Issue 133

Oh, Look!

Oh, Look!

Frank Doris

Copper has a new look! So does the rest of the PS Audio website, the result of countless hours of hard work. There's more functionality and easier access to articles, and additional developments will come. There will be some temporary glitches and some tweaks required – like high-end audio systems, magazines sometimes need tweaking too – but overall, we're excited to provide a better and more enjoyable reading experience.

I now hand over the column to our esteemed Larry Schenbeck:

Dear Copper Colleagues and Readers,

Frank has graciously asked if I’d like to share a word or two about my intention to stop writing Too Much Tchaikovsky. So: thanks to everyone who read and enjoyed it – I wrote it for you. If you added comments occasionally, you made my day.

I also wrote the column so I could keep learning, especially about emerging creatives and performers in classical music. Getting the chance to stumble upon something new and nourishing had sustained me in the academic world – it certainly wasn’t the money! – and I was grateful to continue that in Copper. 

So why stop? Because, as they say, there is a season. It has become considerably harder for me to stumble upon truly fresh sounds and then write freshly thereon. Here I am tempted to quote Douglas Adams or Satchel Paige, who both knew how to deliver an exit line. But I’ll just say (since Frank has promised to leave the light on), goodbye for now.

The door is open, Larry, and we can’t thank you enough for your wonderful contributions.

In this issue: Larry Schenbeck delves into the Bach's St John Passion. Ken Sander makes friends with Roye Albrighton of Nektar and beyond. Ray Chelstowski interviews Allman Brothers, Rolling Stones and Sea Level keyboardist extraordinaire Chuck Leavell. Alón Sagee scales the heights of Nepal. Adrian Wu gets even deeper into reel to reel tape. I try some unsuccessful audio experiments. Rudy Radelic gets his Hampster Dance on with Four80East.

Anne E. Johnson appreciates the legendary jazz singer Dinah Washington and one of Canada’s greatest, The Band. John Seetoo visits the storied United Recording Studios. Tom Gibbs looks at reissues from the under-appreciated Ronnie James Dio-era Black Sabbath. J.I. Agnew continues with the biggest move of his life. Cliff Chenfeld recommends some contemporary rock artists. Russ Welton ponders how musical experiences influence gear purchases. Audio Anthropology gives a lot of sound for a nickel, while Peter Xeni undergoes environmental impact, James Whitworth experiences auditory masking and our Parting Shot from Rich Isaacs gets up close and personal.

Open Reel Tape: The Ultimate Analog Source? Part Two

Open Reel Tape: The Ultimate Analog Source? Part Two

Open Reel Tape: The Ultimate Analog Source? Part Two

Adrian Wu

In the previous article in this series (Issue 132), we discussed the rationale for listening to open reel tapes in this era of digital music. If you love certain artists and their recordings from the early stereo era until the advent of digital, which was between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s, and you have access to high-quality copies of the master tapes of these recordings, the tapes will get you closest to the original intention of the artists and recording engineers. In this article, I will discuss the issues related to playback equipment.

Open reel tape machines were at one time quite popular in the domestic setting. Early machines used tube electronics, but most machines found on the used market today are transistorized. By the mid-1970s, the market came to be dominated by Japanese brands such as Technics, Sony, Sansui, Akai, Denon and so on. Most domestic tape decks have a 4-track playback head as well as a 2-track playback head or 2-track playback/record head. Separate heads for playback and record are recommended, as the heads should be optimized for their individual functions. Some machines also have an auto-reverse function; when the playback of one side of a 4-track tape ends, the deck automatically reverses direction so that the other side is played without needing to manually flip the reels. Some open reel decks only have two speeds, usually 3.75 inches per second (ips) and 7.5 ips, whereas the more expensive machines can play at 15 ips as well.

Cheaper open reel decks usually only have one equalization standard, NAB, whereas the more expensive consumer and “prosumer” machines often have a choice of NAB and IEC1/CCIR equalizations. (Tape equalization is similar in principle to the RIAA equalization used in phono playback. EQ is used for both the recorded media and the playback device in order to minimize noise.) Most of the old commercial 4-track tapes sold in North America run at 7.5ips and have NAB equalization. If you buy a machine to play back these old commercial tapes only, a deck with a 4-track playback head that runs at 3.75 ips and 7.5 ips with NAB equalization will be sufficient.  However, be aware that most of the new commercial pre-recorded tapes, such as those from Analogue Productions and The Tape Project, are 2-track, run at 15 ips and employ IEC1/CCIR equalization. They will not play on the older machines. All the consumer-grade open reel decks have 1/4 inch heads, and while most can accommodate 10.5-inch reels, some smaller decks can only accommodate 7-inch reels.

Studio machines are different beasts altogether. Their head blocks can usually be changed quickly to accommodate different track widths. Most work at 7.5ips, 15ips and 30ips, and have switchable equalizations. They can accommodate at least 10.5-inch reels and sometimes up to 12-inch reels.  They are usually much larger, much heavier and much more expensive than consumer and prosumer machines.

The quality of a reel to reel tape machine depends on its speed stability, the construction of the heads and the quality of the electronics. The mechanics of tape machines are far more complex than that of turntables, and require careful calibration. The better units usually employ separate direct drive motors for the reels and capstan, with servo control to ensure speed stability. Some machines have separate capstans before and after the head block, or in the case of Technics, a loop mechanism where two pinch rollers work off the same capstan with the tape running in a loop between the rollers. The way a machine physically handles the tapes is also important for their longevity.

A few consumer machines have a separate connection to the tape heads, so that external record and playback electronics can be used. Most professional machines also have built-in playback and record electronics in the form of slot-in boards. As we will discuss later, most open reel decks can be easily modified to work with external electronics.

Which type of machine is the best choice for today’s audiophiles? If you want to play back 4-track tapes, you will need to have a consumer deck, or you will need to install an aftermarket 1/4-inch 4-track playback head in your studio machine. The availability of spare parts and maintenance also needs to be considered. Spare parts are no longer available for most of the consumer open reel decks, but there are specialists who continue to provide maintenance service and even modify certain models.

The most popular consumer machines today seem to be the Technics RS 1500 Series and the Otari MX5050. Otari continued to manufacture the MX5050 until at least 2012. The Technics and Otari models can play both 2- and 4-track tapes, have switchable equalization, and offer very respectable sound quality in stock condition. J-Corder is a specialist in the restoration, maintenance and modification of the RS-1500. United Home Audio sells several levels of modifications for Tascam tape recorders, including improved heads and electronics. They have received highly favorable reviews and are perennial crowd favorites in audio shows. Chris Mara, a recording engineer in Nashville, has a company called Mara Machines that restores MCI professional tape machines for studio clients as well as audiophiles. The prices are very reasonable, and a good entry point for audiophiles who want to explore tape playback.

Technics RS 1500 Series. Technics RS 1500 Series.

If you have the space, a studio machine is a better option in my opinion. My first open reel tape deck was an Otari MX5050, but I soon switched to a Nagra. Since many studios continue to use them, spare parts and maintenance are widely available. Studio machines are generally built to a much higher standard than consumer models, to withstand the heavy workload of a busy studio. Most of the music available on LPs was most likely transferred using one of these machines, so you can’t go much wrong there.

Studer and Ampex are the two most common brands in Europe and the US, respectively. The first important Studer deck was the C37, which employs tube electronics. The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper ‘s Lonely Hearts Club Band on a J37, the 4-track, 1-inch version of the C37, which was then mixed to stereo on another C37. You can still make a recording on this setup at Abbey Road Studios today. A friend bought a C37 and painstakingly restored it to its original specifications in the space of one year. In stock form, this is the best machine I have heard so far.  Due to the age of the deck, its fame and its rarity, a C37 in good condition today will fetch a very high price.

A Studer J37 tape machine in Abbey Road Studios. Courtesy of Abbey Road Studios. A Studer J37 tape machine in Abbey Road Studios. Courtesy of Abbey Road Studios.

The successor to the C37 was the Studer A80, which is a transistor unit. Alan Parsons produced Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon on a new A80 at Abbey Road Studios not long after it was installed. This was the most popular Studer studio machine and many were sold to recording and mastering studios as well as radio stations. They are therefore relatively easy to find, but beware of those with high mileage that will need a complete overhaul. They are very reliable, and like the Energizer Bunny, will just keep going and going. The A80 is also one of the best-sounding machines available in its stock, unmodified form.

After the Studer A80 series came the A800 Series, with the A820 being the last machine in the series.  Most A820s on the market are multi-track machines, sometimes with up to 24 tracks. They are mechanically superb but expensive. Those looking for a more compact unit can consider the A807 and the A810.

Studer also sold consumer machines under the brand Revox. The Revox A77 and the more updated B77 were quite popular, but personally I would go for the A807. If I had the space and the means, I would love to have a C37 and an A820. Unfortunately, Studer is no longer producing recorders and only makes digital mixers nowadays. However, it is not difficult to find specialists who can maintain these machines.

AEG was the inventor of the Magnetophon, the first modern tape recorder. They marketed their machines under the brand Telefunken, better known to pro audio professionals and to audiophiles for their incomparable studio microphones, amplifiers and vacuum tubes. The Telefunken M10 vies with the Studer C37 and the Ampex MR70 for the title of the most desirable vacuum-tube tape recorder. The most common Telefunken models on the market are the M20 and M21, the difference being the M20 has four speed selections whereas the M21 only has two. These recorders were sold in the tens of thousands to radio stations throughout Germany, and can be bought in good working order for less than $3,000 on the used market. They are mechanically very robust workhorses, but they do not sound as good as the Studer A80. Beware – some machines are configured to play with the oxide of the tape reel on the outside, a configuration peculiar to German radio stations.

Ampex was the first company to manufacture tape recorders in North America, and these were widely sold in both the professional and consumer markets. The ATR-102 (2-track version of the ATR-100 Series) was the most successful mastering deck the company ever produced. It is also the first to feature a servo-controlled, direct-drive capstan system, which greatly diminishes wow and flutter. It is generally regarded as one of the best mastering machines, with a price to match. Both Analog Productions and The Tape Project employ the ATR-102 to copy their tapes. ATR Services still provides maintenance for this model.

Nagra was the first company to produce a portable tape recorder, which transformed location recording for the film industry and news media. The Nagra IV-S was the most popular portable recorder in its era, and was pretty much standard issue for reporters and film crews. Therefore, they can still be easily found on the used market. Although the Nagra is just about indestructible, many have seen a fair bit of abuse. The machine comes in two versions, one with a time code feature and the other with a non-pilot configuration. The time code version has a narrower track width and an additional time code head. It is therefore preferable to have the version with stereo heads, to maximize the track width. As the supply is plentiful on the used market, the cost is not high.

However, the machine can only accommodate 7-inch reels, requiring a separate adapter to play 10.5 inch reels. This QGB adapter will cost more than three times the price of the recorder itself, if you can find one to buy. There is an aftermarket adapter currently available at a much lower cost, but I cannot vouch for its functionality. The machine runs at 3.75, 7.5 and 15 ips. It has NAB, IEC1/CCIR and Nagramaster equalizations. Nagramaster is a proprietary equalization that gives a better signal to noise ratio at the expense of 3 dB lower high-frequency headroom. It also has stereo microphone amplifiers with phantom power, and an integrated monitor speaker. It can run on batteries. The machine was conceived mainly as a recorder and it makes stunning recordings. However, the playback is not meant to be of audiophile quality, but it is possible to wire the playback head out of the circuit to make use of external electronics. The Nagra IV-S has the same playback and record heads as its larger and much more expensive sibling, the Nagra TA.

The Nagra T-Audio was initially designed to be a scientific instrument. The transport has extremely low wow and flutter, and handles tapes very gently. These units were extremely expensive when new, and most of them were sold to film studios. They represent the epitome of Swiss precision engineering; if Studer were the equivalent of Rolex, then Nagra would be Patek Philippe. I measured the frequency response of a stock Nagra T-Audio with an MRL (Magnetic Reference Laboratory) calibration tape, and it was absolutely flat from 32 Hz to 20 kHz. However, the playback circuit is based on op amps and has all sorts of compensation networks for high-frequency compensation, head gap compensation and other functions. The sound is extremely dynamic, but has more than a trace of an electronic quality, making it sound rather upfront and aggressive. It sounds less three-dimensional through the stock electronics than when played through my tube tape head preamplifier, which could indicate some phase non-linearities. However, it is very easy to wire the playback head directly to an external tape head preamplifier to obtain better sound (see photos).

Two twisted pairs of Teflon-coated pure silver wires are soldered to the playback head output pins on the head block.
Two twisted pairs of Teflon-coated pure silver wires are soldered to the playback head output pins on the head block.
The wires are unshielded to reduce capacitance. Since the preamplifier input is balanced differential, noise is not a problem.
The wires are unshielded to reduce capacitance. Since the preamplifier input is balanced differential, noise is not a problem.

Nagra is still very much in business, but seems to have lost its mojo in the pro audio world. The company has placed its bet on high-end audio. Nagra is in fact a large company specializing in the security and communications sectors, with audio only contributing a small percentage of its revenue. The company has spun off its audio business into a separate entity called Audio Technology Switzerland, and they still maintain a stock of spare parts for their legacy products. In recent years, Nagra has been demonstrating their high-end electronics at audio shows with a Nagra TA as the music source. They have also started selling refurbished recorders with warranties. Given enough demand, they might even resume building new machines!

Stellavox was another high-end tape machine manufacturer in Switzerland, and had a portfolio quite similar to Nagra’s. The SP8 and SP9 were their answers to the Nagra IV-S, but sold in far smaller numbers. Their TD9 master recorder was legendary but was only produced in small numbers, due to its high price. Interestingly, the production of this recorder has recently resumed by Sepea Audio, using new parts from the original suppliers as well as from existing stock. As far as I know, this is the only classic tape recorder currently still in production. The price of 36,000 Euros is very reasonable for a top-end master recorder, and competitive with ultra-high-end vinyl-based equipment.

Nagra IV-S. Courtesy of Adrian Wu.

Lyrec of Denmark was another niche manufacturer of high-end studio recorders. The two models of interest to audiophiles are the FRED, which is a portable machine designed for tape playback and editing, and FRIDA, a compact studio mastering recorder. Both machines are of very high quality, and are relatively compact. They enjoy cult status among professional studio engineers. The company still provides servicing for these machines, but they no longer manufacture analog recorders.

In Part Three, I’ll discuss open reel tape decks that are currently being manufactured.


Header image: Adrian Wu’s Nagra T-Audio machine.

Lend Me Your Ears

Lend Me Your Ears

Lend Me Your Ears

Frank Doris

A circa late 19th or early 20th century proto-jukebox. Listeners paid a nickel to hear music through ear tubes. From Sound and Hearing, Life Science Library, 1965.

An Audio Classics 9b stereo power amplifier, their tribute to the Marantz 9 mono amp. Courtesy of the Audio Classics collection.

How surreal is this? We’ll have what the cover artist is having. Audio Engineering, June 1953.

Featuring a cross-field head for improved high-frequency response! Tandberg 9000X ad, circa 1972. Courtesy of Don Kaplan.

Heavenly listening, courtesy of the HMV Model E34C radiogram. From The Australian Women’s Weekly, June 1950.

Roye Albrighton: Nektar’s Diamond in the Rough

Roye Albrighton: Nektar’s Diamond in the Rough

Roye Albrighton: Nektar’s Diamond in the Rough

Ken Sander


[Editor’s Note: Ken previously wrote about progressive rock group Nektar in Issue 115 and Issue 116.]

By Nektar’s second American tour in 1975-76, Roye Albrighton (lead guitar player and singer) had stopped traveling with the band. He was instead traveling with his lover, a married woman who had an open relationship with her husband, Berndt. He made every gig and date and was never late. That was a huge relief, but how he traveled was unknown to me. In retrospect I find it interesting that we never ran into them or in any way crossed paths with them on that tour. Not at an airport, rental car site and only once at a hotel. The other band members included Allan “Taff” Freeman (keyboards), Derek “Mo” Moore (bass), Ron Howden (drums) and Mick Brockett (lighting and effects).

Berndt was supposedly a commercial media director in Germany. He was purportedly willing to go along with his wife’s affair and her interest in Roye’s career. To that extent he paid their expenses and furnished some financial support to Roye going forward.

It was also known to us, but not to the public, that at the end of the tour Roye would be leaving Nektar after some eight years and returning to Germany to start his solo career under the direction of Berndt. Still, Roye had a place in our hearts, and for me, I hoped his leaving was just talk. It was not, and at the end of the tour Roye and his lover returned to Germany.

Photos of Roye Albrighton performing. Courtesy of Ken Sander. Photos of Roye Albrighton performing. Courtesy of Ken Sander.
Nektar moved on and hired guitarist/vocalist David Nelson as Roye’s replacement.



Nektar moved on and hired guitarist/vocalist David Nelson as Roye’s replacement. With the help of newly-hired music attorneys, Nektar sighed a new record contract with Polydor Records and the third American tour was booked by the late Jimmy Oppenheimer of Jeff Franklin’s American Talent International (ATI). The opening act was Lake, a German group who at the time had a somewhat successful debut album on the charts.

Having received a nice signing bonus from Polydor, Nektar upgraded their equipment and effects, which always included Mick Brockett’s dazzling light show. The third tour coincided with the release of Nektar’s then-new 1975 album Recycled.

Recycled did not do as well as expected and ticket sales on the tour suffered. There was friction with our opener, Lake, who seemed to be resentful of Nektar. When we were in Los Angeles, I was asked by ATI to take a meeting with their management representative, who was very cordial for a minute or so – and then suggested that Lake headline the rest of the tour and have Nektar as their opener. The money paid to each band would stay the same, he noted. I asked him what Nektar get out of that, and he said, “nothing. it is just that Lake’s album is doing better.” He thought reversing the billing was a good move (yeah, right, for Lake).

I was surprised and thought to myself that he had a hell of a nerve. Meeting over, he was insulted, like he was doing us a favor and I was not appreciating his effort. Jeez I thought, screw ’em. I never mentioned it to the band. I did not see the need to insult or upset them with this ridiculous request.

Derek “Mo” Moore, the de facto leader of Nektar, said to me after the tour that the choice of the album title Recycled might have been one of the reasons that the album did not sell well. He thought that people thought it might have been a compilation album, a greatest hits LP, with no new material.

Ken Sander (yellow shirt) and Nektar enjoying a relaxing moment on the road on their first tour in Chicago. Ken Sander (yellow shirt) and Nektar enjoying a relaxing moment on the road on their first tour in Chicago.

Nektar went back into a recording studio in New Jersey to record their next album, and the owner of the studio convinced Mo that he would be a better manager than me. Mo approached me and we talked it out. Things were not in a good place for the band, and maybe new blood and money would be the change they needed. It was a friendly separation. To this day we are best friends. In fact Mo is one of my oldest friends.

I moved forward and toured with other bands. Then in 1978, Mo quit Nektar, and I assume Roye and those invovled came to an arrangement regarding performing rights for Nektar.

Soon after Roye gets in touch with me. He is living in New Jersey and wants to play, and could I book some gigs? He had Berndt call me, and we worked out a deal where he would guarantee any out-of-pocket expenses that were incurred, and I could commission the dates. We would work together so I agreed, even though I did not have a contract, but I naively assumed that if I booked the dates and was successful I would be in a strong position.

With no new product the only thing the band has going for it was name recognition. That has some value; I needed to build on it. It was not easy, but I kept at it. Finally, I book a date, but it is a week and a half away. People need to eat so I pay the band and crew out of my pocket.

The next Saturday “Roye Albrighton’s Nektar” plays the gig at The Chance, a rock club in Poughkeepsie, New York. The door (box office) is good and the club is happy. Roye’s Nektar plays well, so both the audience and band are happy. Next week I book dates in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Then for the week after I nail down a Saturday in New York, plus gigs in DC and West Orange, NJ. OK, I am thinking; maybe, just maybe, there is a chance.

Then it turns out that Roye must leave the house where he is staying. He has nowhere to go. I ask Jessica, my then-wife, if he could stay with us, temporarily. “Where,” she asks. We have a small convertible couch in Josh’s bedroom. Josh is our infant son, only six months old. Jessica is hesitant and I ask her to bear with me and give it a try. I tell Roye he can stay in Josh’s room, but if he disturbs Josh or causes any issues, we will have to find another solution. Roye agrees and moves in.

Jessica and I brace for the worst, but it turns out that Roye is an excellent guest. He had his own key and came and went at will and not once did he even cause a ripple in the household. My our son never had an issue with his roommate. Roye was so quiet he never woke Josh or either of us and even if he did come home at odd times of the day or night, I never even heard the key turning in the door. The room and adjoining bathroom were always clean. Jessica and I were pleasantly surprised. After three or four weeks Roye found a new place and moved out.

The bookings were going well and Roye Albrighton’s Nektar was playing a few gigs a week and had created enough income to cover expenses. Ticket sales were increasing and the positive word of mouth was spreading. There was even enough left over that I was able to partially reimburse myself for some of my earlier out-of-pocket expenses. The signs were pointing in the right direction and everyone was optimistic.

Then I heard from Berndt. He was pleased and thought out loud, “maybe the band should come back to Germany and go into the studio and do an album.” And possibly Roye might also work with some promising upcoming German bands.

Unbeknownst to me, he had already told Roye that this was the plan. He was flying over to have a meeting with me and the band. It was a fait accompli, but I think Berndt was concerned that I might try to block the move. I pointed out to him that the band had gained some real momentum, and it might be wise to keep our foot on the gas. No, he had other plans for Roye, but he would fly over, have a band meeting and reimburse me for the monies owed to me. When he landed he rented a car and we drove to this picnic meeting where everyone including me knew what was going to happen. Apparently, he just wanted my blessing (probably for Roye’s sake).

Roye and members of Nektar, taken in earlier days in Germany.
Roye and members of Nektar, taken in earlier days in Germany.



We had the meeting, all four minutes of it. When it was time to head back to the city I again asked for my money and he made a face and then hesitantly pulled out his check book and wrote the check. You would have thought it was going to kill him.

After that day I was done. I think – and this is only my opinion – but it seems to me that Berndt had it in for Roye. He held the purse strings, he called the shots and I am assuming he took on this endeavor to subtly sabotage Roye’s career. The fact is that he had no standing or experience in the music business; his cash infusion was the only reason for his existence in our world. The best I can say about him was that he took over Roye’s career management halfheartedly.

I have been told some years ago that he got in trouble with the German tax authorities and took off running. Last thing I heard was that no one has heard hide nor hair from him, but that was a while ago so he might or might not still be on the lam.

Roye took me out for a drink a few years later. He was sorry for what had happened and was no longer involved with Berndt. I accepted his apology; we had been though a lot together, life was difficult, and I am not one to hold a grudge.

We saw each other on occasion and then he moved back to England. Roye got married on May 31, 1986. Then I lost touch with Roye for a time. Lyn (Roye’s wife) recently told me that Roye worked for 13 years in the offshore oil and gas industry as a computer technician. He traveled all over the world. Egypt, Syria, Vietnam, Norway, Kazakhstan, many countries. He was usually gone for a few weeks at a time then home for a similar length of time. The work suited him fine, and he enjoyed the travel.

In those years he did not play much, only at home. When asked if he missed performing, he said he had become disillusioned with the music business.

He became ill in 1998 and needed a liver transplant. At that time, he was in his 10th month in Iran managing a small oil company. He went back to the UK and had the transplant operation in March 1999. He was under for two weeks! After he woke up, he announced he was going back to music. And for the next 16 or so years Roye was back on stage playing his music.

I had not spoken to him for a long time but we got back in touch via Facebook. We stayed in contact up to the time of his death in the summer of 2016 at the age of 67.

Roye was flawed like many of us, but was a talented musician, truly a diamond in the rough. Given another set of circumstances who knows what he would have accomplished musically. Even so, he lived one hell of a life.

Roye in Ken Sander’s home, photo by Ken.
Roye in Ken Sander’s home, photo by Ken.


Header image of Roye Albrighton courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/BlueBreezeWiki.

The Flow of Influences On Buying Equipment

The Flow of Influences On Buying Equipment

The Flow of Influences On Buying Equipment

Russ Welton

What influences the equipment you buy? Make no mistake, none of us buy audio or musical instrument gear without being affected by past inspirations.

I suppose my earliest memory of being influenced by musical instruments resulted from being given a cheapo second-hand guitar to mess around with when I was about four or five years old. Little did I realise at the time that this would be a conduit to my future love and interest of all things musical. Nor did I appreciate the fact that it had been obtained from a local tip given to my ever-opportunistic grandfather who was always on the lookout for a bargain.

I loved that guitar. Black and red and assembled from the most basic laminated wood and hardware imaginable, but it captivated me nonetheless. I’m sure it’s a commonly shared experience, but somehow it ignited a subconscious passion for guitar, and for music and the wonderful places it could take you. I would sit for hours, pluck the strings in no particularly coordinated way and be hypnotised by their vibration and resonance. As the strings would individually oscillate in their captivating elliptical paths, I would wonder where, at which point in time the string actually was. (Check out this slow-motion video.) It seemed to be that at any point I would interrupt the motion, as if I could interrupt a dream-like movement, and make it tangible; tactile with the production of sound. I didn’t know it, but I was hooked on basic string theory (OK – I hold my hands up – a physicist I ain’t!)

Years later I came across the band Rush, and their 2112 album had kindred lyrics from part three of the title track entitled “Discovery” which went: “What can this strange device be? When I touch it, it gives forth a sound. It’s got wires that vibrate, and give music. What can this thing be that I found…?” It struck a chord with me not just because of my youth, but also because it was such an early album in the band’s career and it seemed like we would grow up together. A soundtrack to my youth? A big slice of it for sure.


In my early twenties, I got a part-time job as an assistant to the manager in a guitar shop. It started out as a natural extension of my frequenting the store every given Saturday, making cups of tea and hanging out. Customers would ask, “Do you work here?” and I thought I had better make myself useful rather than look like some kind of loafing slacker who could bring down the reputation of this oh-so cool-shop! Soon enough my endeavours were rewarded and I was taken on as staff for the Saturday retail pulse day (the busiest day of the week), which in turn grew into working more weekdays. After about three years I ended up running the shop and eventually bought the business as a going concern. Man – I was in my element!

The point to all this self-indulgent preamble is that working within the musical instrument retail business heavily influenced my choices in the audio gear I purchased. Here’s one example.

All the bass cabinets we sold (for bass guitar) were loaded with either eight, ten, or 15-inch woofers; occasionally someone might purchase a larger 18-inch cab. Rarely, a customer would buy a stereo rig for the stereo-output split pickups on their bass, such as the ones on the Jaydee basses built by John Diggins who makes instruments for Level 42’s Mark King among others. Some bass players loved the punchy sound of a 4×10 speaker cabinet, and, depending on the gig or the venue might choose to pair it with a 1×15 for even more serious bottom end heft. This was their sound. It employed a lot of power and drivers.

Want powerful bass at home? The JL Audio Fathom F212 powered subwoofer ought to do the trick.
Want powerful bass at home? The JL Audio Fathom F212 powered subwoofer ought to do the trick.

Occasionally a guitarist would buy two rigs for blending a straight clean and “dry” (without effects), and secondary “wet” (with chorus and/or delay) mix. Actually, my preference was for three channels, consisting of an overdriven stereo left and right wet mix, with a third dry rig or channel in the middle to maintain the integrity of some of the original unaltered clean guitar tone. This was great for maintaining note separation and definition in an otherwise time-modulated signal. You could hear ping-pong delays pass from the left to right rig and back again, full of saturated gain, but still the sound was well-defined overall thanks to the clean centre rig’s contribution to the mix.

I was influenced by many different rigs and powerful low-frequency sounds. When it came time to purchase an audio system, would I be content, then, with small bookshelf speakers or an array of many smaller drivers? No. Why? Because these speaker configurations generally just don’t move enough volume of air in pressurising the room in a manner that is anything like the equipment the musicians used for their live and recorded sounds.

An interesting observation I made was that musicians went all out for their tone – a personalised take on what sounded cool to them. Maybe they wanted something with “grunt,” or perhaps a sound that was both warm and bright, or perhaps rich and dark. Meanwhile, in a live context, much of the audience is swept along with the groove itself, the energy of the timing and tempo.

I also noted that the tone the musicians would achieve in the music shop could be very different than what the equipment produced in a live gig, for countless reasons besides volume levels or how hard the power amp stage was working. The sound of the room had a tremendous effect, and also whether the venue would be full of sound-absorbing people or not. Maybe the bass player wouldn’t even play through their amp and just decide to DI (direct input) their signal straight to the mixing desk and be done with it. Perhaps they’d mic their amp and use a combination of amp and miked sound. And then their rig would have to compete with the drummer and other instruments.

The point is that, despite all the potential obstacles, musicians and music lovers pay a lot of attention to their intimate experience with their sound and tone. When they are practising on their instrument, learning something new or jamming with mates, having a pleasing personal tone is motivational. It encourages and rewards your efforts. Similarly, when listening to a great stereo system, the engagement you feel with the music can move you emotionally, and maybe even evoke feelings you didn’t even know you had.

Musical enjoyment is ultimately what it's all about. The Andover Audio Model One Turntable Music System. Musical enjoyment is ultimately what it's all about. The Andover Audio Model One Turntable Music System.

Here are some thoughts to ponder. When you consider how much time, effort, energy and research goes into the music the artist writes, the choice of the equipment they use, and yes, the size of the speakers they employ in their recordings, do you want to reproduce that to a good standard? You may well rightly argue it’s impossible to replicate the room the musicians were in along with all their gear[1], but in reality, with some simple decisions, and spending a little time and perhaps a modest amount of money, you can make a vast improvement in honoring more of those ingredients in improving the sound of your home hi-fi and optimising your listening room.

Getting the set up right for your room, effectively managing your bass and crossovers (if you have them in your system), adjusting your seating position and accommodating your room’s characteristics can be significant in getting you there. It can be easier than you think.

With a basic calibration microphone and some excellent free software called Room EQ Wizard or REW (often affectionately phonetically pronounced “roo”), you can see what is happening in your room and make changes accordingly. (For more detail, please read Adrian Wu’s article, “To Test or Not to Test, Part Three,” in Issue 127.)

A Dayton Audio EMM-6 calibration microphone. It can be used in conjunction with measurement software to assess a system’s in-room frequency response. 

When choosing gear, making listening comparisons between components (as I mentioned in “Totally Transparent,” Issue 132) is very helpful. That’s not to say that you can’t improve the sound of your equipment you already own. For example, as many experienced audiophiles know, you may find that your stereo system sounds better if you leave the power on all the time rather than turning it on just before you want to play through it. It’s not for me to make any environmental judgments on how you run your equipment but it could be a worthwhile experiment for you to try.

Back to influences and choosing audio equipment. Having been a musical instrument and amplifier retailer for many years, listening to the sound of actual instruments in real life and hearing what was important to the musicians was a huge influence on what stereo equipment I would buy, and what I will consider buying in the future.


When the speakers sound right, the whole family likes it! Courtesy of Eikon Audio. When the speakers sound right, the whole family likes it! Courtesy of Eikon Audio.

I want sonic loyalty to the artist’s performance tones from my audio system, and after all, isn’t that what so many of us strive for in our hi-fi setups? I want audio components and setups that represent integrity to the musicians who crafted their signature sounds. This also applies to the listening room, which has such a bearing on the overall feel of the soundstage, and the presence and liveliness of the music. These were the factors which would determine where I would shell out my hard-earned cash. I know my own tonal preferences, what timbres I like to hear, how bright or not I like the sound, and what level of richness in the details suit my taste. To that end I rationalised that Yamaha would be a good way to go and perhaps their products would be more musically insightful than their competitors. After all, they make musical instruments, right?

In a coming interview with Yamaha, Russ will discuss how their music instrument manufacturing and digital signal processing technologies influence the design of both their stereo and consumer audio equipment.

[1] You can’t set up the same gear as the band and the recording studio in your listening room, but you can (at least when the pandemic is over) take some time to use your “sound judgment” to really listen the next time you’re hearing a band, performer or symphony orchestra live.


Header image: Jamo Concert 9 Series speaker system. From the Jamo Audio website.

Getting High, Part Two

Getting High, Part Two

Getting High, Part Two

Alón Sagee

In Part One (Issue 132), Alón began his quest to scale the heights of Kala Patthar near Mount Everest in Nepal. The story continues here.

After our terrifying landing at Lukla, the world’s most dangerous airport, our expedition guide, Wang Chuk, a thick, strong-looking man with an air of relaxed confidence, met us as we disembarked. His demeanor was that of a highly-trained special ops soldier – cool, calm and completely inured to the harrowed looks on the faces of his clients as we exited the plane and wobbled to the terminal.

As one of the most experienced guides in the Himalayas, Wang Chuk’s big presence welcomed us to his domain as we gathered our gear. So stern was his countenance that I was prepared to cringe while he berated us for showing weakness, as would a drill sergeant in basic training…but no, nothing. All projecting aside, he proved to be a very affable guy. His accented English was fluent and he never raised his voice above conversation level – he didn’t have to, since it had the quality of permeating and electrifying the air around us as he spoke. It was impossible to ignore him when he gave instruction – exactly the kind of guide I would want on a treacherous expedition.


After a satisfying meal of Momos, a standard regional dish of stuffed dumplings, we set off on the first leg of our long trek. Our destination was a few hours uphill to the only sizable town on our path, Namché Bazaar – the gateway to Everest. Here we would spend five days allowing our bodies to acclimatize to the thin air of life at high elevation. This stage was critical to our safety. Indeed, stories abound of reckless young foreigners eager to hasten their way up who blew through this town which sits at a reasonable 11,000 feet, but alas, never made it home. Altitude sickness is not something you want to dismiss or challenge.

With Everest calling us from above and five days to prepare for the big climb, we walked around town aimlessly, watching in fascination as a new house was being built; making the locals laugh with horribly mispronounced phrases; shopping for trinkets we didn’t need; and taking our last opportunity to write home via e-mail while sipping on teas and coffees infused with gamey yak butter (oh, yum). Definitely an acquired taste…

Western culture has been affecting Asia for centuries, so it’s probably just a matter of time before they open a Starbucks in Namché. I could just imagine locals bellying up to the counter to place their order: “Uh, hey Tenzin, I’ll have my usual Grande Yak Butter Double Macchiato Half-Caff, no foam, with a dusting of cocoa and just a swish of tail hair.”

New home construction: First, hire porters to carry big rocks from the surrounding terrain. Dump them all in the middle of the unpaved street, leaving a thin trail for passers-by, yaks and very small vehicles to navigate. The masons then chisel the big rocks by hand into uni-form blocks to build the walls. No one seemed to mind the impasse on one of the few roads in this town…it’s just how things are done here. Photo by Alón Sagee.

New home construction: First, hire porters to carry big rocks from the surrounding terrain. Dump them all in the middle of the unpaved street, leaving a thin trail for passers-by, yaks and very small vehicles to navigate. The masons then chisel the big rocks by hand into uni-form blocks to build the walls. No one seemed to mind the impasse on one of the few roads in this town…it’s just how things are done here. Photo by Alón Sagee.


After five long days of acclimatizing in the antithetical luxury of warm indoor lodging, hot showers and good restaurants, we were more than ready to leave the lush life in Namché and get higher.

Our supply packs were already heading up the mountain by porters who got a head start by leaving in the wee hours of early morning. They each carried 80 pounds or more, bent forward with the main pack straps anchored and stretched across their foreheads. Many wore thin sandals for the multi-hour climb to our next camp.

As we plodded ever higher, trees became scarce, replaced by the rocks and ice that were now clearly in charge. In the cold, it’s easy to forget to drink enough water, since it makes one even colder, but I kept encouraging myself that drinking cold water in an icy environment is better than being dead.

Relaxing at our camp on the mountain, a likable 17-year-old Sherpa porter named Dorje was glowing with the euphoria of his first paid ascent. In the Sherpa community, where jobs are scarce, it is an honor to be chosen to work for foreign climbing expeditions. He spoke no English and could only smile and gesture – but to elaborate on those limitations and make his joy very obvious, he bounded up and down the slopes surrounding our first camp, making sure we saw his display. I give him credit; he was fast and agile, and drank in our whoop-whooping celebration of making his family proud.

Even young athletic boys can misstep or lose their balance…but suddenly, something wasn’t right. Dorje was holding his head with both hands like I remember doing during the migraines of my youth. A couple of us rushed to his side as he fell to the frozen ground. Dehydration coupled with physical exertion is a climber’s recipe for cerebral and pulmonary edema. Water collecting in the brain and lungs is extremely dangerous at altitude, and yes, you can drown in your own body when your lungs fill up – and then there’s the brain, which can shut down from the pressure of water roiling inside the skull. This boy was born at high altitude, but, nevertheless, we witnessed the horror of his expanding head right in front of us. One of Dorje’s eyes bulged grotesquely from its usual resting place.

No time to waste. We alerted Wang Chuk and he sprang into action, immediately giving Dorje a dose of Dimox for altitude sickness and calling upon a couple of his strong Sherpa guides to join him as he hoisted the young man onto his back and practically ran down the trail, heading to the nearest rescue station back below the tree line. It was about an hour away even without the added weight. I wanted to help, but Wang Chuk forbade it, as I would have in his place. I followed anyway, but it was hard to keep up with the Sherpas, even with a 140 pound boy on their backs.

Wang Chuk in the lead position carrying the semi-conscious Dorje on his back, on their way to the rescue station. Photo by Alón Sagee.

Wang Chuk in the lead position carrying the semi-conscious Dorje on his back, on their way to the rescue station. Photo by Alón Sagee.


After about 45 minutes of them taking turns carrying their human payload, we approached the rescue station. One of the guides raced ahead to alert the medical staff as to what was coming their way.

Within seconds, Dorje was put in a long yellow vinyl enclosure that looked like a torpedo tube with a small clear window near one end that revealed his face – which by then was a frightening sight with his eye determined to pop out of its socket to escape the mounting pressure. He looked miserable and crestfallen that he let down his family. The portable tube was pumped to an oxygen pressure of 5 atmospheres, which, if I understood correctly, was the equivalent of going down 5,000 feet in altitude in minutes, effectively staunching the cause of the sickness until he could be transported to lower, safer environments.

It broke my heart that this young man might never have another chance like this again and would likely have to live with the dishonor. It was especially poignant that Dorje was showing off for us, and we encouraged his celebration, which made the whole ordeal personal. I really wanted do something, anything to help, but Wang Chuk and the medical staff had the situation under control. All I could do was gesture my condolences through the vinyl window to the one eye that I think was seeing me. Within a few minutes in the tube, Dorje’s face relaxed somewhat as the edema in his head and lungs began to subside.

The doctor told us we saved his life, but It remained to be seen if his brain was damaged. I didn’t expect to find out, ever. All I could do was wish him well and trust he would find his way.


Header image: person walking a trail on Kala Patthar. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/ Niklassletteland.

Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man, A World-Class Keyboard Player

Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man, A World-Class Keyboard Player

Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man, A World-Class Keyboard Player

Ray Chelstowski

Rock and roll documentaries have become fairly predictable. Over the past year alone I think I must have watched about two dozen. They tend to follow a formula, and if the focus of the film is pretty well-known, it’s likely that you won’t leave the viewing having learned much more than you already knew going in. That’s not the case with Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man. This is the story of the legendary keyboardist, often described as the “Fifth Rolling Stone.” What sets it apart is the manner in which it showcases Leavell’s talent and body of work, and reveals his love of nature, his commitment to family, and his remarkable sense of humanity. There’s a balance to the film that’s rare and ironically metaphoric to how Chuck Leavell leads his life.

The film is packed with star power, including interviews with Billy Bob Thornton, Mick Jagger, President Jimmy Carter, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Dickey Betts, Paul Shaffer, Chris Robinson, Charlie Daniels, Miranda Lambert, Charlie Watts, Bruce Hornsby, Julian Lennon, Mike Mills, John Bell, Pat Monahan, Ronnie Wood, Warren Haynes, John Mayer, David Gilmour and more. Together they tell the tale of a truly remarkable man. As our mutual friend and official Allman Brothers historian John Lynskey said of Chuck:

“Chuck Leavell is every journalist’s dream. Thoughtful, articulate and patient, Chuck turns an interview into a conversation. He lets his talent speak for itself, so there is no rock star ego to deal with. The master of preparation in everything he does, talking to Chuck is an absolute pleasure.”


Lynskey couldn’t be more right. In our time together Chuck and I covered a good amount of ground. The conversation came easy and the stories told are ones that will remind you of how the brotherhood of rock and roll sometimes transcends even the music. The mutual admiration found on both sides of the Chuck Leavell story is well-footed against years of dedication to musical partnerships that know few equals. The tales told in the documentary (and often in this interview) explain how that magic founds its way to the songs we all hold so dear. The tales are as priceless as the songs they often inspired. I was moved by Chuck Leavell’s story. I know you will be too.

Ray Chelstowski: This film won a People’s Choice Award at the Sedona Film Festival and I can see why. It really is an enjoyable ride for anyone who loves music. How did you approach establishing a balance between presenting your career, family, and your work with forestry in the documentary?

Chuck Leavell: I have to give all credit for that to our film maker Allen Farst. We worked together for over three and a half years on the project and we had all of this incredible raw footage. There are the interviews with the folks I’ve worked with [in the music business] and then with people in the forestry world. Then of course there are the shots of Rose Lane and myself here in Charlane and also in Savannah, Paris and all that. I thought, “my goodness! How in the world is someone going to stitch this whole thing and make it a cohesive story?!” Allen said, “Chuck, this is what I do,” and he went into his basement for like six weeks and lo and behold he came out with something that I am just really pleased [with] and proud of.

The Tree Man movie poster.

RC: Allen Farst has made a broad range of films, everything from sports to entertainment. Did that influence your decision to move forward with him on this project?

CL: It wasn’t really so much about his body of work as it was about his commitment to the project. When we interviewed some other people they were like, “this sounds like an interesting project.” But Allen said, “Chuck, I really want to do this! I know I’m the guy to do this for you and I promise you that I will put my heart and my soul into this project. You just have to place your trust in me. I have a vision for it and I know that nobody can do it better than me.” So what do you say to that (laughs)? He convinced me that he really wanted to do it and would be willing to go the extra mile to do whatever it took to get it done right.

RC: You’ve said that it was difficult to edit the film down to 1:43. What did you leave out and what parts were the hardest to drop?

CL: Well there was some more concert footage of a show I did with a big band in Savannah. There were interviews with a lot other musicians I have worked with, like my good friend Randall Bramblett, and Davis Causey. There was also footage that was cut out of interviews. So Allen had the talent to realize what the hot spots and the highlights were and kept it to a reasonable time frame. I did talk to Allen about the possibility of a “Director’s Cut” where we would include a lot more footage.

One other thing I’ll mention is that while [the band] Sea Level is mentioned in the film, [they] didn’t get as much time as I wish it had allowed for. We were searching for a show we did at the Montreux Jazz Festival back in 1977 and we were starting to track down whether we could license it. Time started running out and we just couldn’t get there. So those were some of the things I wish we could have included.


RC: Like me, there’s a big age gap between you and your oldest sibling. I found that that age difference had a profound impact on the kind of music I grew to love. Was it the same for you?

CL: That’s a great point. I wish we could have gotten an interview with my sister, especially because she at one point worked at a record store. This was when I was just beginning to put together my first band. We would sometimes pool our money together because she could get a discount on buying LPs there. We would buy records together and share them. You’re right; my sister was definitely an influence and her ability to get these records that we both loved listening to was inspirational.

My brother is a whole different story. My mother had rubella when she was pregnant and he was born deaf. He now is a preacher and he has a deaf congregation in Memphis. Billy was very inspirational in a different way because of having overcome his deafness. He learned to lip read early on so we could communicate and he was a bit of a home filmmaker as well, and would make these amazing science fiction shorts where his character named “Ray Rocket” would fly to the Moon or Mars. He was quite clever with the limited resources that he had. The other talent that he had was cartoon art. He was excellent and I would imagine that he has the entire Bible, especially the stories of the Bible, done in cartoon art. He had a publication called Life of the Deaf. As you pointed out, family can be very influential in different ways and certainly my brother and sister were, and my mother and father were as well.

RC: In the film you talk about the secret of a long marriage. Having your wife with you on the road must be a gift and may have even saved your life!

CL: Absolutely, it’s been a godsend. When we do go out with the Stones, Rose Lane actually works back stage so she’s part of the Stones family as I am. We miss all of our friends, our characters that work with both [the] musicians and crew. The fact that she does travel with me makes life so much better for both of us and we’ve shared so many great times together with friends that we’ve made throughout the world. She’s been a great inspiration to me as well has been her family, especially on the environmental side. It’s really the love and dedication and passion that her family for generations have had for the land that inspired me to get involved as well.

RC: When you are playing with the Stones do the contributions made by the keyboardists who preceded you in the band have an influence on how you approach each song?


CL: Oh it absolutely influences me. I was a Nicky Hopkins fan before I ever dreamed that I would play with the Rolling Stones. I got to meet Nicky in 1982 when I did my first tour with the Stones. Ronnie Wood came to me when we were at Wembley Stadium and he said, “Nicky’s here man. He wants to meet you.” I was like, “oh man, are you kidding me? I can’t meet that guy!” Ronnie goes, “no, no, no, he’s a really nice guy. Loosen up. It’s gonna be all right!” And sure enough, [Nicky] was just as nice and humble as he could be. He said, “You’ve got a day off tomorrow right? Would you like to get together and have lunch?” So, we did, and we became friends and traded Stones stories. Over the years we wrote letters back and forth to each other. Of course this is back in the 1980s so it was before the internet. He was living in LA and I remember him writing me a letter after that big earthquake. He said, “I’m outta here! I’m not gonna live in a place where the ground moves!” So, he moved to Nashville and spent the rest of his days there as you know doing sessions.

He was incredibly inspirational. When I play a song like “Angie” that has his beautiful signatures, I know that I could never replicate them exactly, nor would I try, but I do try to do my version. The same applies to Billy Preston. When I was young, my sister took me to a Ray Charles concert and Billy was playing in the band. That became my first knowledge of him. Ray gave him a special part in the show where he sang a song, danced out front, and was playing the Hammond B3 [organ]. That’s when I began to pay attention to his career. Not only with the Stones but with others. He was a huge inspiration as well.

Stew (Ian Stewart) was the guy who really got me into the Rolling Stones. He promoted the idea of me being in the band. He tried to get me on the 1981 tour and that didn’t quite work out. But he did get me on in 1982 and Stew was instrumental in helping me understand the art of boogie woogie. I used to play that style with a certain left hand movement and he said, “hey man, you’re leaving out a lot of what you should be doing with your left hand.” He kinda corrected me and showed me patterns that really helped me understand that style.

The answer is “yes” to all of the above. And Ian McLagan by the way; in 1981 the band came to Atlanta and did an unannounced show at the Fox Theater. Stew called me up and said that “the guys are going to be in your back yard. Do you want to come up and jam a little bit at the show?” I said “Hell yes!” So I went up for that and I had some degree of trepidation as you can imagine meeting Mac, because he had the seat. I had auditioned and had admired his work and I didn’t know if there would be any tension. So I get called to go out on the stage and I’m playing a piano and Mac is playing organ, 90 degrees from each other. Bless his heart, he looked over his shoulder and said, “I see you’ve done this before, haven’t you?” And that really broke the ice. We became friends and communicated through the rest of his days.

RC: You have such a steady calming presence. I would image in working with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger that that has helped the band and the creative process.

CL: Well that’s a wonderful comment and I appreciate it very much. But you’re right, I try very hard at times to be a diplomat for the band. I think that one of the things that I believe makes a difference is being a good listener. I want to really understand what the concern is of all four parties. And then if I have a solid understanding of what they are thinking, then I can help mediate a little bit, left and right or between all four corners.

RC: It seems that throughout your career your addition to a band is about what you can do to elevate the music as opposed to just adding a “signature sound.”

CL: Yeah I would say so. I may have a style myself as I have been influenced by others as we talked about. When I’m going into a studio to record a track I always ask, what is the song asking me to do? What are the producer and the artist asking me to do? Again I think it goes back to being a good listener, to fully understand what the goal of the artist is and how can I help this track be a little bit better. That’s always what I try to do live. In rehearsals with the Stones with this incredible body of work, how can I contribute things that will make it a little bit better?

RC: As you note in the documentary, John Mayer has a songwriting style that is different than what you had been accustomed to but that you admire. Do you take something away from working with each musician?


CL: Oh my Lord yes! I say sometimes that any musician is lucky to have a degree of success with just one band. But the joy of my career is having all of this diversity. You make a great point about John Mayer, just watching the way he works. He just pushes and pushes until something comes out. That takes a lot of wherewithal, man; it takes a lot of determination and creativity. And of course chops. I mean, my heaven, John’s got chops in his hands, he’s got chops in his voice box, and then he’s got chops as a songwriter. You get to watch these people do what they do and I wish I could do it as well as they do. I’ve never been a great songwriter in that sense. I’ve written a few instrumentals that I feel good about. It is a learning experience and I feel that I am always a student of the people who I am working with.

RC: The only time where you appeared to be worried about work was when Sea Level had disbanded and the first Rolling Stones audition didn’t result in a job offer. It’s pretty incredible and such a testament to your talents to have remained in such steady, high demand for almost fifty years.

CL: I have been very fortunate and you are correct that was the one time where I did have concerns about my career. As the film depicts, that was also the same time that we moved to the country and began to investigate what we could do with our land. That helped fill that gap a little bit. But I had big concerns about whether I would be able to hook up with another artist, or [if] was I going to have to start another band. It weighed very heavily on my mind. Just as the film shows, I came home expressing all of this frustration and anxiety to my wife and at the end of it all she says: “yeah, well that’s interesting, but the Rolling Stones called you today.” I mean man, you talk about a turnaround? When that came out of her mouth I said, “look, Rose Lane, I don’t need a joke right now.” She said, “it’s not a joke Chuck. Here’s the number, go call them.”

So, I did, and got a woman on the phone. I had no idea who she was and said something to the effect of “listen, my name is Chuck Leavell and I understand that there are some people that might be looking for me and I’m happy to talk to them.” (laughs) You know I was trying to be careful of my wording! And sure enough it was Ian Stewart who called back within a matter of hours. I had a little trio that was playing at a place called The Cottage in Macon. I was somewhat surviving on doing that and so I said, “well Stew, this is amazing! I’ve got a gig this weekend. Can I come Sunday or Monday?” And he said, “we’d really like to have you there tomorrow!” So I had to go get the Tattoo You record and try to get a good feeling for the songs they might play off of that. But then I kinda had a talk with myself where I said, “Chuck, you’ve played Rolling Stones songs since you were fifteen in The Misfits. So relax, be yourself, go to the audition and have fun. Whatever happens, happens.”


Part Two will appear in Issue 134.

Photography by © Allen Farst.



Auditory Masking

Auditory Masking

Auditory Masking

James Whitworth

The Big Move, Part Three

The Big Move, Part Three

The Big Move, Part Three

J.I. Agnew

In Part One and Part Two, 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.

Putting the electronics workshop into place in our new facility was certainly much more of a chilled out experience, compared to moving the machine shop. (The joys of transporting impossibly heavy machines and fitting them inside a building they did not actually fit in were described in graphic detail in Part One and Part Two, Issue 131 and Issue 132.)

Tektronix 545B vacuum tube mainframe oscilloscope. Tektronix 545B vacuum tube mainframe oscilloscope.


Some people consider the tube-era Tektronix mainframe oscilloscopes to be overly bulky and excessively heavy. But, once you get accustomed to lifting 2500 lb. chunks of cast iron, using cranes and forklift trucks, our Tektronix Model 545, complete with a range of modules and accessories, appears very reasonably dimensioned! I mean, it even comes with a trolley on casters! It can be wheeled around where needed by a single person, unassisted, without subsequently requiring physiotherapy or psychotherapy!

The full Tektronix setup on the original trolley, with various modules.
The full Tektronix setup on the original trolley, with various modules.

It contains 50-something vacuum tubes, voltages reaching 10 kilovolts, and its fan bearing (yes, it needs a cooling fan) requires occasional lubrication with a light spindle oil. No big deal. It’s not rocket science. Although I guess it must have been a common sight at NASA back in the day.


Plug-in modules for the Tektronix mainframe.
Plug-in modules for the Tektronix mainframe.

We actually have a collection of oscilloscopes, some of them even solid-state and portable, but the Tektronix 545 still sees plenty of use.


Another plug-in module and a Tektronix vacuum tube signal generator.
Another plug-in module and a Tektronix vacuum tube signal generator.


It has a very sharp display and with the various modules available, it is perfect for audio work. With a suitable electronic indicator, it can also be used for high-accuracy mechanical measurements.


The Tektronix mainframe in front of the Hardinge HLV late, in the machine shop, assisting with mechanical measurements. The Tektronix mainframe in front of the Hardinge HLV late, in the machine shop, assisting with mechanical measurements.
A collection of other instruments on the lab bench, including the Hewlett-Packard 3580A spectrum analyzer.
A collection of other instruments on the lab bench, including the Hewlett-Packard 3580A spectrum analyzer.

Another vintage instrument that sees frequent use is the Hewlett-Packard Model 3580ASpectrum Analyzer. This is smaller, almost too small, about the size of a common CRT oscilloscope. It assists with frequency response, distortion and noise measurements in audio equipment, while it can also be used for various other applications, such as plotting impedance versus frequency for transducers and to conduct vibration analysis when used with a suitable accelerometer.


A Thurlby Thandar function generator and an Agnew Analog current-regulated power supply unit on one of the equipment racks.
A Thurlby Thandar function generator and an Agnew Analog current-regulated power supply unit on one of the equipment racks.

A number of signal generators live on the bench, to assist with various measurements, both in the audio and RF ranges. Next to these there are a couple of bridge instruments for impedance measurement, and a standard LCR (inductance, capacitance, resistance) bridge.


A 3 kW variable transformer in the lab.
A 3 kW variable transformer in the lab.

A collection of power supply units, ranging from 5 volts DC all the way to a Hewlett Packard 5 kV DC supply and several Variacs (variable transformers, used to supply AC of variable voltage) assist with circuit design and prototyping.


The side of the Soviet military L3-3 tube tester.
The side of the Soviet military L3-3 tube tester.

We do a lot of work with vacuum tube electronics, so we of course also have several tube testers in the lab (see Adrian Wu’s “To Test or Not to Test – Part Five,” in Issue 130, for more information about tube testers).


The L3-3 (“Kalibr”) was what the Soviet military considered a “portable” tube tester for field use. The controls are all labeled in Cyrillic and the tube tester itself is heavy enough to induce spine injuries even without having to run through the snow with it in the midst of artillery fire, while leafing through the 1,000 page unbound instrument manual in a desperate attempt to figure out if that radar tube really was out of spec…
The L3-3 (“Kalibr”) was what the Soviet military considered a “portable” tube tester for field use. The controls are all labeled in Cyrillic and the tube tester itself is heavy enough to induce spine injuries even without having to run through the snow with it in the midst of artillery fire, while leafing through the 1,000 page unbound instrument manual in a desperate attempt to figure out if that radar tube really was out of spec…
The Funke W20 tube tester. Max Funke walked his family through the woods to West Germany, with his whole factory containered and shipped on in a train. The German Democratic Republic authorities stopped the train and confiscated all his equipment, but he was able to build it all up again from scratch.
The Funke W20 tube tester. Max Funke walked his family through the woods to West Germany, with his whole factory containered and shipped on in a train. The German Democratic Republic authorities stopped the train and confiscated all his equipment, but he was able to build it all up again from scratch.

Various multimeters are always at hand, along with IR (infrared) and thermocouple thermometers, motor testing equipment and even some vintage measurement instruments to assist with the adjustment of internal combustion engine ignition systems (I am also very much into classic cars).


An instrument for measuring the dwell angle of the contact breaker points in mechanical automotive ignition systems.
An instrument for measuring the dwell angle of the contact breaker points in mechanical automotive ignition systems.

The obligatory soldering stations are of course also there, along with some high-power vintage soldering irons for when something large needs to be soldered. We also have vacuum de-soldering equipment and a solder-fume extraction system.


One of the soldering stations on a cluttered bench.
One of the soldering stations on a cluttered bench.


In addition to all the aforementioned equipment, which is fairly common in better-equipped electronics workshops (or at least it was in the 1960s), we also have some oddities: elaborate coil winding equipment, to wind inductors, transformers, and various transducers; specialist testing equipment for various types of audio transducers; and since we do a lot of work with transducers containing permanent magnets, an FW Bell Model 610 Gaussmeter with a variety of probes. The Model 610 is an extremely sensitive instrument – it can easily detect the earth’s magnetic field, which can be zeroed out so as not to interfere with the measurements of magnet assemblies.


Our FW Bell Model 610 Gaussmeter. The mirror strip on the meter allows the operator to eliminate parallax error, for extremely accurate readings.
Our FW Bell Model 610 Gaussmeter. The mirror strip on the meter allows the operator to eliminate parallax error, for extremely accurate readings.

For our work with tape machines, we have a few tape head demagnetizers, as well as precision spring scales and other specialized tools. With respect to repairing certain types of cutter heads (for cutting records), we have developed a cutter head calibrator setup, which measures several of the important parameters. One of the new features we are planning on adding in the new facility is a pen recorder, to create a reference calibration graph as each head is being measured. A variety of microscopes can be found on the benches, to assist in working with and measuring very small objects, ranging from SMD (surface mount device) components to miniature coils and transducer parts. A few precision scales, of both the electronic and mechanical type, are also often used to weigh critical transducer parts and assemblies.


A stereoscopic microscope.
A stereoscopic microscope.


But the true challenge in establishing laboratory conditions is to ensure that all these instruments will reliably produce repeatable readings. Apart from the internal calibration of each instrument, it is essential to provide stable external conditions. The electronics workshop is therefore maintained at a steady temperature with controlled humidity levels 24/7, year-round. All the equipment is powered from extremely stable, clean and filtered AC power, generated from a battery bank, so the inevitable fluctuations in voltage and frequency of the electrical grid are prevented from influencing the operation of the laboratory instruments.


One of the battery banks, from which clean and stable AC power is generated, protecting the laboratory installation from the neighbor’s switch-mode power supplies, the poor-quality power supplied by the grid, and black-outs in the middle of critical work.
One of the battery banks, from which clean and stable AC power is generated, protecting the laboratory installation from the neighbor’s switch-mode power supplies, the poor-quality power supplied by the grid, and black-outs in the middle of critical work.

This setup is similar to what we had been using in the old building, but there the batteries were charged from the grid, providing an autonomy of a few hours of available power in case of grid outages. This was adequate from a technical standpoint, but this time, the plan is to take it a few steps further. The long-term perspective is for us to use solar and wind power to charge the batteries, disconnect from the grid and generate all the energy we consume on-site using environmentally friendly, renewable sources, which are most efficiently implemented without having to connect to a centralized grid. The recording studio equipment is also treated as if they were measurement instruments, used under laboratory conditions. Powered from their own battery bank and maintained at a steady temperature all year round, the studio electronics are expected to deliver a comparable level of repeatability and accuracy as the measurement instruments. Not much of the studio equipment we were using in the old building will make it to the new studio. The new facility is intended to have a more radical, minimalist approach for maximum audio purity. The signal path will be all-tube and the full-range monitor loudspeakers will be powered by new tube amplifiers of my own design. Details will follow soon.


The two Telefunken M15A tape machines, as bare frames, along with the crane that was used to move them around. Each bare frame weighs in at about 160 lbs. The original Telefunken catalog showed a 100-lb. suitcase-style carrying case, to turn your M15A into a 260 lb. “portable” tape machine for field recordings, with a single carrying handle on top, implying it would be carried with one hand (“recording engineer wanted, must be able to lift 260 lbs. single-handed”)!
The two Telefunken M15A tape machines, as bare frames, along with the crane that was used to move them around. Each bare frame weighs in at about 160 lbs. The original Telefunken catalog showed a 100-lb. suitcase-style carrying case, to turn your M15A into a 260 lb. “portable” tape machine for field recordings, with a single carrying handle on top, implying it would be carried with one hand (“recording engineer wanted, must be able to lift 260 lbs. single-handed”)!

What we will definitely be keeping are the Telefunken M15A tape recorders, which are among the finest tape machines ever made.


Telefunken M15A tape machines, awaiting installation in the new custom studio furniture. Telefunken M15A tape machines, awaiting installation in the new custom studio furniture.

Most of the electronics will be built from scratch. A lot of attention is being paid to the acoustic design of the rooms. The performance spaces will be designed to have naturally reverberant acoustics, and the piano room’s acoustics will be designed around the piano, to best augment its sound, as described in previous articles in Issue 129 and Issue 130.


A great-sounding John Broadwood & Sons grand piano, made in 1904.
A great-sounding John Broadwood & Sons grand piano, made in 1904.

The control room will be following the “non-environment” school of thought and will contain tape machines and a disk mastering lathe which will also be used for direct-to-disk recording.


One of our disk mastering lathes in action. One of our disk mastering lathes in action.


What will definitely be absent is a mixing console. Most of the recordings will be of the “two microphones straight into a recording device” type, with no equalization, no compression and no processing whatsoever.

Our custom-made Thermionic Culture Green Fat Bustard vacuum tube summing mixer. Our custom-made Thermionic Culture Green Fat Bustard vacuum tube summing mixer.

“Non-environment” rooms are designed as hemi-anechoic chambers. The front wall is reflective, and the loudspeakers are commonly mounted with the baffle flush with the reflective front wall. The wall acts as a baffle extension and sound can only propagate away from that wall, eliminating rear reflections. The ceiling, side walls and rear wall contain wideband absorbers to eliminate reflections from returning to the listening position. The aim is to remove the room environment from the equation (hence the name) and to allow the direct sound of the monitor loudspeakers to reach the listener, unaffected by room reflections. The decay time is extremely low and the result is a system that is mercilessly revealing of all details in a recording. Only by being able to hear a disconcerting amount of detail do you really stand a chance of hearing any flaws and correcting them, before they make their way into the final product. Once you have great room acoustics, it doesn’t take much equipment to produce outstanding recordings. If the electronics are kept simple and the signal paths short, the true value of the “less is more” philosophy can be appreciated. We will most probably keep the tube summing buss, which had been used to make excellent multiple-microphone recordings in our previous studio. This was a Thermionic Culture Green Fat Bustard, handcrafted in England to my specifications, with several modifications I had requested to match my style of working. We may also keep some other bits and pieces of vacuum tube equipment used in mastering, as we are expecting that the studio will also be used by other engineers for more conventional mastering work.


The Manley Stereo Variable Mu vacuum tube mastering compressor/limiter.
The Manley Stereo Variable Mu vacuum tube mastering compressor/limiter.

The studio construction is still very much in progress and will most probably take a while under the current circumstances with the pandemic, as the workforce is inevitably limited to ensure we can all maintain social distancing. As such, it will be a while before the completed facility is presented here in Copper, but it will come, eventually. Detailed and exacting though the studio construction may be, this is by far the simplest part of this move! Despite all the excitement, I must say I am not looking forward to another move anytime soon! It most certainly keeps life interesting, perhaps even a bit too interesting. It is through such experiences that I have learned to appreciate boredom, in the very rare occasions I get to encounter this feeling nowadays.

All images courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.

Groove Essentials: Four80East

Groove Essentials: Four80East

Groove Essentials: Four80East

Rudy Radelic

This story began with hamsters and a squeak toy over 20 years ago and evolved into a unique contemporary jazz project called Four80East. In their own words: “We make groovy, jazzy, trippy music.”  The Toronto-based duo of Rob DeBoer (keys, guitar) and Tony Grace (percussion, drums) started the group as a studio project, but their growing popularity set them out on the road after several years in the studio. Their résumé prior to Four80East includes remixing and producing tracks for others, as well as recording several tunes of their own, under the name The Boomtang Boys.

From their first album in 1997, The Album, they’ve since expanded their theme of jazzy groove music to include elements of funk (such as on their 2009 album Roll On, which begins on a nod to mid-’70s funk) as well as an homage to the disco/dance tunes from the late ‘70s with the 2018 Four on the Floor EP. All are based on their signature sound that combines electronic production and live instrumentation.

Tony Grace and Rob DeBoer of Four80East. Tony Grace and Rob DeBoer of Four80East.


I’ve listened to them for a few years now, and it’s always a welcome respite from other music I may have played throughout the day. I do appreciate “pure” genres like jazz, but my interest is always piqued by groups who can combine styles and make them into something unique and instantly recognizable. While they are sometimes associated with “smooth jazz” and have made frequent appearances on Billboard’s Smooth Jazz airplay chart (with “Cinco Cinco Seis” from their Four on the Floor EP topping the chart in 2019), I’ve found their music is outside the repetitive cookie-cutter sound that so many of their contemporaries offer.

Don’t worry…we’ll get to the hamsters.

For this article, I wanted to highlight a few favorite tracks of mine, which are also representative of the group’s sound. If you like what you hear, Four80East has all their albums posted for listening on YouTube. Their albums are also now available on Bandcamp, so you can support the band directly. Their most recent releases are the 2020 album Straight Round, as well as 2021’s Mixed Up, which features their own house-infused remixes of eight classic Four80East tunes. 2018’s Cherry Picked is a well-chosen eight-track anthology of their music up to that point.

Here is the tune that put them on the map: “Eastside,” from The Album. This track gives us a good sampling of their signature elements.


The streaming service Pandora may be to blame for me discovering Four80East. I have been “training” a fusion/jazz station since 2008 (seeding it with a couple of different artists and issuing dozens of thumbs-up and thumbs-down votes), and this came up one day in the rotation. Here is “Shakedown,” from their second album Nocturnal.


“Noodle Soup” predates Four80East by several years (it was originally a Boomtang Boys recording), but I like the subtle dance vibe that it lays down. This peaked at  No. 3 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz chart in 2007. Another signature tune that highlights their sound, this is a live version from the SiriusXM studios, originally from their fourth album En Route.


Have you ever heard a song that made you think, “This would make a great driving tune”? The title track to En Route is one of those tracks. In a way, the title was symbolic in that they also “hit the road,” assembling a band and touring after this album was released.


This propulsive track will take you “to the east side….to the west side….” via “The Walker,” which opens their 2012 album Off Duty. The track got its name from a pedestrian the duo would see near their studio regularly, who used to walk from the east side of town to the west.


Their newest full-length album’ 2020s Straight Round, is like their other albums where they have an ear to the future as well as the past. This tune reminds me of the great 1970s and 1980s jazz fusion/funk albums that I consumed by the bucketload back in the day. Here is “Busted Flush.”


In 2018, they released a five track EP called Four on the Floor that shoots an arrow straight back to the late ’70s Saturday night dance floor. The dance groove on these tracks is irresistible. The title track – hell, all of the tracks – pushes all the right buttons for me, recalling the greatest dance tracks back in the day while sideloading some of their sophisticated harmonies on top of it all. (Rob DeBoer even channels his inner Nile Rodgers on the title track.) The second song adds the vocals of the great CeCe Peniston, who herself had chart and dance club success back in the early 1990s. “Are You Ready” for this next track?


This look to the past is a perfect segue to the duo of DeBoer and Grace, who with Tony’s late brother Paul Grace, worked together as The Boomtang Boys. In addition to numerous remixing and production credits for the likes of Econoline Crush, Cory Hart, Bif Naked and Camille (“Deeper Shade of Love”), they made their own recordings under their own name, the biggest of which topped the Canadian Billboard charts for four weeks, the over-the-top “Squeeze Toy,” featuring Kim Esty on vocals.


About those hamsters…

Borrowing a few bars of the tune “Whistle Stop” (written by Roger Miller and used in the opening of the 1973 Disney film Robin Hood), the Boomtang Boys expanded on what was one of the very first Internet sensations, the Hampster Dance Page (featuring “Hampton the Hampster”), which was a website featured rows of dancing hamster GIF images set to a sped-up nine second loop of “Whistle Stop.”

The Hampster Dance screenshot.
"The Hampster Dance" screenshot.

Since Disney would not allow the Boomtang Boys to sample the sound clip, the group recorded a soundalike version (DeBoer singing the “Dedodedo” verse and Tony Grace doing the rap) and turned it into a complete song, accompanied by a cartoon video, which would also top the Canadian hit singles chart and result in an entire album of hamster-themed tunes, a la The Chipmunks. The ensuing (and surprising) drama behind the site, the novelty hit, merchandising, attorneys and other involved parties makes for interesting reading.


Here is the track at the epicenter of all that attention:  The “Hampsterdance Song.” A silly novelty earworm at best, but…you’ve been warned!


If you visit the Boomtang Boys’ official YouTube channel, you can get an idea of the work they’ve done over the years, as well as keep up on current activities. 2013 brought us “Hamster Dance 2.0,” a slightly reimagined version of the original. And by the time you read this, they will have released their version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” featuring what they call the “classic Boomtang treatment.”

Similarly, pay a visit to the Four80East channel and sample some more of their music, including tracks from their 2021 release Mixed Up, which features new house-style remixes of tunes from their catalog.  And as mentioned above, their albums are available on Bandcamp on CD and as downloads, with Cherry Picked and Mixed Up also on limited-edition vinyl.

Finally, since all the tracks are available on YouTube, I’ve assembled a playlist which includes a handful of their radio hits as well as personal favorites of mine (below).

Be Here Now: Recommended New Rock

Be Here Now: Recommended New Rock

Be Here Now: Recommended New Rock

Cliff Chenfeld

Welcome to the new edition of Be Here Now, a column/playlist where we compile inspired new music for busy folks who would like to discover outstanding contemporary artists.

Here is a link to the Be Here Now Spotify playlist, which includes songs from all the artists mentioned in this column and many more.


Critics have been bemoaning the vitality of rock music for nearly 45 years. But it’s hard to deny that in 2021 rock has become a niche genre, albeit a large one, in the contemporary music landscape. Rock music rarely makes its way to the pop charts; it streams at a much lower rate than hip-hop and its representation in the larger cultural conversation usually results from a celebrity artist (Harry Styles, Miley Cyrus) making a reverential retro rock album. Nonetheless, rock artists still maintain a sizeable following of loyal fans who are less fleeting than pop consumers, and still thrive in a live setting where they headline festivals and fill stadiums and arenas.

Of course, this begs the question of what it even means to be a rock artist in 2021, and how much that question even matters. But that is a column for another day. Today, we’ll focus on artists working in a recognizable rock mode who are making compelling new music and are worth your time.

The Strokes, Weezer and The Killers have all had huge success for many years and their legacy and fanbase would be secure if they never produced another new song.

However, each band has released an inspired, hooky, highly listenable album in the last year and all have avoided simply repeating their past efforts. The Strokes’ jittery “The Adults are Talking” snaps and crackles and Julian Casablancas’ inspired falsetto carries the song to a heavenly finish.

The Killers have always been influenced by 1980s dance music and Springsteen anthems, and on “Caution” they perfectly meld those sounds behind one of the biggest choruses of the year. Weezer’s new album, OK Human, has plenty of references to life during the pandemic and features the kind of melodic, quirky songs Weezer is known for, often with an orchestral-pop production.

Recent years have seen the proliferation of a number of psych-rock bands who make music that is perfect to zone out to in the comfort of your home or with friends at a music festival. Turkey’s Altin Gün reimagines traditional Turkish songs as trippy, mind-bending tunes that are vaguely familiar yet exotic. The UK band Temples creates a glorious haze that allows endless sonic possibilities in their song “You’re Either On Something.”

Royal Blood is one of the few bands who manage to get played on both mainstream and alternative rock stations, making heavy music that maintains a contemporary sensibility and sound. The band DeWolff’s blues-rock riffs evoke the Black Keys but don’t sound stale and 21-year-old Brit Declan Mckenna channels Bowie, the Beatles and U2 in his ambitious conceptual and often topical songs.

Canadian-American singer Grandson’s message of social change is masked by irrepressibly catchy melodies and electronic elements. The Neverly Boys manage to evoke Father John Misty and Warren Zevon in the same song.

There are plenty of other great rock artists on this playlist. Are they going to change the world? Are they going to lead to a new rock renaissance? I have no idea, but they manage to put forward a welcome vision of rock in the 21st century and for that I am grateful.








Header image of Altin Gün courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Thesupermat.

Confessions of a Setup Man Part 12: Failed Experiments

Confessions of a Setup Man Part 12: Failed Experiments

Confessions of a Setup Man Part 12: Failed Experiments

Frank Doris

Many audiophiles are tinkerers. We’re constantly striving to squeeze the last iota of performance out of our audio systems, or we just like to putz with stuff, or we’re obsessive-compulsive.

Tinkering often involves experimentation. And (cue evil horror movie laugh), the experiments don’t always go right. I’ve had my share of failures, and I’ll bet it’s true for any audio manufacturer.

I’ve been fascinated with electronics since I was a kid – and never let a lack of knowledge get in my way. When I was 13 my father bought me a Kimberly electric guitar and a Bryan amp, a cheap solid-state model with a tiny speaker. It wasn’t very loud. I reasoned that if I built a bigger speaker cabinet, it would sound louder.

I had little money. I could only dream of buying even the raw speakers in the Lafayette catalog. So, I went around to the neighbors’ houses in our suburban Smithtown, New York neighborhood and asked if they had any old radios they didn’t want. I managed to collect a bunch. Then I needed an enclosure. My mother had an old laundry hamper with ugly brown vinyl covering. Since I had no woodworking skills, I decided it would do.

I set to work, pulling all the speakers out of the radios, sawing holes in the face of the hamper and wiring it up. I thought, if one speaker would play at X volume, then surely six speakers would play at XXXXXX the volume!

I plugged it in, hesitantly struck a chord, and…heard a pathetic, tinny, low-volume sound. What did I do wrong? All the connections were OK…no matter what I did all I got was this barely-audible blat, dreams of blasting away at Pete Townshend volume dissolved. Bummer!

Years later I found out that hooking up more speakers of course doesn’t necessarily give you more volume – especially when the speakers are connected in series and present a high resistive load to the amplifier. I don’t remember if I’d wired the speakers in series or parallel, which would have been equally bad, dropping the total impedance of my hamper rig to something more akin to a short circuit than anything you’d want an amplifier to drive. Also, I knew nothing about needing to keep the speakers in phase, so half of them were probably phase-cancelling each other.

Lesson learned: don’t just start futzing around with what you think will work.

Sometime later I tried the opposite – hooking up a Kustom 100 guitar amp head to a 6 x 9 car speaker and turning it to 10 to see what would happen. The voice coil went up in flames, that’s what happened!

Lesson learned: don’t put 50 watts of power into a speaker rated for a few watts.

A few years later I read an article about how double Advents were a hot thing among audiophiles. You’d stack two Large Advent loudspeakers and get sound that was way better than using a single pair. Well, I didn’t own Advents, so I just took two pairs of speakers I had around (I don’t remember which models), stacked them atop one another, connected them to my receiver’s Speaker A and Speaker B outputs, and…heard an incoherent sonic mess. No imaging or soundstaging. Where was the stacked-speaker magic?

Eventually I found out that you needed to stack the double Advents with their tweeters next to each other – in other words, with the top speakers upside down. This gave improved imaging (and other sonic benefits) and created a pseudo-D’Appolito driver configuration. I had just plopped two random speakers atop one another.

I haven’t tried stacking speakers since then.

Lesson learned: leave speaker design to the speaker designers. (Although if you do your homework and have talent, maybe you’ll come up with the next Rogers LS3/5A or Wilson Alexx.)

Through most of my twenties I had little discretionary income. To paraphrase Frank Zappa, my dreams were limited only by the size of my bank account. In an effort to save money, my great (and sadly now deceased) friend (and former TAS and Stereophile writer Bob Reina) suggested buying Monster Cable Interlink Reference raw cable and connectors and soldering them up myself. He had a source, and the savings were significant.

Well, I thought I could do a soldering job as nice as this! Monster Cable I100 interconnects.
Well, I thought I could do a soldering job as nice as this! Monster Cable I100 interconnects.

So, I bought the stuff…and soon realized that stripping the wire was nearly impossible. It took an hour just to get one end prepared. When I tried to solder up the connector, the solder just wouldn’t stay on. I tried and tried and wasted an entire afternoon. Finally, I called my friends at The Audio Den, and the guy who answered the phone laughed and responded with something like, “who told you that you could do this stuff yourself? It requires special solder, special fixtures, high-temperature equipment – you’ll never be able to do it!” Well, I wasn’t laughing after wasting all that money. I did get a good deal on some used Interlink Reference from the salesman though. Perhaps he took pity on me.

I was able to get some doubled-up 12-gauge wire though, to make homemade speaker cable that served me well for years and actually sounded pretty good.

Lessons learned: one, sometimes, good soldering skills ain’t going to get you anywhere. Two, sometimes it’s more expensive to try to “save” money.

Every tube aficionado loves tube rolling, right? For those unaware and un-obsessed, tube rolling is the practice of trying different tubes other than the stock ones supplied with an audio component, in the quest to get better sound. And I had accumulated quite a stash from going to garage sales, an avocation I started when I was 22. You could get lots of tubes back then. Being curious, I tried them in guitar amps and audio gear – and wondered why I got all kinds of hissing and sputtering noises or terrible sound or no sound at all, or why my system got a “pinging” sound whenever I touched anything. Duh, noisy and bad tubes and microphonics! I didn’t have a tube tester at the time but that didn’t stop me! To compound the mayhem, a few years later I bought an Audible Illusions Modulus 3 preamp – which is notorious for “eating” tubes that aren’t rugged enough. I’ve gone through at least a dozen 6DJ8/ECC88/6922 tubes. You’d’ think I’d learned my lesson by now but when you put a tube like a Made In Holland Amperex “Bugle Boy” in it, the sound is so heavenly you could weep. And I haven’t blown up the preamp yet.

6DJ8/ECC88 and 6922 tubes. Will they work? 6DJ8/ECC88 and 6922 tubes. Will they work?


Lesson learned: if you’re going to try tube rolling, do it with good tubes from a reliable source!

If you ever blow a fuse in an audio component or guitar or bass amp, don’t ever try to get through the gig by putting aluminum foil in the fuse holder. Just don’t.

Lesson learned: see above. The evidence, an old Fender Twin Reverb, is no longer in my possession.

Toilet paper can be a useful audio mod! It can be used to tame a tweeter’s brightness. Before you think I’ve gone totally off the deep end, this was actually a thing in the pro audio world with Yamaha NS-10 studio monitors. I once was testing a pair of Snell Type C loudspeakers that had a tweeter in the back, with a switch to tailor its response. I didn’t like the sound in either position so I thought, let’s try covering it with toilet paper! But my OCD came to the fore, and you know where this is going – I had to try different thicknesses, even going so far as to peel the paper apart to get a thinner layer. I was never happy with the sound. Failed experiment – although I could have been more thorough, but I was too embarrassed to go to the supermarket checkout counter with a cart full of different brands.

Lesson learned: maybe Charmin would have been worth a try.

Every audiophile has experienced The Upgrade That Wasn’t. The first was when I was in my early twenties, and was ready to move up from my Marantz 2216b receiver that “only” had 16 watts per channel. I saw an ad for The Wiz (Noo Yawkers will remember the chain) with a great deal on a Kenwood KR-710 with almost twice the power! I bought it, expecting a huge sonic improvement, and…as the doc in The Twilight Zone “Eye of the Beholder” episode says, “No change! No change at all!” I was crushed. But I had already sold the 2216b.

Well, one of these is vintage gold. Kenwood KR-710 and Marantz 2216b, author’s collection. Well, one of these is vintage gold. Kenwood KR-710 and Marantz 2216b, author’s collection.

A few years later, history repeated itself, this time in upgrading my Linn LP12/Syrinx/Grado turntable setup to a Goldmund Studio (with the same Syrinx arm and cartridge). I thought the Goldmund would annihilate the Linn – and it didn’t. I tried lying to myself, especially after spending – you don’t want to know. Was it worth it? For decades I’ve been lying to myself…

Lessons learned: one, sometimes what you think will be an upgrade, won’t be. Two: If you can, try before you buy.

When I worked at The Absolute Sound I curtailed my experimenting predilections, since our mandate was to test the equipment under real-world conditions, not do stuff like run the tape outputs of an Audio-Research SP-11 preamp directly into the amplifier in order to bypass some circuitry and get a purer sound. According to my predecessor at TAS, it could work – but you were playing Russian Roulette with the gain-matching to the amp and the efficiency of the speakers, risking dropping the needle onto the record and getting ungodly loud speaker-shredding volume. Would you want to try it with an Infinity IRS V speaker system?

Although, I did have to sometimes try crazy things just to get through a listening session or review. We once got in a Mark Levinson No.25 phono stage for review. The system had poorly-shielded interconnects and a low-gain moving coil cartridge in it – but that’s what editor Harry Pearson wanted! – and I spent hours trying to place the No.25 in a spot where it wouldn’t hum. The only thing that worked was placing the phono stage sticking out into the room, away from the equipment rack – and the only thing handy to put it on was a small metal wastebasket. When Harry saw that, he freaked. “You can’t put it on a garbage can!” And reminded me that the Madrigal Audio Laboratories guys (the Mark Levinson distributors at the time) were coming to visit. “OK,” I said; “I’ll put it in the position where it hums the least and let them figure it out.” Which is exactly what I did. They couldn’t solve it either and when they left, it went right back on the wastebasket.

Lesson learned: sometimes, no matter what you do, it just ain’t going to work.

Oh, how much time I’ve spent on tweaks that didn’t work! To be fair, some did, like putting vibration-isolation cones under components or positioning speakers symmetrically to within a 32nd of an inch. But, especially during my No-Budget Audiophile Era, I tried a lot of things that didn’t work. Don’t have the money for isolation cones or pucks or turntable bases? Try what’s around the house! Nuts and bolts as speaker spikes or isolation feet; rubber placemats, wood or cardboard as isolation platforms (painted black to look “finished,” and yes, I tried cardboard), blankets as sound absorbers (these can actually work pretty well), aluminum foil shielding, weights taped to the tonearm, the aforementioned tube rolling and more.

My audiophile friends and I would try anything, to the point where Bob Reina nailed us one time. He brought over a mysterious-looking circular white three-legged object and said, “put it on top of the record over the spindle and it’ll improve the sound.” Like eager puppies, we tried it. “I think I hear an improvement!” “The sound opened up more!” “What is this thing?”

It was a pizza saver, the spacer in a pizza box that keeps the top of the box from touching the pizza.

Lesson learned: naahh, I’ll just leave that there.

It won't make your system sound better, but you won't have to listen over the sound of your rumbling stomach. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/4028mdk09. It won't make your system sound better, but you won't have to listen over the sound of your rumbling stomach. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/4028mdk09.

Bach's Saint John Passion

Bach's Saint John Passion

Bach's Saint John Passion

Lawrence Schenbeck

High on my list of all-time favorite Bach arias is “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten,” which translates as “I follow you likewise with joyful steps.” Scored for soprano with obbligato flutes, it’s one of ten arias or ariosi in Bach’s Passion According to Saint John. “Ich folge dir” is preceded by a very brief recitative, the full text of which translates as “But Simon Peter followed Jesus and [so did] another disciple.” By juxtaposing that line from the Gospel of John with the subjective poetry that follows, Bach meant to suggest that even the smallest detail in Christ’s life could offer an edifying example to contemporary believers. When I listen to this lovely aria, its music and the energies radiated by its performers always comfort and inspire me. (Even though I may not have been “edified” in exactly the way Bach intended!)


The text continues with “and [I] will not let you [go,] my life, my light. Enable my path, and do not stop drawing, shoving, imploring me,” the last few words prompting vivid pictorialisms in the soprano line.

I’m using the gentle “Ich folge dir” to introduce a major work by a major composer that presents major obstacles to modern listeners. You may well revere Janos Starker’s classic recording of the Bach Cello Suites, of which Michael Fremer opined, “You don’t have to know a bourrée from a crème brûlée to be moved by this” — which is not just a slick remark, it’s also the spot-on truth. Nevertheless, when it comes to Bach’s Passions the odds are stacked against you. They are too long; they’re sung in a foreign language; and they seek to arouse beliefs you may not have, emotions you’d rather not acknowledge. Obtaining your next Positive Bach Experience will take a bit more effort.

First, some history: Johann Sebastian Bach was not yet 40 in 1723 when he landed his dream job, Kantor at St. Thomas’ School in Leipzig, and by extension director of music at Leipzig’s four most important churches. (He almost lost the gig — read more here.) A vital part of Bach’s work was the composition of new music for nearly every Sunday of the year, plus special occasions. His Saint John Passion, given on Good Friday of 1724, was the first major work he created in his new post.

Those who initially heard the St. John Passion did so by attending a three-hour church service on the most somber day of the Christian year. It will have been cold in the sanctuary, the pews hard. No one was there to be entertained. They came to worship — to pray, praise, and reflect. Bach’s special music, which probably struck some congregants as unduly modish and complicated, was meant to instruct and inspire, to drive home the lengthy sermon they would also endure.

When it came to hearing this music, those faithful Lutherans enjoyed several advantages: They knew their Bible stories. They understood German. And they readily grasped the import of the congregational hymns scattered throughout. On the other hand, they would scarcely have noticed something that draws increasing attention these days, namely what Michael Steinberg termed the Fourth Gospel’s “anti-Judaic tone” in its account of the Passion. The notion that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus circulated freely in 18th-century German communities; churchgoers were no more likely to raise eyebrows at John’s pointed depiction than fish would have taken special note of water in their habitat.

In “Sacred Texts in a Secular World,” an introductory note to Choral Masterworks, Steinberg explored this cultural turn with considerable sensitivity, offering a personal appreciation of choral music in light of (and in spite of!) his experiences as an émigré who narrowly escaped the Holocaust. You may want to read his whole essay when you have time. Here is what he concluded:

Works of art and the work of artists do not exist in a protected vacuum; they are part of the fabric of life, and life is a mixed-up mess that gives us incredible richness and beauty and lovingkindness but also Dachau and Golgotha. . . . Bach’s sacred compositions deal with issues that go beyond matters of faith and dogma. To take just one obvious and dramatic example in the Passion story: betrayal. There is the sad figure of Judas, of course, but just now I am thinking of Peter. To Bach, Peter’s denial of Jesus and his pain at what he has done are so important that [in] the Saint John Passion he lifted words from Matthew and moved them into the text so as to intensify the narrative and heighten this moment.

Incidentally, that part of the story comes well after “Ich folge dir,” casting the aria’s innocent vows and entreaties into a darker, but more realistically human perspective. Did Bach have this in mind from the outset?

It’s time we broke down The Passion According to Saint John into its constituent parts. Bach created monumental opening and closing choruses that first announce, then summarize the narrative on a scale appropriate to its significance. I am particularly fond of the opening chorus, one of the most dramatically agitated pieces ever written by this composer. Consider its layers: an insistent 8th-note pulse underpins the churn of 16th-notes in the upper strings, while winds skirl a lengthy chain of dissonances, their intertwined wails continuing even as the chorus enters with a shouted “Herr! Herr!” (“Lord! Lord!”). It’s not great poetry, but it expresses quite clearly the overarching paradox of the Passion: through the pain and humiliation he endured, Christ confirms his identity as the Son of God and the one, eternal ruler of all mankind.


(This lively, stylish complete performance has no subtitles; you will need a text translation to make sense of things; click here for that, and keep the window open. Titles of individual movements, with timing cues, can be found in the associated YouTube Comment from “smuecke”; click on those cues to fast-forward to specific numbers.)

More About the Text

Bach’s Saint John Passion uses three textual sources: the Passion story as related in chapters 18–19 of the Gospel of John; familiar congregational songs (hymns or chorales) from Lutheran worship; and a handful of subjective, poetic reflections on the meaning of events in the story. Each source occupies its own space temporally and psychologically while refracting light onto the others.

Of the four New Testament Gospels, John most emphasizes fulfillment of various prophecies. Its terse yet oracular verbal style (“In the beginning was the Word . . .”) provides a swiftly paced narrative paradoxically rich in portent, open to commentary and reflection. An Evangelist sings the third-person narrative, but Christ and other “characters” deliver their own lines, placing them in greater relief. The angry utterances of the crowd, or turba, are usually delivered by the full chorus, often in lengthy fugal settings.


(No. 36, “Kreuzige!” [“Crucify him”])

Textual materials independent of the Gospel account function differently. Sung to their customary melodies, the traditional chorale texts respond to specific aspects of the story; it is as if the congregation was voicing its collective (and historic) Christian response. In like manner, the elaborate opening and closing choruses of the work imply a communal embrace of the sermon topic. Their texts, like those of the arias scattered throughout the work, were of more recent origin, freely adapted by the composer himself, who drew on a Passion poem by B. H. Brockes and other sources. The arias express individual believers’ emotions as events unfold; by interrupting the noisier Gospel narrative, they provide welcome space for contemplation.

More About Style and Structure 

Bach uses several devices to address short-term and long-term needs for a sense of order. One simple yet effective strategy is the patterned alternation of recitative (the Evangelist’s words) and concerted numbers (chorales, arias, turbae). Thus the narrative is regularly interrupted by more interesting, emotionally engaging music. Contrariwise, the narrative resumes whenever a concerted number concludes. Various critics and scholars have discussed the “thoughtful symmetry” of the work in greater detail (summaries here).

In a work as complex and lengthy as the Saint John Passion, Bach felt free to set up more elaborate structural schemes. One of his favorite design strategies was the arch or chiasm. With Bach, this connotes a palindromic arrangement of closed forms (e.g., arias, chorales) over all or part of a multi-movement work. So, whereas a typical da capo aria relies on ABA (a simple palindrome), an eight-movement work like Bach’s Cantata No. 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden, can be seen as an xABCDCBA form (in which a brief opening Sinfonia, x, stands outside the palindrome). A = chorale concerto; B = duet; C = solo; D = chorale motet; etc., ending in A = harmonized chorale.

In 1924 Bach scholar Friedrich Smend discovered an elaborate arch form with interlocking symmetries in Part Two of the Saint John Passion. A diagram of his finding is given here as Example A (you can access a larger version here: Passion Part Two Table). The 26 affected numbers stretch from (in the Bach-Gesellschaft numbering) No. 27 (chorale, “Ach grosser König”) to No. 52 (chorale, “In meines Herzens Grunde”). Centerpiece of the arch is No. 40 (chorale, “Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn”). Its text, “Through your imprisonment, Son of God, freedom must surely come to us,” is likewise the central tenet in Christian observance of Holy Week and Easter.


Arrayed in symmetrical fashion around No. 40 are four turba settings, Nos. 36 and 44 (the “crucify Him” choruses) and Nos. 38 and 42 (the first accusing Christ of naming himself “son of God,” the second cannily arguing that one who “makes himself a king” is “no friend of Caesar”). The length and hateful intensity of these four numbers have done a lot to provoke modern suspicions of anti-Semitism not only in the Fourth Gospel but also and especially in Bach’s depictions of this mob. They offer a potent contrast to No. 40 and its assertion of human salvation gained through Christ’s suffering.

Further removed from No. 40 are two more pairs of turba settings, Nos. 29 and 34 (“give us Barabbas” and “Hail, King of the Jews”), and Nos. 46 and 50 (“We have no king but Caesar” and “Write not, King of the Jews”); all anticipate and continue the affect of the other turba choruses. Centered in these distant turba pairs are the only two arias in the arch, Nos. 31/32 (“Consider, my soul”/“Behold,” an arioso/aria sequence) and No. 48 (“Run, ye souls whom care oppresses”).

Of what practical use is Smend’s analysis? At the very least, it reveals structural sources of the violence unleashed in Part Two: of the 14 concerted numbers encompassed in the palindrome, more than half are turbae. It also points up the care with which Bach distributed his scant relief resources, namely the three chorales and two arias. Finally, it encourages us to search out other linkages between concerted numbers in this remarkable 26-number sequence.

Recommended Recordings and More

This is not a comprehensive list; many other good sets are available. My favorite of the most-recent crop is Philippe Herrewegh’s traversal, recorded in 2018, with the Collegium Vocale Gent and an assortment of fine soloists including Maximilian Schmitt as Evangelist. (YouTube offers a rehearsal of the complete work from the March 2020 incarnation of Herrewegh’s ensemble; several soloists are well worth hearing and seeing, including Evangelist Julian Prégardien,. There’s a one-minute audio dropout right after the opening chorus, but otherwise sound and picture are first-rate.)

For a work like this, my preferences always start with a modestly-scaled group of singers and a small orchestra playing historically appropriate instruments. A few critics have spoken (somewhat dismissively) of Herrewegh’s “madrigalian” interpretations, but I find them not only adequate in terms of drama and dynamic contrast, but beautifully endowed with a spirit of chamber-music interplay that helps bring this music alive.

A similar spirit, albeit one with significantly greater rhythmic energy, radiates from John Butt’s 2013 recording with the Dunedin Consort. It comes with a bonus feature I didn’t think I would like, but did: additional music reconstructing Bach’s liturgy in Leipzig. The extra movements—mainly organ chorale preludes and certain chorales as sung by the congregation—truly complete the work; once you’ve heard it done this way, it’s hard to remain satisfied with the typical concert version. Butt used augmented forces to perform it this way at a 2017 BBC Proms concert (available on YouTube), retaining some of that flavor even in the Royal Albert Hall. (It is occasionally difficult to watch Nicholas Mulroy and Matthew Brook attempting to project into that cavernous space.)

Finally, a word about the 2017 video performance we’ve highlighted above, from the Netherlands Bach Society. Their SACD of this work, from 2009, is apparently out of print; I’m going to go out on absolutely no limb whatsoever and presume it’s masterful and satisfying. See if you can find a copy.


Header image: Giotto di Bondone (c1267–1337), Kiss of Judas, Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua. From Wikimedia (public domain).

A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall

A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall

A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall

Peter Xeni

Our Staff

Our Staff

Our Staff

Kevin Briggs

Staff Writers:
J.I. Agnew, Ray Chelstowski, Cliff Chenfeld, Jay Jay French, Tom Gibbs, Roy Hall, Rich Isaacs, Anne E. Johnson, Don Kaplan, Don Lindich, Tom Methans, B. Jan Montana, Rudy Radelic, Wayne Robins, Alón Sagee, Ken Sander, Larry Schenbeck, John Seetoo, Dan Schwartz, Russ Welton, WL Woodward, Adrian Wu

Contributing Writers:
Ivan Berger, Steven Bryan Bieler, Robert Heiblim, Ken Kessler, Stuart Marvin, Bob Wood

“Cartoon Bob” D’Amico

James Whitworth, Peter Xeni

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

Frank Doris

Paul McGowan

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Up Close and Personal

Up Close and Personal

Up Close and Personal

Rich Isaacs
Tommy Castro plays some soulful blues on a well-worn Stratocaster.

The Band: Pulling Their Weight

The Band: Pulling Their Weight

The Band: Pulling Their Weight

Anne E. Johnson

When Canadian rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins put together a backing band in 1958 called the Hawks, probably no one realized it would morph into one of the major groups in rock history. Their eventual name, The Band, might seem generic, but their music was captivating.

Original Hawks drummer Levon Helm (and the only American member) helped Hawkins attract a top-notch lineup over the years, mainly poached from other Toronto-area bands. Robbie Robertson played guitar and sang; Richard Manuel played keyboards and drums; Rick Danko covered bass guitar and fiddle. The last to join the Hawks was organist Garth Hudson, who had a music degree and was determined to use it. The only way he would join the band was if they paid him $10 per week as the resident music theory instructor and bought him an organ.

Hawkins and the Hawks had a lot of success, gigging in Toronto and touring. But in 1963, tensions with Hawkins inspired the Hawks to split off on their own. Variously using the names Canadian Squires and Levon and the Hawks, they recorded some singles and took work as a backing band for Bob Dylan’s 1965 and ’66 tours. Since everyone referred to them simply as “the band,” the name stuck.

They set up shop near Woodstock, New York, to record with Dylan in 1967. Those sessions would eventually become The Basement Tapes, released in 1975, but the music developed during that time was the foundation for The Band’s first album, Music from Big Pink (1968). The title refers to the house that the bandmembers shared in West Saugerties. The album, released on Capitol, was produced by John Simon, also known for his work with Big Brother and the Holding Company and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

By any measure, Music from Big Pink is a powerhouse debut, providing songs that stayed in The Band’s repertoire for as long as they were together. Although the single “The Weight” did not chart well, its popularity and influence grew through sales and radio play of the live album; it’s now considered one of rock’s most influential classics. One song that became a live favorite was “Chest Fever” (always introduced with the instrumental “Genetic Method”). You can hear Hudson’s intense organ style and the group’s unique vocal sound that drapes blues phrasing over a repeating harmonic pattern that is decidedly not a blues progression. The track was written by Robertson, the band’s main composer:


The following year, an album called The Band was released, again produced by Simon. It contained two of their signature songs, “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Only the former was a single; the latter gained popularity thanks to The Band’s thrilling live shows.

Although the album’s other single, “Rag Mama Rag,” charted, it did not break the Top 40 in the US. Because Helm played mandolin and Danko fiddled on this track, Manuel sat in on drums and Simon came out from behind the sound desk to handle the bass guitar part.


The hit “The Shape I’m In” was recorded for their third album, Stage Fright (1970). In general, that album has a stronger rock core and less blues and bluegrass flavor than the first two. It also contains some of their most pessimistic lyrics, which many critics at the time noted were oddly mismatched with more upbeat music. To this point, it’s significant to note that this was The Band’s first attempt to self-produce.

Among the record’s fun oddities is “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” composed by Robertson and inspired by stories Helm had told him of the medicine shows that used to tour in rural Arkansas, where he grew up. Hence the twangy, southern-rock sound. Hudson plays tenor saxophone on this track.


When Cahoots came out in 1971, Jon Landau of Rolling Stone spent half his review comparing the new album with The Band, primarily in terms of the records’ respective degrees of melancholic nostalgia. Maybe even the musicians themselves were getting tired of Robertson’s dour outlook, since after this album they recorded only covers for several years.

In retrospect, though, there are some gems on this record. The funky “Life Is a Carnival” is heavy on the brass yet experimental with the guitar pedals, conjuring up Motown with a psychedelic tinge.


A band so beloved for its jamming live shows should have its live albums counted shoulder-to-shoulder with its studio output. Rock of Ages (1972) is decidedly a classic of that genre. Next came the fifth studio album, Moondog Matinee (1973), devoted to blues and R&B covers. Beyond the critics’ discomfort with their original music, The Band just wasn’t getting along, so creation of new songs became impossible.

It can hardly be called a loss for music-lovers, though. These are terrific arrangements of songs like Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” Lieber and Stoller’s “Saved,” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Among the outtakes that were released in a 2001 special edition is Helm singing “Didn’t It Rain,” inspired by the 1947 recording by gospel choir-leader Roberta Martin.


During this period, The Band worked a lot with Dylan. They appear on his albums Before the Flood and Planet Waves; in 1975 The Basement Tapes was finally released as well. But those collaborations didn’t slow their own studio output. 1975 saw the release of Northern Lights, Southern Cross.

The Band was again ready to make an album’s worth of new songs, with Robertson continuing as chief composer. Maybe they were encouraged by the completion of their own studio, Shangri-La, in Malibu. (Superstar producer Rick Rubin owns it now.) The Band had equipped it with a 24-track tape recorder, so the layering on this album gets quite impressive; Hudson particularly enjoyed the ability to use two or three keyboards on a single song.

The sly wit of The Band – in the writing, the arranging, and in Helm’s delivery of lyrics – shines on the upbeat blues “Ophelia.” Robertson’s jaunty guitar solo starting at 1:37 is icing on the cake.


When the Martin Scorsese-directed concert film The Last Waltz was shot in late 1976, the group knew their ride was coming to an end. It was billed as their “farewell concert appearance.” They did release Islands in 1977, but that was just to complete their Capitol contract, and they loaded it with previously recorded songs they’d never had a chance to release.

Robertson wasn’t interested when The Band revived to tour in 1983. A few years later, Manuel committed suicide. The new lineup, used for the album Jericho in 1993, included Helm, Danko, and Hudson, plus drummer Randy Ciarlante, guitarist Jim Weider, and keyboardist Richard Bell.

Even without Robertson and Manuel, this is still The Band, as you can hear in their rousing rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Stuff You Gotta Watch.”


The same personnel released High on the Hog in 1996 and Jubilation in 1998. While the former is mainly covers, for Jubilation the group once again wrote new material, a challenge without the stalwart talents of Robertson. Danko’s “High Cotton” has a simple classic-country sound and a laid-back feel despite the remarkable number of syllables he crowds into each line.


There were rumors in 1998 that another album was in the offing, but it never came to be. Danko died the following year, and Helm in 2012. Of the old Hawks, only Robertson and Hudson are still living. The music they brought to the world as The Band will likely live forever.


Header image of The Band courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/©Elliott Landy 1969.

Black Sabbath Mark II: Deluxe Edition Reissues

Black Sabbath Mark II: Deluxe Edition Reissues

Black Sabbath Mark II: Deluxe Edition Reissues

Tom Gibbs

My experiences with Black Sabbath go all the way back to my pre-teen years, and most of their classic music has been ingrained into my psyche throughout most of my lifetime. However, to be honest, at the point when Ozzy departed the band, my musical interests had diversified to the point where I pretty much missed Sabbath’s second act at the time it happened. Deluxe Editions of Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, the first two studio releases from that incarnation of Black Sabbath, have just been released, and I thought it would be interesting to take another listen to the Ronnie James Dio-fronted version of Sabbath. I hope you don’t mind my sharing a bit of a reminisce about the band…

My first exposure to Black Sabbath came at a pretty early age. My next door neighbor Stanley Wilson was a fairly troubled youth — and his parents each had their own problems — so they both tried to overcompensate by indulging his every whim. He had a fairly sophisticated (for 1970) record player, and his parents would purchase whatever current release LPs he desired, no questions asked. We’d sit on his front porch and play Black Sabbath and Master of Reality virtually non-stop, and usually much to the chagrin of the crabby old man who lived across the street. The old guy hobbled around with a cane, and was barely mobile; I guess his lack of mobility held him back from coming over and making much of a fuss about the noise.

Until this beautiful warm day in September, 1970, when Stanley had just gotten home from the store with a just-released copy of Sabbath’s new album, Paranoid. I rushed over, and we started cranking it — at least as loudly as the GE record player would crank! “Iron Man” had just kicked in, when suddenly, the old codger had taken all he could apparently stand, lunged to his feet, and proceeded to hobble down the street — to my house, where he proceeded to pound on the front door with his cane. My mom answered the door; about that time, I told Stanley to nudge the volume down so we could hear what was about to transpire. “Pauline!” the old man shouted, “I want you to get over there RIGHT NOW and tell those gosh-darn kids to turn that gosh-darn noise down, NOW!”

My mom was fairly old-school, fairly conservative, and very religious, and I expected the absolute worst — but at that moment, she shocked me in a way she never matched for the remainder of her life. She raised her voice — which she very rarely ever did — and told the old guy to go home, and leave those kids alone, they’re just playing some records, and are not bothering anyone! He hobbled back to his house, grumbling the whole way, going inside and slamming the door behind him. I wanted to jump up and scream, “RIGHT ON, MOM!” but my enthusiasm was short-lived; my mom immediately came next door, looked us sternly in the eye, and told us to “turn that rock and roll down, now!

As I entered my teen years, the rock and roll didn’t stay turned down for very long — it actually got louder and louder, almost deafeningly so. In mid-1978, Steve — my high school best friend — told me he was getting Black Sabbath tickets, and did I want to go; oh, heck yes! It was Sabbath’s tenth anniversary tour, and they’d just released Never Say Die, which was probably their most uneven record yet. But the tour stop at the Omni in Atlanta had Blue Öyster Cult on the bill — another band I’d become completely infatuated with — so, of course, I was definitely in. The show quickly sold out — and not long after getting our tickets, the local rock radio station, 96 Rock (WKLS) announced that for some reason, the tour lineup had been changed, and BOC was off the ticket. Bummer — that is, until they announced that replacing them would be the Ramones and Van Halen!

The day of the show, I drove over to Steve’s place in Athens, Georgia — he was a second-year student at UGA, and we hung out with the handful of friends who were going to the show later that evening. We listened to Sabbath records all day, smoked a few blunts, and chugged a couple beers. All day, Steve kept saying, “you know, Sabbath could be a really great band — if they only had a drummer!” I didn’t particularly agree, but never one to dampen the festive atmosphere, I kept my thoughts to myself.

We had really good seats at the old Omni (it was actually still pretty new then), and were only about ten rows in front of the stage on the floor. The Ramones hit the stage, and I’d never seen anything like it — they played like, fifteen songs in fifteen minutes, with absolutely no conversation in between. Just a really loud “One-two-three-FOUR!!” in between every tune — we laughed and laughed, but really, really dug it. Then Van Halen came out — holy crap, Eddie Van Halen playing “Eruption;” we just about freaked! Dave Lee doing those high leg kicks, jumps and splits — it was incredibly entertaining. Black Sabbath had a tough road ahead of them if they were going to top the Ramones and VH!

Keyboard player Don Airey, who played on the first few Ozzy albums, relates a story that Ozzy told regularly on his first solo tour that revolved around Black Sabbath getting embarrassed on stage by their opening act. The band in question was KISS — still virtually unknown at the time — but Ozzy was totally pissed that KISS’s already great level of showmanship completely outclassed them as the headlining act. And he swore that would never happen again — even if Sabbath had to go out on tour with some California bar band as an opener. On the first night of the 1978 tour, Van Halen was already on stage when Sabbath arrived at the venue, where they were greeted by the opening notes of Eddie’s “Eruption”; Ozzy and Tommy just stared at each other in stunned silence. The crowd went absolutely wild: it had happened again, and after the conclusion of the Sabbath tour, Van Halen had become the headliners.

Anyway, when Black Sabbath hit the stage, we all noticed that there was a circular drum riser with what appeared to be strobe lights all around it. What’s that all about? Sabbath absolutely killed it that night; when the opening bars of “War Pigs” blasted forth, we left our seats and never sat down for the remainder of the show. The new songs from Never Say Die fared much better live and seemed much more essential than the studio versions, and the band’s renditions of all their classic hits were revelatory. When drummer Bill Ward’s solo came, as usual, in the middle of “Rat Salad” (from Paranoid); it started out slowly, with some jazzy drumming at first with a long run-out, then there was a bit of a pause. Ward then tapped a cymbal, and a strobe light flashed; he’d then hit one of the tom-toms, and another strobe would flash, and the riser would rotate a bit. It continued to proceed, with every drumbeat and cymbal stroke, a strobe would flash and the drum riser started spinning…faster…faster…faster! Until the point when it almost felt like it would leave the stage and go spinning into space! I swear, on that night, Bill Ward would have given Neil Peart or Carl Palmer a run for their money — it was without a doubt one of the most impressive drum solos I’ve ever witnessed, bar none. When the cheering finally subsided, I turned to Steve and yelled, “yeah, you’re right, man — they really need a drummer!”

It marked Ozzy’s last tour as an original member of the band; in less than a year, he was fired for excessive drinking and drug use. Which must have been off the chain, since everybody else in the band did their fair share of partying at the time. After Ozzy’s departure, Sharon Arden (soon to be Sharon Osborne) — who was Sabbath manager Don Arden’s daughter — suggested that the band hire former Rainbow lead singer Ronnie James Dio as Ozzy’s replacement. She then helped Ozzy get his sh*t together and launch a successful solo career; for both Ozzy and for Black Sabbath, a new world order had been established. But for all Black Sabbath fans, the change wasn’t a completely welcome one. For me personally, Sabbath just kind of fell off my radar for a while; my only contact with the RJD-fronted Sabbath was the song “Mob Rules” from the Heavy Metal movie and soundtrack.

And that Black Sabbath/Blue Öyster Cult tour did eventually happen; while I didn’t see the tour, Steve and I did go see the film that documented the tour, Black and Blue, at a midnight movie. That experience kind of turned me off from the Ronnie James Dio version of the band; Dio’s on stage personality was charismatic, but — for me, at least — his excessive posturing was kind of off-putting. His on stage presence was a little over the top for me — I definitely fell strongly into the Ozzy as Sabbath’s lead singer camp.

Fast forward to many years later: I was hosting an extended family get-together, and my now-grown kids and I were sitting around the pool having a few beers, talking about music and the like. My oldest stepson Joe had his iPhone, and was playing various music tracks from YouTube, when he suddenly said, “how about this…” and played “The Mob Rules.” My youngest step son Josh lunged towards Joe immediately, demanding that he “turn that crap off!” Joe protested, “but it’s Black Sabbath!” “No,” Josh said sternly. “No Ozzy, not Sabbath!” So I guess not everyone’s entirely keen on the Ronnie James Dio version of Sabbath.

I’ve long since added the studio versions of both Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules to my music library, and have come to develop quite an appreciation for this version of the band and the music. So I thought it would be great to see if the expanded Deluxe Editions offered any real improvements over the originals.

Black Sabbath — Heaven and Hell (Deluxe Edition)

Black Sabbath’s last two albums with Ozzy, Technical Ecstasy (1976) and Never Say Die (1978) weren’t well received critically, though both earned the band gold records for album sales, although it took over twenty years for each album to reach that height. Tensions were already beginning to brew within the band; Tony Iommi was unhappy with his bandmates during the aftermath of the Technical Ecstasy sessions, when they all essentially left him alone to handle the heavy lifting with the record’s production chores. And by the time the band went into the studio for Never Say Die, Ozzy was already toying with leaving the band; he actually split for a very brief time and was replaced by Savoy Brown’s Dave Walker. That didn’t work out, and Ozzy eventually returned, but Never Say Die was definitely the most uneven effort in the band’s history. This made it relatively easy for the band to give Ozzy the axe following the tour, especially in light of all the negative criticism in most music magazines. Guitarist and bandleader Iommi instructed drummer Bill Ward to inform Ozzy of the band’s decision. Ward says that he was drinking a lot, and was drunk at the time, as were the other members of the band most of the time, and he really couldn’t say how Ozzy took the news.

When Ronnie James Dio arrived, he breathed new life into the band; his singing style was so very different from that of Ozzy that it freed Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler to alter their styles compositionally, and in a way that gave them increased confidence in the band’s new music. Dio’s arrival wasn’t so matter of fact; Bill Ward and Geezer Butler were actually experimenting with forming a new band, and despite Sharon Arden’s insistence to Iommi that RJD was their man, it took some time before everything came together. The new album, Heaven and Hell, was well received critically, and quickly embraced by Sabbath fans; it raced to No. 28 on the US charts and was certified Platinum (one million units sold) in the year of its release. The album sold well worldwide, and the ensuing tour sold out dates at just about every stop. The reception by fans wasn’t always warm and fuzzy, with audiences chanting, “Ozzy, Ozzy” frequently at venues along the way. This unnerved Ronnie James Dio to no end, but the new version of the band eventually won the fans over. And they played all the classics, although their new music was very different from that of the band during the Ozzy period.

Despite its critical and commercial success, Heaven and Hell flew completely under my radar at the time of its release — I guess I was completely preoccupied with all the crap going on in my life at the time. And probably considered the RJD version of Black Sabbath unworthy of my then especially limited time and dollars. Heaven and Hell (Deluxe Edition) is being made available as both 2-CD and 2-LP sets, along with 24/96 digital streaming on most major services. There are differences between the versions; both the CD and streaming versions feature a first disc with the 2021 remastered original album, and a second disc of studio outtakes and live recordings. Because of the space limitations of the vinyl format, you get the newly remastered album on the first LP, but only a mixture of selections from the bonus studio outtakes and live material on the second LP. Most of the material has been previously released on a 2011 Universal Deluxe Edition, but the four 1981 live tracks from a Hammersmith Odeon date have never seen the light of day. Unfortunately, three of the four live tracks duplicate material already included from the Hartford, Connecticut 1980 tracks, and don’t add a lot in terms of interest to the new set.



None of the physical releases were available at the time of my review, so all my listening with Heaven and Hell was done via Qobuz’s 24/96 high-resolution digital files. Probably the main reason to even consider checking out this new Deluxe Edition is because of the improved sound quality. There’s a greater clarity of sound with all the instrumentation, and especially with Ronnie James Dio’s vocals, which were somewhat recessed in the original release. That said, the new remastering is more heavily compressed than the original release, and neither the studio nor live tracks were what I would consider real audiophile quality.

The live tracks from the Hammersmith Odeon concert were much more well-recorded than the Hartford concert, but with me not being a particular disciple of this version of the band, I could easily take them or leave them. And even if I didn’t especially care for watching RJD’s stylings in the Black and Blue concert film back in the day, it would probably be pretty interesting to go back and have another look at the film. Especially after all this time, and besides, I really loved the BÖC segments. The LP version of this set would likely suffer from less compression; even if that’s not part of your plan, true fans will want to at least check out the digital files.

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


Black Sabbath — Mob Rules (Deluxe Edition)

Despite the success of Heaven and Hell and the ensuing tour, drummer Bill Ward had never quite recovered from being the “hit man” when it came to delivering the news to Ozzy Osbourne that the band had fired him. Ward had progressively stepped up his already out-of-control drinking, and unceremoniously quit the band midway through the tour; he made it quite clear that Ozzy was and would always be Black Sabbath’s lead singer. Ward was promptly replaced by session drummer Vinnie Appice, who wouldn’t appear on another Black Sabbath album until 1992’s Dehumanizer. And although there was quite a bit of skepticism and apprehension within the band about Ward’s replacement, apparently Vinnie Appice worshipped Bill Ward, knew all of his signature drum styles, and was a seamless fit with the new lineup.

The genesis of Mob Rules began when Sabbath was contracted to contribute a song for the animated motion picture Heavy Metal. “Mob Rules” was the song that the band created for the soundtrack album, and the tune “E5150” also appeared in the movie, though it didn’t make the eventual cut for the album. The studio sessions for Mob Rules were plagued by creative differences in the band along with a multitude of technical problems; whereas the sessions for Heaven and Hell were fairly easy-going and stressless, the pressure to duplicate that record’s phenomenal success was almost more than the band members could bear. Compounding the situation, Tony Iommi was having a really difficult time getting the guitar sound he was hoping for in the studio. It took a protracted period of time, especially with the title cut, “The Mob Rules,” which apparently went through multiple takes before the band was satisfied with the results. Iommi considered the Heavy Metal version of the song superior in every way, but contractually, it couldn’t be used on the studio album.

Mob Rules debuted to generally mixed criticism and lukewarm commercial success; many of the music mags basically referred to it as Heaven and Hell, Part II, because musically and thematically, the song structures bore a strong resemblance to the previous record. It’s a criticism which Tony Iommi has constantly taken issue with in the ensuing years since Mob Rules was released; he still believes it’s a very good record. The album only went Gold in the US, and experienced similar worldwide sales, and the resulting tour found the band already beginning to splinter. Apparently, Ronnie James Dio had been approached by the record label and offered a solo contract, which didn’t go over well with Iommi or Butler. And there were arguments over a live album, Live Evil, that was being put together during the tour; Dio was unhappy with some of the sound editing, which he didn’t feel flattered his vocals, and he was also particularly unhappy with the album’s design and photography. He felt the photos that featured him were indistinct, and that the photos of the remaining members of the band were too prominent. At the conclusion of the tour, Dio split, taking Appice with him, and formed his own band, Dio, releasing the 1983 album Holy Diver to both critical and commercial acclaim.

As with Heaven and Hell (Deluxe Edition), there are distinct differences in the release versions, depending on your choice of format. One of the definite highlights is the inclusion of the Heavy Metal version of “The Mob Rules,” which makes it perfectly clear why Tony Iommi obsessed with trying to get the same sound for the studio release — it’s obviously superior from the very first note. There are a few studio outtakes, more tracks from the Hammersmith Odeon concert, and the real bonus is a complete 1982 concert from Portland, Oregon, which has never been previously released.



As with the Heaven and Hell set, Mob Rules (Deluxe Edition) is also being made available as both a double-CD and double-LP, along with 24/96 digital files streaming on most major services. Again, all my listening was done via Qobuz’s 24/96 high-resolution digital files, and again, the new remastering is definitely more compressed than the original release. Yes, there’s more clarity of sound here — as with Heaven and Hell — but the level of compression makes it difficult to really crank it and enjoy the music. The inclusion of the previously unreleased live tracks from the Portland show will probably make this required listening for true fans and completists, though overall, I found the Deluxe Edition to be something of a mixed bag. YMMV.

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

Dinah Washington: What a Difference the Blues Make

Dinah Washington: What a Difference the Blues Make

Dinah Washington: What a Difference the Blues Make

Anne E. Johnson

St. Luke’s Baptist Church has served Chicago’s Black community on the South Side since 1918. One of its parishioners in the 1930s was a girl named Ruth Lee Jones, who loved to sing in the gospel choir. The Alabama native, born in 1924, would grow up to be the Grammy-winning blues and jazz artist Dinah Washington.

Having dropped out of high school to take a job in the Sallie Martin Gospel Singers, teen-aged Washington began gigging in Chicago’s jazz clubs. Fats Waller accompanied her at the Sherman Hotel. A big break came when she sat in with the voice-and-ukulele group The Cat and the Fiddle at a club called the Garrick; that led to a regular gig in the upstairs room, while Billie Holiday played the larger, first-floor club. When Lionel Hampton stopped by and heard Washington sing, her career swung into the big time.

She sang with Hampton’s band until transitioning to a solo career in 1946. Over a seven-year period, an astonishing 27 of her singles were top-ten hits on the R&B charts (a designation that at the time referred to blues records). The biggest of these was “Baby Get Lost.” Despite that mainstream success, she continued to perform at jazz festivals with greats like tenor sax player Ben Webster and trumpeter Clifford Brown.

Washington died in 1963 at the age of 39 from an accidental overdose of barbiturates and alcohol. Fortunately, she was prolific in the studio, so there are plenty of records to memorialize her great talent forever.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Dinah Washington.

  1. Track: “Pennies from Heaven”
    Album: After Hours with Miss D
    Label: EmArcy
    Year: 1954

One of many albums Washington made on Mercury Records’ jazz line, EmArcy, After Hours with Miss D features a track list of swinging American popular standards. Washington is joined by a 12-man jazz band that includes the likes of trumpeter Clark Terry, saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and drummer Ed Thigpen.

The song “Pennies from Heaven” was written by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke and premiered by Bing Crosby in the 1936 movie of the same name. Washington’s version has none of Der Bingle’s laissez-faire; her delivery is intense and focused, and the tempo spritely. The organ is played by Jackie Davis, with Candido Camero on congas.


  1. Track: “You Don’t Know What Love Is”
    Album: For Those in Love
    Label: EmArcy
    Year: 1955

One of many elements that make For Those in Love so great are its arrangements by the 21-year-old Quincy Jones. Most of the tracks on this interesting list of songs originated in movie soundtracks. This was almost true for “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” composed for an Abbott and Costello picture; it was cut from the film, yet still made its way into the standard jazz repertoire.

Washington’s dark, aching version of the song starts out as a duet with guitarist Barry Galbraith. When the horns come in (Paul Quinichette, Cecil Payne, and others), young Jones really shows his brilliance: the ensemble intensifies Washington’s voice, never overwhelming it.


  1. Track: “Say It Isn’t So”
    Album: In the Land of Hi-Fi
    Label: EmArcy
    Year: 1955

Hal Mooney, known for his work with Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and others, created the arrangements for this knock-out album of jazz and blues standards. Beyond the string-heavy studio orchestra, the sidemen include Cannonball Adderley on alto sax and Junior Mance at the piano.

There’s a breathtaking subtlety to Washington’s singing of this well-known lyric. It’s like listening to a great actor who knows how to develop a speech through layers of detail rather than become louder or more bombastic. This version demonstrates the truth that heartbreak can be a quiet thing.


  1. Track: “Ain’t Cha Glad”
    Album: Dinah Washington Sings Fats Waller
    Label: EmArcy
    Year: 1957

By 1957, Fats Waller and Dinah Washington had known each other for nearly 20 years. Although the archetypal pianist does not appear on this album, Washington captures his unique gusto and humor on this track list of songs Waller either wrote or was famous for playing. The record was produced by Bob Shad, who would go on to work in the rock realm with Big Brother and the Holding Company, among others.

The personnel list is lengthy, with each type of horn several stands deep. The trumpets alone number eight! It’s a huge sound, bigger than many big bands. Washington’s voice, which by this point was developing an intense, husky vibrato, has no trouble being the boss over all that brass.


  1. Track: “Backwater Blues”
    Album: Newport ’58
    Label: EmArcy
    Year: 1958

It’s always a joy to hear one world-class female musician interpret the work of another.

“Backwater Blues” was written by Bessie Smith. As the album title implies, the tracks were recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival, where another important female of the jazz world contributed the arrangements: Melba Liston, who started her career as a trombonist in the late 1930s and became a respected composer and arranger. The impressive trio supporting Washington is Wynton Kelly on piano, Max Roach on drums, and Paul West on bass. Washington leaves it all out on the field.


  1. Track: “This Bitter Earth”
    Album: Unforgettable
    Label: Mercury
    Year: 1961

Unforgettable is arguably more of a pop album than jazz, but since that genre was an essential part of Washington’s success, it’s worth including. Plus, she never left jazz far behind, which is what made her pop records so good.

That said, neither jazz nor pop enter into the first track. Composed by Clyde Otis, better known to history as one of the music industry’s first Black A&R men than as a songwriter, “This Bitter Earth” opens Side A with somber, meditative beauty. Against a string quartet arrangement, Washington sounds almost like she’s reciting poetry, or perhaps praying.


  1. Track: “Drinking Again”
    Album: Drinking Again
    Label: Roulette
    Year: 1962

If you like American popular standards, it’s hard to beat the song list on Drinking Again. Maybe that’s because wistful romanticism is the vibe that makes that genre glow brightest. From longing (“Baby Won’t You Please Come Home”) to mourning (“The Man That Got Away”), Washington covers every angle of love gone wrong with equal conviction. It’s not irrelevant here to mention that she married six times in her short life.

And then there’s some humor to lessen the sting. The title song is by Johnny Mercer with droll lyrics by Doris Tauber.


  1. Track: “It’s a Mean Old Man’s World”
    Album: Back to the Blues
    Label: Roulette
    Year: 1963

This album, not long before Washington died, shows her taking a greater part in her own arrangements. She is given co-composing credit on several of the songs here, including “It’s a Mean Old Man’s World.” Fred Norman arranged and conducted the orchestra, enhanced by a few jazz masters like Illinois Jacquet and her longtime sideman Eddie Chamblee, a singer and trombonist who was also briefly her husband. Producer Henry Glover deserves a nod for the rich sonics, shimmering with a slight reverb.

Washington is at the top of her game, selling that blues like it’s all she ever wanted to sing. Somehow hearing this makes her untimely death all the more tragic.

United Recording Studios: An Industry Legend

United Recording Studios: An Industry Legend

United Recording Studios: An Industry Legend

John Seetoo

This year’s AES Fall Show 2020 was conducted virtually, due to COVID-19 restrictions in New York, which prevented the convention from being held in the Javits Center, its usual venue. However, the online workshops and conferences afforded participants a unique opportunity to experience certain events in a more in-depth fashion than normally, albeit without the ability to touch any actual gear. The unquestionable main event was “7 Audio Wonders of the World,” a video tour covering some of the world’s most historic and iconic recording studios. Previously Skywalker Sound, Galaxy Studios, The Village, Blackbird Studio, and Abbey Road have been covered in Copper Issues 123 through 126. Number six on the “7 Audio Wonders” list is United Recording Studios.

It is interesting to note that while all of the top recording studios in the series have preferences for different recording consoles and speakers, when it comes to compressors, the UREI/Universal Audio 1176 transistor compressors and LA-2A tube compressors are omnipresent. These pro studio standard units are just a small bit of the recording legacy of Bill Putnam, a man of many design, engineering and production talents who has been called the “father of modern recording.”

United Recording Studios. United Recording Studios.

Les Paul is often credited with inventing multitrack tape recording. However, Les Paul got the original idea from his good buddy, the late Bill Putnam, who successfully executed the first commercially successful sound-on-sound overdub recording in 1947 with Patti Page and George Barnes. The song, “Confess” contained Page’s double-tracked vocal, utilizing a disc combined with a wire recorder.

In the annals of audio recording history, Bill Putnam is a titan. He is credited with the first use of echo chambers in the US, designed and built the first modular recording console and the first isolation booth, is credited with the first use of tape echo and delay lines, and founded Universal Audio, which later became UREI, an audio company best known for its outboard processing equipment and speakers.

Putnam and his Universal Recording Studio had recorded Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Patti Page and Sarah Vaughan, and became so in-demand that Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby bankrolled his move to Los Angeles in 1957 to create United Recording Corporation.

United continued as a highly-sought recording studio over the next two decades. In 1969, 16 year old intern and budding loudspeaker designer Allen Sides began his association with United, later catching the attention of Bill Putnam by negotiating an insanely low price for a large cache of mothballed vintage gear from Putnam’s previous United Western facility for Sides’ new Santa Monica-based Ocean Way Studios. Impressed by Sides’ technical knowledge, ears and business savvy, they would become friends and partners, with Putnam selling United to Sides in the 1980s to become part of Ocean Way. Sides went on to continue upgrading and innovating United until selling it in 2013 to Hudson Pacific. Since 2015 it has been known as United Recording Studios.

Robin Goodchild, Director of United Recording, stresses that having a good staff is even more important than having great gear. United’s reputation for professionalism and taking care of clients all adhere to the Putnam philosophy and aesthetic for creating the optimum atmosphere in which to record and produce music.

Studio B Live Room

Although designated “B,” this was Bill Putnam’s first room, built to his specifications. Studio B quickly gained a reputation as an excellent tracking room, and still holds the distinction as one of the finest ever built. It is renowned for enhancing the sound of almost anything recorded there.

Studio B. Studio B.

With a high ceiling divided into angled sections, and no parallel wall surfaces. Studio B is an old-school engineering marvel, likely built as much to Bill Putnam’s ears as his blueprints.

Studio B’s live room measures 60 feet by 50 feet. There is also a separate isolation room that is 60 feet by 54 feet, custom-built to Putnam’s specs. Originally it was part of an adjacent building, and was used for jingles. It was added to Studio B by Allen Sides in 1978.

Studio B’s live room is particularly famous for drum sounds. A unique feature of Studio B is the “drumbrella,” a variable-height ceiling baffle installed by Allen Sides in 1978 that contains a mystery sound absorption material known only to Allen Sides. It’s mounted on a winch to tailor the acoustics when recording drums, and it’s useful for recording upright bass and other instruments as well.

The first project cut at United in 1958 was Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool”. Since then, United has been a premier recording location for Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Everly Brothers, Adele, Paul McCartney, Queens of the Stone Age, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, James Taylor and many others. The Studio B live room has been basically unchanged since 1958.

The enormous speaker cabinet isolation boxes currently residing in in Studio B were designed specifically for Queens of the Stone Age. The custom cabinet iso booths cut the rumble by 52 dB and managed to keep sound within the building.

Studio B’s vocal booth was built by Bill Putnam, who, among his many accomplishments, invented the standalone vocal booth. This was the first of its kind and is still in use today.

Studio B Control Room

The centerpiece of Studio B’s control room is a custom-built vintage Neve 68-channel 8068/8088 console. It was originally owned by RPM Studios in New York and later sold to The Document Room in Malibu, then acquired in 2010 by Allen Sides for Ocean Way. It has Fred Hill mods and every channel sports a Neve 31102 preamp. This desk replaced the famous but rare Dalcon console, which was sold to producer/engineer/musician Nigel Godrich (Radiohead) after decades of service and countless platinum and gold hit records.

The studio’s main speakers are Allen Sides’ custom Ocean Way monitors, and it’s equipped with Dynaudio nearfield monitors. Pro Tools HDX2 is used for recording.

Studio B’s outboard gear includes a collection of Fairchild 670, Teletronix LA-2A,UREI 1176 and  Pultec EQ-1 compressors and equalizers. There is also a separate rack of vintage API 550A shelving equalizers. Users can switch between Neve 31102 or API 550A equalizers with a button. The studio’s acoustics and gear deliver vintage sounds but can also do contemporary styles, as a host of modern gear is also available.

Studio A Live Room:

Studio A is the second live room designed by Bill Putnam. It has more of an open, warm, natural sound with less “enhancement” than in Studio B – Studio A is truer to the actual sound of the instruments while Studio B has a reputation for making everything sound “better.” Studio A is considered to be especially good for strings Other than a newer parquet floor and a control room extension done in the 1970s, the room is unchanged since its original construction. Measuring 1,575. square feet, Studio A is larger than B. Its angled walls have acoustic panels that provide a combination of sound absorption and/or refraction where needed. There are no “bad” or dead spots in the room.

According to Grammy Award-winning musician/producer Gregg Field, Studio A’s live room has been basically untouched since Bill Putnam created it. Once Field started engineering there, he noticed how accurate the room was. What Field recorded to tape captured exactly how things sounded in real life, as opposed to some rooms, where a kick drum might need to be enhanced in the mix, for example.

Studio A. Studio A.

Producer and composer Rickey Minor noted that the room doesn’t color the sound to a point where highs or lows are cut off; it just sounds organically natural and warm. Minor built a smaller room in an adjacent building ,with a similar design that captured much of the same vibe; the building itself apparently has a certain constructional magic. “The [recording] technology can change, but the way our ears hear and how it sounds in the room is something special,” Minor noted.

A 1960s Steinway D concert grand bought by Allen Sides in the late 1990s from Motown’s LA studios sits in Studio A. The large iso booth houses another Steinway, which was used by Bruce Hornsby on “The Way It Is.” It also stores Frank Sinatra’s famous podium, from where he would cut his vocals with a big band orchestra.

Studio A Control Room

Although Studio B no longer has its distinctive yellow Dalcon console, Studio A has kept its super-rare 72-channel Focusrite console, number four or only 10 ever made, and Focusrite preamps, modified for a more open sound. Originally formed by designer Rupert Neve in 1985 as a side company, Focusrite is currently best known for its computer audio interfaces. The desk is loaded with Focusrite-designed ISA 110 dynamic processors, and in 1989 was acquired from Phil Dudderidge, co-founder of Soundcraft and former live sound mixer for Led Zeppelin.

Mixing console, Studio A control room. Mixing console, Studio A control room.

Studio A’s main speakers are Ocean Way custom monitors designed by Allen Sides. Studio A also has ATC SCM45, Yamaha NS-10, and Genelec 1032 monitor speakers for cross-referencing mixes. The outboard gear racks contain vintage LA-2A, Fairchild, Lang and UREI 1176 compressors, Pultec EQs and a Neve BCM10 console. This studio also uses Pro Tools HDX2 for recording.

Up the staircase, management offices are located on the second floor. These were the original offices of Reprise Records and Frank Sinatra, Reprise’s founder.

Long a trade secret, Robin Goodchild confessed that Allen Sides would probably kill him for revealing United’s echo chambers on the AES virtual tour, if Sides still owned the studio. The echo chambers were used on records by the Beach Boys, Sinatra, Ray Charles, The Mamas and the Papas and others, and never before revealed to the public.

Echo Chamber A is a cavernous-sounding space of cinder block construction. Bill Putnam was the first acoustic designer to bring artificial reverb to the US (it was created in the UK) at Universal Studios in Chicago, where he initially used a tiled bathroom. Later, Les Paul took Putnam’s Universal model to build the echo chambers at Capitol Studios.

A separate plate reverb room holds six EMT 140 units. (Plate reverb is created by running the signal through an actual large metal plate. It has a distinctive sound.)

Echo Chamber D, accessible through the storage room, is built in a similar manner as chamber A, but smaller. Sound is fed into the chamber from an old Altec speaker and the reverberations are captured with a PZM (pressure zone mic) on the floor.

The nearby microphone locker stores 300 mics for every conceivable application, all hand-picked by Bill Putnam and Allen Sides. Most of them are vintage tube mics, though there are also large and small condenser, dynamic and ribbon mics from Neumann, Telefunken, AKG and other manufacturers.

Studio D

Allen Sides installed Studio D in 2003 when United was still Ocean Way. It was designed as a standalone mixing room with a vocal booth (large enough to hold a piano and a bass amp) and a separate iso booth for overdubs. Studio D has been used by Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, and notable producer Jack Joseph Puig reportedly had a long-term block booking for Studio D at one time. It is not an original Putnam room.

Studio D’s console is a Neve 88R. There are 16 (!) racks of outboard gear filled with a mix of vintage and modern equipment.

United Archiving is a separate division on the second floor of the building. Bill Smith is the chief archiving engineer. The archives hold reels of analog and digital tape in almost every conceivable format. All of the material is transferred to hi-res audio files and/or broadcast quality .WAV files.

The facility allows clients to have access to older assets (including original multitrack tapes) that are archived into high-resolution digital audio for future use. The archiving division also serves to preserve original material in order to avoid degradation once digitized. Thus, the new files can be re-done for 5.1 or Dolby Atmos remixes and so on. The facility is in almost constant use.

Archiving room at United Recording. Archiving room at United Recording.

The formats are transferred using a host of appropriate playback equipment, from a 24-track Studer multitrack analog recorder to an original 1980 digital-2 track Mitsubishi X-80 PCM recorder, an Alesis ADAT recorder, a Sony PCM 3348 48-track digital recorder and many other machines.

Unlike The Village, which experienced a temporary downturn in business in the 1990s because of younger artists avoiding the facility due to its close association with classic rock icons like Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty, United Recording has always been in demand from musicians of all genres. Its client list includes an impressive mix of seasoned and new artists. Alabama Shakes, Avicii, Mitchell Yoshida, Nat King Cole, most of the Reprise Records Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin), Beck, Radiohead, 21 Pilots, Lizzo, Ray Charles, Lionel Ritchie, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Phil Collins are just a small sample from the last 60 years. A recent photo collection curated by pro audio journalist Mr. Bonzai contains thousands of shots documenting sessions at United and now adorns the halls. The photos present a fascinating look at United’s history and its continuation of the legacy of Bill Putnam and Allen Sides.


All images courtesy of United Recording Studios/photography by Zane Roessell.

Issue 133

Issue 133

Issue 133

Paul McGowan