Issue 138

Glitch Transitions

Glitch Transitions

Frank Doris

Since moving to the new Copper platform, there have been some glitches. We’ve fixed many, but others remain to be addressed, from temporarily-disappearing articles to random fuzzy-looking images and other hiccups. If you see something odd, please let me know at frank@psaudio.com.

Copper writer Wayne Robins has a new subscription newsletter called Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins. We encourage you to read it – I’ve been enjoying it a lot. You can read it and subscribe (it’s free for now) at waynerobins49.substack.com. In this issue: We launch a new column, Speaker Builder, with an interview with PS Audio’s head speaker designer Chris Brunhaver. Anne E. Johnson gives insight into opera composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and the Indigo Girls. Ken Sander gets a job at Elektra Records. Don Kaplan begins another new column, The Mindful Melophile, covering recommended recordings. J.I. Agnew’s The Giants of Tape series features the rare and mighty MCI JH-110. Russ Welton concludes his interview with producer, film composer and musician C.J. Vanston and continues his explorations into subwoofer optimization. Stuart Marvin looks at the iconoclastic musical career of Chris Whitley. Richard Murison asks: DSD; Is it PCM, or isn’t it? Tom Gibbs explores various reissues from progressive rockers Yes. Ray Chelstowski covers the new Herbie Hancock anthology from Vinyl Me, Please. Alón Sagee goes up against a not-so-great-Wall. John Seetoo ponders: how much do we really hear when we listen? Rudy Radelic begins a comprehensive series on the music of Cal Tjader and Cliff Chenfeld gives us more recommended new music in the latest installment of Be Here Now. Our audio/visual department wraps up the issue with unwanted surface noise, nearfield listening, a reel swingin' party and a nightingale’s song.

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, Tim Riley, 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

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

 – FD

Song of the Nightingale

Song of the Nightingale

Song of the Nightingale

Michael Walker
“Before the morning comes, will I hear your song?” Roxy Music, “Nightingale.”

Phone-ing It In

Phone-ing It In

Phone-ing It In

Frank Doris

And he continues to animate the party…the Continental 401 tape recorder, that is! 1960s Philips ad.


Harman Kardon Citation II B stereo power amplifier, circa 1960s. Photo courtesy of Howard Kneller. Amazingly, almost nothing about this superb amplifier, one of the most advanced of its time, exists online.


Hands down, the worst Beatles caricatures we’ve ever seen, with clunky copy and typos to match.


Sadly, electronic music pioneer Joel Chadabe passed away on May 2, 2021. I had the honor of taking his electronic music course in 1977 while a student at the State University of New York at Albany. My final project was a piece called “The Meaning of Life?” The original cassette is pictured above. RIP, professor.

VMP Anthology: The Story of Herbie Hancock

VMP Anthology: The Story of Herbie Hancock

VMP Anthology: The Story of Herbie Hancock

Ray Chelstowski

Vinyl Me, Please (VMP) is a company dedicated to creating singular listening experiences that arrive with records housed in beautifully-designed packaging, and extras that are carefully considered and make the entire offering sparkle. Where VMP really shines is with anthologies. The Story of Blue Note Records, The Women of Motown, The Story of Ghostly International, The Story of Stax Records, and The Story of Zamrock are all wonderful examples of the team’s curating expertise, their capacity to create compelling content, and VMP’s overall knowledge of each artist and their respective fan bases. Now they have announced VMP Anthology: The Story of Herbie Hancock, an exclusive vinyl box set celebrating the remarkable career of the pianist, keyboardist and composer. This box set experience takes listeners on a sequential journey, told across eight albums personally chosen by Herbie and paired with an exclusive podcast interview series in celebration of Herbie’s 80th birthday.

Produced by Cameron Schaefer of VMP and veteran music supervisor Karyn Rachtman, VMP Anthology: The Story of Herbie Hancock is a two-piece box set designed by Clay Conder, with liner notes from award-winning author and music curator Marcus J. Moore. The eight albums come on 180-gram audiophile black vinyl with audio sourced from the original analog tapes from the vaults of Universal Music Enterprises and Sony Legacy. All albums are housed in heavyweight, tip-on style jackets that are closely matched to the original art. The set includes: Takin’ Off (1962); Maiden Voyage (1965); Head Hunters (1973); The V.S.O.P. Quintet: Live Under the Sky (1979); The Piano (1979); Future Shock (1983); 1+1 (1997); and The River (2007).

Herbie Hancock, 1980. Courtesy of Vinyl Me, Please/Bonnie Schiffman.


We had the opportunity to speak with Andrew Winistorfer, VMP’s Classics and Country Director, about how the project came about, how the albums were selected, how Herbie became involved, and what lies ahead for VMP – a company that is redefining how musical journeys can be followed, and the ways in which enduring musical legacies can be appreciated in full.

Ray Chelstowski: What prompted you to undertake this particular project now?

Andrew Winistorfer: The Grateful Dead anthology (The Story of the Grateful Dead) was the first we did that was artist-specific. When we were first conceptualizing the idea of creating box sets, the first four or five were label-specific. But we knew that we wanted focus on artists, and before we settled on doing the Grateful Dead, Herbie Hancock was a name that had come up. Then our CEO received a random e-mail from Karyn Rachtman, a woman who used to work for Herbie, and thought we should talk to him. So we sent a cold e-mail to his manager saying that we would love to do this anthology. They were very interested in doing this to help celebrate his 80th birthday, which was also his 60th anniversary of being a professional musician. Knowing Herbie, I think he loved the symmetry of 80 and 60 and having the anniversary be the year 2020 (when we initially announced the box set).

RC: Given the depth of Herbie’s catalog, how did you decide upon these particular albums?


AW: The initial concept that we pitched Herbie was narrowed down to eight albums. Herbie said, “I love this concept,” because he was really excited about the idea of how you pick only eight and still represent the arc of your career. All eight of these albums were picked personally by Herbie and it was really interesting for us to see what he would come back with and then try to determine why he picked them.

RC: What album did you want to include that just missed the cut?

AW: When we were told to figure out eight albums to pitch Herbie Hancock I actually discovered an early 1990s album of his called Dis is da Drum which is this weird sort of trip hop album. I was really excited about it because it had never been released before on vinyl. Ultimately it wasn’t included. The one that Herbie wrestled with was Live Under The Sky, which he ultimately re-sequenced for our box. It’s not the same track listing as the original release. He just thinks that it flows better as a live experience this way. We actually joked around about going to Ron Carter and asking him and others to create their ideal version of Live Under The Sky – to get three or four completely different sequences. In the end, we have relationships with all of the labels he’s worked with, so any album he had ever done was at his disposal.


RC: Were the masters all intact?

AW: I think that his labels realized pretty early on that he was special, so there weren’t any problems with the masters. But it did take a lot of work to get the test pressings right on The Piano and on 1+1 because both of those albums are very quiet and have a lot of empty space. On 1+1 we had to do twenty test pressings and 12 or 13 on The Piano. You would hear any little amount of scratching much more than on something like Head Hunters. It wasn’t so much that the masters were a problem as it was trying to make them as quiet as humanly possible.

RC: Were the records remastered as a set in mind or was each record addressed on its own?

AW: We use one mastering engineer, Bernie Grundman, with all of these box sets so you get their vision as to how this all should sound. But the big thing for us with anthologies is trying to get as much historical accuracy as possible. So with something like Taking Off we try to deliver you the perfect listening experience, as if everything had gone exactly right in 1961, like if it had actually been able to be on 180-gram vinyl and had been mastered by a legend like Bernie Grundman. What would it have sounded like?

RC: The LPs in this box set are all basic black. Did you consider any colored vinyl versions given the vibrant art design of albums like Head Hunters?

AW: We did a Blue Note box as our first anthology. If you’re going to try to make these as historically accurate as possible then to do a tie dye vinyl version of Taking Off just might make people think that you’re not as serious as you should be on the audiophile end of everything. That’s why, for example, with our classics subscription you have triple-A Quality Record Pressing black vinyl. We want to ensure that people know that these will sound as good as they will ever sound. With Herbie it’s all about a serious listening experience.

RC: How did you decide upon the writer Touré to host the podcasts? Who selected the subject matter?

AW: That was actually Herbie. Herbie asked for him by name. I think he had been interviewed by Touré at some point in his career and had listened to his podcast as well. The rough outline with the podcast is always to tell the story of each record, like if you were listening to a director’s commentary on a DVD.  With this one we wanted Herbie to talk about his memories and then get all of these other artists who have been involved or inspired by him to talk about individual albums.


RC: With over fifty albums in his catalog, do you think that there is another Hancock anthology waiting to be made?

AW: A few of us have given a lot of thought to what our alternative anthology to this would look like. I am a big fan of his late 1970s and early 1980s pop jazz. I think Monster is a really funky fun album. There are a lot of ways we could approach this. Maybe for his 85th birthday and his 65th anniversary could come back and do another one.

RC: How do you think this anthology honors Herbie Hancock’s legacy?

AW: I think it really captures his life as an artist and maybe the central challenge for any vinyl artist over the course of 60 years [is their] willingness to evolve. Herbie Hancock, maybe more than any of his contemporaries, was never content to simply play the hits. He probably took that from Miles. But Herbie has done it longer. When you look at the box set we go from fairly traditional jazz to wild jazz funk to fusion, to turntable scratching, and then you end up at River, this traditional piano bar-type album. The only thing that links them together is the name on the record. That’s really inspiring. He never stopped, but always looked to what’s next.

Apparently Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock used to get into fights over who got the newest synthesizers first. [Herbie] would go to Korg when they had a new model and say, “I’m flying to your offices and giving you the money in cash,” so that Stevie couldn’t buy it out from under him and have it shipped to his home in LA. That kind of evolution and commitment to the moment is told over the course of these eight albums.

Stevie, you can’t have these! Herbie Hancock in 1976. Courtesy of Vinyl Me, Please/Sony Music Archives.


RC: What’s next that you are most excited about?

AW: [Our] 10th anthology will be folk-centered. Then the eleventh will be Philadelphia International Records because they turn 50 this year. We’re really excited about that one and are working closely with [producers] Gamble and Huff on everything down to the artwork. They are involved with the curation and have been approving everything along the way. That one should arrive in September or October. And we have another jazz set that celebrates another label’s anniversary and that should be ready in time for the holidays.

For more on Herbie Hancock, please read Anne E. Johnson’s article in Copper Issue 129.

Classic Yes in the Digital Age

Classic Yes in the Digital Age

Classic Yes in the Digital Age

Tom Gibbs

My love for the band Yes goes all the way back to my early teen years; the small town in Northeast Georgia I grew up in had two AM radio stations, which mostly played local and state news and the local farm reports. If they played any music at all, it was country, with a heavy emphasis on Johnny Cash. But by the time 1971 had rolled around, one of those stations, WGGA, allowed a Boy Scout acquaintance of mine to spin a few records after 6 pm on weekday evenings. They gave him a fair amount of leeway as far as what he played, and I’ll never forget the first time I heard “Roundabout” from Fragile in late 1971. The next morning, I ran down to the local record shop to get a copy of the 45, which was backed with “Long Distance Runaround.” Soon after, I got the Fragile LP, which stretched out “Roundabout” significantly from the three-minute radio edit. And hearing the LP version of “Long Distance Runaround” segue into “The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)” for the first time was a thirteen-year-old mind-blowing experience!


My infatuation with Yes continued into my high school years, when, as a senior, I got my first car (‘69 Volkswagen Squareback), and bought the cheapest cassette tape deck for it that I could afford. I immediately ran over to the local Turtle’s Records and Tapes, where they had a table filled with cassettes for $3 each and bought copies of both Fragile and Close To The Edge. The CTTE cassette was molded in fluorescent pink plastic; I thought that was pretty outta site back in the day! My then-girlfriend’s birthday was coming up, and I desperately wanted her to share my love of Yes, so I got tickets to the upcoming show at the Omni in Atlanta – it was at the tail end of the Relayer tour. The concert actually occurred on her birthday, and prior to driving down to the show, I gave her copies of both the Fragile and CTTE albums. The show was beyond amazing, and intensified my mania for the band exponentially. Unfortunately, it didn’t work the same magic for my girlfriend Pam, who later told me that she found CTTE “boring.” Not long after, she announced that we needed to get married immediately, then head for Africa, where we could start saving the world by evangelizing the entire continent. That was my clue that it was time for me to move on!


I’ve seen Yes in concert multiple times over the years; of course the Relayer tour, and the “Yes In The Round” tour (which followed the release of the Tormato album) were big highlights. It was great to see Patrick Moraz with the band and hear “Sound Chaser” and “The Gates of Delirium” live, and it was especially gratifying to get to see the then-recently-returned Rick Wakeman with the band during “Yes In The Round.” But Tormato wasn’t as warmly received by both fans and the critics, and when Jon Anderson departed (Rick Wakeman also exited) to become a pop star with Jon and Vangelis in 1979, it looked like Yes was over. You can imagine my surprise when the band resurfaced in 1980 with Drama, especially minus Jon Anderson and with both members of the Buggles on board! Of course, back in those days, the only real information we got about anything going on in the music world was from DJs and Rolling Stone, so a lot of stuff happened with bands long before we fans found out – which was usually when the record was released. The Drama version of Yes splintered before the conclusion of the US tour, so hungry fans in Atlanta got…nothing. It looked like Yes was finally dead.

In late 1983, my then-girlfriend (soon to be wife) Beth and I were on a weekend getaway to Charleston, South Carolina; it was warm for November, and we had the windows down as we headed out to the beaches on the Isle of Palms. While rolling along across the causeway, this new song came on the radio; it had this kind of buzz-saw guitar intro, with a funky beat and a frenetic, jerking back-and-forth song framework. I found it pretty irresistible. But when the vocalist came in – it really sounded like Jon Anderson, but that’s not possible – Yes was a dead stick, wasn’t it? Anyway, I didn’t get to hear the DJ announce who the song was by, and it took several days to find out that it was in fact Yes, and they had a new album out, 90125. It was more rock and roll, and less proggy, and new guitarist and vocalist Trevor Rabin just killed it on all his songs. The “90125 Live” concert the following year was a definite highlight in my canon of live Yes experiences – and Beth loved the show and the band, and didn’t want to drag me off to Africa. Could it get any better?


The catalog of Yes albums that currently occupies my physical (LP, CD, DVD-Audio, and Blu-ray) and digital music server libraries is limited to everything by the band up to the 1987 album Big Generator. But my real impression of the band’s “classic” period begins with 1971’s The Yes Album, and continues through 1983’s 90125. While I do have songs from Big Generator and a recently-acquired copy of 1994’s Talk on my playlists and on the flash drive that’s attached to my car stereo, I never really dug into anything afterward. And was especially put off by all the apparent infighting and posturing among the opposing members of the band during the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe (1988) and Union (1991) periods. The music from that point on didn’t particularly move me, and I essentially lost interest in anything other than classic Yes.

Yes in the Compact Disc Era

My working process during the original launch and first couple of decades of the Compact Disc format was that I basically would acquire all of any particular artist’s available releases ASAP. But within a decade, everyone’s album catalog was getting remastered, and I’d sell whatever I had and get the new CDs. They were remastered; they had to be better than the originals, right? The unfortunate aspect of this is that I don’t have copies of the original CDs on hand with which to make current comparisons in terms of my impressions of their sound quality compared to the remastered versions. I only have my memory to depend upon. At that point in time, I was married with three small children, a dog, a mortgage, and two car payments – and as the kids reached their teen years and started demanding $50 pairs of jeans from The Limited at the mall, there was scarcely any money for the new releases I was interested in. I’ve always considered myself a music lover, but not really a collector, per se – I never felt the need to simply have a copy of every version of anything that existed, only the version that sounded best.

The biggest issue for me, however, is that with my current fairly high-end digital playback setup in place, I do wonder how very different my impressions of the relative sound quality of those earlier releases might be nowadays. Especially when you consider that most of the CD players I had owned from the advent of the format through the first few decades of its existence didn’t have the most robust digital to analog converters built in. I really do find that older CDs I acquire these days sound so much better on my current system than I remember them sounding back in the day. I’ve read countless articles where industry professionals involved in CD’s early phase uniformly have stated that there was essentially no problem with the 16-bit/44.1 kHz format chosen by Sony and Philips. The real problem was that the same level of playback quality found in professional equipment didn’t exist in consumer equipment of the day – consumers weren’t hearing the same thing the pros were hearing in the studio.

The first batch of Yes CDs arrived in the mid-1980s and were remastered by Barry Diament at Atlantic Studios. Of course, I rushed out and acquired every available title as soon as they were released, and pretty much determined that overall, they were a very mixed bag in terms of remastering. I’ve done a fair amount of research into this; apparently, Barry Diament, who was very highly regarded as a mastering engineer, was assigned the project, but was given very little latitude in determining which master tapes were appropriate for their initial issue in the new Compact Disc format. He was given specific tapes by the label, and was told to work with them, and some of them were very good – Close To The Edge comes to mind – but some were less than stellar (Fragile, for example). My recollection of these CDs is that they were pretty ho-hum, and I ditched them quickly for the next batch of remastered releases.

These came in the early ’90s, and were handled by Joe Gastwirt at Oceanview Digital. Gastwirt was developing quite the reputation for his remastering skills. The CDs came with booklets with more photos and extensive liner notes than the original releases, and on the surface appeared to be a big improvement over the originals. However, Gastwirt did use some compression when preparing the newer remasterings, and he employed a certain level of a relatively new process called “NoNoise” that was touted to eliminate any hiss while retaining all the original’s dynamics. I don’t actually believe NoNoise worked as well as Gastwirt and company believed it did, and my recollection of the sound quality was that it wasn’t significantly (if at all) better than the Barry Diament discs, and in some cases, maybe even worse. My online research has proven that I’m not alone in this – hardly anyone else really loved the Gastwirt reissues either.


2003 brought the latest incarnation of Yes reissues, which were produced by Rhino with Dan Hersch and Bill Inglot at DigiPrep handling the remastering chores. The first batch of these reissues initially came in deluxe Digi-paks, with full-album-art outer sleeves and fold-outs that replicated the original album packaging. These reissues include essays from writers at the YesWorld website, along with a selection of previously-unavailable photos, and complete album lyrics. Many of the discs included a substantial number of previously unreleased bonus tracks. For catalog CDs, these seemed to be the gold standard! Of particular interest to me was the reissue of Tales From Topographic Oceans, which restored a couple of minutes at the beginning of “The Revealing Science of God” that had been trimmed from every previous known release. Unfortunately, the overall sound of these reissues has been described as Bill Inglot’s “house sound,” which has the vocals very forward in the mix, with an overly-bright treble response. I guess a lot of what you’ll ultimately hear is system dependent – horns or compression-driver loudspeakers probably wouldn’t be a good choice for playback of these albums. Despite the fact that these versions are less-than-perfect, they still currently sit on my CD shelf, although where possible, most of my listening is done with higher-resolution versions.


The most notable other set of Yes CD releases came from Japanese label East-West, which released HDCD versions of classic titles. When these first appeared there was scant information regarding the provenance of their source tapes, and numerous complaints about the sound quality. And the prices seemed high, though not especially so for a Japanese import. With all the seeming negatives and their relatively limited availability, I never pursued any of them. The general consensus still seems to be that the sound quality didn’t measure up, or wasn’t significantly better than anything else that was already out there. And of course, there are the SHM CDs, which are also expensive Japanese imports. The big selling point of the SHMs is that they’re made from a super-high-density polycarbonate material, which is supposed to greatly enhance their optical properties and improve playback. Since these are 16-bit/44.1 kHz CDs, I also decided to opt out and wait and see if any of them were ever released as SHM SACDs – I own a few discs from this label and they’re excellent (if expensive). So far, no dice.

Yes In High-Resolution Digital

In the last few years, I’ve gotten my music server/streamer setup dialed into something approaching affordable perfection, and I’ve also had a renewed interest in exploring Yes releases that are now available in higher-resolution digital formats. To name a few: 24-bit/192 kHz digital downloads from HDTracks, remixed and remastered 24-bit/96 kHz versions from Steven Wilson that are available on both Blu-ray and DVD-Audio discs, and a handful of SACD disc titles from the now-defunct Audio Fidelity label. Not all of Yes’s catalog titles have been made available (so far) from any one of these sources; the selection at HDTracks is probably the best in terms of number of catalog Yes albums currently available. As of this writing, the Steven Wilson remix/remasters are limited to the five consecutive studio albums running from The Yes Album through Relayer. While Audio Fidelity had released a number of Yes albums as gold CDs, I’ve only been able to determine that two SACDs were ever released by the label – Close To The Edge and Going For The One.

The higher-resolution HDTracks downloads range in price from around $22 to $28, depending on the album and choice of resolution. The Steven Wilson remix/remasters originally retailed for around $20 for the DVD-Audio/CD packages, and around $30 for the Blu-ray/CD sets. But they haven’t been re-pressed in several years, and the prices online have been climbing, especially for the BD/CD packages – I’ve seen them selling on Discogs and eBay for as much as $100 recently. The Audio Fidelity SACDs, while originally retailing for around $30, are long out of print and now demand anywhere from $60 (GFTO) to $100 (CTTE) at online resellers. The HDTracks pricing has remained consistent for several years, but the DVD/BD/SACD disc pricing has gone berserk, especially over the last six months. The cost of many of the discs have more than doubled, and some of them even aren’t even available anymore at any price.

Next time, I’ll talk about the remastering approaches of the various parties and labels involved, and how the digital download and disc versions differ from one another. Till then, Happy trails!

Header image: Yes, courtesy of Wikipedia/Rick Dikeman.

Chris Whitley: A Nonconformist

Chris Whitley: A Nonconformist

Chris Whitley: A Nonconformist

Stuart Marvin

The definition of a nonconformist is “a person whose behavior or views do not conform to prevailing ideas or practices.” Yup, that defines the late blues-rock-folk artist Chris Whitley quite well.

The first time I saw Whitley perform live was in 1992 at Wetlands Preserve, a now-defunct New York City music club. Like many clubs of that era, Wetlands hosted a broad range of up and comers, including popular jam bands such as Phish, Government Mule and the Dave Matthews Band. The Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler played there so often they were practically resident artists.

While Wetlands wasn’t as raw as the more well-known NYC club CBGB, it did have its own gritty charm, ultimately closing in 2001 to make room for new condominiums, all part of a gentrifying TriBeCa neighborhood.

Looking wisp-thin and a tad unkempt that evening, Whitley projected an image of a Delta bluesman with NYC cred, a fairly apt description as his resume includes busking on the streets of Manhattan. In the early 80s, he was a fairly well-known street performer in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park. So, the Wetland’s gig was sort of a large-stage homecoming.

I don’t recall precisely when I first heard Whitley’s Columbia Records debut LP Living With The Law (1991), but it left an immediate impression, and remains a favorite of mine from that era. With a soulful, brooding voice, and a penetrating slide guitar, Whitley’s blues-tinged music projects a contemporary Robert Johnson or Elmore James. His unique style of playing and sound is driven by a vintage National Triolian steel-bodied resonator guitar, only manufactured from 1928 to 1941, and Whitley’s primary instrument of choice.


When reflecting on his musical influences, Whitley had this to say: “I grew up on (blues great) Johnny Winter, and that’s why I got into the National (guitar). But I was more into the rural electric blues, like Howlin’ Wolf, [his song] Smokestack Lightnin’ and the one-chord sound of early John Lee Hooker. And Elmore James; it wasn’t about his guitar though; I loved his singing.”

Two songs from Living With The Law charted on Billboard: The title track, “Living With The Law” at #28 and “Big Sky Country” at #36. Both songs are excellent, as is “Dust Radio,” all enhanced by the entire album’s exquisite production values. (Whitley thought the album was too polished, and there lies the beginning of a career conundrum.) Rolling Stone named Living With The Law the best debut album of 1991.

Seemingly like every great guitarist, Whitley was known for an extensive guitar collection, and for making guitar slides out of old bicycle handlebars. Skilled with a hacksaw, he’d cut the handlebar into pieces. The folks at Schwinn likely didn’t approve, but it certainly demonstrated a bit of ingenuity on his part.

Born in Houston, Texas, Chris Whitley began playing guitar at 15. His father was an advertising art director and his mother a sculptor, so there was creativity in the gene pool. The family moved around a fair amount, and as an adult, Whitley had a similar nomadic lifestyle. While he was living and busking in New York City, he met a visiting Belgian travel agent in 1980 named Dirk Vandewiele. An amateur musician himself, Vandewiele was completely blown away by Whitley’s playing, and he stayed in touch after returning to Belgium.

On the travel agent’s next visit to New York in 1981, he did something pretty awesome. He bought Whitley a plane ticket to Belgium, with the hopes of helping him develop his musical career abroad. Always open for an adventure, Whitley lived with Vandewiele and his family in Ghent, Belgium, while the travel agent helped him secure gigs at local clubs and festivals.


Whitley stayed and played in Belgium for six years developing his craft, including an experimental period with synth-pop. He also got married and had a baby daughter, Trixie. Although Belgian music promoters didn’t exactly spark to his sound, the experience gave Whitley confidence and helped him grow as an artist.

A few years later, he returned to NYC as a far more seasoned performer. One evening in 1988 while he was playing a small club, musician and producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel) caught his set. Lanois then took Whitley under his wing and helped him secure his first label deal with Columbia Records.

There’s no doubt Chris Whitley would have had far greater commercial success if his musical pursuits stayed within a narrower range. Columbia Records executives were baffled by the creative direction he took with his second LP, Din of Ecstasy, a stark contrast and experimental departure from his award-winning debut. Din is an album full of distortion and dissonance, and it demonstrated Whitley’s unwillingness to compromise and align with other peoples’ expectations. After a third and again less-mainstream album, Terra Incognita, Columbia dropped Whitley from the label.

Many artists enthusiastically espouse a love for their craft. Some remain true to their vision; others bend to the needs of others and the pull of commercialism.  Chris Whitley just wasn’t willing to play by any rules but his own. Music critics frequently write about an artist’s growth, but perhaps the most meaningful definition of growth is self-defined by the artist.

Though grateful for his early success, Whitley said this in 2000: “Hopefully as an artist you’re always growing, they’re [albums] just phases, a progression you’re going through, and hopefully you’re evolving. It may be more commercial [to continue on a successful path], but evolving creatively is more fulfilling for me. I hope I never sound like I always sounded.”

Whitley continued to receive critical acclaim, but not much commercial success. In 1998 he released the album Dirt Floor on the indie Messenger Records label. It’s a solo, two-track analog LP recorded in his father’s barn in Vermont. Dirt Floor is a raw, stripped-down recording that other artists might have treated as a demo. It’s an example of some of Whitley’s finest writing, though the lack of any production values hindered the album’s commercial appeal.

A few years later, “Breaking Your Fall” from the album Hotel Vast Horizon (2003) won the Independent Music Award for Best Folk/Singer Songwriter Song. The following year Whitley won a similar award for the blues/R&B composition “Her Furious Angels” from the LP War Crime Blues (2004).


War Crime Blues was recorded in Dresden, Germany, yet another stop in Whitley’s world-life travels. “I started War Crime Blues about a year after 9/11,” said Whitley. “I actually flew into New York City on September 13th that year. I saw a negative [state of] grace develop out of the attacks that’s mostly related to fear and ignorance because we had no previous reference point to someone hating us that physically. The record came out of me wanting to respond honestly to the situation, rather than having a big message.” It’s an illustration of Whitley’s moment-in-time approach to making music, in this case inspired by an historical event, rather than a predetermined flight plan.

Chris Whitley is probably known and admired more among fellow musicians than the mainstream public. Over the course of recording 14 albums, he garnered a “who’s who” list of admirers, including Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, John Mayer, Tom Petty and Joe Bonamassa. Dave Matthews had this to say: “I feel more passion for Whitley’s music than I do my own.”

When you listen to interviews with Whitley he sounds both cerebral and introspective, often projecting an image of someone striving for inner peace. Like far too many artists, he drowned his sorrows in the bottle to mask whatever pain and demons he was facing. It’s fair to say he didn’t seek or need mainstream success. In fact, you could say it conflicted him, and ultimately he rejected it. The music biz distracted Whitley from what he enjoyed most, a love of craft and making music.

Many artists often are content with self-fulfillment versus chasing critical acclaim and/or economic success. For them, any suggestion of compromising their vision and integrity for commercial appeal is a non-starter. For others, there’s a recognition of co-dependency, and that their success is conditional on being aligned with both the business needs of others and popular music trends. In an ideal world, a musician’s talent inherently meshes with all constituents without a need for too much compromise.

Kudos to those unwilling to sacrifice their vision or creative standards, though there are inherent risks when rejecting commercialism, as the arts are hardly known for providing financial stability. At the end of the day, a musician still has to make a living. Of course, fate could reward a musician with a lucky Lotto ticket, or perhaps they discover a trust fund is in their future. Farfetched? Nope; many artists are dreamers, and a fantasizing mindset frequently inspires creativity.

There’s a bit of irony, however, with Whitley’s posthumously-released last studio LP, Dislocation Blues. The album is a collaboration with Australian guitarist and longtime friend, Jeff Lang. The album includes two Dylan covers, including a great version of “Changing of the Guard.” The album is primarily acoustic blues, and delivers the kind of sound you might have expected from Whitley as a follow-up to his debut LP Living With The Law. It’s as if Whitley’s recordings had come full circle, but of course only to be done on his timetable and terms.

Chris Whitley sadly died of lung cancer at the age of 45 in 2005.



Chris Whitley’s daughter Trixie and brother Dan are also musicians. I caught Trixie performing songs from her debut LP Fourth Corner in 2013 at NYC’s (Le) Poisson Rouge, another club in Greenwich Village. Trixie possesses the same deep passion and soulfulness of her father, with an amazing voice. Her performance was stunning.

Check out Trixie’s songs “Breathe You in My Dreams,” or the Daniel Lanois/Brian Blade collaboration on the Etta James classic “I’d Rather Go Blind.” In Belgium, Fourth Corner went gold the first week after release and earned Trixie a Music Industry Award (MIA) for Best Female Solo Artist. Her second album, Porta Bohemica, won an award for best writer/arranger at the 2016 MIA awards. A third solo album, Lacuna, was released in 2019.

Chris’s musical influence on younger brother Dan, also can’t be overstated. To date Dan has released two solo CDs in collaboration with producer Malcolm Burn (Emmylou Harris, Midnight Oil, Chris Whitley).

Chris Whitley’s legacy lives on both via his and his extended family’s music.


Header image of Chris Whitley courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Joe Cunningham.

Chris Brunhaver, PS Audio’s Head Speaker Designer

Chris Brunhaver, PS Audio’s Head Speaker Designer

Chris Brunhaver, PS Audio’s Head Speaker Designer

Frank Doris

Chris Brunhaver is the head loudspeaker designer at PS Audio. Chris will be talking about speakers and much more in our new “Speaker Builder” Column. His early background was covered in Copper Issue 112 in “Attack of the 20-Foot Tweeter” and we interview him here.

Frank Doris: What do you do at PS Audio?

Chris Brunhaver: My official title is senior speaker design engineer. I’ve had some really big shoes to fill because my predecessor was Arnie Nudell (co-founder of Infinity Systems and Genesis Technologies along with Paul McGowan), and this is kind of the gig of a lifetime for me, doing design work once more.

FD: Had you ever met Arnie?

CB: I grew up in the Seattle area and one of my first loudspeaker jobs was at Adire Audio. Among other things they did research in magnetics. They got hooked up with Gary Koh (current president of Genesis) and Arnie was doing some work for him at the time. Adire was working on amplifiers and woofers for Gary and I met Arnie at a CES. Quite a character!

FD: One of those larger than life people.

CB: He was one of those industry giants and was a lot of fun to meet. He left me with big shoes to fill but I’m very excited about it.

FD: When did you get into audio, and speaker design in particular? Did you start taking radios apart when you were five years old or something like that?

CB: Oh yeah; my parents called me Mr. Break-It because I would take things apart and they wouldn’t quite fit back together (laughter). But my dad had a speaker company, Speakerlab – he bought it in the early 1980s. They had factory stores and were offering kit speakers, hobbyist stuff, and dad took those and turned them into a finished speaker line for sale at retail. At one point they were doing cabinets for JBL in addition to their own stuff. Later, they became purely a retail shop, so I had some exposure to both the manufacturing and the retail sides of hi-fi.

I was a music student in college [Chris is an accomplished acoustic and electric bass player – Ed.] but went right back into loudspeaker stuff after college.

I always had a mindset of making things. I was around a place that manufactured loudspeaker drivers, and that was a big influence.

The engineer from my dad’s company was a guy named David Graebener, and he was one of the founders of Speakerlab before my dad bought it. They couldn’t really keep David busy, though, so David also did consulting work. One of his projects was with Carver, where he developed this planar magnetic speaker that became The Amazing Loudspeaker. A big surfboard with two sections and four 12-inch woofers!

David and Jim Croft did The Amazing Loudspeaker, and David then came back to Speakerlab and said, “I’ve got some ideas on how to make the speaker better,” (in particular, the method for tensioning the drivers). My dad said OK and spent $300,000 trying to refine that and make their own version of the speaker. Ultimately it still had some issues, so my dad gave David some of the tooling and David got some investment money and started Bohlender Graebener. I later went to work there as an engineer.

Genesis used both the Carver and the BG ribbons in one of their speakers, so even though I wasn’t working for Genesis directly, I had been quite close to it for years. BG wound up moving into custom installation and home theater stuff and designed a number of higher sensitivity/higher output speaker solutions, and I have carried those innovations forward but into the high-end audio context.

FD: So the upcoming PS Audio FR-30 speaker you’re working on is in a sense an evolution of this background.

CB: Everything that someone does is the cumulative result of their previous efforts. Arnie and Infinity did the EMIM and EMIT ribbon midrange and tweeter drivers and all that stuff in the 1980s and my dad’s stuff and the Carver stuff was in the late 1980s and 1990s, and I didn’t start to do my stuff until the 2000s, but it’s been refined a lot and now I’m taking it further. It’s a case of standing on the shoulders of giants and has been a life’s work. I guess all of us are lifers in this business in some way!

FD: Well…(laughter)

Without giving away any trade secrets, what’s different about the FR-30 than what’s come before?

CB: In concept, a lot of speaker technology has been in place for decades, but a lot of what makes speakers better today are advances in computer simulation, better analytical tools and measurement gear, and in materials science –  better materials and better understanding about how they interact.

When working for Adire Audio, they were doing a lot of work on linear motor structures in woofers and had developed some proprietary FEA (finite element analysis) tools and motor topologies and methods. They created a split magnetic gap technology they call XBL (for eXtreme BL Linearity, a method of flattening the loudspeaker driver’s BL – motor strength –curve to yield lower distortion) I’ve leveraged a lot of those techniques along with things like Faraday (magnetic control) rings and custom motor assembly suspensions, for significantly lower distortion and increased dynamic range and output.

When I look at a modern-day planar magnetic driver compared to what was used in the old Infinity EMIMs and EMITs, we now have driver units that require less than one-tenth the power for a given output, and offer far lower distortion.

The system configuration of the FR-30 is different from previous designs. Over the course of 30 years or so, a lot of research has been done about perception and the way listeners hear sound, as well as things like, what’s the ideal target response of a speaker and its ideal dispersion, from guys like Floyd Toole at the NRC (the National Research Council in Canada) and the work he and a number of others did at Harman.

When you compare prior speakers to modern designs, there are multiple valid approaches but one of the key concepts is to look at the entire sound field of the speaker, not just its on-axis response. Speakers are super-challenging to design because they deviate so far from the ideal as compared to things like a DAC or an amplifier. They’re just really imperfect devices.

Some of the loudspeaker measuring equipment at Chris’ disposal.


FD: A speaker designer once told me he wants to cry every time he thinks about how much sound is getting lost in the enclosure.

CB: That’s why I’m excited about speaker design in general as there’s lots of room for optimization and doing it better.

Having really low-distortion drivers and having them in a configuration that gives well-behaved polar response – not just having the direct sound from the speakers but also the off-axis sound and the total sound power coming into the room being of the same character – is a lot of what makes a speaker sound cohesive and have stable stereo imaging, and a smooth tonality. It’s nothing revolutionary, just good practice, but not everyone does that.

You’d think that as speakers get more expensive, everything would converge, but it’s just the opposite. And some approaches are radically different than others. I’m not saying that the approach that I’m doing is any more valid than anyone else’s, but at the same time I’m very carefully trying to optimize compromises. Every engineer has their own thoughts about where to put the money to achieve something.

But I’m sort of a transducer-first guy. It’s like painting with pure pigments – if you can start out with something that is inherently cleaner, better and has more performance, everything leads from there. So I nail the transducer performance first and take it from there.

I’m using a combination of planar magnetic drivers, which isn’t too common an approach, and some new low-distortion woofers. Igor Levitsky was vice president of engineering at Bohlender Graebener when I was there. Igor also designed planar drivers for HiVI, SLS (later Dolby) and others. He, and a guy named Dragoslav Colich, the chief technology officer of Audeze, are kind of the preeminent experts on planar magnetic drivers. There are only a couple of people in the world at their level and I picked up a ton of knowledge from Levitsky.

We also believe in giving customers a bit more adjustment capability for tailoring the tonality of their speakers with regards to the low frequency balance.

FD: Because not everyone has a room where they can set the speakers up optimally.

CB: You can’t break the laws of physics in dealing with things like early reflections, and there’s the so-called Allison Effect, where the reflections off the floor and front wall will cause interference with the direct sound from the speaker. So, where you place the speakers still dictates the notch in the [frequency] response from boundary interactions, but you can still correct the tonality of a speaker in some ways.

When designing speakers you have to make some assumptions regarding how near they will be to boundaries, both acoustically and physically. The sound from a typical speaker changes from being omnidirectional at low frequencies to being sort of hemispherical at higher frequencies, where the sound starts bouncing off the front baffle. At that transition point it’s an advantage to be able to make adjustments for typical distances from room boundaries, and we provide that kind of adjustment in our speakers. I’m surprised more speaker manufacturers don’t do this…having some kind of adjustment capability in this regard is a good thing.

But you want to give the right amount of adjustment capability to everyone without confusing them. Sometimes when you put a knob on something, people will think, “do I need this?”

We’re trying to do some things to let people know about setup. Some of the features of the FR-30 require a small amount of explanation, but we’re hoping it’ll be a net positive.

FD: How about the aesthetic design? It’s very different.

CB: Speakers are a big piece of furniture in peoples’ rooms and product design is a skill unto itself. Making something aesthetically pleasing and well-crafted isn’t necessarily the same thing as making a functional loudspeaker. Speakers are science in the service of art and music, but if a speaker won’t be accepted into the home, no one’s going to know how good a speaker it is! So, job number one is to make it through the front door! It’s challenging. It’s hard to come up with a different design language for a loudspeaker.

FD: Is there a reason why the front baffle is straight instead of angled back, like, say, a Thiel?

CB: I spent some time with Jim Thiel and the people there – a week in Lexington in horse country. They had very specific design goals about time alignment and phase coherence. But that created a whole set of nested compromises, that they were able to engineer out over time. In our case we’re using a fairly large 5-inch x 10-inch planar midrange driver which is highly dynamic with high output and sensitivity, but fairly directional at high frequencies because of its physical size versus the wavelengths that it’s playing. It’s a flat baffle because if we were to rake it back, it would be a detriment to the driver’s controlled vertical coverage. The listening axis would get more distance-sensitive, but with our design, the speaker is a lot more forgiving about how far away you’re sitting. The speaker becomes more room- and placement-friendly.

FD: Are you going to be doing the speaker adjustments via digital signal processing?

CB: At first we looked at DSP and room EQ but we actually moved away from that. Now we’re looking at potentially using FIR (fixed impulse response) and convolution filters, which corrects the time and frequency response of the speakers at the listening position. The problem with DSP is that if you use it on only some of the drivers, it has latency and that can cause timing issues of its own. To work successfully, DSP needs to be correcting all the drivers in the system. So we moved away from that for now and are doing a simple passive design.

FD: Vinyl lovers will be happy.

CB: Yes, they’re not going to have the vinyl playback go through A to D conversion. No digitizing your vinyl! But DSP is great for the process of speaker development. You can type in a bunch of “what ifs” and hear what they sound like as you’re playing around interactively. But once you settle on a design, it’s generally pretty easy to do [a circuit] in analog.

I like being a bit of a Luddite too. Sometimes it’s hard to beat doing things the old ways.

Probably the most controversial thing that I’ve done since I’ve been here: Arnie was a huge champion of servo-feedback, motional-feedback woofers. I’m not doing that. Sometimes when you go into developing a correction system for a driver, the money could be better spent just making a better drive unit.

FD: But you’re not opposed to servo correction per se.

CB: No. I’ve seen some fantastic stuff, but there are inherent issues in servo systems with noise at low signal levels (where it is audible) and their overload/clipping behavior. Our approach is to get the woofer as linear as possible. There are good and bad examples of every technology. The implementation is what’s important. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I’m looking for a speaker that’s musically satisfying, correct and natural-sounding.

The Giants of Tape: The MCI JH-110, Part One

The Giants of Tape: The MCI JH-110, Part One

The Giants of Tape: The MCI JH-110, Part One

J.I. Agnew

In the last few installments in this series, California was in the spotlight, with discussions of Ampex and their ATR-100 series of tape machines (see Issue 135, Issue 136 and Issue 137). This time, we will move to the other side of the USA and visit Florida. During the 1950s, in Fort Lauderdale, Mr. Jeep Harned was starting out in what was to develop into a long and prosperous career in audio. It started with custom recording consoles, took off with the development of aftermarket solid-state electronics for the Ampex 350 tape machine, and soon thereafter escalated into a full-blown manufacturing operation, mass-producing entire tape machines and mixing consoles.

In 1975, MCI (Music Center Incorporated) introduced the JH-110, which was to become one of their most successful products. It was available in several versions that catered to different tape formats and applications. It remained in production up until 1984, when the entire series was discontinued by Sony management, following the acquisition of MCI by Sony in 1982.

The JH-110 was followed by the JH-110B and the JH-110C, with the later models being as fully-featured as things could get in the 1970s. They could run at any of three speeds, 7.5 ips, 15 ips and 30 ips, with a low-speed transport also on offer, which would start at 3.75 ips (with 15 ips as the top speed). Head blocks were available both in the NAB stereo configuration (with 2 mm track separation, popular in the USA), as well as the DIN stereo configuration (0.75 mm track separation, common in Europe), and in monophonic versions, with combinations of mono and stereo heads, with a 1/4- or 1/2- inch tape width, and in one-track (mono), two track, four track, record/playback or playback-only versions.

An MCI JH-110, in the variable-profile cabinet. Photo courtesy of Sabik Chaparro.


The electronics featured switchable equalization to cover both the NAB and IEC standards. The transport was available in two reel-size capacities, 10 1/2 or 14-inch. The machines could be purchased in two different cabinet versions: The tiltable “variable profile” cabinet, with the electronics located under the transport, and the “high profile” overhead bridge cabinet, with the electronics placed above the transport. The MCI RTZ III, a transport control system offering a “return to zero” function along with location memories to fast-wind to, came as standard on all JH-110 machines.

The JH-110 was one of the very few tape decks offered in a “preview” configuration, for use with disk mastering systems (where the signal from the tape to the record cutting lathe needed to be previewed by the lathe control electronics prior to it reaching the cutter head). The preview version was known as the JH-110M and had a few key differences compared to the rest of the JH-110 range. The head block was configured with two playback heads, without a record or an erase head. This was typical of preview head tape machines, but the head block also offered a not so common feature. The head azimuth adjustment was accomplished by means of levers, requiring no tools.

This was a smart idea, found in few other tape machines. In a professional disk mastering setting, especially back in the 1970s, recordings would arrive on tape, recorded on all manners of tape machines, not necessarily maintained to the same standards, or even maintained at all! It was common to have to adjust the azimuth of the tape machine to each tape coming in (which is probably why many mastering engineers were happy to adopt digital formats as soon as these became commercially available, to not have to deal with the hassle of inconsistent tapes, day in, day out), so having to reach for a screwdriver or Allen key and adjust a tiny screw five or six times a day was simply too much of a waste of time on a busy day, which meant that this step was sometimes (read “almost always”) skipped, unless a lever was provided for this purpose.

“Hands-on”! MCI JH-110. Photo courtesy of Sabik Chaparro.


In addition, the equalization calibration controls came as knobs on the front panel of the electronics drawer, instead of trim pots that required a screwdriver for adjustment. The rationale for providing these knobs was the same as for the inclusion of the lever: incoming tapes were also all over the map with respect to their equalization, so if a convenient means of adjustment was not provided, it would be too tempting to settle for “well, it sounds about right I guess” at the end of a long day. This feature of providing knobs to adjust the EQ was even rarer than the azimuth adjustment levers on the head block, and not adopted by the competition.

While it is questionable if the levers and knobs had any effect on the workflow in most mastering facilities, they certainly saved time for those who did care enough to use these features. Well at least MCI tried. Jeep Harned could at least rest in peace knowing that he had done the right thing. And he earned the best tombstone I’ve ever seen for his efforts!

A most appropriate tombstone for Jeep Harned, with an MCI multitrack tape machine on top! From the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording website. If anyone knows who took the photo, please let us know and we’ll add a photo credit.


The M-type had the 14-inch reel capacity as standard and a 7.5 ips to 30 ips speed range.

The four channels of playback electronics (two for audio and two for preview/lathe control) were housed in two electronics drawers, filling up the space available in the cabinet.

The M version also features an optical sensor on the tape path to sense a special leader tape used for automatic banding (the visual gap between the songs on a record, which on most systems prior to the 1970s was done manually), allowing the cutting engineer to go get a cup of tea, or when the music was particularly bad, to turn it off and listen to something better instead, while the cutting was still in progress… The tape machine provided a control signal every time it “saw”  the special leader tape, and the lathe would then create the spirals (gaps) between the songs automatically.

In such cases, the customer would most probably also not bother listening to the test pressings (can’t we have them shipped together with the final product to save time? Or perhaps skip them entirely?), so any defects arising out of nobody caring enough would pass on to the final product, which nobody might buy anyway, so better to save your energy for the next project to be cut, in hope that it might be better. Especially for the type of customer (record company) looking for the cheapest price for a cut. This is the reality of it: Nobody will bother listening to your recording made at the lowest cost anyway. (The cynicism of nearly 20 years in the industry may be evident, but it doesn’t change the fact. It merely highlights it…)

The later and final generation disk mastering systems, along with digital audio workstations, took this to the next level. You still needed someone to press the “start” button and change the disks on the record-cutting lathe, but that was about it. I still get asked occasionally if the process can be automated even further than that. Yes, it can. It is called CD. The step after that is called lossy free streaming. There’s also the option of not listening to music at all, and not trying to make any music or produce recordings. There you go. Problem solved.

Another important feature of the JH-110M were its multiple tape rollers, which enabled the machine to provide the correct preview delay time at any of the three tape speeds, for both 33 1/3 and 45 RPM disk speeds, and for two of the common standards of preview delay time used by the pitch and groove depth control systems of the disk mastering lathes then in use. There were three different, incompatible standards for such systems, but the competing preview head tape machines available could only work with one of the three. Their manufacturers would usually offer a separate version for each standard, with the transport configured specifically for the one specified. Additional parts would be available, to be purchased separately, to convert the machines to a different standard, in case a new lathe had been purchased and the tape machine was to remain in use.

The JH-110M could cater for two of these standards with no need for purchasing or fitting any additional parts. This made it compatible with the Scully lathes (and the aftermarket options for pitch control systems available for them), as well as the Lyrec lathes available at the time. Interestingly, the JH-110M also turned out to be compatible with the Neumann VMS-80 lathe, which had not yet been introduced when the JH-110M entered the market. However, it was not compatible with the Neumann VMS-70 and earlier Neumann lathes, which ended up being the most commonly-encountered machines in professional use to this day, with the VMS-80’s production being too short-lived and with Scully going out of business around the same time as the introduction of the JH-110M.

Photo courtesy of Sabik Chaparro.


All this, along with the fact that the JH-110M was the last preview head tape machine to be developed (at least by a manufacturing concern aiming to sell significant numbers rather than a one-off), resulted in the almost complete extinction of the JH-110M. As of my last count, a couple of years ago, there were only three of these machines surviving in the world. Most were either sold for their weight in scrap metal (135 lbs., or about $2.50 on a good day at the local scrapyard, if the manager is in a good mood), or converted to a standard, non-preview machine.

There aren’t that many disk mastering systems in the world to begin with, so losing the majority of that small niche market due to lack of compatibility with all the Neumann lathes made up to 1980 was probably not the best idea. It also came at a time when the industry was largely trying to avoid tape-based preview systems in disk mastering altogether, having gotten a bit too excited about the ease of use provided by the lack of things to adjust on the new digital recording systems. Not many people wanted preview head tape machines anymore and even fewer wanted one that would not work with their VMS-70 lathe.

Somewhat ironically, the pitch control system of the VMS-70 (and earlier Neumann lathes) was not famed for its reliability or performance, so many of the older Neumanns have been fitted with one of the aftermarket pitch control systems that use the standard that was supported by the JH-110M, and tape is now back in fashion, so cutting engineers are now looking for preview head tape machines again.

The JH-110M would be the right tool for the job, but with only three left in the world, the supply is grossly inadequate to cover the current demand. As a result, the price for a functional JH-110M machine has skyrocketed.

The moral of the story: Don’t scrap complex industrial machines for $2.50; you’ll end up spending $25,000 to buy them again ten years later, if you can find any. Don’t even get me started on all the scrapped disk mastering lathes and record presses…!

One of the three surviving JH-110M machines lives in my own disk mastering facility. It was a pain to bring it back to life.

One of the author’s custom disk mastering lathes, with an MCI JH-110M preview head tape machine in the background. Note the tape threading over the multiple rollers between the threads. Photo courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.


In the next episode, we will discuss the biggest weakness of the JH-110.

Header image: Chris Mara of Mara Machines.

The Not-So-Great Wall

The Not-So-Great Wall

The Not-So-Great Wall

Alón Sagee

In the year 2002, my penchant for off-the-beaten-path travel was deeply satisfied with my visit to, of all places, China’s Great Wall – but only because I chose to explore a section in Huanghua, the most remote and unrestored portion available to visitors. Instead of tens of thousands of tourists, I counted six… Nice.

Two and a half hours north of Beijing by bus, this part of the incredible 13,000 mile long structure traverses a beautiful and lush countryside. Thankfully, the cool mountain air and wisps of fog gave blessed respite from the oppressive humidity I encountered while touring the capitol.

Although I had been prepared for years by familiar images and depictions of the wall, my first glimpse of this most celebrated edifice made me want to jump up and shout: “OhMyGodThereItIs!” And I did, only with a bit more restraint since there were locals on the bus. When visiting a culture different than my own…decorum first has always proven to be a good practice.

Since this neglected area had not yet been touched by China’s competent and cheesy tourist industry, only makeshift signs directed us to the path that would allow us to get up onto the wall. Surprisingly, at this important historical site, there were only a handful of travelers, no cable cars, no vendors of cheap souvenirs – for me, paradise.

I followed the first sign across a rope bridge spanning a beautiful river only to be confronted by a woman asking for 2 yuan per person to cross “her property,” which she made clear was “hers” using unmistakable gestures. Obviously a scam, but the two other travelers I had met on the bus ride paid her. I did not and pressed on despite this gatekeeper’s protestations.

Further along, an affable and mobile soft drink vendor directed us to the path that would set our feet on the ancient, crumbling stones of this remarkable, undulating ribbon of rock. Designed to prevent invasion from the north, construction of this part of the wall began in 1404 and took 188 years to complete – which seems to me like a bit of an over-reaction and a long time to hold a grudge with your northern neighbors. I saw only a tiny part of this wall and it’s the scale that is difficult to fully to fathom, even when seeing it disappear into the distance. I’ve heard for years that it is one of the few structures on earth that can be seen from space – but that can’t be true anymore since nowadays, what I’m eating for dinner can be seen by satellites peering through my skylights.

The wall runs along mountain ridge lines for 13,000 miles!


The narrow path led us to a young gentleman squatting quietly under an umbrella. You guessed it, 2 yuan a piece. Again, it wasn’t the 30 cents, it was the principle. With a smile, I ignored the request and moved ahead. So shocked was he that he ran past me, turned to face me and put his palm on my chest. I looked down at it with curiosity as the rest of our party went past his outpost. I gently but firmly took his hand away and proceeded, only to witness my first act of aggression in rural China: this man, newly positioned in a fighting Kung Fu stance, was determined.

He wasn’t, however, prepared to deal with my laughter. I couldn’t help it; it was funny! I moved forward again, knowing somehow that he wouldn’t lose face to a foreigner over 2 yuan, and gestured that he should walk with me up the path to the wall. He relented, exasperated and indignant. In minutes, I caught up to my party in time to deal with a mother-daughter 2 -yuan team equally shocked by our nonpayment, as well as the fact that, unbelievably, a local man was with us. Seems I had made an adversary into a reluctant friend.

The most creative of the toll collectors was set up on the Wall itself. He had put a small 2 yuan sign on a ladder he was “controlling” that led up to a tower we apparently needed to cross. I smiled my way up the ladder like a long lost uncle, shaking hands and happy to see him and his crew, one of whom stood strategically next to a small hatchet embedded in another wooden ladder. They were hawking postcards and dubious bottled water along with their extortion operation, which made them seem almost legitimate. Curiously, there was a police officer hanging out with them, so I immediately deferred all their monetary requests to him, being as he was an official of the government of the people, and passed along on my way. How much commission he was getting from the pirates was not established.

The final episode of attempted robbery on our two-hour loop was priceless. The last traversable section of wall was so steep (about a 50-60 degree pitch) that one false step on the crumbling ancient rubble would likely send a body smashing down to an unpleasant end. No wonder tourists avoided this place!

Very steep and loose stones…not a good combo!

As I was surveying the scene and resting after the agonizing climb, I saw, at the very end point of our hike, just before it crumbled into oblivion, a woman, sitting, waving…naked. Well, not completely naked…she was topless, and looked about 60 years old. I took a zoomed-in photo of her from far enough away that it felt relatively safe to do so. Sorry the resolution isn’t great, but it’s probably for the best.

We had to avoid her, not knowing what this unabashed person was capable of. I motioned to my one remaining climbing partner to follow me on a ridiculously steep side path that would take us off the Wall and circumvent this nutcase. We held on to branches and shrubs to avoid cascading to our end, and heard a commotion above. Naked Lady was frantically waving the now-universal sign of 2 yuan from her post, screaming at the top of her capacity. We ignored and continued. However, this babe was part Billy goat…and fast!  There I was cheating death, careening down the equivalent of a double diamond ski slope strewn with rocks – laughing almost to tears – while this kook was flying after us, breasts flapping wildly, and to their credit, every few steps finding their rhythm, synchronizing and describing perfect circles on her chest. Even with my soccer-savvy feet in sturdy trail running shoes I just barely escaped. What a fun adventure-footwear commercial this scene would have made.

When this semi-nude psycho gave up the chase and we were on the path back to a world of clothed, reasonably sane people, we heard her wrath emptied on the next unfortunate hikers. If I ever had thoughts of being chased by naked women, I don’t believe this scenario ever came to mind. What she would have done had she caught up with us I dare not think.

“Toll collector” on the wall.


Alón Sagee is the Founder, Chairman and Chief Troublemaker of the San Francisco Audiophile Society. He has travelled to over 30 countries so far. If you like these stories, please leave a comment. All photos by Alón Sagee.

Copyright © 2021 by Alón Sagee. All rights reserved.

Indigo Girls – The Bards of Athens

Indigo Girls – The Bards of Athens

Indigo Girls – The Bards of Athens

Anne E. Johnson

It’s rare for someone you met in elementary school to become a lifelong friend, let alone the key to your professional success for decades. But that’s what happened with Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, who were one grade apart in their Decatur, Georgia school. Once they got to high school, they experimented with playing music as a duo. While in college at Emory University, they linked up officially, calling themselves the Indigo Girls.

They became a fixture of indie music circles in Athens, a fertile scene that also yielded the band R.E.M. However, the two women were far from a monolith of musical taste. Saliers worshiped Joni Mitchell; Ray was more intrigued by the Sex Pistols. But the way they weave their disparate world views and styles together is a large part of what makes the Indigo Girls’ sound distinctive and layered.

It seems everything about Ray and Saliers is long-term. (Musically speaking, that is; despite a popular misconception, they are not romantically involved with each other, although they do both identify as lesbian.) Even their manager, Russell Carter, has stuck with them since 1987. Carter did not take their initial studio efforts seriously – a single and an EP in 1985 – but their first full-length album convinced him they were going places. That was Strange Fire, which came out in a self-produced version in Canada in 1987, but wasn’t released in the US until 1988, when the act signed with Epic.

Both singer-guitarists are skilled songwriters and contribute equal amounts of original material to their albums. On Strange Fire, Saliers wrote “Left Me a Fool.” The typically spare arrangement, just their acoustic guitars and voices plus an added cello line, explains their usual designation as folk rock or contemporary folk. The haunting chords and wistful melody are a harbinger of what would become Saliers’ standard approach to songwriting.


As the album title indicates, Epic thought of 1989’s Indigo Girls as the duo’s true American debut. In terms of getting noticed, this album did its job: it includes the single “Closer to Fine” (with backing by Dublin band Hothouse Flowers), the video for which had major play on MTV. Their Athens, GA buddy Michael Stipe sang backup on “Kid Fears.” And to solidify the landing in the US music industry, the album won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording.

Ray’s “Land of Canaan” shows her usual energetic, rhythmic style. In the early days, she was the one to step up with the rock in their folk-rock equation. And the highly original analogy comparing the biblical Canaan to an ideal lover is poetic par for the course when it comes to Ray’s lyrics.


Nomads, Indians, Saints (1990) intensified the duo’s commitment to a more rock-based sound, with session musicians playing drums and electric guitars and bass. Then again, there’s also fiddle, dulcimer, and accordion, so they hadn’t strayed too far. The album also solidified their fan base. The single “Hammer and a Nail” from that album did very well.

In 1992, they released Rites of Passage, which boasts the closest thing to a mainstream pop sound that the Indigo Girls ever created. It didn’t hurt that the producer was Peter Collins, known for his top-selling work with Bon Jovi, Alice Cooper, Air Supply, and other major stars. Besides, the studio was packed with chart-busting friends showing up to sing or play, such as Jackson Browne, David Crosby, and the Roches.

But accessible arrangements did not separate Ray and Saliers from their iconoclastic views and brainy allusions. The album’s top single was “Galileo,” which contemplates mixing reincarnation with anxiety. And then there is Saliers’ “Virginia Woolf,” a paean to writing as a powerful means of expression for women, both in Woolf’s era and Saliers’ own.


Swamp Ophelia (1994) stuck with the pop sound; the sentimental single “Power of Two” inspired cover versions all over the globe. At the time, critics praised the record’s lush melodies, with Collins at the control board again.

But then it ends with “This Train Revised,” Ray’s ruthless and furious deconstruction of the spiritual “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” enumerating civil rights atrocities on the scale of both individuals and entire races and creeds. Michael Lorant’s drumming brings the song into a genuine hard-rock realm.


The Indigo Girls hit their commercial peak with Shaming of the Sun in 1997, which made it all the way to the No. 7 spot on the Billboard 200. This was followed by Come On Now Social (1999), which some critics dismissed as more of the same. I disagree. While some tracks are a bit heavy-handed (“Faye Tucker,” for example), others have a refreshing mystery about them.

Take “Ozilline,” for example. The lyrics hark back to Appalachian imagery, starting with an interview with an old woman about her memories—the spoken interview runs at a low level throughout the song—and then piling on the percussion, which gives the banjo an appropriately African-roots context.


In the early 2000s, the Indigo Girls continued to put out albums every two or three years. Their pace has slowed in the past decade, but they’re still making interesting music.

One hopes that Jordan Brooke Hamlin was paid fairly for her extraordinary contributions to One Lost Day (2015). Besides producing the album, she also played 17 different instruments in various multitracked combinations, ranging from French horn to baritone guitar. And there are other session musicians involved, too, giving this record a rich and varied sound.

As usual, it’s the songs themselves that are worth showing up for. The most captivating is “Rise of the Black Messiah,” telling of a tragic moment in American racial relations to which Ray has an unusual connect. The Angola Three were a trio of Black prisoners who in 1972 dared to complain publicly about the conditions in their Louisiana prison. As payback, they were framed for murder and sentenced to life in solitary. Decades later, one of those prisoners wrote to Ray, asking her to share his story. She wrote this song.


It was another five years before the duo would record again, and then it didn’t go quite as planned. Like everyone else in the performing arts, the Indigo Girls felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their newest album, Look Long, was supposed to come out in the spring of 2020. Its release was delayed by a few weeks and the tour supporting it put off for a year.

Thanks to promotion through weekly streaming mini-concerts, they boosted Look Long into the No. 2 spot on the Billboard folk charts, and it even hit No. 21 in the rock category. They will finally be back on the road this summer and fall. If you want to throw your head back and roar “Closer to Fine” and “Galileo” with fellow fans, you’ll find the tour schedule on their website: https://www.indigogirls.com/

Header image courtesy of Propeller Publicity/John Slemp.

Size Counts

Size Counts

Size Counts

Don Kaplan

“The Mindful Melophile” is a new column that will appear in every other issue of Copper. It continues the exploration of best-liked, famous, infamous, and little-known LPs and CDs I started in “My Favorite Things” (Issue 129 and Issue 134). Whenever possible I’ll provide instant listening gratification by including a YouTube link to the music. If you haven’t used YouTube before, a couple of hints: If or when it appears, click on the “no ads” button in the frame so the music won’t be interrupted. And in some instances be sure to stay tuned for additional selections from the album.

Size Counts

Size does count. However it’s not just the size but the way you use it. No, I’m not talking about what you’re probably thinking of…after all, this is a music column. Classical music comes in different “sizes,” from large scale symphonies and choruses to solo pieces that last only a few minutes. Some examples of notable compositions, large and small, are highlighted below.

Striggio: Missa sopra Ecco si beato giorno/Hervé Niquet, cond. (Glossa CD) Early music scholar and harpsichordist Davitt Moroney has referred to Alessandro Striggio’s Missa sopra Ecco si beato giorno as the most extravagant piece of polyphony ever written in the history of Western music. The Mass is the largest and most complex work known to have been composed during the Renaissance and “one of the first great pieces to use architecture and space, with musical phrases physically moving around the ring from choir to choir….There are other large choral works, but Striggio’s Mass is unique  with its five eight-part choirs. This is Florentine art at its most spectacular.” [1]

The Mass’ extravagant size played an important role in 16th-century political diplomacy. Size was a powerful attribute for Renaissance rulers. Princes, emperors, and popes became patrons of enormous civic art works and architectural structures to demonstrate their strength and show they could outdo the great works of the ancient Romans and Greeks. Striggio, a musician who worked for Cosimio de Medici’s Florentine court, was commissioned by the ruler to compose “gigantic music” that would help him earn the title of king. The Mass was written with 40 different parts (expanded to 60 in the Agnus Dei) because there were only a few courts in Europe capable of performing a work that large. The message to other leaders was that the Medici family could promote culture on the same grand scale as the most powerful rulers in Europe, therefore Cosimio should be a king, too.

Cosimio sent the Mass to the Holy Roman Emperor as a present and to compliment him  for being one of the few rulers who had enough resources to perform it. Although the Mass was a success, the Emperor didn’t want to grant Cosimio the title of King of Tuscany and named him Grand Duke instead. After performances in several cities the Mass was lost for 400 years until 2005 when Moroney located a complete set of part books in Paris. The composition subsequently received its first modern performance at the BBC Proms classical music festival in 2007.


Ives: Symphony No. 4/Leopold Stokowski, cond. (Columbia LP) Ives’ Fourth Symphony, with a greatly expanded orchestra as well as a chorus, is not only “big” in a literal sense but extraordinarily complex, usually requiring three conductors to hold things together. When it was written in 1916 sections of it were unlike anything else being composed at the time: a combination of Protestant hymns and overlapping bands (each band playing its own parade music) plus a crazy quilt of American parlor songs, marching tunes, ragtime melodies, and patriotic songs.

The symphony’s first performance occurred 50 years later in 1965 at Carnegie Hall and the Columbia LP referred to above was recorded using the same artists who performed at the premiere. Reviewer Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The New York Times, “…it throws up spiky walls of sound and then sings the simplest of songs. It has wild polyrhythms, clumps of tonalities that clash like army against army, Whitmanesque yawps and – suddenly – the quiet of a New England church…the work is a masterpiece.”


Ives used a variety of innovative devices long before they appeared in the works of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and other major 20th-century composers. His avant-garde compositions also influenced composers like Henry Brant, who incorporated space as an essential part of his music. In Brant’s own words: “Ives’s simultaneous presentation of wide spatial separation of performing forces, unrelated harmonic materials, colliding and violently contrasted melodic formations and rhythmic combinations of unpredictable irregularity have been points of departure for everything I’ve done since 1950. Few composers care how the instruments are placed in the hall – it’s a matter of conventional routine. For me, it is an expressive requirement.” [2]

To better understand the symphony, watch conductor Leonard Slatkin’s introduction, then move on to the historic televised performance with Stokowski leading the orchestra.





Mahler: Symphony No. 8 – Symphony of a Thousand/George Solti, cond. (Decca LP or CD)  According to the original program prepared for the symphony’s premiere in 1910, the work required 858 singers and 171 instrumentalists – a true symphony of a thousand, although Mahler didn’t refer to it that way himself (the title was added for promotional purposes).

My favorite recording is the one conducted by Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1971. It doesn’t have the natural perspective of more recent recordings and the organ part is dubbed, but it’s a dramatic reading in full-bodied sound. This rarely-performed piece (due to costs) is sublime: it holds my attention for the entire length of over an hour and leaves me richer for the experience.

The CD review in Gramophone magazine parallels exactly how I feel about Solti: The recording “conveys a feeling of a great occasion…[it] takes off and soars from the very start, so the impact of the great opening on ‘Veni, creator spiritus‘ tingles here with electricity…At times the sheer physical impact makes one gasp for breath, and I found myself at the thunderous end of the first movement shouting out in joyous sympathy, so overwhelming is the build-up of tension.”

As much as I like the Decca recording, start with the Bernstein example listed below. It’s a terrific video of his 1975 performance with the Vienna Philharmonic and helps listeners better understand the music by cutting back and forth among the choral singers, soloists, and instrumentalists. The Solti video only has a few images to look at but does display a translation of the text. Check it out at another time: This is exhilarating music and time well spent listening.





Satie: Avant-dernières pensées/Alexandre Tharaud, piano (Harmonia Mundi CD)

Musical miniatures are short pieces that usually have their own forms instead of the  prescribed ones found in large creations for opera stages and concert halls. Pieces are often strung together as suites and have their origins in piano music performed at 19th century salons.

There’s a good chance you’ve heard Erik Satie miniatures in movies (e.g., My Dinner with Andre), on various TV programs, and almost always on recordings that feature music for relaxation. His most famous piece is the languid “Gymnopédie No.3” from a set of three piano pieces composed in 1888. Tharaud gets it just right: not too slow, not too fast, without trying to make it dramatic or more interesting by breaking the flow with heavy accents. After all, the eccentric Satie referred to many of his compositions as “Furniture Music” intended to be ignored like background wallpaper.

One of the most intriguing parts of this album is Sept pièces pour piano – seven dances from the theatrical work Medusa’s Trap. At its private premiere in 1914 Satie placed sheets of paper between the strings of the piano, resulting in a “straw-like” sonority that reflected the only dancer in the work: a mechanical monkey stuffed with straw that moved about while the other characters dozed or left the stage. Satie, along with Ives, anticipated the work of later composers including experimenter John Cage. Cage was famous for inventing the prepared piano in 1939 but Satie foreshadowed Cage’s creation by over two decades. Satie also influenced minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich as well movements like Dadaism and the Theater of the Absurd.

Tharaud: Track 3 (“Gymnopédie No.3” at 4’50”) and track 12 (“Sept Pièces pour Piano” at 28’00”):


Various: Themes from Horror Movies (Coral LP) Music to accompany an enormous spider going after its dinner or a gargantuan house cat chasing its prey? Music to relax by in a chair built for a giant? No, it isn’t the score from the movie Attack of the 50 Foot Woman or The Amazing Colossal Man. It’s the unusual theme music by Irving Gertz from the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man – unusual because a theme with jazz elements led by the likes of band leader Ray Anthony (on this LP performed by Dick Jacobs and His Orchestra) is rarely, if ever, found in sci-fi/horror films of that period.

While standing on his boat, Scott Carey (about to become the shrinking man) passes through a mysterious cloud that appears on the water. Back at home he soon finds himself getting smaller and smaller…so small he has to avoid being mauled by his house cat and eaten by a spider. As Boris Karloff says on the LP before the music starts: “He was saying goodbye. He got smaller…tinier….” At the end of the film we leave the (still) shrinking man, no taller than a blade of grass, thinking about how much smaller he can get and how he will matter in the universe. What will he find? What will he become? Scott reaches the conclusion: “To God, there is no zero. I still exist.”

A  jazz-influenced theme, famous big band leader, Theremin (an early electronic instrument used primarily in sci-fi/suspense films and to play the theme on TV’s original Star Trek), a strangely moving and spiritual story, menacing introduction by horror film star Boris Karloff, and a monster spider…what more could you ask for from a miniature piece of music just over three minutes long?

Themes from Horror Movies (1959): The version on the album referred to above can be found here:


Classic 50’s Original Science Fiction Film Scores (2011): Another interpretation, more relaxed and very enjoyable but minus the Theremin and Karloff’s introduction can be found at this link:


[1] UC Berkeley News, November 2007 and personal interview

[2] Henry Brant, May 2006 (quoted on his website)

Header image of Erik Satie courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Sonia y natalia.

DSD – Is It PCM, Or Isn’t It?

DSD – Is It PCM, Or Isn’t It?

DSD – Is It PCM, Or Isn’t It?

Richard Murison

A few weeks back, a prominent person in the audio community shared with me their opinion that DSD is a different thing entirely from PCM, and was surprised to hear me insist otherwise. On the face of it, of course, they are indeed very different formats. PCM maps out the actual amplitude of the original waveform, sample by sample. DSD, on the other hand, looks like a completely different animal, and represents the waveform using a pulse-density modulation scheme, from which the original signal can be extracted by passing the digital bits themselves through a low-pass analog filter. For reasons that seem somewhat fuzzy to me, this is deemed to be inherently more akin to analog. Given that I’m a guy whose turntable still sits atop his audio stack, why would I bother to take issue with that?

For most practical purposes, the whole subject is an academic argument over little more than semantics. But DSD does have some very fundamental differences in its digital nature when compared to PCM. For example, you can’t mix multiple tracks together in DSD…or blend a stereo feed into a single mono channel. You can’t do EQ. You can’t even do something as rudimentary as volume control.

The big issue with DSD, and the reason for all these limitations, is that unlike with PCM, the signal itself cannot be extracted simply by examining the bitstream. Most people are apparently comfortable with the familiar arm-waving explanations for how a signal is represented within a DSD bitstream as a pulse-density-modulation scheme, but while that is indeed a valid characterization, it does little – nothing, actually – to help you understand how the signal is actually encoded within the bitstream. For example, on what basis would you determine what resolution it has – is it better or worse than CD? How low is the noise floor – is it better than 24-bit PCM?? What is the bandwidth – does it go above 50 kHz? In any PCM format, these questions are unambiguously answered. But not in DSD. Where exactly in that 1-bit stream can I find my high-resolution audio data? I thought it might be instructive if I were to return briefly to Copper and set about exploring this issue, and hopefully frame it in terms everybody can understand…or maybe at least follow.

PCM is based on the well-known sampling theory of Claude Shannon. Provided an analog signal includes no frequency components above a certain maximum frequency, then that analog signal can be losslessly represented in its entirety by discretely sampling it using a clock with a sample rate no less than twice the maximum frequency present within the signal. The italicized qualifier “in its entirety” is important here, because Shannon’s theory informs us that the totality of the sampled data enables the entirety of the original signal to be faultlessly reconstructed, even at arbitrary points in time that lie in between consecutive sampled values.

Let me start with a simple analog signal, a sine wave. In the diagram below, a sine wave with an amplitude of ±0.6 is shown. The red dots indicate the points at which the waveform is sampled. It represents an ideal situation in which the waveform is perfectly sampled:


In the next diagram, however, I introduce a crude sampling constraint. I require the samples to be evaluated to the nearest multiple of 0.2 (corresponding to a bit depth of approximately 4 bits), chosen for clarity’s sake so we can clearly observe the consequences. Here we can see that this results in a type of error known as a quantization error. In effect, the sampled signal is the sum of two signals, the original intact waveform (in blue), and the sampled waveform corresponding to the quantization error (in black).


This is PCM in its simplest form. It is an accurate representation of the original waveform, only to the extent that the waveform corresponding to the quantization error is inaudible. If it is in fact inaudible, then you will have succeeded in recreating the original waveform.

It must be noted, however, that the question of the audibility of the quantization error waveform is not as straightforward as you might imagine. At first glance it looks like random noise, and indeed if it were random noise we would be completely justified in treating it as inaudible, provided that it was at a sufficiently low level. But if components of the quantization error signal were correlated with the original waveform, their audibility can be quite significant, even at surprisingly low levels. Correlated signals fall into the broad category of “distortion,” which is a well-known and complicated topic. Some forms of distortion are known to be less pleasant on the ear, and significantly less tolerable than others. So it would be good if we could eliminate from the quantization error any remnants of correlated signals, and leave behind only pure random noise. It turns out that we can easily do exactly that, using a process called dithering, which I have covered previously, way back in Copper Issue 6.

That, in summary, is pure PCM. We can use it to accurately encode a mixture of the original analog signal, plus a sprinkling of added noise. And by using 24-bit encoding, that sprinkling can be waaaaay down below the residual noise floor of any analog signal that you might have available as your source.

Back to our little diagram, then. We can interpret the exact same picture in a slightly different way. We could interpret it as saying that by adding a very particular noise waveform to our original waveform, we made the amplitude of the resulting waveform correspond exactly to the nearest available quantization level at every single sampling point. In other words, we can argue that we effectively eliminated all quantization errors entirely, by the simple act of mixing in a special noise waveform of our own making.

At this point, I would really like you to go back and read the previous paragraph again. Keep reading it until you absolutely get it. It is key to what comes next.

OK, let’s move on. We’ve just established that an ideal PCM signal comprises the original audio signal, plus some added noise. We’re talking about the entirety of the original audio signal, in its pure unadulterated form. Not a 16-bit version of it, not a 24-bit version of it, but the entire, clean, original waveform in all its glory. The 16-bit (or 24-bit) version is what we get AFTER we’ve added in the noise, and stored the result in a 16-bit (or 24-bit) word.

We would find ourselves living in a perfect world if we could then just extract that added noise, because if we could, we would be left with only the pure, original, audio waveform. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible. The problem is that the noise, as described, occupies the exact same frequency space as the signal. Such noise cannot be extracted from a signal – that is the very nature of noise itself. The only practical way of separating out noise is to filter it out, and it doesn’t help all that much if we end up filtering out parts of the signal at the same time.



Let’s return to our little diagram, and this time take the same concept to its extreme. In the version below we have allowed only two quantization levels, at +1 and -1, and consequently the noise signal itself has become huge. The diagram, unfortunately, may be difficult to interpret, and will require some concentration on your part. The blue line and the red dots are the original waveform as before, and the black lines are the added noise samples. The green dots represent the sum of the waveform plus the added noise. The green dots, as you can see, occupy only the positions +1 and -1.


You can clearly see that the added noise is of a much higher magnitude than was the case previously. In fact, the noise itself has peaks that are comfortably higher than ±1. [Note: For what it’s worth, although this noise signal does in fact encode a noise waveform, the noise waveform in itself is completely irrelevant – it is only the specific values at the sampling points that have any relevance at all.] Now, this serves to prompt a big question – “So what?” Because, if the noise is truly massive, and we can’t separate it from the signal, have we accomplished anything?

But first, we need to make a quick detour on the subject of implied precision. If I were to propose that you phone me at one o’clock, in your mind there will be some approximation as to how precise that appointment is meant to be. You might, for example, assume that five minutes before one, or five minutes after one, would be acceptable. But if I instructed you to phone me at 1:13:22 – that is, 13 minutes and 22 seconds after one pm, you may get a different impression of just how precisely I wished for our appointment to be. In other words, the precision with which a number is stipulated is often presumed to convey something about the precision of the quantity which the number represents. Therefore, the number “1” is taken to mean, “roughly, approximately, 1.” Whereas, in comparison, the number “1.000000” would be taken to mean exactly 1, with a precision of at least 6 decimal places. In the following paragraphs I have therefore chosen to write the numbers +1 and –1 as +1.00000[…] and –1.00000[…] respectively, to indicate that I am stipulating numbers with an extreme precision of many decimal places, that “+1” and “–1” might not otherwise convey.

Back to our “So what?” question. It turns out that we do in fact have a route forward. Since the addition of the signal plus the noise always comes to either +1.00000[…] or –1.00000[…] at the sampling points, all we need to represent the result of the addition is a 1-bit number. A +1.00000[…] result is represented using “1” and a –1.00000[…] result is represented using “0.” Compared to 24-bit PCM, we would only need 1/24th the amount of file space to store the data. Perhaps that could open the door to a practical solution. If, for example, we were to increase the sampling rate by a factor of 24, we’d end up with a file of the same size as the original, and maybe we could take advantage of that in some way. For example, by way of illustration, let’s consider a 24-bit 88.2kHz high-resolution PCM file. If we were to reduce the bit depth to 1-bit by adding some of that “magic noise,” and increase the sample rate by a factor of 24X to 2.114 MHz, we will end up with a 1-bit file the same size as the original 24-bit file. Can we do something useful with that?

The thing about a PCM file with a 2.114 MHz sample rate is that, according to the Nyquist criterion, it can encode signals with a bandwidth of up to 1.057 MHz. But we only need 20 kHz (let’s be all high-end-y and call it 30 kHz) to encode all of the audio frequencies. That means there is a region from 30 kHz all the way to 1.057 MHz that contains no useful audio frequencies at all. Let me write that another way at the risk of belaboring the point. The region of 0.030–1.057 MHz contains no audio data. All the audio data lives below 0.030 MHz. That’s a tiny corner of the overall addressable frequency space.

Time to go back to the last diagram and take a closer look at it. All those black lines represent added noise. Each line can take on one of two possible values. Either it can be a positive number, the exact amount needed to raise the amplitude to +1.00000[…], or it can be a negative number, the exact amount needed to reduce the amplitude to –1.00000[…]. The important thing to note is that, conceptually at least, it really doesn’t matter much to us either way.

Given that every second of music will require 2.114 million of these noise samples, and that each and every one of them can assume one of two possible values, there are an almost uncountable number of permutations available as to how we could arrange those noise samples across the entirety of an audio file. The question is, can some of those permutations possibly turn out to be useful?

Recall that the only way to separate noise from a signal is to filter it out. Suppose we were to arrange the noise so that it only occupied those frequencies above 0.03 MHz. If we could do that, then all we’d need to do is pass the signal through a low-pass filter with a cutoff of 30 kHz. All the noise would then be stripped off, and we’d be left with the original unadulterated audio signal. This would be a very workable solution indeed … if we could figure out a way to actually do it.

That way is called sigma-delta modulation, (or, delta-sigma modulation), but this is not the place for me to describe how it works. You’ll just have to take my word for it that it does. A sigma-delta modulator does just what we want here. It creates the exact kind of noise signal that we are looking for through a process called noise shaping. It creates a “magic” noise signal that raises or depresses every sample value to +1.00000[…] or –1.00000[…], while keeping virtually the entire spectrum of the noise carefully above the audio bandwidth, where it can be easily filtered out.

There are theories that analyze and quantify just how much of this noise it is possible to push up into the unused high frequencies. The basic noise shaping theory was developed by Gerzon and Craven, and we don’t need to go into it here, but it essentially quantifies the “no free lunch” aspects of the process, and provides fundamental limits beyond which the magic cannot be pushed. I don’t have space to dig into it here, but let’s be clear, those limits do not prevent us from achieving the kind of audiophile-grade performance we desire. Far from it.

The main finding from Gerzon and Craven is that we need to push the sample rate out to quite high levels. It turns out that our simple solution of pushing it out by a factor of 24 in order to keep the same file size is not really far enough. Actual DSD (Direct Stream Digital) runs at a sample rate of 64 times 44.1kHz (which comes to 2.82 MHz), and in practice that represents the lowest sample rate at which adequate performance can be achieved. Today, it is commonplace to refer to that as DSD64. By doubling the sample rate to 128 times 44.1 kHz we get DSD128, and that arguably represents the sweet spot for the technology. But DSD256 is now being used in serious high-end studio applications. There are even people who are playing around with DSD512. At these colossal sample rates, at least from a theoretical perspective, any additional benefits start to become increasingly marginal, and the file sizes needed to store them can start to become pretty unwieldy.

So there we are. DSD, at its core, is simply a way of representing PCM audio data. The actual audio signal itself is a PCM-encoded audio signal that has been subsumed within an avalanche of high-frequency noise, such that the only way of extracting it is to filter out that noise. The achievable resolution is determined by just how much of the “magic noise” signal still resides within the audio band, and current SDM technology places that at about –120 dB or thereabouts, corresponding to ~20-bits of PCM resolution. The achievable bandwidth is determined by the sample rate, and DSD64 can achieve something close to 30 kHz (depending on how you choose to define it). That the ‘magic noise’ can be filtered out as effectively in the analog domain as in the digital domain has opened the door to a class of DAC designs which today totally dominate the DAC market.

There are those who insist that DSD sounds better than PCM, but that’s not an argument that makes any sense to me. DSD and PCM don’t have “sounds” per se. The things that DO have “sounds” are the processes that encode a signal into PCM and/or DSD, and that decode them back into analog, because these processes are generally not lossless, and that’s a separate discussion entirely. By contrast, BY FAR the biggest contributors to sound quality are the original recording engineers, and the lengths they are willing to go to in order to achieve the best sound possible. For these people, recording in DSD forces them to abandon all of the über-convenient post-processing digital chicanery available at the click of a ProTools mouse. Maybe – just maybe – that’s the most important observation of all.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Pawel Zdziarski, cropped to fit format.

How Much Do We Actually Hear When We Listen?

How Much Do We Actually Hear When We Listen?

How Much Do We Actually Hear When We Listen?

John Seetoo

In March 2021, The Wall Street Journal published an article about the announcement of Spotify HiFi, touted as delivering high-resolution “lossless” digital audio equivalent to CD-quality 44.1 kHz (a debatable definition for audiophiles and audio pros for whom “hi-res” begins at 96 kHz). More interestingly, the article implies that the majority of people who can perceive higher-quality audio are victims of self-delusion: “A larger percentage of people will only think they hear a difference, because their awareness of the quality of the file they are listening to informs their opinion of how it sounds. Still, if you are wired a certain way as a listener, the idea that you might be missing something can nag at you.”


This denigration of audiophile discernment reminds me of how people similarly have treated wine connoisseurs who have been fooled in blind taste tests. However, it begs the following questions: does the WSJ dismissal argument have any merit or validity? Besides the obvious fact that audio frequency ranges and other criteria can be measured and quantified, do humans hear things that perhaps they are unaware of, unless it’s brought to their attention through better equipment, kind of like seeing patterns in a monochromatic puzzle once colors are added?

Recording engineer Allen Farmelo wrote a fascinating blog entry about what he has dubbed “subconscious auditory effects.” It describes the process of how we actually hear more than what we consciously are aware of. While certain sounds are beyond the 20 Hz – 20 kHz range of human hearing, but can be felt, other sounds are filtered by the brain as unimportant or too distracting. He also differentiates between listening closely to individual elements for nuance and articulation vs. listening broadly to experience the emotional effect of music in the aggregate, or “global” listening. Additionally, he is interested in sounds that only some people can hear but not others, as well as sounds that no person appears to be able to hear, yet may get noticed by their absence from music when removed for a subsequent audition.

Farmelo does not claim to know the answers, but he is keen on keeping the questions alive for further research. He feels that working audio professionals, whose livelihoods are predicated around audio exactitude, too often unjustifiably dismiss audiophiles, who are more populous in the global listening camp. He points out that audiophiles are often the ones who create the demand to push gear specs, because they can tell the differences between DAC A vs. DAC B, which is why the audio workers have jobs.

Man listening to the radio, 1922. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing, photographers.


KEF Senior Technical Engineer Jack Sharkey has explained that there is a definite audio difference between MP3 and higher-resolution CD-quality sounds of the same material. The data compression involved with MP3 eliminates the silence and reverberations between notes that make the music come alive in a space. This is something that can definitely be heard by even untrained ears, even though the ability to articulate the differences might be limited by the listener’s extent of audio knowledge and technical terms. Of course, heavily-compressed EDM (electronic dance music) would probably display this much less than classical or jazz music, where space and air between notes are vital to a performance.

A University of British Columbia study on the balance and co-dependent relationship between listening and sound-making explored the psychoacoustic differences between hi-fi and lo-fi environments and how what one hears is dependent on the degree of conscious attention devoted to the soundscape.

Lo-fi soundscapes blur distinctions and create more of an aural wallpaper environment that discourages listening for minutiae and emphasizes global listening amidst the cacophony of background sounds. Conversely, hi-fi soundscapes allow for minimal distraction and deliver closer-to-optimum listening environments, and enable the listener to fully experience music from multiple perspectives.

One audiophile blogger cites an account of how he and a colleague compared a $4,000 and a $400 amplifier and concluded that they could not distinguish any significant difference. However, after prolonged respective listening to the $4,000 amplifier over the course of several weeks and then swapping it out for the $400 amp, both of them arrived at the fact that music listened to with the $400 amp was disturbingly less enjoyable and lacked the presence and life that it had been imbued with on the more expensive amp.

While it is more important to listen to the music and not the gear, there is certainly validity and considerable anecdotal evidence for hi-fi equipment that is able to sufficiently enhance the listening experience and provide what might be described as “missing or previously inaudible material” to better enjoy and appreciate the music due to superior clarity, articulation and aural re-creation.

Referencing my own experience, I find myself listening to music more often than not as background sound for when I am writing or doing other computer work. More frequently than I would prefer, I am listening to streaming music on Spotify, YouTube or Pandora on an inexpensive Bluetooth stereo speaker, mostly so as not to disturb my wife in the next room who is also working on a computer and listening to her preferred music on a vintage CD player/radio/cassette boombox. My turntable, CD player, amps and favorite Ohm speakers are rarely used when not in storage, as my wife prefers silence, so any critical listening for me is usually with headphones.


JBL Flip 5 wireless speaker system. $119.95, and it’s waterproof.


Spotify, YouTube and Pandora are like the FM radio stations of the 1970s and 1980s, where one could get introduced to new music, thanks to eclectic DJs. I have certainly learned and heard many artists whom I had never previously known about, and despite hearing them for the first time on a cheap Bluetooth speaker, the emotional content connection of their music was conveyed and I was able to appreciate it.

Getting the opportunity to hear some of that same music in a hi-fi environment opened up a wealth of other sounds that I was not aware of previously hearing: additional harmony voices, left and right instrument panning, extra delays on instruments and voices, tambourine jangles, and many other subtle but crucial instrument and vocal sounds that contributed to the music’s overall impact.

What came as a pleasant surprise to me was that after the experience of hearing that music on a better system that could deliver the extra sounds for me to hear, it seemed to reprogram my brain’s entire perspective on how to listen to it.

Listening once again to MP3-quality streaming on Spotify through my inexpensive Bluetooth speakers, I now heard the “missing material” that had previously escaped me. At first I thought that it might have been my brain just filling in the gaps from memory, but I found this held even with songs that I had only heard once before, titles of which I couldn’t even begin to recall. The effect was akin to having a stiff plastic cover over an upholstered sofa getting removed so its soft cushions could finally be experienced and enjoyed.

Did listening to the music on the hi-fi system re-train me to listen to sounds that were inaudible to me previously? Or was I hearing them all along but needed the hi-fi system to lift the veil and unlock that brain-ear connection for me to decipher the sounds?

While this may be a Kafka-esque enigma, this experience, along with the aforementioned examples, certainly makes a case to justify a Spotify HiFi. If my listening capacity to MP3 streaming music on a Bluetooth speaker can be greatly enhanced by listening to higher-quality versions of that same music on an excellent hi-fi system, or even with a set of hi-fi headphones, then why not?

Perhaps if I find that this hypothesis fails to hold up after trying Spotify HiFi, I will write a follow up article. Nevertheless, it is a subject that bears close scrutiny, and if other people share similar experiences, it would be worth it to know.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay.com/Omar Medina Films.

In a Latin Jazz Bag: The Recordings of Cal Tjader, Part One

In a Latin Jazz Bag: The Recordings of Cal Tjader, Part One

In a Latin Jazz Bag: The Recordings of Cal Tjader, Part One

Rudy Radelic

Cal Tjader is a musician I have followed most of my life. My mother was an avid fan of his, and while the fifteen or so albums she owned barely scratched the surface, I took up collecting the rest of his catalog and unexpectedly fell into an entire Tjader collection many years later. His recording career spanned four record labels, and he performed in thousands of live appearances.

Born Callen Radcliffe Tjader Jr. in 1925 to Swedish-American parents who worked the vaudeville circuit before settling down to operate a dance studio, Tjader originally tap danced as a child, took piano lessons at a very young age, and parlayed that into playing drums and later the vibraphone, for which he became best known.

Callen’s siblings were his younger brothers Wallace Frederick (or Rick, as he was commonly known) Tjader, and Curry Butler Tjader. Rick was the non-musical sibling. Curry also took piano lessons at a young age and went on to be a drummer as both a leader and sideman on numerous gigs in the San Francisco Bay area. In 1965, Julius Wechter recruited him to play bass marimba, and occasionally drums, in Wechter’s Baja Marimba Band.

Cal Tjader’s career stretched from early days working with Dave Brubeck in one of the latter’s earliest groups, to his final recordings for the Concord Picante label in the early 1980s. Tjader was based in the San Francisco Bay area and he performed often at such well-known Californian jazz clubs such as The Blackhawk, The Lighthouse and El Matador.

Tjader’s primary instrument was the vibraphone, but on many of his earlier recordings and in live gigs, he would also perform on bongos, timbales and other Latin percussion, as well as occasionally returning to a seat behind the drum kit. Infrequently, he can be heard on piano and, in later years, organ.

This will be a multi-part series exploring Cal Tjader’s music, from his first recordings with Fantasy to his final album with Concord Picante. Despite his considerable popularity and success over the course of more than three decades, and several dozen album releases, his music is overlooked. This series will hopefully help bring Tjader’s music to a wider audience.

The Early Fantasy Era

Cal Tjader’s first recordings for Fantasy (and the sister Galaxy label) were released as shellac 78 RPM records. These early dates included some of the Latin touches that he would explore throughout his career, and would feature him hopping between instruments. Here is “Vibra-Tharpe,” a rare treat at 78 RPM (thanks to YouTube) named after famous San Francisco disc jockey Jim Tharpe. Tjader hops from vibes to drums and back to vibes on this 1951 recording, first released in 1952 and compiled onto a Fantasy 10-inch LP in 1953. (This has since been reissued on 10-inch vinyl as well as the 2-for-1 CD Extremes, paired with his final Galaxy recording Breathe Easy in the 1970s.)


An early popular tune is “Mamblues,” one of two original compositions from his 1954 record Mambo with Tjader, the first 12-inch long-playing record he would cut for Fantasy. This is a tune he would return to on records and in concert.


Ray Bryant’s “Cubano Chant” gets a three-part treatment in this track from Ritmo Caliente, an album where Tjader split duties between vibraphone and other Latin percussion instruments. The first part of the track has Jerome Richardson carrying the melody on flute, followed by a percussion break as the second part. The third part of the track, taken from a later recording date, fades in with a conga beat and a vamp on the piano, with Tjader taking up the melody on vibes. This album would be reissued in a double-LP package with the follow-up album Mas Ritmo Caliente, entitled Los Ritmos Calientes.


On the album Demasiado Caliente (reissued on a 2-for-1 CD as Latino con Cal Tjader), the live track “Tumbao” features a lengthy workout by future Latin legends Mongo Santamaria on congas and Willie Bobo on timbales. Tjader’s groups were instrumental in introducing percussionists of this caliber to the music-consuming public (long-term Tjader sideman, conguero Armando Peraza, was another), and many would go on to lengthy musical careers of their own.


One highlight of Tjader’s recordings is the straight-ahead jazz album he cut in 1958 with Stan Getz, Stan Getz with Cal Tjader. “Ginza Samba” opens the album with an eleven-minute jam.  Notable sidemen on this date are Eddie Duran (guitar), Vince Guaraldi (piano), Scott La Faro (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums), and it’s one of the earliest recording dates for the latter two musicians.


Likewise, other albums of Tjader’s were not all about Latin rhythms. Jazz at the Blackhawk is another straight-ahead date, featuring Vince Guaraldi (piano), Eugene Wright (bass) and Al Torre (drums). Here is their take on the Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen tune “Blues in the Night.”


One of Tjader’s (pardon the pun) coolest tracks is “Cool,” from the West Side Story soundtrack. While this tune is performed by a Tjader combo, other tracks from the album tapped into the string arranging skills of Clare Fischer, one of several times he would collaborate with Fischer.


Another classic and oft-performed Tjader tune, “Black Orchid,” which originally appeared on the album Cal Tjader Goes Latin but was compiled into yet another 2-for-1 Fantasy CD entitled Black Orchid (paired with the album The Cal Tjader Quintet).


It wasn’t often that Tjader was co-billed with a vocalist. Backed by Tjader’s formidable group, Mary Stallings, who was 22 years old at the time, recorded her first album for Fantasy, which would coincidentally be Tjader’s last recording for the label. Here’s her swinging take on “I’m Beginning to See the Light.”


If you are thinking of purchasing any of the CDs of Cal Tjader’s recordings, I wanted to give Copper readers caveat emptor. Check to be certain that the recordings listed above are released on the Fantasy/OJC (Original Jazz Classics) label. There are a multitude of releases from the EU and elsewhere of individual albums or bundlings of his albums, but the quality of those releases is suspect. I’ve heard a couple that were needle drops (digital transfers from long-playing records), from vinyl that was in poor condition. None of these releases are licensed or approved by Fantasy or the Concord Music Group.

If vinyl is your preference, I have had issues with the sound quality of a few of the OJC vinyl reissues (such as Mambo with Tjader) – some odd limiting is applied to the recording that was not present on the original releases. Yet the early Cal Tjader Trio 10-inch vinyl reissue is untampered with. Original vinyl can be difficult to find in clean condition, but persistence pays off. Many of Fantasy’s monaural LPs were pressed on red vinyl, where the stereo was pressed on blue.

To accompany this first installment, here is a playlist that covers the tracks above, plus a handful of others from Cal Tjader’s first stay at Fantasy. As the excellent Fantasy Greatest Hits CD (combining the two LP volumes on one disc) tends to cover just about all the highlights, I’ve chosen to use that as the basis of the playlist. Other notable tracks have also been included.

The playlist at Qobuz:


Also at YouTube Music:


In the next installment, a frustrated Cal Tjader moves to a larger record label and broadens his musical palette.

Subliminal or Sublime Bass?

Subliminal or Sublime Bass?

Subliminal or Sublime Bass?

Russ Welton

In issue 137, Russ discussed the advantages a subwoofer or multiple subwoofers can bring to an audio system. The series continues here.

Perhaps one of the barriers of entry for managing the bass in your audio system is that the target goal is to produce an in-room bass response which does not produce an overtly bassy sound. How do you craft that sound if the end result is somehow “inaudible?” Is there some kind of magic trick going on that only a select few sound engineers have access to and knowledge of? Take heart – good bass is not that elusive a beast to track down. It may sometimes seem to be a bit of a moving target, though, so if you have ever attempted to improve your low end, got only so far along the journey and then became frustrated and given up, read on.

In our previous article, Sub Missive, we mentioned many of the practical attributes a powered subwoofer can offer. Generally speaking, in the same way that a floorstanding tower speaker will give you better bass extension than a bookshelf model, so too a powered sub can give you superior-quality bass extension and importantly, more control over what the bass is doing in your room. When your system’s bass response reaches more of its potential, as a result of changing some basic settings, the music can be transformed.

Added to this is the reality that many tower speakers (but not all), simply do not reach their stated nominal bass frequency. Even if they do, a powered sub may provide a more efficient delivery of power than the shared power being distributed between your towers’ tweeters, midrange and bass drivers. Using a powered sub or subs is like the bass being a pilot of a plane who tells it what to do and where to go, avoiding some of the turbulence, lulls, detours, delays and bumps along the way. Our desire is to take control of our bass and have a smooth flight.

What are some of the ways to achieve this? They include the position of the subwoofer itself in the room (or subwoofers – numerous studies have pointed out the advantages of using multiple subs, though space and/or budget limitations may preclude this), its crossover frequency, its phase setting and of course its gain (volume) setting. There are other factors of course, not the least of which is the effect of the room itself and its areas of bass cancellation and reinforcement, but in my humble experience, these adjustments can make significant differences when correctly set – particularly whether the phase switch is set to “0” or “180.” (Some subwoofers include a continuously-variable phase control, but a 0/180 switch is most common. Also, technically phase is dependent on frequency, but for the purposes of this article we’ll consider “phase” to be the proper subwoofer setting for your room.)

Klipsch R-112SW subwoofer rear panel showing phase switch and other controls.


If you want a quick fix and can’t be bothered to faff around, try the following: Put your subwoofer in the corner of the room, set the crossover frequency to 80 Hz, adjust the phase until the sub sounds its loudest and then finally dial the gain setting to taste. Done. Dusted. Move on and play your tunes. Happy days.

There is however, more to refining subwoofer performance than meets the eye. Quite literally in fact. Here are some examples. It can be very difficult to know the proper phase setting without taking a room measurement, which can reveal where the bass frequencies are dipping out or peaking at undesirable points on the frequency spectrum. Your sub(s) may be better placed at a quarter of the room’s length or width rather than in the corner, perhaps even closer to your seated position.

Conventional wisdom states that the crossover point on the subwoofer should be set to around where the bass response of the main speakers rolls off. However, you might be better served by your sub by setting its crossover frequency to 100 Hz rather than a lower setting, relieving your towers of some of their bass load as they hand off that signal range and below to the sub. This frees up more available amplifier power for midrange and treble frequency reproduction, with less strain on the amplifier(s).

It’s great to give your towers more headroom; however, when the crossover frequency is set to 100 Hz, the sub can start to sound more localized, which is not what you want for a smooth and integrated sound. You don’t want to be able to turn your head, point your finger and say, “That’s where the bass is coming from.” Rather, you want to a more even bass response throughout the room.

What tools can help us in setting up or subwoofers and speakers, without having to rely on just our ears? Enter REW Room EQ Wizard. It’s free software, readily available as a download which can be quickly installed on your computer. Room EQ Wizard offers a variety of useful analytical tools. You will need a calibration microphone, and these are readily available and inexpensive. The Dayton Audio UMM-6 USB measurement microphone is available for around $100 or less. It comes an individual calibration file which you can load into REW. Once you connect your computer to your audio system, you can take measurements which show you what is going on with the frequency response in your room, and pinpoint in-room peaks and dips.

Adjusting the subwoofer phase response in REW Room EQ Wizard. The better result is with the phase at 0 degrees, indicated by the waveform in blue. The waveform in orange shows the phase set at 180 degrees.

One of the great tools in Room EQ Wizard is the room simulator. If you have never used it, you may be surprised at how informative it can be, particularly when positioning a subwoofer in conjunction with stereo speakers. (For more on Room EQ Wizard, see Adrian Wu’s article in Issue 127.) How is the room simulator different to a straight frequency response measurement? It can save you a lot of experimentation time. For example, you can “virtually” experiment with where on the front wall you may choose to place one or two subwoofers. When you observe the resultant plotted waveforms, you immediately get a visual indication of how the response will respond over time, as opposed to an actually measured response. This is useful in that you can begin to quickly identify many different places in the room that you can see with more confidence would or would not be suitable for sub placement(s) because you see a larger dip in frequency in the problem areas.

Rather than physically moving subs, taking actual measurements and repeating the process many times until you are happy, you can use the simulation software to drill down to a good spot more efficiently, and then fine tune it from there with smaller placement adjustments and actual measurements. Let’s say you may know a sub would generally be well-placed in a corner. Using the simulator, you can start out from that location in the program and compare the response by virtually moving the sub forward or back in small increments from the side and rear wall. Then, try another slightly different position and compare the frequency plots. It’s particularly useful for identifying which corner could be best-suited.

You can enter your room dimensions, seating position and of course the position of your speakers and sub(s). (Up to four subs may be simulated.) Additionally, you can simulate if your speakers and sub are ported or not, what delay settings you may have chosen for your speakers and sub and how much additional gain you may have dialed into them per channel. You can even adjust the crossover frequency settings of each subwoofer independently. The value of this is that you can examine the frequency response of many measurements taken at various positions of your listening chair, and how they change as you alter one parameter at a time, such as where the sub is placed in the room, or the crossover frequency or whatever you choose to alter. When you look at the overlays of your multiple samples of the room’s response, they make it far more obvious as to what’s happening in the room. A great way to see this in action is by using the software to quickly toggle on and off the response of the sub(s) when blended with the speaker’s measured response. In this way you can simulate adding or removing hardware from your system. This in itself is very useful for emulating your desired system before you invest in purchasing more subs.

REW room simulator software. (This image is representational and not indicative of any recommended settings.)


It’s important to remember that this room simulation software is just that – a simulation or illustration of expected results given what data you feed into the fields. Although the room simulator has limitations – it can only represent rectangular or square rooms, and does not accommodate L-shaped rooms or rooms which open out on one side, for example – it does provide some good bearings by giving a sense of what is going on in your room, and the magnitude of the adjustments you make. This is particularly true if you take multiple measurements from different locations in the room. That said, your ears are extremely sophisticated listening devices, more so than a humble omni-directional measurement. And our brains can powerfully decipher reflections, delays and room modes. But the REW software is excellent at illustrating and pinpointing peaks, dips and problem areas which we may or more likely may not be able to determine purely by listening for them.

Our goal is to position our sub (In the case of a single subwoofer) where the resultant in-room frequency response at the listening position or positions is as smooth as possible. By spending some time and by simply adjusting the subwoofer’s position in the Room EQ Wizard simulator alone, you will be able to quickly determine which places would or would not be worth testing before actually physically moving the subwoofer around.

If there is a large dip to be found, it’s far better to position the sub where that effect is less-pronounced or non-existent than to try and get rid of that trough with the application of digital EQ using, say, the room correction software of an A/V receiver.

By experimenting with speaker positions in the simulator, you start to see how good your speaker and sub integration are with each other. Also, if you are using multiple subs, you’ll see if you are in fact producing worse spatial variation in your signal because of their improper placement. Once your integration of the subwoofers with the main speakers is as smooth as possible, it’s almost as if the bass becomes “subliminal” in the sense that it’s not disconnected from the rest of the frequency range, yet it will be powerful and present.

In a following article, we will look at some specifics for placing multiple subwoofers, and at some of the other factors which contribute to sublime sound.

Header image: KEF Reference 8b subwoofer. From the KEF website.

Elektra – My Record Company Gig

Elektra – My Record Company Gig

Elektra – My Record Company Gig

Ken Sander

We were starting to level off and the pilot said, “okay, take over.” “Really?” I asked. “Yup, sure; I will show you what to do,” he says. “First, keep the wings level.” He pointed to a display that showed the wings and a line. “Keep the wings level with that line with slight adjustments to the wheel. Then, keep a watch on the altimeter and keep the nose slightly up and stay at this altitude.”

We were flying east out of Teterboro, a private airport in New Jersey just across the Hudson River and Manhattan. The two-engine prop plane looked new. It seated ten and it was full. I made eleven, and that is how I ended up in the co-pilot’s seat. We, a bunch of employees of Elektra Records, were flying out to Martha’s Vineyard in the spring of 1971 to see Carly Simon do a benefit for a public school there. Carly was an Elektra Records recording artist, so of course her label supported her. The outdoor concert in the early evening was going to be pretty much acoustic. What made it even more special was that Carly rarely performed live. She said she had big issues with stage fright.

She is a tall gal, 5 feet 10 inches with a big smile. She is the daughter of Richard Leo Simon, co-founder of Simon and Schuster publishing. Whenever she came up to our office, she would stop at everyone’s desk, say hello and chit chat a little. It was thoughtful and of course that was a very smart thing to do. Elektra Records took up a whole floor in a glass high-rise building. At the time it was called the Gulf and Western building, at 15 Columbus Circle on the north side. The name and ownership of the tall glass building has changed more than a few times. Previously, I thought it was exclusively an office building but now the glass skyscraper has some condo apartments. I have visited a friend at one of the condos and he mentioned that Adam Sandler owns or has owned an apartment there.

Carly Simon, 1971. 
Carly Simon, 1971.

Flying east over Long Island Sound, I made the necessary adjustments of keeping the plane level and at the correct altitude during the flight. No one on the plane knew I was flying it, though the pilot supervised me carefully and handled the other tasks. When we came into view of Martha’s Vineyard, he showed me how to bring the plane in for a landing, circling and then slowly descending for a couple of miles as I pointed the plane towards the runway and started our approach. At 800 feet the pilot took over.

For someone who claimed to be afraid of performing because of overwhelming stage fright, Carly hid it where no one could tell. She was seemingly relaxed and sang and played well. Her material was largely from her (then) new self-titled debut album, and she was joined on stage by another guitar player who came and went as the show progressed. Sometimes there was a keyboard player. There were never more than a few people on stage and very often it was just Carly alone. It was a good show and the sound was crisp and clear. I am sure those few hundred people in the audience had a lovely evening.

It was a nice setting in the warm early summer and with the ocean in the background behind the stage. Just as the sun was setting in the western sky, she finished her set. A one-word description of the show would be “sweet.” After the show we all went backstage to say hello to Carly, and she was all thank you and thank you for coming and was I any good? Are you sure I was? Thank you,. She was unassuming, charming, and gracious. Afterwards it was back to the plane and once we were in the air the pilot let me fly again.


A few weeks later Steve Harris, head of Elektra A&R, tells me that we are going to Boston to see a folk singer that he was thinking of signing. We take an Amtrak train to Boston and a taxi to the hotel. It is still early afternoon, so we go to a couple of different record stores. Steve wants to see what Elektra albums they are stocking and their general inventory and displays. That evening we go to the performance and Steve is underwhelmed by the show. I do not remember who the performer was or what happened to him. We head back to the hotel and check the newspapers to see if there are any other shows he wanted to see. There is nothing going on, it is a quiet night. Steve looks at his watch and says fu*k it lets get back to the city (that is what we New Yorkers call Manhattan. We take a quick cab ride to the station and catch a late train home.

Next week we take the comedian David Steinberg to lunch at an upscale Japanese restaurant. David has an album out with us called Disguised As A Normal Person and it is doing well. With comedy albums the label does not expect too much. However, the album has cracked the Billboard Top 100 charts and that is considered fairly good in the label’s estimation. David is charming and funny at lunch. He is also pleased and happy that Elektra is okay with his LP’s chart position and sales. (David went on to become extremely popular; for example, he appeared on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson more than 130 times.)

David Steinberg, Disguised as a Normal Person album cover.
David Steinberg, Disguised as a Normal Person album cover.

Around that time my sister Ellen (the famous rock writer) invites me to go with her to The Bitter End, a small but famous club in the West Village, Greenwich Village, to see Jim Croce. I liked him, thought well of him, and enjoyed a few of his hits but he was not really on my radar. The Bitter End is a small club on Bleeker Street with maybe 200 seats squeezed in together. I was kind of surprised that he was playing such a small club considering his hits, but upon thinking about it, the show was probably a showcase and there were press and other important folks there.

Jim was touching. He was so personal and ingratiating, sitting on a simple bar stool with his guitar and a microphone. I love when a performer can make a personal connection with me. All of us have had that feeling of when you meet someone, and it clicks, and you think to yourself, “I really like this person.” That is what I felt spending that evening with Jim Croce. I was deeply saddened when a few years later I learned that he was killed in a plane crash.


Steve tells me I am going on the road with the New Seekers. As I understood it the New Seekers were “manufactured” after the break-up of The Seekers in 1970. (The Seekers had hits with “Georgy Girl,” “I’ll Never Find Another You” and others.) The long and the short of it was that The New Seekers were salaried employees, maybe with other incentives. They had a hit single with “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing,” with good top 40 AM airplay. They were based in London and were coming over for a short promotional tour. Steve looks me right in the eye and says, “you cannot sleep with either of those girls.” “Okay, right,” I reply, and he says, “no, you must promise me you won’t.” “Okay,” I say, and again he emphasizes, “I am serious about this.” “All right, I promise.” I answer.

This would be the second time I met The New Seekers. The first was when I flew to LA on Elektra’s corporate jet. (See my article, “I Love LA” in Issue 110.} That was the time Harry Nilsson and I shared a limo. The New Seekers had come over for one date and this time, they would be here for a couple of weeks, doing a couple of gigs in Ohio and then flying down the Mississippi river to New Orleans.

They are playing Ohio, opening for a headliner at a coliseum, a big venue. I am hanging out with the act, helping out, but I really do not have much to do, no box office work or travel planning. I would call it hand-holding or better yet, road management lite. The New Seekers’ performances are good and on stage and off they are pleasant and likable. The next night, another date in Ohio and after the gig we all meet at the hotel bar. We are having a few beers and drinks and sure enough, one of the girls start flirting with me. Uh oh. I remember my promise to Steve, and I try not to be flirtatious. Well, I kept my word, but she was never very friendly with me after that. Sometimes keeping a promise is a thankless task.



I had taken this job at Elektra Records as an assistant A&R man working under Steve Harris’s tutelage. I enjoyed working at Elektra, but the pay was nothing to speak of. Previously I was involved in the production of Peace Parade (see my articles in Issue 117 and Issue 118). Peace Parade had finished up the previous fall as the Broadway show Hair was winding down. That affected us and our bookings. With ticket sales declining everything just peters out.


A few months later Bruce Sachs, my friend and CMA (Creative Management Associates) agent, calls me up and says, “Boy! we are back in business!”

Bruce and I were putting together the talent for the very first stage show of Superstar, a touring production based on the 1970 hit album Jesus Christ Superstar. To us it was readily apparent, this was a big album that begged to be performed. With impressive LP sales that exceeded 8 million units, name recognition was established. Apparently, at that time there was not another show based on the album.

Considering our history, mine and Bruce’s, it seemed like a logical decision. This was in our wheelhouse. And we had a good notion of who would be in the cast and which musicians we would use. With Hair closing, we had all these Broadway actors and singers freed up, and we had worked with them before. Some of the best on-stage talent in the world. Bruce and I felt in our bones that we were on to something. The timing was perfect.

Bruce Sachs. Photo by Ken Sander.
Bruce Sachs. Photo by Ken Sander.

All hands were on board within the week. Mike Martineau, who booked Peace Parade, had no problem with the concept and bookings were rolling in. For legal reasons and to keep it simple, the thought was to stage the show as an oratorio and just call the show Superstar, the Original American Touring Company (OATC). No costumes or props, just the music. Additionally, Superstar would use dramatic lighting to create moods or highlight a performer. The lighting equipment was generally available in theaters, but to make sure, the lighting gear was specified in the contract rider so the promoters would have the responsibility to make sure that the specific lights the production needed were on hand. I was certain that my finances were going to be much improved, and they were – initially, the monies exceeded my expectations.

In many ways Superstar started off easy. As things progressed it became more routine. That kinda made it harder. You can read more about it in Issue 137.

Woods, The Weather Station, A Touch of Sault and More

Woods, The Weather Station, A Touch of Sault and More

Woods, The Weather Station, A Touch of Sault and More

Cliff Chenfeld

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

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


In the summer of 1978, I traveled cross-country in a van with my brother for a month, enthusiastically searching for America as romanticized by Paul Simon. The accompanying soundtrack for over 6,000 miles of driving was our often-scratchy FM/AM radio and a box of 10 or so cassettes that we incessantly listened to on repeat. In those 30 days, I cemented an intense relationship with Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model and Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty that I’ll probably never have again with any other music.

And how could I? If given the choice, why would anyone want to listen to the same music over and over again? While I have gauzy, sepia-fused, tactile memories of every groove of my favorite albums of that era, I feel privileged to live at a time where with a single click, we have instantaneous magical access to the great majority of the last 60 or so years of recorded music. I would never want to go back.

But, of course, with all that music at your fingertips, plenty of great artists slip through the cracks. Or you discover a new artist by hearing a single song on a playlist and don’t have the time to discover more music from the artist. So today, we’ll focus on a few artists who haven’t had broad commercial success but are worth checking out.

Woods has been making its warm, sometimes wide-eyed, peppy, often orchestrated psychedelic folkish rock for over ten years. Leader Jeremy Earl sings in a gentle, pleasing falsetto and the band fills out its sound with Mellotron and horns that evoke baroque pop influences from the Left Banke to Belle and Sebastian. And the music is occasionally trippy enough that when they ask questions like “Where Do You Go When You Dream?,” you want to see if they know the answer.


Devon Gilfillian is an expressive, versatile singer rooted in sixties and seventies soul who adds gospel and rootsy, loose rock into the mix. His track “Unchained” is a revelation and his debut album Black Hole Rainbow demonstrates that one can make a relevant, contemporary album in 2021 founded mostly on a classic R&B palette. And I hear he is amazing in concert.


Sault is a collective out of UK that has released some of the most danceable music of the last year. Little is known about them; they rarely interact  with the media and don’t reveal much of themselves via social media. The music is infectious, rooted in funk, disco, house, even afrobeat, and many songs eloquently address contemporary racial issues. Like Sly, Prince and other forebearers, they know sometimes you’ll dance even harder for a good cause.

The Weather Station is a Canadian band fronted by Tamara Linderman that began as folky project and has evolved into a more sophisticated, fuller outfit without sacrificing any of her lyrical insightfulness or personal take on topical subjects. Think of Joni Mitchell going from Clouds to Court and Spark. The standout percussive track “Robber,” flush with strings and horns, metaphorically and personally deconstructs the excesses of capitalism. Linderman is a cool, alluring singer and she has plenty to say about modern life.


A few quick takes from artists you should know:

“Empire Builder” by Typhoon – recorded during the pandemic and sounding like it is here to liberate us, this song has a tremendous instrumental buildup that leads to a sing-along for the ages.


“California Soul” by London Grammar – Brit electro band led by vocalist Hannah Reid (sounds like Florence Welsh but cooler, more controlled) evokes nostalgia for an experience you wish you had.

“Afrique Victim” by Mdou Moctar – The Tuareg guitarist from NIger fronts a fiery, incandescent band that isn’t afraid to stretch out and invoke stratospheric guitar playing over polymorphous rhythms and contemporary themes.

There are dozens of other new artists worth your time on the Be Here Now playlist. Enjoy all the great music at your fingertips.

Header image: Tamara Lindeman of The Weather Station. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Tabercil.

C.J. Vanston – Producer, Film Composer, Musician, Part Two

C.J. Vanston – Producer, Film Composer, Musician, Part Two

C.J. Vanston – Producer, Film Composer, Musician, Part Two

Russ Welton

In Part One (Issue 137), producer/composer/musician C.J. Vanston talked about the beginning of his career and how he got his recording studio break, on what it was like to play with Toto and other stellar musicians, and more.

Not many artists can say they have performed for the Dalai Lama and worked with Slash in the same breath. Additionally, just some of C.J.’s film credits include: Almost Heroes, For Your Consideration and Best In Show, where he makes an appearance performing in Al Pacino’s band. In this second part of our interview, C.J. Vanston tells us about his approach to critical listening, and his music media of choice. Take it away C.J.

Russ Welton: Which is your favorite music format for listening?

C.J. Vanston: Well, I’m a bit of a contrarian on this one…any format that allows me to listen to whatever I want whenever I want. So that would be streaming. I hear people complain about the audio quality, but then I remind them that they fell in love with music from an AM radio over a 2-inch speaker! The song always wins for me, even if it’s on an MP3 that I can grab out of the air while I’m thinking about it.


RW: Could you share some of your insights of what you listen for when critically listening to instruments, before and after a finished mix?

CJV: Sometimes I’ll [put up] a mix with just drums, bass and lead vocal, to get that vocal energy right in your face, to match the energy of the snare [drum]. That way when I start adding guitars, keys and background vocals, the lead [vocal] doesn’t get diminished. I’d say that on 90 percent of things people send me to listen to, the vocal isn’t loud enough. I don’t get it. Maybe people just get used to the lyrics, or they wrote them. But most of the time the vocal is buried. Panning is huge also, creating space for different instruments to live. [Panning involves placing instruments across the stereo field through the use of pan pots (panning potentiometers) on a mixing console – Ed.] Same with EQ. You have three axes to work with: height (frequency), depth (volume) and width (pan) – use them!

RW: How does your workflow allow for your own creativity, and has this changed over time?

CJV: Well, I mastered Logic Pro (recording software) years ago. Pro Tools (software) is a great tool for an engineer, but if you’re a musician, what Logic, Digital Performer and many others offer are so much more comprehensive and creative. At any rate I mastered Logic as if it were an instrument, which empowered me to create on my own without having to call an engineer. And I learned from the best [engineers] in the business over the last 35 years…Al Schmitt, Ed Cherney, Greg Ladanyi, Chris Lord-Alge and others. [Sadly, Al Schmitt passed away last April – Ed.]

I always try to push artists to get good at whatever program they’re comfortable with, even if it’s GarageBand [free Apple IOS recording software – Ed.]. I would have killed to have had GarageBand when I was in my 20s! Not having to call an engineer every time you want to do a demo is one of the great luxuries of today’s technology.

So anyway, of course making music with a computer has been the biggest shift. I don’t miss tape at all. People get attached to the “sound” of tape. And yes, there is a certain warmth to it…but I can easily add warmth to my digital music, and the flexibility of working in the box (computer) is just amazing.

C.J. Vanston and Dolly Parton. C.J. Vanston and Dolly Parton.


RW: What key factors contribute to a good soundstage in a recording when listening to music in the studio and at home?

CJV: Acoustics of course are very important. Spend some money on some [sound treatment] panels and do some research. Better yet, hire somebody that knows what they’re doing. Other than that, if you’re working in a less-than-perfect room, keep your speakers smaller and closer, nearfield.

RW: How can your approach to production affect the emotion of the music?

CJV: It just starts with great performances. The level of players I work with deliver gold all the time. So, making sure you’ve got emotion in your basic parts and overdubs is key. But also, I like to add atmospheric clouds and counter parts that are like Easter eggs…you have to hunt for them, and you might not hear them the first time…but you feel them.


RW: How did you get into film production and what are some of the greatest challenges in composing for film?

CJV: I was never interested in doing really rootsy productions, where you close your eyes and see four guys sitting there playing. I’ll leave that to other people. Not many records made like that interest me unless it’s jazz. My music has always tended to sound “cinematic,” so when you close your eyes, you see mountains, galaxies…that interests me far more than “literal” production. So, [interest in] that [kind of] sound lent itself to composing for film.

I’ve done a lot of comedy also, and that’s another challenge. The main director I work for, Christopher Guest, has always said, “You can’t have two jokes.” What he means is if there’s a joke on screen, the music shouldn’t do the same thing. I tend to go the opposite way, scoring [that reflects] what the character is feeling, not doing. And most of the time these characters are extremely self-unaware and envision themselves with shades of grandeur. So, while they’re bumbling through life, I pump them up because that’s how they see themselves. Not [having] two jokes [take place at the same time]. It’s a fine line.

C.J. and members of Spinal Tap. C.J. and members of Spinal Tap.

RW: What future advancements in cinema and home music listening do you anticipate with object-based audio? (Object-based audio is used for immersive audio, or audio that involves more than 5.1 channels, such as Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. Each audio source, or object, can be positioned in space.)

CJV: Just starting to scratch the surface on this one, getting into Dolby Atmos, will pass on this question.

RW: What advice would you give to audiophiles to get the best experience from the dynamics of large-production film scores?

CJV: If their home systems are tuned properly (and I’d guess that 90 percent aren’t), they shouldn’t have to use the ridiculous [DSP surround-sound] presets that come with the systems. Tuning and acoustics always take precedence to software and hardware in my mind.

RW: What question(s) do you wish you had been asked that no one’s ever asked you?

CJV: Well, I don’t know what the question would be, but here’s my answer. Experiences matter much more than money or fame. I was on a Zoom call with legendary engineer Al Schmitt the other day with about twenty of the top producers and engineers on the planet, and not one person talked about, “I made XX money on XX job.” All anyone talked about were the rich experiences and the music. Concentrate on the experiences and let the money follow.


If the money leads, you’re in for a hollow life. I’ve tried to avoid working in situations where people were chasing the dollar and putting the music and people in the back seat. In doing so, I’ve left a lot of money on the table. But I carry inside me a deep history of incredible stories, experiences and [working with] people that shaped and help create not only the music I make, but the person I am. Thanks for having me here!




Nearfield Listening

Nearfield Listening

Nearfield Listening

Peter Xeni

Surface Noise

Surface Noise

Surface Noise

James Whitworth

Jean-Baptiste Lully – The Sun King’s Favorite

Jean-Baptiste Lully – The Sun King’s Favorite

Jean-Baptiste Lully – The Sun King’s Favorite

Frank Doris

In the 1600s, it was generally agreed that opera was the sole property of the Italians. So, if you happened to be a French king obsessed with big theatrical spectacles and you wanted your very own opera composer, you’d find yourself an Italian. Giovanni Baptista Lulli (1632-1687) was hired by King Louis XIV to create regal entertainments for his majesty. And while he Frenchified his name to Jean-Baptiste Lully, he also gave the genre of opera its first serious Franco-friendly turn, using French librettos and adding in lots (and lots) of dance music, to satisfy another of the king’s obsessions.

But Lully didn’t just write operas, as a handful of recent recordings demonstrate. His employer also had need for sacred music as well as incidental music for plays. Still, operas were always at the center of Lully’s output. A curmudgeonly – even cruel – taskmaster to his orchestra, the composer died from an injury that could only have happened in his era and occupation. At the time, conductors used to bang a long wooden staff in rhythm with the music during rehearsals. Lully brought his staff down on his foot so hard that the wound became infected, killing him!

Louis XIV made Lully the music director for his an entire court, so he spent much of his time at Versailles. Appropriately, the palace in its modern, tourist-friendly form has become a center for the preservation of Lully’s music, with live performances captured on video and audio. Three such recordings have been released lately on the Château de Versailles Spectacles label.

The first, a co-release with Alpha Classics, is a collection of sacred works performed by the Millenium Orchestra, Cappella Mediterranea, and Le Choeur de Chambre de Namur, conducted by the founder of all three groups, Argentinian-born baroque specialist Leonardo García-Alarcón. Lully’s motet settings of three important liturgical texts are included here: Dies irae, De profundis, and Te Deum.

The opening section of the Te Deum text, “Te Deum laudamus,” gives a powerful indication of García-Alarcón’s understanding of the music of Louis’ court. The key to this sound is a textural and rhythmic freedom underpinned by a strict beat; think of it as a pack of hungry Doberman Pinschers on a titanium chain. You get the sense that elements of the music could tear loose at any moment, but won’t: the center will hold. (Now picture the audacious decorations and costumes of 17th-century Versailles, and you’re practically in the king’s presence.)

Besides García-Alarcón’s excellently trained instrumental and vocal groups, the director chose a top-flight cast of soloists for these motets. Among them are tenor Mathias Vidal and soprano Sophie Junker.


Part of the fun of working in early music is the chance to present little-known pieces. In 1668, Lully was commissioned by his royal boss to provide incidental music for a new play by the great Molière. George Dandin ou le Mari confondu (George Dandin or the Hoodwinked Husband) was a comedy, and Lully’s musical interludes for it simply sparkle. You can hear them in another Versailles-produced recording, this one featuring the Ensemble Marguerite Louis, under the baton of Gaétan Jarry.

Here is Virginie Thomas singing the aria “Mortelles douleurs” (Mortal Sorrows) with grace and passion, not to mention exquisite control. The orchestra’s accompaniment is sensitive and aching. And the video offers some great views of the ballroom in Versailles as well as all the baroque instruments in use.


This recording contains another fascinating work, Lully’s first collaboration with his long-time opera-writing partner, librettist Philippe Quinault. Their collaboration is credited with inventing new ways to make the French language work in operatic music. This particular piece, La grotte de Versailles (The Cave of Versailles) was a wild theatrical romp glorifying the king and allowing His Majesty a chance to dance onstage in the costume of a nymph. Louis’ court was always, shall we say, interesting.

In the section called “Chantons tous en ce jour” (We all sing this day), Jarry deftly sweeps orchestra, chorus, and soloists through Lully’s rushing musical rapids. The balance is perfect as the text celebrates just how great their king is.


The most recent collection on the Château de Versailles Spectacles label is Dies irae (Collection Grands Motets, Vol. 1). These gorgeous performances, dripping with historically accurate detail, feature the ensemble Les Epopées, a chorus and orchestra under the direction of Stéphane Fuget. Although much of the video recording of these performances is already on YouTube, the audio-only album is still awaiting release later in 2021. (Its tracks are listed on Spotify, but not yet playable.)

The recording contains several motets. You can hear the complete Dies irae live here:


Listen for the respect paid to Lully’s “vertical” harmony, meaning that chords and accented beats, as opposed to the melody, dominate the motion of the music. (It is no coincidence that the music director banged a staff on the floor during rehearsals.) The percussive sound is partly provided by harpsichord and bowing techniques. The huge orchestral chords with the chorus calling “Rex!” (“King!”) followed by silence must have created quite a stir in Louis’ court, and it does so here as well.

The rich sound in the motet “O Lachrymae fideles” blends the chorus and orchestra majestically with the soloists’ voices. Countertenors Clément Debieuvre and Cyril Auvity and tenor Marco Angioloni prove themselves skilled in early Baroque intonation, ornamentation, and rhythmic style.


Despite all the sacred and specialty works discussed above, Lully was and is most famous for his operas. A group to watch in this field is Les Talens Lyriques, under the direction of Christophe Rousset. Their most recent Lully recording is of his opera Isis, a fine companion to their recording of his Alceste from 2017. Le Coeur de Chambre de Namur provides their usual majestic sound.

Isis tells a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as do many of Lully’s operas. Juno, wife of the infamously promiscuous god Jupiter, imprisons the nymph Io for sleeping with her husband. Mercury wants to free Io, so he puts on an extravagant opera (yes, an opera within an opera) to distract Argus, who is guarding her. Trust me, the story doesn’t matter as much as the spectacle.

The whole recording, broken into tracks, is available on YouTube. Ève-Maud Hubeaux and Bénédicte Tauran, as Io and Juno, respectively, demonstrate the contrasting vocal styles Lully employed for different types of female characters. Edwin Crossley-Mercer is a thunderous Jupiter.


If you’re looking for a taste of all these genres of Lully’s music, I recommend the recent re-release by Deutsche Grammophon of the soundtrack to Le roi danse (The King Dances). This 2000 movie by Gérard Corbiau is a biopic about Lully’s life at court. The soundtrack, played primarily by Music Antiqua Köln under the direction of Reinhard Goebel, includes exceptional performances of incidental music, sacred works, and operatic scenes. Because the creation of the opera Acis et Galatée is an important part of the film, that work is included in its entirety.

But the only proper way to close is with operatic dance music, that idiosyncratic genre insisted upon by Lully’s patron. As you listen to this stately Sarabande from the opera Les plaisirs de l’île enchantée (The Pleasures of the Enchanted Island), feel free to bound onstage and cut a rug with crazy ol’ King Louis.

Issue 138

Issue 138

Issue 138

Paul McGowan