to not trying to over think stuff. Like I don’t know the [scale length] of my guitar; it’s not something that’s important to me. I do know that Martin guitars are long-scale guitars and my Gibsons are short-scale. What the actual dimensions are I don’t know. When I started out playing I got a 1958 Gibson J-50 which I still own. That became the soundtrack of my life for many years. If I’d had money I probably would have gotten a Martin because it’s a fancier guitar. One of my snottier friends in L.A. said, “well you know Jorma, a Martin guitar is a guitar that’s has been to music school!“ There’s a certain cachet about Martin guitars but I couldn’t afford one so I got a Gibson. In the 2000s when Martin was doing artist’s models [David] Bromberg got one. I was doing a show with him in the Philly area and I played his guitar. To make a long story short, I knew the guys at Martin and they gave me a decent deal on a Bromberg signature guitar, which was a 4O [OOOO]-sized guitar with normal Martin [scale length]. I started playing the guitar and just loved it. I felt ritzy.

Later I was approached by Martin about doing a signature guitar and I told them I wasn’t a guitar designer; that I know what I want when I see it. I got involved with a tour and I had to fly to Boston. I had my Bromberg guitar and even though it was in a flight case it got a hairline crack up by the peghead. So I sent it back to Martin to repair it and they sent me a similar guitar called an M5. It was much sparser in terms of its appointments than the 4-0. It wasn’t quite as thick body-wise, which is important to guys like us who play plugged in all of the time. I really loved everything about it and decided that I was ready to talk to Martin about the signature guitar thing. So we went to [the Martin factory in] Nazareth and we stopped at the pizza place across the street from the Martin guitar factory and we designed the Jorma guitar on a napkin. I said that I pretty much wanted it to be like this M5 guitar but we could use Style 30 appointments and we did some fancy stuff around the sound hole.

RC: This year there is quite a lot planned to celebrate the life of Janis Joplin. Can you tell us a bit about The Typewriter Tape recording you did with her in 1964?

JK: I wound up meeting Janis the first weekend I was in the Bay area; we met down in San Jose. As soon as I heard her sing I realized that I was in the presence of greatness. I mean, keep in mind that I was only like 21 years old but I [had] just never heard anything like that. I had listened to Bessie Smith and others but this was one of my contemporaries and she was just as good as any of them. At the time she was living in San Francisco and I was living in Santa Clara. None of us had cars so even being 50 miles away from each other might take the entire day on a bus to get together. So whenever Janis would come down for a gig she would hop on a bus. She had a gig at The Coffee Gallery which was up on Grant Street.

She came down to rehearse and my first wife (may she rest in peace) was writing letters home. We taped everything in those days because I had just gotten a tape recorder and that was a big deal back then. So we fired the recorder up and my ex was typing a letter home and Janis and I were playing. What’s so funny is that people ask if we realized that what we were doing would become something so iconic. Of course we didn’t. It’s just a raw version of Janis at that time. Now I’ve gotten to know Janis’s sister casually over the years and she told me that Jani was constantly reinventing herself. Most everyone knows Janis the rock star. The Janis I knew during that period of time was Janis the blues singer. As time went on she became someone else and that’s OK. But she remains maybe the greatest blues singer I’ve ever played with.

RC: What are your plans for when touring opens up again?

JK: We are going to keep the quarantine concerts going for as long as we can. We’re even talking about pre-recording some so we can do it when I [resume] touring. But for guys like me there’s nothing like that feeling of a live audience and the energy that you get back from them.

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Nicky Hopkins: An Unsung Musical Hero

Nicky Hopkins: An Unsung Musical Hero

Nicky Hopkins: An Unsung Musical Hero

Stuart Marvin

Nicky Hopkins is hardly an unknown entity in the world of rock music. A stellar piano/keyboard player, even the most modest rock fan is likely familiar with his work. Think about the opening bars to the Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” or “Monkey Man.” Or how about Hopkins’ beautiful piano solo during the bridge in “Angie?” Many, many years after collaborating on John Lennon’s song “Jealous Guy,” Yoko Ono commented, “Nicky Hopkins’ playing is so melodic and beautiful, that it still makes everyone cry, even now.”


Hopkins’ style indeed was always considered melodic and never flashy, and with contributions to so many iconic albums and songs, he unquestionably is an integral part of the history of rock music. What’s probably unbeknownst to many Copper readers, however, is how deeply entrenched Hopkins work is across such a wide range of 1960s and 1970s recordings, a prolific period when Hopkins was the most sought-after session keyboardist in the business, and whom many (still) consider the world’s best.

How many musicians can say they made invaluable contributions to classic tracks from the Beatles, Stones, the Who, Kinks and Jeff Beck? Absolutely none, other than Nicky Hopkins. How about contributions to solo albums for all four Beatles? Then throw in Ella Fitzgerald, Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, David Bowie, Art Garfunkel and Joe Walsh, and you can see how diverse Hopkins’ musical contributions were, and not so easily stereotyped.

Nicky Hopkins. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.
Nicky Hopkins in 1973. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.


Of course, many music fans are familiar with legendary “studio bands,” or groups of session musicians that recorded as a team for many well-known artists during the 1960s and beyond. These studio bands included the Wrecking Crew, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Booker T & the M.G.’s, the house band for Stax Records. But these were all group collaborations, as invaluable as they may be.

Here’s just a small sample of albums Hopkins contributed to over the years:

Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request, Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street

Beatles: The Beatles (The “White Album”); John Lennon – Imagine, Walls and Bridges; Paul McCartney – Flowers in the Dirt; George Harrison – Living in the Material World, Dark Horse; Ringo Starr – Ringo, Goodnight Vienna

The Who: My Generation, Who’s Next, The Who by Numbers

Kinks: The Kink Kontroversy, Face to Face, Something Else by the Kinks, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society

Jeff Beck Group: Truth, Beck-Ola

Jefferson Airplane: Volunteers 

Quicksilver Messenger Service: Shady Grove, Just For Love, What About Me

Steve Miller Band: Brave New World, Your Saving Grace

Carly Simon: No Secrets

You can also add-in Hopkins’ highly melodic piano on Joe Cocker’s soulful rendition of “You Are So Beautiful,” a song written by another great keyboardist and child prodigy, the late Billy Preston. For all intents and purposes, this beautiful arrangement is just Cocker’s vocals with Hopkins’ piano underneath.


Nicky Hopkins was born outside of London in 1944 in the middle of an air raid drill, a stark contrast to the reserved personality he would be known for. Built wisp-thin, Hopkins had a lifelong struggle with poor health, including battling Crohn’s disease and having many surgeries. Hopkins was bedridden for an unconscionable nineteen months during his late teens after surgery to remove a kidney and gall bladder. A love for the bottle unfortunately added to his poor health. It probably wasn’t particularly helpful that during his formative years, Hopkins’ family lived close to a Guinness brewery, where his father worked as an accountant.

Hopkins exhibited prodigy-like talent at a very early age. After winning a local piano competition, he received a scholarship to London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music. He studied there from the ages of 12 to 16 and was a contemporary of another scholarship recipient by the name of Reginald Dwight, a.k.a. Elton John.

His classical studies were interrupted and ended prematurely when he began performing with prominent local bands (i.e., Screaming Lord Sutch) that ultimately lead to an early ’60s residency with British R&B legend Cyril Davies at London’s famed Marquee Club. From that exposure, demand for Hopkins’ session work began to blossom.

Hopkins’ formal training would later serve to be an asset in the studio, particularly to legendary producers George Martin (the Beatles), Andrew Loog Oldham (the Rolling Stones), Shel Talmy (the Who, the Kinks) and Simon Napier-Bell (Jeff Beck). Said Talmy of Hopkins at the time, “Nicky Hopkins is the most promising pianist/arranger on the music scene today; that goes for both sides of the Atlantic!”


If a producer thought a change in key was needed for a song, it was often relegated to Hopkins to develop new chord charts for other musicians who were only self-taught. Composer/arranger and ex-Manfred Mann guitarist Mick Vickers once said of Hopkins, “there are people who read music and don’t make things up, and people who make things up and don’t read music, so when you put them together it’s a powerful thing.”

When asked to describe his playing style, Hopkins offered, “I can hear things in my playing that sound a bit like Albert Ammons [the boogie woogie, jazz-style pianist popular in the late 1930s] or in a rare instance maybe, like Rachmaninoff. I don’t know if I sound like A, B, C, or D. I’ve assimilated so many peoples’ styles of playing over the years, plus, I guess, my own too.”

Reminiscing on the session and mix for the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Hopkins had this to say: “the piano is way too low. I was playing the piano with my left hand and the organ with my right at the same time on that track. I always disliked guitar players’ ears, which is what most engineers have.” He then mockingly added with a laugh, “the piano is so difficult to mix, so we’ll just turn it down.”

There were occasional periods when Hopkins was a permanent member of a group, such as The Jeff Beck Group, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the short-lived but excellent band Sweet Thursday (which also included Alun Davies, Jon Mark and others). He did manage to play with the Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock in 1969, in addition to the Stones’ infamous and debauchery-laden 1972 North American tour. However, road opportunities for Hopkins were fleeting, as either the bands he was in would break up or his ailing health would get in the way.

As a session musician, Hopkins frequently found himself working side-by-side with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, both also well-known and highly regarded session players at the time. Given their friendship and mutual respect, it is said that Hopkins actually turned down an opportunity to join an early version of Led Zeppelin.

As a “hired gun,” Hopkins only received album liner note credits, and sometimes even then he was shortchanged. Session players frequently make valuable contributions to a song, with a riff here or a chord change there, without receiving the credit or recognition they deserve. Hopkins never received royalty payments, outside of the generosity of Quicksilver Messenger Service and their management company for select recordings.


Session work depends a lot upon a player’s chemistry with the primary artist, his or her style of play and what kind of contributions an artist is seeking, amongst other things. Sometimes the artist and producer know exactly what they’re looking for, sometimes they don’t. Ideally, they’re open to input, especially if a session musician has chops and a strong reputation to go with it.

The Kinks’ Ray Davies, who Hopkins didn’t have a particularly good relationship with, reflected on the band’s Face to Face sessions by noting, “Nicky Hopkins looked so thin and pale, it was as if he had just been whisked out of intensive care and dragged in on a stretcher so he could play piano on our track.” Wow, way to dole out the compliments, Ray!

In 1966 The Revolutionary Piano of Nicky Hopkins was released, an instrumental album designed to showcase Hopkins as a solo artist. Producer Shel Talmy thought it was a good idea to turn Hopkins into a frontman. The LP consisted of a strange and eclectic mix of songs, including a somewhat jazzy interpretation of the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” The LP did not sell particularly well, in part due to lack of record label support.

In 1973 Hopkins attempted another solo project with the LP The Tin Man Was A Dreamer, a Columbia records release that I still own. In this effort, Hopkins flexes his pipes on lead vocals, accompanied by a slew of well-known musicians and friends, including George Harrison, Mick Taylor, Klaus Voorman and Bobby Keys. Although Tin Man received some decent reviews, I can only say that perhaps it’s an acquired taste. A third solo album, No More Changes, was released in 1975.


In sum, one can be a great musician, which Hopkins unquestionably was, but being a great songwriter requires an entirely different skill set.

In 1994, after complications from intestinal surgery, Hopkins sadly succumbed to his poor health at the young age of 50. When news of Hopkins’ death reached old friend Ian McLagan of Small Faces fame, he and his wife decided to go for a drink to celebrate his life. When they entered a bar for a round of beers, without any action or provocation on their part, the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” came on the jukebox, followed by an unbroken succession of songs Nicky Hopkins played on. When McLagan asked the barkeep if she knew who Hopkins was, assuming there was a connection, she said she’d never heard of him and that if nobody put money in the jukebox; it played its own random selections. It was pure karma, and they were thrilled!

In 2019, on what would have been Hopkins’ 75th birthday, London’s Royal Academy of Music posthumously bestowed a scholarship in his name and honor.

Nicky Hopkins is an unsung hero, a keyboardist of extraordinary talent whose contributions to music will live on today, tomorrow and the next day. It’s a legacy that’s quite well deserved.

Header image of Quicksilver Messenger Service in 1970 (Hopkins is second from right) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

Issue 132

Frank Doris

Three Excellent New Albums By Bands That Had Flown Under My Radar!

Three Excellent New Albums By Bands That Had Flown Under My Radar!

Three Excellent New Albums By Bands That Had Flown Under My Radar!

Tom Gibbs

Mogwai – As The Love Continues

Mogwai is a Scottish band that formed in 1995 in Glasgow; founding members Stuart Braithwaite and Dominic Aitchison first toyed with forming a band a few years earlier, but the idea really gelled when they teamed up with former schoolmate Martin Bulloch. The band name Mogwai came from the sometimes cute but often scary creatures in the movie Gremlins, but Stuart Braithwaite says that the name really has no significance with regard to the band. They just thought it sounded cool, but would eventually change the band’s name when a better one could be chosen. That never happened, and the band name has carried on for over twenty-five years now. The word “Mogwai” from the Cantonese Chinese language means evil spirit or devil, but again, Braithwaite says there’s no relevance between the name and the band’s ethos. Their music is most often described as post-rock and sometimes space-rock; not having heard them before this record, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I’d definitely agree with the post-rock descriptor. The music is infused with a definite rock vibe, but feels more futuristic or forward-leaning. The music also contains many elements of prog-rock; from the opening track “To the Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate Earth,” I intrinsically knew that I was going to looove this record!

Mogwai’s lineup has remained consistent since 1998, consisting of Braithwaite on guitars, bass, and vocals; Dominic Aitchison on bass and guitar; Martin Bulloch on drums; and Barry Burns on guitar, bass, keyboards, synths, flute, and vocals. A pretty diverse group of musicians, and you can easily tell that with twenty-plus years together, the band members know each other’s styles intimately as they perform together seamlessly. Much of the band’s musical style has often been compared to the shoegaze or math-rock genres, but multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns has outright dismissed that, stating that he and the rest of the band don’t like the categorization of their music, because it leads to excessive over-analyzation of their style. And much of Mogwai’s music is instrumental; Stuart Braithwaite made a statement to the Daily Express in 1999 in response to fan complaints that fans should “forget the vocals, just come on and feel the noise!”

As The Love Continues is Mogwai’s tenth studio album, and their second to be released in the current pandemic reality. Most of the album was written and performed remotely by the various band members, and assembled later at Vada Studios in Alcester, Warwickshire in England. Stuart Braithwaite says it was the first time any of the band had been outside Scotland since the pandemic took hold of the UK. Braithwaite said that leaving Scotland and going to Vada Studios in England was amazing, and that [as a Scotsman] “going to England being amazing is not a sentence I thought I’d ever say in my life[!]” 

The music has a definite rock and roll feel to it, though with a bit more of a kind of droning proggishness. It was really an interesting listen; while my original intent was to simply skim through the tracks to get some kind of idea about the music, I ended up listening to the whole album from end to end. There’s a lot here that’s really fresh, but at the same time, there’s a kind of weird familiarity with many of the songs, almost as though I knew some of them but couldn’t place any of the references. I’m not trying to say that As The Love Continues is derivative in any way, but there was a certain comforting familiarity to be found in many of the tunes. Kind of a Black Sabbath meets Pink Floyd meets King Crimson meets Radiohead kind of thing…I’m sure that fans of the band will crucify me for this, but I still found listening to them both tranquilizing and invigorating at the same time. And with the exception of the song “Ritchie Sacramento” – which is sung with clean vocals by Braithwaite, and is an homage of sorts to people they’ve lost during the pandemic – all of the tracks are instrumental, with the occasional voice effect or vocoded vocal added for texture. I’m certain their fans will be in an uproar, once again!  


The 24/96 digital files on Qobuz are really superb; the album has subterranean bass that shook my whole house more so than any other album in recent memory, and it also possesses an incredibly wide dynamic range. Even my wife Beth complained! Dave Clark, one of my editors over at Positive Feedback, really digs this band and has recommended them countless times, but for whatever reason I’ve ignored them until now. I plan on digging deeply into their back catalog, and am also on the lookout for an LP. Very highly recommended!

Temporary Residence Limited, CD/LP/limited edition LP (download/streaming from Bandcamp, Qobuz [24/96], Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)


Tindersticks – Distractions

Nottingham, England’s Tindersticks is an alternative rock group that was the brainchild of principal songwriter and lead vocalist Stuart Staples in 1991. His distinctive baritone voice is one of the band’s most recognizable hallmarks, the other being the extraordinary orchestrations of multi-instrumentalist Dickon Hinchcliffe. After six studio albums, the band essentially went on hiatus in the early 2000s, with Hinchcliffe then dedicating his work output to composing music for films while Staples embarked on a solo career. The band reformed permanently in 2008, and when Hinchcliffe declined to return, the group continued as a trio and with a much pared down stylistic palette. The trio consisted of founding members Stuart Staples (guitars, vocals), Dave Boulter (organ and accordion), and Neil Fraser (guitars), but have recently been augmented by Dan McKinna (guitars, bass, keyboards, string arrangements) and Earl Harvin (drums, percussion, bass, guitars). Distractions is the band’s thirteenth studio album, but the group has also composed music for the soundtracks of seven films by French filmmaker Claire Denis.

Distractions hearkens back to the sonic presentation of Tindersticks’ 2019 release No Treasure But Hope, which was also a very minimalist musical affair. The opening track, “Man Alone (can’t stop the fadin’),” begins with muted keyboards, synths, and Staples’ deeply resonant baritone. As the eleven-plus-minute track progresses, Staples’ vocal refrains are multi-tracked and layered across the wide and deep soundstage; at points, he’s coming at you from seemingly every direction. At first reflective and subdued, the pace of the song rapidly picks up, almost turning into a club-like, nearly danceable anthem; the song’s eleven minutes go by very quickly indeed! 

There’s also a very plaintive cover of Neil Young’s classic “A Man Needs A Maid” (from the album Harvest); I almost did a double take when the tune started playing. Because there are currently no album credits listed on Qobuz’s stream site for the record, and even though my brain told me that it was probably just another song that happens to have the same title as Neil’s, I was still blown away when I realized it was a cover – and by the delicacy and poignancy it was delivered with. What a totally effective and meaningful reworking of the song that Stuart Staples and Tindersticks were able to create. Dan McKinna has apparently (and quite successfully) filled the orchestration and arrangement void left by the departure of Dickon Hinchcliffe, but with Distractions being such a bare-bones affair, his arranging contributions appear to be held to a minimum here.


The 24/96 digital stream from Qobuz was outstanding, if perhaps not as dynamic as I might have expected it to be, but it offered a very realistic presentation of the band, along with some engagingly “out there” mixing effects. Large swaths of the album delve into what I’d describe as “almost electronica,” offering a relatively spare musical presentation to the record’s six tracks with a lot of the focus on Stuart Staples’ very distinctive voice. Some may find Staples’ voice a little off-putting, and it definitely had me raising my eyebrows at points throughout the album, but I was able to make the transition from skepticism to acceptance relatively quickly. That said, I still found Distractions to be a very compelling listen, and well worth checking out, especially if you have access to one of the online streaming services. Highly recommended.  

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


The Pretty Reckless – Death By Rock and Roll

The Pretty Reckless’ lead singer Taylor Momsen has an interesting back story. Originally intent on making a go in Hollywood as an actress, her big break was when she was chosen at age seven for the role of Cindy Lou Who along with Jim Carrey’s in 2000’s over-the-top trainwreck of a remake of the holiday classic How The Grinch Stole Christmas. She moved onto a number of kid-and-teen oriented movie appearances, but got another blast of exposure when she secured the recurring role of Jenny Humphrey in the CW network mainstay Gossip Girl in an extended run from 2007-2012. Eventually she grew tired of the grind of filming a weekly television series, and having always wanted to pursue a career in the music biz, started slumming with The Pretty Reckless when the band came together in 2009. The band was soon signed to Interscope Records, and were also recruited to tour as opening act for The Veronicas. In 2010, their debut album, Light Me Up was released – which was a critical and commercial success – and they were soon signed to appear as the opening act for Evanescence on tour throughout 2011. Taylor Momsen – who’s not too difficult to look at (she’s actually pretty freaking gorgeous) – had been signed to a modeling contract by IMG Models at age fifteen, and has posed completely or nearly nude on a couple of the band’s album covers. Cindy Lou Who becomes alt-rock frontman – go figure!

The Pretty Reckless set a Billboard chart record in 2014 with the release of their album Going To Hell, when their first two singles each reached the Number One position on the charts – a first for a female-fronted rock band. They’ve since added three more chart-topping singles along the way, making the record now five Number One singles by a female-fronted rock band – very impressive indeed! Here’s the kicker for me – as hot as Taylor Momsen is, and with the phenomenal commercial and critical success that The Pretty Reckless has enjoyed for the last several albums, they’ve completely flown under my radar this entire time. I don’t really listen to any current rock radio, and for whatever reason, I’ve completely missed out on all the buzz about the band. And I had no clue that Cindy Lou Who was all grown up, strutting it on stage in nine-inch heels along with screaming guitars. That is, until now; I was recently skimming through my Facebook news feed, when a post by Qobuz USA point man David Solomon offered a link to the new album, Death By Rock and Roll (their fourth studio album), and raved about how much he was enjoying it. The cover definitely caught my attention, so I decided to give it listen – and boy, am I glad I did!

Not that this is strictly the Taylor Momsen show; the band also features crack musicians Ben Phillips on lead guitar and backing vocals, Jamie Perkins on drums, and Mark Damon on bass. As Ben Phillips’ guitar sears into the first few notes of the opening title track, you almost get the idea that Death By Rock and Roll is a hardcore/metal affair, with pounding drums and crunching guitar chords. And Taylor Momsen does a very credible job of totally owning the whole “rock and roll woman” thing; apparently, after the band started taking off a few years ago, she basically went through a very “wild child” (she’s only 25!) period of outrageous style of dress and even more outrageous behavior. In recent interviews, she makes it clear that she’s toned things down a bit, but you still can’t help but be somewhat wowed by her aggressive and seductive vocals. Yeah, I know we’re still squarely in the midst of the Me Too era, but I’m hoping you’ll give me a pass on waxing so excessively on how much her over-the-top appearance contributes to my enjoyment of the band! 

But like I was saying, you almost get the impression that this is a metal band – until you get to the songs that would make up side two of the LP, and a couple of the songs have a softer, almost country ballad type of feel. That kind of threw me just a bit, but everything on the album is so well-executed, I can’t really find any fault with it. 

Qobuz’s digital stream of Death By Rock and Roll is presented in 24/48 quality; it’s definitely a very well-recorded album, and a blast to listen to! While I think The Pretty Reckless is still a work in progress, and some of the songs are perhaps a bit cookie-cutter stylistically, they’re currently making all the right moves, and will probably only get better with each successive album. I’m currently on the hunt for an LP copy – they seem to be sold out just about everywhere. Highly recommended!

Fearless Records, CD/LP/Cassette (download/streaming from Qobuz [24/48], Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)

Header image of Mogwai courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Black Kite.

Tale of the Tape

Tale of the Tape

Tale of the Tape

Frank Doris

John Seetoo saw this TEAC 4300 tape deck on a Brooklyn street corner, with a note that says, "COVID-19-free – needs a tune up." One person's trash is indeed another person's treasure.

An extra $3 a month for an uncommon stereo? Sold! From Audio, August 1966.

An extra $3 a month for an uncommon stereo? Sold! From Audio, August 1966.

OK, we give up: what is that thing? 1973 Heathkit catalog, including audio component kits, marine depth sounders and who knows what else.

OK, what is that thing? 1973 Heathkit catalog, including audio component kits and who knows what else.

You'd think we would have settled this by now. United Audio/Dual turntable ad, 1974.

You'd think we would have settled this by now. United Audio/Dual turntable ad, 1974.

There's no wind noise from Mars on this 1957 RCA

There's no wind noise from Mars on this 1957 RCA "Living Stereo" LP, but there are spectacular demonstration tracks. Dig that catalog number!

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High-Performance Driver

High-Performance Driver

High-Performance Driver

James Schrimpf
The last ray of the setting sun catches Jimmie Johnson setting a new lap record during qualifying as he enters Turn #1 at nearly 185 mph. Phoenix International Raceway, Avondale, Arizona.

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Talking With Andrew Hoffman of Audiophile Archive and Grading Services

Talking With Andrew Hoffman of Audiophile Archive and Grading Services

Talking With Andrew Hoffman of Audiophile Archive and Grading Services

Frank Doris

Audiophile Archive and Grading Services (AAGS) is a vinyl record-grading and archiving company. They clean, inspect and grade records, certify their grading and record a high-resolution digital audio backup, among other services.

Frank Doris: First, please explain to the readers what AAGS does.

Andrew Hoffman: Our flagship service is to grade and certify valuable records as a third party. We grade the records both visually and audibly, resulting in a final grade called the “AAGS Index Score” (a term we’ve trademarked). We also offer subscriptions to an ultrasonic cleaning service, autograph authentication, repair and cleaning services, and high-quality digital transfers.

I got into hi-fi and audiophile listening as a teenager. I have been a gear head ever since. Looking for good-sounding pressings and better sound has always been my aim; however, it had always remained a hobby. I started my audio career being formally trained by Panasonic, Sony, and JVC as an electronics technician for broadcast television video equipment. My job was to take beat up and worn-out field equipment and completely restore them to like new condition. I would perform modifications including firmware updates, making them even better than they were before they came in.

Andrew Hoffman.

It was a great business to be in because I was able to exercise my electronic and mechanical “muscles” and see the direct results of my work. I loved it. I moved into sales and consultation after tape technology became obsolete and started designing and installing TV studios. At the same time, I have always been into music, was in a few bands, and worked with the bands in recording studios and did some independent recordings as well.

Then all of those worlds collided after I was ripped off one too many times by private sellers of vinyl records. One record had the wrong disc inside. Another time, the seller had a drastically different opinion of what VG+ condition meant than I did. I looked around for a grading company for vinyl records so that I could have the sellers send the records to them to be graded before I bought them. I couldn’t find one. So, I started developing the business model and in 2019 founded Audiophile Archive & Grading Services.

FD: Can you explain your grading system and process? I understand you grade everything – the record, the cover, everything. And how would you compare your record grading to the Goldmine grading system, which has been adopted as an industry standard?

AH: We actually use the Goldmine grading system to influence our grading parameters. However, when you see a Goldmine-graded record being sold, you either see, for example, a “VG+” grading for the record as a whole, or “VG sleeve, VG+ media,” a separate grading for the sleeve and the disc. Still, there was so much information that was being left out. How does the record actually sound? Does the record include all the original inserts? Posters? Promotional stickers? With this in mind we created the AAGS Index by developing a proprietary algorithm that takes all the elements from each record including visual and audible parameters and outputs the AAGS Index Score™. We have a proprietary program that has been made with our unique grading algorithm. We enter in all of the features of the record, and it tells us what the score is.

An AAGS grading certificate. An AAGS grading certificate.



The best score you can receive on the AAGS Index scale is 10.  To put the score into context with Goldmine grades, 7.50 – 9.50 is approximately (VG+) – (NM-). More information is explained on our blog. We provide a certificate also includes details about the pressing, the mastering engineer, and which pressing it is, among other items of interest.

FD: I noticed you grade sealed records. How do you do that?

AH: Believe it or not, re-sealing records has been done. So, I verify that the sealed shrink wrap is original. I also inspect the quality of the outer sleeve. For example, it is possible to purchase a sealed record with a VG+ sleeve as a result of handling wear.

FD: Can you explain your cleaning process?

AH: We use the Degritter ultrasonic cleaner. We chose it because it is a touch-free solution and because it operates at a modulated frequency in the range of 120kHz that is ideal for cleaning the grooves in records and for not damaging them. It is also quieter so it is easier having multiple machines running at the same time. We run the record through two cycles; one with soap, the second with clean water to rinse the record. Both cycles have an ultrasonic cleaning process, and at the end of the rinse cycle the Degritter machine uses forced air to dry the record. Immediately when the drying cycle is finished, we put the record in a brand new Mobile Fidelity Original Master Record inner sleeve.

Degritter ultrasonic record cleaning machines.

FD: Are there people who subscribe to your cleaning service only, and don’t use the record grading service?

AH: Yes. They’re mostly people who love the results of ultrasonic cleaning machines but who cannot afford them. They’ll sign up for our subscriptions. It’s for this reason that we are planning on making ultrasonic cleaning subscriptions available for resale for record stores. However, we have customers that take advantage of both the cleaning and the record grading service.

FD: How do you do the high-resolution digital transfers? What turntable setup do you use, and what kind of D/A conversion?

AH: We use the SugarCube SC-2 from Sweet Vinyl for the analog-to-digital conversion and if the customer wants it, we’ll use the SC-2 to de-click the recording. [The SC-2 MODEL offers a selectable amount of click and pop removal – Ed.] We have found that the quality is excellent, and the workflow is scalable as our work volume continues to increase. We employ a Rega Planar 6 turntable with all of the upgrades and a Rega Ania moving coil cartridge for vinyl playback. We needed a setup that would offer the quality that our customers demand and that is cost effective to duplicate as we buy additional units.

FD: How do you repair damaged sleeves and warped records?

AH: We use standard record flatteners that are on the market. With sleeve repair, we have a cleaner that is safe to use on record sleeves that wipes away dirt and mold spores. A lot of the time, what seems to visually be a permanent stain ends up being some dirt that we can carefully clean off, restoring the sleeve and making it grade higher. We also have processes for repairing sleeves that have separated because of weak glue or that have torn due to impact. With any repairs, the record doesn’t grade as high as a record that is original; however, they grade much higher than if the sleeve was left in poor condition.

Restoring a record album sleeve.

FD: What do the services cost, and what is your turnaround time to the customer after receiving their records?

AH: Our grading and certification is $35 per LP (up to a double LP set). Grading sealed records of any kind is $20 per record; grading 7-inch 45 RPM singles costs $29 each. Ultrasonic cleaning is $10 if you would like to just send in one record. If you would like a subscription, we offer five records per month at $25, and 25 records per month at $100. For our subscriptions we offer free shipping and packaging as part of the subscription cost.

Autograph authentication is $25. If we need more time for any service we will provide an estimate for additional time needed at a rate of $25 per hour.

For digital transfers/mastering, it is $25 per hour and before doing the transfer we will provide an estimate based on the project.

Right now we are on a 30-day backlog and with COVID-19, everything is a bit slower, including the mail.

FD: Do you have people helping you, or are you the sole person behind everything?

AH: Right now it is just me and my lovely wife Emily. However, if things keep growing like they have been, we will have to expand. But that is a good thing!

FD: Before you started AAGS, you mentioned that you were burned in buying records that were worse than described. (I think every record collector has had this experience.) Were any of those records rare and valuable?

AH: I can’t recall all of them but yes. It happened enough that I lost enough trust in sellers at shows and online that I began to have less fun collecting. That is why I started the company. I figured that was the only way to instill trust back to the market, while also enhancing the market for highly-collectable records.

FD: Have you encountered skepticism? For example, customers who don’t agree with your grading of a particular record, or people who think you charge too much, or anything else?

AH: I get skeptics all the time. No one so far has disagreed with how I grade the records. However, what I hear the most is, “I can grade records myself.” My response is always, “I’m not you,” and this basic concept is what keeps me in business. What collectors and resellers are starting to understand is that a record that has been professionally graded and certified is actually more valuable on multiple levels. You can charge more for it because it’s been ultrasonically cleaned, played the whole way through, and verified to sound the way it has been graded to sound.

The certificate that accompanies the record includes the record pressing matrix codes, and research on the particulars of the pressing. The record is given a serial number and is permanently logged into the AAGS database. The owner or whoever buys the record can contact us and confirm that the certification is authentic. This goes a long way in terms of instilling trust in the buyer and bolsters confidence to the seller. When someone uses our service, they “get it.” As the word gets out it will demystify our services for the masses. But we are blessed with our success so far.

FD: What is the most valuable record you’ve ever graded or cleaned?

AH: It would have to be a UK first pressing of the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole, Columbia Records catalog number SAX 2329. It was a beautiful copy, much better than any other example that I had been able to find before.

 Symphonie Espagnole, Columbia Records catalog number SAX 2329.

FD: You started AAGS in 2019. How has business been since then?

AH: The first year was slow. From what we can tell we’re the first to market using this business model and as my answer to your previous question indicated, there were many skeptics. Then things started picking up and as the word got around, we’ve experienced dramatic growth, especially within the last six months.

FD: Are your customers mostly private individuals, or do you also do work for used-record stores and dealers?

AH: Our customer base is mostly private collectors and record store owners. We have worked with auctioneers to certify valuable records in preparation of the auction. We also have a customer base of record labels that require transfers from old records, when the master tapes and safety tapes no longer exist. We transfer these to hi-res digital and clean up any noise while maintaining tonal quality. At special request, we will use some techniques to separate drums, vocals, bass, and other musical elements from the original stereo mix and make minor tweaks to “modernize” the mix and provide mastering to individual elements, to fix any tonal imperfections so that the remix sounds more modern. For example, if the vocals are harsh, we can sweeten up just the vocals, then mix everything back down. We don’t go crazy though.

FD: Have you exhibited at audio or record shows? If not, is this something you might consider once it’s safe to do so?

AH: We exhibited at the Austin Record Convention in 2019. It was very successful. We came back with a bunch of work. We had dealers handing over their more valuable records to be cleaned and graded. We brought one of our Degritter machines and offered ultrasonic cleaning for those attending and charged a small fee. We had a great time and look forward to doing that again once it is safe. We would like to also get involved in exhibiting at some audiophile shows.

FD: How are you dealing with doing business since the pandemic?

AH: All of our business is online, so we have been fine. We are taking all precautions to ensure that we are safe when accepting packages from customers and are sure to disinfect all packaged contents before they go out to our customers. The delays in USPS have been difficult for us and for our customers. However, all has been good; slow, but good. We are taking some steps to change our process to have faster throughput and turnaround times.

FD: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AH: We are in the process of producing an encapsulation “slab” for those collectable records that you want to preserve. So keep checking back for updates. Also coming is 1/4-inch reel-to-reel tape grading and transfers.

Audiophile Archive & Grading Services PO Box 2401 Hagerstown, MD 21741 info@aagservices.org

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