Issue 13

Welcome to the lucky thirteenth edition of Copper!

Welcome to the lucky thirteenth edition of Copper!

Bill Leebens

As is probably clear by now, we’ve decided to shake things up a bit. Our new format is designed to be more readable and more manageable. It will also allow readers to post comments directly after articles...and we’ll see how that goes. Kindly recall that “you suck!” doesn’t contribute to  stimulating, productive discourse...and I will be watching.

We’re pleased to present the first part of an incredible piece by Jason Victor Serinus, Opera 101 for those of us whose exposure to opera has never gotten beyond the thundersheets of the Decca Ring cycle. I shamefacedly admit to being part of that group, which is why we asked Jason to write for us.

Jason’s knowledge of opera is matched by his enthusiasm, and I hope that after you watch and listen to the numerous clips he’s selected, you’ll share some of that enthusiasm.  Opera is a fascinating and often beautiful medium, and doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Something else new in this issue: a contest! Read The Audio Cynic---ALL of it, not just the last paragraph!---and send us your idea of something that is unquestionably, uniquely NEW in audio. The winner will receive a PS Audio LANRover! US MSRP $599. Entries will be judged by Paul McGowan and me, all decisions are final so shut your piehole; if you don’t mention this thing on your tax return it’s on you, not us; operators are NOT waiting on your call; and yadda yadda.

Send your suggestions to Letters.

Below you’ll see a picture  taken during my recent trip to San Francisco, because to me it exemplifies this issue: a bridge from the past to the future. I hope you’ll stay with us as Copper continues to grow and improve!

Vine and Window

Vine and Window

Vine and Window

Paul McGowan

Terri and I were vacationing in France a few years ago and had stopped at a roadside vineyard for lunch. I spied this great art of old vines creeping up the side of the building, offset by the window.

Stan White: An Overlooked Visionary/Part 2

Bill Leebens

A fundamental principle of scientific enquiry was stated most famously by Carl Sagan:

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” And no, he wasn’t talking about the O.J. Simpson trial.

In writing pieces about dead folks, based largely upon material from third- and fourth-party sources, I am constantly aware of the possibility of being horribly, horribly wrong. I liken it to what is generally called “the fossil record”: as an aspiring paleontologist at age 6, I learned one set of suppositions and conclusions about the prehistoric world, based upon what had been dug up, up to that point in time. Half a century later, we’ve dug up creatures and evidence that have caused most of our understanding of prehistory to be discarded, and then rebuilt…likely to be discarded again.

Oh, well—so it goes. No one ever said history was a business for cowards.

My point is that I want to get things right, and that’s particularly difficult when little information is available. Which brings me back to my subject, Stan White. My interest was piqued by tiny ads in Audio magazine  for Stan’s “Shot Glass” speakers, 40 years ago. I subsequently discovered that Stan had a long history in hi-fi, and as it turned out, he was active in it for several decades after those ads ran.

Since last issue, I’ve learned a great deal more about Stan and his work. Part came from plain old research, including bleary-eyed reading of Stan’s numerous patents; much more came from Stan’s longtime friend and agent in Germany, Hermann Ruwwe  (Vielen Dank, Hermann!). Let’s backtrack a little, filled in with additional  info:

Stanley Fay White was born in Minnesota, ca. 1920, grew up in St. Paul. After serving as a meteorologist in the Air Force during World War II, he studied physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic in New York state, with additional studies at the University of Chicago. After the war he devoted himself to the design of electronics and speakers designed to faithfully reproduce music.


In a 1975 interview with High Fidelity Trade News (and who knew that such a mag ever existed?), White said that the invention and  use of the atomic bomb greatly influenced his worldview: “When I saw how the work of physicists was being harnessed by the military, I decided to apply my mind to creating alternative and peaceful ways of getting energy from the atom.”

The products that appeared beginning in the early ‘50’s, gave evidence of an active and wide-ranging intellect, unafraid to explore new ground …occasionally coupled with the over-the-top exuberance (a far nicer word than hype)often seen in that era (think tailfins, push-up bras, Technicolor, 3-D). There also seemed to be a bit of an obsession with celebrities, from music and the movies.

White’s  US patent # 2,866,513, filed November 24, 1952, simply headed “Apparatus for Generating Sound”, details the design and construction of variable-flare horns for loudspeakers, primarily back-loaded horns which could be curled within a cabinet behind a driver. This was “the Miracle of Multi-Flare!”, as White’s gosh-wow ads of the period put it.

Even within the hoopla there was evidence of a real physical and philosophical basis. Under the heading, “Breaking the audio sound barrier through the Miracle of Multi-Flare!”, the text read: “A New Conception of High Fidelity…Sound is a three dimensional audio vibration occurring along a time axis (a fourth dimension ). Through THE MIRACLE OF MULTI-FLARE [he just couldn’t help himself] , you can hear…for the first time…sounds reproduced as they originally occurred in their proper time sequence.”

Keep in mind that this is 20 years before time-alignment of loudspeaker drivers and linear phase response  were thought to be important—much less, mentioned in a mainstream ad. Stan White brand speakers so equipped were listed between $69.50-$1500—certainly not inexpensive in the early to mid-‘50’s, and equivalent to $625-$13,500 today.

Years later, White was still proud of his accomplishments during this period, although there were hints of both hyperbole and resignation in this email written to me in 2003: “I described room capacitance as a factor in a patent filed in 1952 [mentioned above—Ed.]. This is why my tiny Le Petite could generate 20 Hz in a corner of a reasonable sized room. Sound obeys its own laws, not the laws some say it should have. Ignorance can be a terrible thing to deal with. Creativity is not a blessing—it is a curse.”

Room-loading by loudspeakers is a topic generally thought of in conjunction with Paul Klipsch or Roy Allison—but White was clearly aware of the phenomenon, and utilized it in his mono loudspeaker designs.

The November, 1953 issue of Audio featured an article by White describing his Powrtron (sic) amplifier. A vacuum tube amp (of course), Powrtron was notable in that it featured a version of the Van Scoyoc phase inverter, was designed to have linear power response invariant of load, and included a plug-in electronic crossover that could be used with two amp sections on the same chassis. Again, this was forward-thinking stuff for the times: Marantz’s Model 3 electronic crossover didn’t appear until 1957.

The Powrtron was offered as a commercial product in 10- and 20-watt versions, without or with the crossover, respectively. The Audio article can be read here: http://www.audiofaidate.org/it/articoli/Powtron.pdf

White had two notable associations within the world of music-recording: with Duke Ellington, and with Bill Putnam. Ellington requires no introduction, and owned electronics and speakers from White. A 1954 ad shows Ellington and White at the Chicago Audio Fair under the heading, “Why I bought a Stan White Speaker”. The hipsterish text reads, “Stan White Speakers are the most! We use them exclusively in all our reproduction work.” Putnam opened  Universal Recording in Chicago after the war, and it was an early independent (non-label-affiliated) recording studio, on the leading edge of technological advances: Putnam and Les Paul are jointly credited with having invented multitrack recording. White amps in speakers were in use at Universal when Ellington and his band recorded half of the Ellington ’55 album there. (Putnam later moved to LA and founded United Recording, backed by Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. He also founded the equipment brands Universal Audio and UREI).


If you are a reader of fine print, you may have noticed “A Division of Eddie Bracken Enterprises” at the bottom of the above ad. White’s interest in Hollywood was nearly his undoing: introduced to Eddie Bracken (a vaudevillian turned comic film actor best known for roles in several Preston Sturges films, Bracken went on to have a lengthy Broadway career— I even saw him in Hello, Dolly in 1978, while on my honeymoon), White found a hi-fi fan whom he felt could both bankroll him and introduce him to Hollywood stars and give his business a boost.  

Stan ruefully recalled the association in a staccato 2003 email: “No one ever made money with Bracken. He put $5000 in, and then shortly afterwards wrote a check for cash (the $5000), and blew it at the track. He ‘loaned’ his daughter’s inlaws $100,000 and then went bankrupt for $6,000,000, almost destroying the inlaws’ business…Over his career he conned over $25,000,000 from friends and acquaintances. Had five kids.  Wife lived like a church mouse most of her life. Generosity was not a word in his vocabulary.  Psychotic as hell.

They always say that a bad business-partner is worse than a bad spouse, but the Bracken association did at least result in a bizarre ad featuring Charlton Heston and his wife stiltedly endorsing  Stan White speakers. Whether that was a blessing or a curse, who knows?

The May, 1956 issue of Audio featured another article by White, describing “Beta-Tron”, a system utilizing motional feedback from a second coil on the tweeter to the amp to reduce distortion, again using the Powrtron amp with its electronic crossover.  The system was offered as a commercial system, but apparently didn’t achieve success. The next commercial system I’m aware of that featured such a second coil/feedback set-up was the Infinity Servo-Statik of 1968, followed by more mainstream applications from Philips in the 1970’s. White’s system was unusual in that it was utilized on the tweeter, where the others used it on the woofer, for lower IM and Doppler distortion. Why White used it on the tweeter is a bit of a mystery (“that doesn’t make any sense to me at all,” said Infinity founder and Servo-Statik designer Arnie Nudell, when I described White’s servo-tweeter to him). The article can be read here (scroll down to page 28).

During 1956-‘57, White received a pair of patents  (#2,923,783, “Electro-Acoustical Transducer”and #3,046,362, “Speaker”)pertaining to the construction and configuration of speaker drivers. One describes layered cone-construction using multiple materials up to ½” in thickness, the goal being the creation of a driver which would truly behave as a piston. The other describes drivers driven by voice coils at their periphery—the goal of which was unclear. White did build a speaker with a thick-coned 15” woofer with its voice coil at the outer edge, but it’s unclear if it ever reached production. For that matter, exactly what “production” meant for the Stan White brand is unclear.

All told, White received seven patents in the US and one in Germany, all pertaining to loudspeaker design and/or construction, and they contain a number of unique ideas and features. They also tended to break new ground; his patents are referenced in patents held by AKG, B&W, Bose, Fostex, Goodmans, Harman, JBL, JL Audio, Paradigm, Pioneer, Polk, and Sony. Pretty impressive for a little guy, working alone.

After the late ‘50’s, there a number of lost years in the life and career of Stan White—at least, as far as me being able to detail his activities. White’s associate Hermann Ruwwe mentions simply, “Stan worked for Rectilinear, Avid, GE, and a number of other companies,” so presumably there was consulting work or stints as an employee.

As mentioned ‘way back at our beginning, I first encountered Stan White by way of tiny classified ads for his “Shot Glass” speakers in Audio magazine around 1975. It appears to have been a period of renewed creativity, as two more patents were  granted in 1976 (#3,961,378, “Cone Construction for Loudspeaker”, and #3,997,023, “Loudspeaker with Improved Surround”)which detailed the salient features of his “glasscone” drivers.

To clarify: the cones were not like Mom’s Pyrex baking dish; they were composed of plastics reinforced by glass fibres or micro-spheres. The patents very precisely define the construction and geometry of the ribbed, mostly-flat cone and the parabolic surround.

White continued to refine the drivers and his “Shot Glass” systems for the rest of his life, as well as developing some unique theories on the nature of matter, from the particle level to the cosmic. In the US speakers and the occasional Powrtron-based amp were sold under the White Sound brand; limited numbers of glasscone-based speakers are still made today in Germany by Ruwwe Audio.

As in the ‘50’s, White’s product blurbs were a combination of the factual and the audacious. A late-‘70’s brochure for the Shot Glass speakers says that “…our cone moves  like a chunk, rather than flapping like a bed sheet…” and  that the center cap “ …like the keystone of an arch cements the cone structure into a granitelike mass that is indestructible….”

Echoing his earlier statements about bass from small speakers, White wrote about his ‘70’s experiences at Chicago CES: “Four of my Shot Glass speakers in a 20 ft. square alignment put out 20 Hz. in McCormick Place. People thought I was Cerwin-Vega! [ the providers of speakers for the Sensurround theater systems of the ‘70’s]”

In the 1975 High Fidelity Trade News article, White discussed theories about atomic structure and a process by which synthetic diamonds could be made “big enough to make telescope lenses”. Even in emails to me in the early 2000’s, Stan mentioned “his process”, never making it clear if it had ever been put to practice. Regarding diamond circuit chips he wrote, “In my process, diamond is laid down in layers with circuits on them. The wafer can be a half inch square, vertically connected. The shortened distance increases speed.

“Silicon circuits are made by diffusion,” he wrote. “This means that if the chip gets hot, the diffusion continues and the circuits short. My diamond units are deposited: no diffusion, life very long. Diamond never melts—at 4000 degrees it turns to gas…a small unit will handle gobs of power. I like them.”

The communications I received from the then-octogenarian Stan White were an often-puzzling mix of  insights and anxiety, riddled with sad tales of abuse and lost opportunities. As with “his process” of diamond production,  I couldn’t always tell what was theory, and what had actually occurred. He produced a book on “new physics” which I found interesting but largely incomprehensible; I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to judge the work. I’m still not. He was clearly a very bright guy with some interesting ideas who had a number of accomplishments, as well as a number of disappointments.

Hermann Ruwwe wrote to me, “Stan passed away Dec. 14, 2006, he died peacefully in his sleep. He was one of a kind, old school, no gimmicks, an American hero in the audio field.”

I’m sorry Stan wasn’t better known in his homeland. A visionary and a dreamer, he clearly had a lot to offer.

Points Of Pickup

Points Of Pickup

Points Of Pickup

Haden Boardman

The point of contact between the cartridge’s generator system and the actual moving vinyl record is of course the stylus, mounted on to the cantilever. The stylus has to cope with the enormous forces thrust upon it, and stay tracking the groove. Just like every other part of a record playing system, it will impart its own mechanical vibrations and resonances upon the sound vibrations passing through it. Keeping the stylus mass small helps reduce record wear and increase fidelity.

It is not just the size, but the shape and the finish which matter. All styli are amazing works of art; the skill in making and mounting the most basic shapes is immense, and some of the more complex profiles are mind boggling.

A simple ‘spherical’ tip is somewhat frowned upon in High End circles, but if small enough and well polished, they are perfectly valid stylus types. The natural progression from a ‘spherical’ tip, is to carefully polish two sides, and make it more elliptical; usually to a ratio of 1:1.5. Lower priced ‘ellipses’ may well have a lower ratio; more expensive, a higher ratio. Even more expensive and more difficult to manufacture are the ‘line contact’; the diamond is now machined to form very sharp edges, much finer than either the spherical or elliptical types. Different manufacturers give all these quite fancy names, but the premise remains the same, a very small contact area with the vinyl record.  The most famous development of this type is worth mentioning, this was by a chap called ‘Shibata’ in Japan, it was developed to extend playback bandwidth enough resolve the 45 KHz signal required on Quadraphonic CD 4 four channel discrete records.  This wide bandwidth cannot harm stereophonic replay, either.

The last type of stylus profile was developed by the famous Dutch firm of Van den Hul: Under analysis, they concluded the best stylus profile to replay records with was one very similar to the record cutter itself, with refinements so it didn’t damage your precious records on play back. There are of course variants, and competitors such as Fritz Gyger, Paratrace, MicroLine, etc.

A ‘spherical’ stylus type has minimum contact with the groove. The more you progress through elliptical and fine line through to Shibata, the stylus sits very snug in the records groove, with the whole edge of the stylus in contact with the record groove wall.

As mentioned earlier, the stylus is mounted on to the cantilever, which transmits all of the vibrations/musical information in to the main body of the cartridge. The cantilever needs to be ultra rigid, and ultra light, most commonly it is a thin-wall metal tube, but sapphire, carbon, and other exotic materials have been used. Mounting the stylus tip is no easy thing. More budget designs simply ‘glue’ the tip in place, whereas more expensive types use ‘clasps’ not dissimilar to those used on a diamond wedding ring. Somewhere in between,  the end of the cantilever tube is formed in to a ‘flat’ and the stylus tip pierced through. It is obvious alignment is critical – and with all these microscopic procedures you can begin to appreciate why some styli and cartridges cost as much as they do!

Cartridge generators, the parts that turn the mechanical energy in to an electrical signal, are no less complicated and varied. The four main types of generator system are crystal (which are not really hifi – I am wasting no time on these) moving magnet, moving coil, and moving iron.  Moving magnet, or MM, is possibly the most common type. At one end of the cantilever is the stylus, at the other a tiny tiny magnet(s). The vibrations wiggle the magnet in front of (usually) four small coils. These four coils can be a ‘reasonable’ size and are reasonably sensitive, producing a fairly healthy output in millivolts (usually quoted between 3 and 7 mv). The coils are wired in a ‘sum and difference’ arrangement, which translate the up and down and side to side movements in to distinct left and right audio channels. For more information, check out Alan Blumlein’s classic 1930s patent and text on stereophonic sound. MM cartridges tend to be quite light and compact, and are what is classed as high compliant cartridges. They suit lower to medium mass arms.

Moving coil ( MC) switch this around: the magnet is fixed, and the coil is attached to the end of the cantilever. The coils need to be microscopically tiny; to remain low mass enough  to track a record correctly, may be only 25 turns of wire used per winding. Different armature designs vary from a cross shaped device (like an ‘X’), to winding directly in the cantilever. In most MC cartridges a fairly substantial (heavy!) magnet is fitted. This gives the advantage over a MM cartridge of saturating the coils with magnetic flux, which makes for a very linear response.

MC of course have their problems. Those coils need connecting to the back of the cartridge pins with micro fine wire (usually a continuation of the coil itself) and those tiny tiny coils are only capable of generating very very tiny outputs in micro volts, some as low as 100 uV. This places demands on the amplifier chain, and requires nothing but the finest arm cables to connect it. Moving coils weight quite a bit too. The heavier the magnet, the more linear the performance – but the higher the mass. The smaller the coil, the more linear the performance, but the lower the output.  High output moving coils exist: they literally have much larger coils, compromise exists here.

Easier for the electronics to be more linear, but a slightly less linear cartridge. Ortofon patented the stereo moving coil cartridge back in 1961. It, again, was pretty much identical to Blumlein! But through the 1960s and 1970s, you either paid Ortofon to use their patent, didn’t bother, or came up with something else. Audio Technica  came up with something else: their cartridges are based on a record cutter in reverse. With just two coils ‘on top’ of the cantilever. The current en vogue Neumann  DST uses a similar system too, but with the coils virtually ‘sat on top’ of the stylus- certainly gets around some cantilever problems!  But post-1983, when Ortofon’s patent run out, it was a free for all. And most manufacturers use a generator system pretty similar to this classic design.

London DECCA produced the most successful moving iron pick-ups. Again, there isn’t much of a cantilever, in fact there isn’t one! A ‘T’ shaped armature has the stylus at its base, and the iron inductors are placed within a set of coils above and below the iron inductor (a magnet sits on top of the entire structure). In a conventional stylus a cantilever has a critical ‘pivot point’ between the stylus and the generating system – some manufactures go for a very short cantilever, others a long one. The DECCA has none. There can be no doubt the powerful sound this gives. But it is very unkind to record, and record wear is somewhat enhanced compared to more standard methods.

There are of course variants on these themes. B&O moving micro cross (in recent years revived by Soundsmith), Technics HPC, Grado, plus some outright oddities: STAX electrostatic (more electrets!) ribbon, strain-gauge, optical….

As you can see, there are very many variables in cartridge design. Is a MM cart with a line contact stylus better than a moving coil with a spherical tip? Answers on a post card, although yours truly has always been more of a ‘coil fan! It must also be remember the smaller the stylus tip, the smaller it moves in the groove, and the smaller its output. The lower the output, the better your electronics better be!

The most important thing to consider is arm compatibility. A high mass cartridge (low compliance) needs a high mass arm; otherwise it will distort and mistrack. A low mass, high compliance cartridge will likely be ‘bottomed out’ by an arm too high mass. Sadly even manufacturers get this wrong. And with all these variables, you can see why! Once you have the right arm, its vital to align it with the record groove correctly. Not just the tracking error, but also the vertical tracking angle, or VTA. A spherical stylus is quite unfussy about this in comparison to a Shibata, which is critical. Failure to set this right will mean a very expensive Shibata will mistrack, and sound much worse than styli a quarter of its price.

Whoever said record players are easy?

Diving into Opera, and Surfacing with Joy (Part I)

Diving into Opera, and Surfacing with Joy (Part I)

Diving into Opera, and Surfacing with Joy (Part I)

Jason Victor Serinus

Perhaps I am one of those increasingly rare birds who never had to learn to love opera. When I was all of 11, my father brought home a deluxe, faux leather-bound 3-LP RCA Victor tribute album to the iconic Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso (1873-1921). When he lowered the ridiculously heavy arm of our Garrard turntable onto the deeply moving sextet from Donizetti’s opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Caruso, Galli-Curci, et. al. began to sing, I exclaimed over the six voices projected by our Bozak loudspeakers, “Daddy, I’ve heard that before!”

“Yeah, you broke it when you were 2,” was my father’s reply.

From that day forth, I spent many an afternoon playing those three Caruso LPs over and over. Verily, opera, and specifically the acoustic recordings of Caruso, Galli-Curci, and Tetrazzini singing 19th and early 20th century opera of the suffering Italian sort, was in my blood from the time I was weaned. As I became a teenager, I may have spiced my listening with Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and finally Donovan, but I always returned to Caruso.

Nor was I alone in my love of Caruso. My father, who was born and raised on Broome Street, on New York City’s Lower East Side, told me that the day Caruso died, people all over his immigrant neighborhood, in both the Jewish and Italian ghettos, brought their wind-up phonographs to their windows and played Caruso records for hours on end. Everywhere you went, all you could hear was the sound of Caruso singing his heart out.

My father also told me that when Caruso sang at the Met (New York’s Metropolitan Opera), he often tended to look up, toward the people in the balconies. All the lower income immigrant standees at the backs of the upper tiers felt that Caruso was singing, not to the rich patrons in the orchestra and boxes below, but rather to them. They loved him all the more for it, and considered him one of their own. In my own way, I did too.

But that was a century ago. For Americans raised on rock ‘n roll, country, pop, hip-hop and the like, the postures, vocal production, and overall conceit of opera may seem strange. Indeed, the carefully trained voices of opera singers are miles apart from the straight tones of pop and jazz artists.

But if operatic vocal production and convention may seem strange to some, imagine how someone from another culture might feel upon discovering, for the first time, a rock guitarist gyrating like crazy and making all kinds of mean faces while strumming and plucking strings and occasionally turning a knob or pushing a pedal. Heavy metal, hip-hop, and the like all have their own performing conventions that are no more natural than high sopranos projecting high E-flats throughout the house. I don’t want to make a big case out of this, but in what way are some of the accents that we’ve come to take for granted from pop singers any more “unnatural” than the carefully enunciated takes on language common to operatic vocalism?

Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect that most younger readers, or those who do not come from backgrounds steeped in classical music, will immediately take to opera. It is, after all, seen by many Americans – the audience I’m writing for – as a “foreign” art form, in which people in sometimes ridiculous costumes pretend to be kings and queens, heroes and heroines, or various permutations of maidens in distress and the saviors thereof. It is also true that singers sometimes awkwardly move about the stage, flailing their arms and braying like overstuffed bulls on their way to the slaughterhouse. So many of the plots are antiquated, and far too many scenarios ridiculous.

Then again, such a stereotypical description of opera is wildly outdated. A large number of modern productions of older operas attempt to update the scenarios in some way, often by transporting the setting to the 20th and even 21st century. They also tend to favor singers who can act as well as they sing, and look convincing in their roles. Sometimes those updates work, and sometimes they’re unconvincing or preposterous. Nonetheless, it sure makes things juicy when a woman whom a 19th century opera originally consigned to live out her days in a convent instead sings her final aria (song) while turning tricks on a street corner amidst a smattering of empty syringes.

Cultural Relevance

Another prevalent misunderstanding is that all operas are either in Italian, German, French, Russian, Spanish, or some other “foreign” language, and address the events of earlier periods. We now have a large catalogue of contemporary operas in English (and other languages), many of which directly speak to the most pressing issues of our time.

Thanks to recent revivals that have restored music and dialogue that was previously cut, the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (1934)

is now accepted as one of the first great American operas to deal with quintessentially American subjects. Two decades later, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah

Susannah (1955) addressed stultifying intolerance. (Benjamin Britten broached the same subject in Britain with Peter Grimes (1945)).

Gian-Carlo Menotti’s opera, The Consul (1955),

addresses issues that arise when would-be immigrants trying to flee oppressive regimes and run into bureaucratic red tape.

Closer to the present day, America’s John Adams is especially known for his politically-themed operas, among which are Nixon in China (1987),

The Death of Kinghoffer (1991),

and Doctor Atomic (2005).

Other topical English-language operas include Anthony Davis’ The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986),

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole (2011),

which follows the comic-tragic rise and fall of model Anna Nicole Smith, and an opera that first made it to New York City this spring, Daniel Schnyder’s Charlie Parker’s Yardbird [see this article and this one as well].

Jake Heggie, who has become one of America’s most successful opera composers, first made his mark with Dead Man Walking.

The opera, which by some accounts is the most frequently performed American opera today, addresses the death penalty in the most heart-wrenching, compassion-inspiring manner imaginable. Audiences are generally reduced to tears at good performances of the work. Another of Heggie’s large scale operas, Moby-Dick (2010), was a huge success. I was so moved at its San Francisco Opera premiere that I attended a second time during the run, and remain convinced of the opera’s greatness.

In the past three months, I’ve reviewed two new politically relevant operas by Americans, both of which lend themselves to fairly intimate chamber settings: the two-act version of Jake Heggie’s Out of Darkness (2016), which deals with the Holocaust – its second act specifically addresses the Nazi oppression of homosexuals – and Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers (2015?), which addresses the Lavender Scare of the McCarthy Era in which untold thousands of homosexuals discovered their governmental careers and lives wrecked by McCarthy’s anti-gay witch hunt.

What is Opera?

But perhaps I get ahead of myself. Let’s take a giant step backwards, and do a little Opera 101.

Opera is an art form that melds both sung and instrumental music with text (libretto) in a manner that is hopefully both dramatic and theatrically compelling. Merriam-Webster calls it “a drama set to music and made up of vocal pieces with orchestral accompaniment and orchestral overtures and interludes.” The Cambridge Dictionary, in turn, calls it “a formal play in which all or most of the words are sung, or this type of play generally.”

The definition of opera gets really dicey when you try to distinguish opera from musical theater of the American sort. It’s equally challenging to differentiate European and American operetta (light opera) from full-fledged operas that include spoken as well as sung dialogue (recitative). When Bizet’s ever-popular opera, Carmen, is performed complete, it includes spoken dialogue. Ditto for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).

The choice of venue also figures strongly in categorization. George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, for example, is considered musical theater in some circles because it premiered on Broadway rather than in an opera house. But when you take into consideration that it had no choice but to premiere on Broadway because its all-Black cast (then called “all-Negro cast”) was not allowed to perform in an opera house, and then examine its overall structure in unabridged form, its identity as an opera becomes clearer. Is Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd musical theater, or is it in fact an opera that got its start in a musical theater context?

Grooving on Opera

Appreciating opera takes some effort. While it’s certainly possible to play excerpts of melodic, 18th and 19th century arias in the background and be touched by their beauty, listening to a complete opera requires far more concentration. Especially if the opera is in a language you do not understand, and the libretto (story) is well thought out and complex, it can be extremely challenging to figure out why people are either singing their hearts out or laughing it up without following the libretto in print or as projected in live performance and video. As for the longer operas of Richard Wagner, or operas that are not strictly tonal, listening without following the words closely is more often than not an invitation to frustration, if not to outright futility and abandonment.

Even before I attended opera, my appreciation for opera and art song grew exponentially as I began to listen to and acquire multiple recordings of the same arias I encountered on that seminal Caruso reissue album. For the first time, I discovered that the accompaniment matters. In fact, in some cases, e.g. Wagner and Strauss, the orchestral accompaniment is as or even more crucial to the musical message as the vocal line.

I also discovered, through listening to recordings and attending live performance, that people performed the same arias very differently. Not only were their voices different, but they also sang at different tempos, and made different interpretive choices as to what words and notes they would emphasize, when to linger or speed up, etc.. Some of these choices, of course, were dictated by conductors or technical limitations, including the length of a 78 record and union rules about overtime. But just as many were determined by the individual temperaments of the singers.

What finally opened opera and art song wide for me was discovering how each voice resonated differently within my being. Some singers made beautiful sounds but left me emotionally uninvolved. Others, including singers who were technically imperfect, touched me so deeply that I went to sleep with their voices in my head, and heard them when I awoke.

For years – decades in fact – I spent hour after hour comparing voices and interpretations on my own. It was only in 1999, when I was first offered the opportunity to write a CD review, that I realized that I had spent a decent part of my teenage and adult years developing my critical listening skills by comparing recodings.

Certainly, it is not necessary to do what I did in order to love opera. Indeed, many people who have season subscriptions to opera companies, and have been attending opera for decades, have never spent time comparing interpretations. They are content with letting the beauty of the music wash over them.

For people with a taste for discovery and adventure, however, listening to the same classic Italian aria performed by sopranos Emmy Destinn, Rosa Ponselle, Claudio Muzio, Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Mirella Freni, Leontyne Price, and Anja Harteros – or, to turn to tenors, Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Jussi Björling, Giuseppe di Stefano, Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, Piotr Beczała, Josef Calleja, and Jonas Kaufmann – is to discover an oft-astonishing range of musical and emotional expression. The more deeply you explore, the more the emotional and spiritual vistas of opera can open to you.

Throughout this introduction to opera, I link to performances on YouTube. In doing so, I in no way wish to suggest that the sonically compressed files found on YouTube can convey the huge range of color and emotional that singers devote their lives to. Rather, these carefully chosen links will give you a taste of what great singing sounds like. If you’re moved by what you hear, please check out the singers who speak to you via CD, LP, or hi-res downloads.

End, part I

Jerry Garcia

WL Woodward

If you were born on August 9, 1995, you’re turning 21 today. You have earned the right to go out and get fractured with all the same friends you’ve been hammering with for years. But tonight, dagnabit, you can puke anywhere and pull the birthday card.

If you died on August 9 1995, you might be Jerry Garcia.

When Jerry was 4 he was holding a piece of firewood for his older brother wielding an axe. Older bro cut off little Jerry’s right hand middle finger. My favorite part of that story is the brother later suggested Jerry play the banjo. I was an older brother, and did my best to torture the minions below me. But that took a particularly weird absence of concern.

In 1972 I graduated high school purely by the grace of a hot young biology teacher, Ms. Sharis. From her perspective I had skipped a large number of classes and avoided or worse ruined required lab sessions. From my perspective I had friends in that class who needed help rolling joints. Public service. The problem was I had already been accepted to a state college based on some haphazard criteria like ACT’s SAT’s, and a few good years in school. But I had to graduate high school. Colleges are really sticky about that.

The last day of school and I know my one problem was talking this young woman, who had been completely clear all semester she knew my name and didn’t like it, into at least giving me a passing grade. And of course she knew exactly why I was standing in her classroom that June afternoon.

Ms. Sharis had a distracting clothing style, with tight sweaters and pumps with black hose. It was like taking biology from Katherine Ross. You’d think I’d have spent more time going to that class, but I had that whole public service thing going on. Now my immediate future required an ability to convince this woman I was worthy of grace or at least pity without staring at her chest.

I have no idea how I got out of that one. I really don’t. I could make something up but honestly it’s a blank. Anyway that fall I was a freshman at UConn, living in a dorm with a hundred other idiots who were pledged to destroy the world, starting with their roommate. On my floor was a guy who also needed help rolling joints, and had an amazing record collection. His predominant passion was the Grateful Dead.

There is a wonderful state that happens when you discover something after it has been around for a while. Like Catholicism. Wait, that’s not right. Like hearing a recording of Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert as a teen in 1968, or finding an author like a Bradbury or a Vonnegut after they’ve written most of their stories. That 1956 Ford Victoria at the church car show.

In 1972 Jerry and the Grateful Dead had already released some of their best work. Live Dead, Aoxomoxoa, Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty. I ran down that rabbit hole and had a ball. And I couldn’t keep up. A live album Europe’ 72 with the cream of their live performances in that era was followed the next year with Wake of the Flood. That album was so highly anticipated by DeadHeaddom I bought it instead of hot dogs on a whim. I brought it home and left on some errand, probably to shoplift hot dogs. Album still in the wrapper. When I got back my roommate and his girlfriend were bustin it out in his bed with Wake playing on the turntable. With some embarrassment my roommate shouts out “Dude, sorry to break that out, but this album is amazing! It’s our second time through!” His girlfriend made no move to put her clothes on. Those were the days.

Jerry was more than the Dead. He did learn to play banjo, and I wish there were videos of him playing because he was a beautiful player of three fingered banjo without a middle finger. He took up pedal steel and started New Riders of the Purple Sage with John ‘Marmaduke’ Dawson and David Nelson, dragging along Dead guys Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart. That band broke into a genre of country/folk/rock that blew up with the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Jimmy Buffet, Jackson Browne, Commander Cody, Little Feat. In that same period Jerry hooked up with David Grisman, mandolinist extraordinaire, and formed Old and In the Way, a straight ahead bluegrass band with guys like Vassar Clements on fiddle (John Hartford filled in during rehearsals) and Peter Rowan on guitar. At press their debut album in 1975 is still the top selling bluegrass album.

So one minute you’re listening to the psychedelic weirdness of Aoxomoxoa, then Casey Jones, and little surprises like Garcia playing pedal steel on Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s Teach Your Children. That’s right. Put that piece of shit song in your head (sorry, it’ll be over in a minute) and dig on that pedal solo. Yep, Jerry. Then he’s got a hit bluegrass album. All of that while he’s doing all those great Dead albums of the 70’s and early 80’s. The guy never stopped. That was the key to Jerry Garcia. He was ambitious in only one way, and that was to be better every day at whatever music he was working on.

Of course, our respect and love for Garcia certainly had a generational thing going on, where we overlooked and forgave his substance habits. It was the 60’s, then the 70’s, 80’s. We thirsted for his freedom and drank from his talent. Many believed drugs could be how to follow. As the decades ticked our generation realized the folly of THAT shit. Damn. Can’t hold a job down and we ain’t all Jerry Garcia. By the 80’s everyone had moved on. But we still listened and never forgot his beauty that had nothing to do with his personal bullshit.

Eventually Jerry’s musical powers became indirectly proportional to his happy intake. Way too early. Certainly an object lesson. But like all people larger than their skin there are many layers to those lessons. Like the wife who asks her husband if the dress makes her butt look big, you choose your take-away. Mine is the joy I’ve gotten with his songs, his solos, and his incredible crinkling smile you could almost hear.

So thank you Ms. Sharis. Thank you for sending me forward.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Bill Leebens
I freely admit that I am a nerd. Aside from music and audio, I omnivorously absorb architecture, antiquarian books, cars, and all manner of mechanical devices. When traveling alone, I have no problem indulging and pursuing those interests. Traveling to San Francisco recently with my long-suffering Significant Other on an allegedly   romantic vacation, I was still able to carve out a fair amount of time to indulge my interests, and yet  managed to keep her happy. Mostly.

I think.

South of the city, we visited the Burwells, father and son. They build retro-nuevo speakers with amazing cabinetry, solid wood horns and vintage Altec and JBL drivers. Not your standard audiophile fare, but a type of speaker I came to appreciate at old recording studios in Memphis, where Altec monitors  were generally paired with McIntosh tube amps.The Burwell’s speakers were very nice indeed— lively, dynamic, and surprisingly unobtrusive.Summer Vac 1 Burwell One of the Burwell speakers, in all its woody glory.
Leebens-2 A bunch of old Altec horns and brand new solid wood ones.
leebens-3 Vintage JBL and Altec drivers.
leebens-4 A pair of very early Altec-Lansing 515 woofers.
Sum vac 5 Overhead view of the Burwells' beautiful solid wood midrange horn.


Heading closer to the city, we visited my old friend Cookie Marenco at OTR Studios, the base of operations for Blue Coast Records and her download empire. Given Cookie’s earthy persona, her studio’s homey vibe comes as no surprise. I’ve been to a lot of studios, and OTR is  of the make-the-musicians-comfortable variety, rather than the space shuttle/clean-room/ isolation booth feel of some studios.

Sum vac 6 Cookie's mixing console at Blue Coast
Sum vac 7 Buddha, Lava Lamp, and a gold record--the perfect studio feng shui!
Sum vac 8 Cookie Marenco
On a side-trip for breakfast, Cookie pointed out the road that (eventually) leads to Neil Young’s ranch. “But he’s not there anymore,” said Cookie. “He lost it in the divorce.”
leebens-9 Neil Young's old ranch is waaaaay down that road.
That’ll teach you to fool around with actresses, Neil. Sunday in the city, meandering down Van Ness, I spied a group of incredible vintage cars in a showroom. Long-suffering SO indulgently circled the block---not easy in that part of SF---and we parked to take a look. The showroom carried no signage, and I still have no idea what the company is. Through the showroom windows we saw a treasure-trove of great old cars:
leebens-10 Type 57 Bugatti. We're not worthy.
Leebens-11 Grosser Mercedes, like Der Fuehrer used to love.
leebens-13 A swoopy, Pebble Beach-winning 1938 Talbot-Lago T150-C.
I’m sure that the value of all the cars combined was well into eight figures. Sheesh.

SO suggested a visit to the Cable Car Museum, which not only has an interesting variety of historical displays, but acts as the hub for the cable system. The cable car system was devised, not surprisingly, by a maker of wire ropes and cables. It is ingenious, if Rube  Goldberg-esque in its complexity.

I once confused cable cars with trolleys, but they’re not the same at all. Trolley Cars generally have an overhead electric line which connects to the car by way of an antennae-like feeder arm which conveys the juice to electric driving motors. Cable cars have a remote power plant with engines or motors (in SF, originally steam engines–now each line has a 500 HP GE electric motor) which drive giant  pulleys called  sheaves. The sheaves transmit force to a cable 1 ¼” in diameter which runs underground, routed by a series of pulleys, guides, and idlers. The cars are propelled by a plier-like “grip”, operated by the motorman, which actually increases or lessens the grip on the driven cable, which pulls the cable car along.

There are four separate lines in the SF cable system; all four are driven from the powerhouse at the Cable Car Museum. The longest line is nearly four miles long; the shortest, just under two miles. Think about the network of pulleys, guides and idlers required to route and change direction of  a moving cable under the city streets—it’s amazing. The technology may seem somewhat antiquated—and it is—but it works. The cable is lubricated with pine tar, which you can smell while riding the cable cars. What do they use for brakes, going down those steep hills? Blocks of pine, pressed against the wheels. You can smell them  burning when the going is tough. Two of the four cable lines, with their 500 HP motors driving 8 1/2' sheaves.
leebens-16 I wasted a lot of hours on one of these, back in high school....
Amazing stuff.


Finally, down at Fisherman’s Wharf there is an arcade rather grandly entitled Musee Mecanique, which features mechanical games and devices from the penny arcade eras. Much of it was familiar stuff for me; one piece which was very familiar indeed was an old Gottlieb Sing Along, a pinball machine I spent many hours mastering during my high school years. Even mechanical devices can generate emotional attachments!



Lawrence Schenbeck

It’s not that complicated.

Lauren Bacall said it best, in To Have and Have Not“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together . . . and blow.”

Which may be why the flute is the oldest musical instrument known to humanity. Flutes going back 40,000 years or so have been unearthed in Germany. They were carved from smallish animal bones, hollowed out and given fingerholes. Players simply blew across an opening at either end of the bone. Such “edge-blown aerophones,” common to many cultures, evolved in two varieties: side-blown or transverse (like the Western concert flute but also the Chinese dizi and Indian bansuri) and end-blown (like the Arabic ney and Japanese shakuhachi). Don’t confuse end-blown flutes with fipple flutes like the recorder and pennywhistle. They are constructed from tubes plugged at one end except for a hole you blow into. That fipple directs your breath across a built edge, making it harder not to produce an acceptable sound. You still have to put your lips together, but only to cover the fipple hole.

Why have flutes survived all these years?

For one thing, they’re easy to play. What’s more, they sound simple. My beloved CU orchestral master Abe Chavez once told me, regarding a flutist we both knew, “Larry, she’s just like her instrument: no overtones.” (I took his words to heart.)

Flutes have limited dynamic range. Their low notes don’t project well, although really high flute notes can drown out everyone else on stage. What flutes do have is that pure, folk-like sound, plus jaw-dropping facility in rapid passagework. A good flutist can tear through a whole bunch of notes faster and cleaner than any trumpet, trombone, bassoon, or marimba. Listen to recorder-player extraordinaire Kathryn Montoya ripping up some “divisions” on John Come Kiss Me Now:

(Ensemble Galilei, From Whence We Came, Sono Luminus DSL 92194)

You can do a lot with a flute. No sound better sums up a shepherd’s idle afternoon, a deep forest hidden in shadow, or fairies flitting through a Shakespeare comedy. A few Romantic and Modern composers have expanded their horizons further. Listen to the pastoral, yet somehow eery effect that four flutes—four!—can produce in Mahler’s Fourth:

That sort of creative scoring was more the exception than the rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Romantic era, ever more dedicated to heroic, singular gestures, pretty much sidelined the flute as a virtuoso solo instrument, turning instead to violins and pianos, which offered wider pitch and dynamic ranges, also more impressive timbral flexibility.

But flutists are a hardy bunch. They keep playing, keep improving flute technology and technique, keep pestering composers to write them something. Nowadays we are awash in excellent recordings of the flute repertoire. In fact, thanks to a rare alignment of the stars—BIS Records’ founding producer Robert von Bahr and the very talented Sharon Bezaly—you can more or less one-stop shop right here. (If you want downloads, you’ll be directed to von Bahr’s worthy eclassical.com. So, two stops.)

Bezaly’s dominance of the high-res flute landscape would be scandalous if she weren’t so good. Seriously, if The Times (UK) called you “God’s gift to the flute,” wouldn’t you include that in your bio? In her case, it’s not hyperbole.

Bezaly’s most recent release (BIS-1849) consists entirely of two concertos, one of which is a transcription of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto. Your response to that will depend pretty much on whether you like the original, and many people do. I found the other work, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Flute Concerto Op. 69, “Dances with the Winds,” more engaging. Bezaly gives us two versions, which is one version more than most music lovers will need. (Apparently flutists asked Rautavaara to provide a three-flute version instead of his original four-flute scoring, so he did.) They’re virtually identical. And no, three flutists are not needed. Just one Bezaly.

If you’re only getting started with flute literature, it might be better to go with Great Works for Flute and Orchestra (BIS-1679). It includes three main courses: an orchestrated version of Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano plus concertos by Carl Reinecke and Carl Nielsen. Like his Clarinet Concerto, Nielsen’s 1926 Flute Concerto is a central work of the 20th-century solo repertoire. Nielsen dramatizes the proceedings by setting the “pastoral moods” and “mild character” of the flute against cruder, more aggressive actions by other instruments. It’s very effective; Bezaly stays in character, but her energy and alertness make it clear that this particular forest sprite is no pushover.

Also in the album: Cécile Chaminade’s lovely Concertino (1902). Trust me, if you’ve ever hung around flutists, you’ve heard this one. It’s a student exam piece, commissioned by the Paris Conservatoire’s great flute teacher Paul Taffanel. Chaminade, incidentally, was one of the few women in her time fully respected as a composer.

My other favorite work here is the Poulenc Sonata. We can thank James Galway for the orchestrated accompaniment: he asked composer Lennox Berkeley, who knew Poulenc well, to try his hand at re-scoring the “entirely pianistic” original piano part. Berkeley’s restless imagination led him to solutions that sound in no way keyboard-ish. Best of all, Poulenc’s wit and melodic gifts survive, clothed now in gorgeous new colors:

Interested in the original? Get Champs Hill Records’ recent Francis Poulenc: Complete Chamber Workswhich includes an exquisite rendition of the Flute Sonata by Daniel Pailthorpe, Co-Principal Flute of the BBC SO.

Ready to go further? I like Bezaly’s 2006 Bridge Across the Pyrenees (BIS-SACD-1559), with music by Joaquín Rodrigo, Jacques Ibert, and François Borne, accompanied by conductor John Neschling and the São Paulo SO. Further still? Try Nordic Spell (BIS-1499), concertos by three Scandinavian composers, or Bezaly’s all-Mozart album (BIS-1539). It is entirely possible that Mozart was not fond of the flute, but you wouldn’t know that from hearing what’s on this album.


The Mystery Of The Making

Dan Schwartz

I never think about how mysterious the process of contemporary record making is, or was, to the people who buy those records. Which, when you think about it, is really naïve — since I devour stories about the making of records I love like a good meal.

In the early days of recording with Bill Bottrell, his studio, Toad Hall, was new, and we experimented with the spaces. There are some outtakes from the early weeks of Triage (David Baerwald’s bleak and angry rant about America in the era of grunge was released in 1992, and seems startlingly prescient today–Ed.) that were recorded with the band in the large room, and the board, the control desk, in the little room. Other than the acoustic treatments, that’s the traditional set-up. By later in the album, the situation was reversed, and that’s pretty much the way it stayed. Even when I recorded Indian music in there, the larger room was still used as the control room.

Toad Hall was initially a bank, in the very early part of the 20th century. It was part of 3 reasonably identical spaces. Bill leased two of them and started what modifications there were. I first saw it, I suppose, early in the spring of 1991. It was still just coming together. My sometimes-roommate George Newburn was the acoustic consultant — he took me out there with an instinct that Bill and I would get along. I was surprised to see my good friend Robert Newman (who had been the Motels first drummer and whom I met when we played in Terry Reid’s band) was way up on a scaffold doing a faux-finish to a concrete beam, painting it to look like wood. I remember my visit there, that Madonna had just been in (and that George was mildly and humorously obsessed with the lipstick stains on her Styrofoam coffee cup). I vaguely recall that Bill and I talked about Neil Young, and were more-or-less in agreement that he was all that was left.

Meantime, Baerwald was calling constantly, talking politics, usually late at night, and I finally encouraged him to put down on paper what he was talking about. The next morning, my phone rang at 6 AM; he said, “I’ve got your left-wing rant written”, and he read me “The Got-No-Shotgun Hydrahead Octopus Blues”.

A couple months later two things happened: Baerwald was really leaning on me to produce his album, and George told me that he had found out that Bill was producing Michael Jackson. Well, I’m no dummy — I knew A&M Records weren’t going to trust me with $300,000, and I knew they WOULD trust Bill if he was producing Michael. So I called him, and very soon after, he, Baerwald and I were having drinks in Pasadena. (OK, they were drinking).

The next night we all got together with Brian MacLeod and Gregg Arreguin, and did our first recording. Then Bill was busy recording Michael, and Baerwald and I did a little development, When we reconvened in Toad Hall, we did a couple days with Kavi Alexander’s mics and drummer David Beebe, and then a few weeks with David Kemper on drums and pianist Nicky Hopkins for a day. And when we finally started the album in earnest about 4 months after our initial recording, the cast had settled: Bill’s tenant, Kevin Gilbert, MacLeod and Arreguin— and the studio was reversed, the big room was now the control room and the small room had become the drum room. There might have been a handful of studios set up that way, or Bill may have been the first. I visited Mark Howard at Teatro, Dan Lanois’ place in Oxnard 15 years ago, and by then they were set-up that way.

It was extremely dead sounding in the drum room, no reflections, and so the prevailing ambiance became dead drums, live everything else. The only real treatments in the live room consisted of acoustic fiberglass behind half-a-dozen long drapes, and a bass trap above a floor-to-almost-ceiling bookshelf in the back of the room. The console was a mid-70s Neve, and the tape machine a Studer A800.

But the real innovation came in the form of the collective musicians’ monitoring, the headphone system. For one thing, it was powerful, a 400-watt-per-side Bryston amp. But mainly, it didn’t allow for what came to be called a “More Me” control — it was 2 channels, a stereo send, and that was it. We all heard the same thing: if I wanted more me, everybody got more me. (That encouraged us to be pretty circumspect when asking for more of ourselves). I can’t adequately describe what this did for us — in all my years of playing, this was the first time that I had an experience of playing a record AS I was making the record.

Maybe I should explain myself: in working up that point, I had been used to using headphone systems that separated, rather than unified, the players. Everybody had a feed, usually one of 3 or 4 headphone sends — or sub-mixes — from the recording desk. That’s what everybody had, and it only got worse with years, finally enabling us to literally create our own mix. On a 2006 session with Jim Keltner and a half-dozen other players, Jim took off his phones and whispered to me, “What are you listening to?” Surreptitiously, we collaborated in hearing the same things.

This is probably among the many innovations that came with multi-track recording that led us down the garden path and away from really making MUSIC. My pal Terry Manning usually recorded with no headphones at all. It’s hard to imagine, as gloriously “primitive” as the REDD desks were, that the Beatles had multiple headphone signals.

In later years, I found myself so reliant on Bill’s system that even when we used a different studio, when he really didn’t want to engineer, I would sometimes needle him until we had a reasonable facsimile of his great set-up, if he hadn’t done it yet. He once referred to his headphone system as his real innovation.

Finally, there were usually enough open mics, a Neumann U47 with a very wide field of pickup, and a couple Neumann KM-54 or Schoeps small-diaphragm tube mics, to give us all a sense of being in the room — even through standard-issue AKG 240s.

As the record went on, things became more and more tense between David and I, culminating in us arguing in the “drum room”, away from prying mics, in which he said that I “took the lid off his anger” by encouraging him to write about what he was always talking about. I replied that I didn’t have to believe him to believe it was right for him to say what the album was saying.

Of course, after 25 years, it’s obvious that everything that he, and we, said on that album was utterly true.

Next issue: thoughts on Triage.

Letting Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story

Letting Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story

Letting Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story

Bill Leebens

If the internet is good for nothing else, it’s great at destroying a good story by providing factual evidence to the contrary. The flip side is that by widely and instantaneously distributing falsehoods, it’s also excellent at spreading nonsense.

Jim Smith discussed the latter in issue #12, in his discussion of things we KNOW are true… but just ain’t so (“The ACK Attack and Uncommon Knowledge ). In this column, I want to look at the former, in a very specific case.

Most of us are hugely patronizing and unremittingly arrogant when it comes to viewing the past. “Oh, look at how much smarter we are now,” we think. A classic example of a tsk-tsk-producing comment is one we’ve all heard a million times: In 1899, the US Commissioner of Patents, Charles H. Duell, was alleged to have said, “everything that can be invented has been invented.”

Only one problem: he never said it. The quote appears to have originated in the humor magazine Punch in 1899, where the statement was made as a joke. Imagine a flippant quote from The Onion turning up in 2133, being taken seriously by historians: that’s about the same.

“So, Leebs,” you may ask, “what’s your point?”

My point is that it’s often easy to adopt the attitude of that quote, or of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”  And the reason it’s easy to adopt that attitude, especially in mature technical fields like audio, is that there seem to be few fundamental breakthroughs. The advances we see are primarily rehashes of old findings, adapted to new technology or simplified for automated mass production.

In other words: ho-hum.

Diligent readers of Vintage Whine know that the moving coil loudspeaker dates back a century with Jensen, and that needles tracing grooves go back 140 years to Edison. Amplifiers? Also nearly a century old. Microphones? Basically the phonograph, in reverse, and just about every technology imaginable has been utilized—I’ve even read of using a small sample of radioactive material, whose emissions through air would be modulated by soundwaves, and would thus able to produce an output signal. Voila”! A mic!

So what is there in audio these days that’s really new? Diamond-dome drivers? Advances in materials science applied to Edgar Villchur’s 1958 patent. Plasma speakers? Siegfried Klein wrote about ionic drivers in the early ‘50’s, and the singing arc was known in the 19th century.

What about digital audio? Binary representation of data goes back to the 19th century, and PCM goes back to 1937, with Reeves in the UK. Class D amplification? Pretty much every type of circuit and power supply that you can think of were explored by the end of World War II, if not earlier.

Certainly, not everything that can be invented, has been invented. And yet: try to come up with something in audio that is truly new, and not just an advance in materials science, or a repackaging of old ideas.

Let me hear from you: what is there in audio that is really, really NEW?

Best answer gets a free PS Audio LANRover USB Transporter, MSRP $599 US. Paul McGowan and I will judge the responses, and our decision will be final, no whining allowed. If you win and the prize shows up on Audiogon, we will hunt you down and kill you. (Seriously. I am so not kidding.)

Tell us what you think! Give it a shot! Send us an email here.

Issue 13

Issue 13

Issue 13

Bob DAmico

Conversion Conversation

Conversion Conversation

Conversion Conversation

Richard Murison

Today’s DACs, with a few very rare (and expensive) exceptions, all use a process called Sigma Delta Modulation (SDM, sometimes also written DSM) to generate their output signal.  A simplistic way to look at SDM DACs is to visualize them as up-converting (or ‘upsampling’) their output to a massively high frequency – sometimes 64, 128 or 256 times 44.1kHz, but often higher than that – and taking advantage of the ability to use a more benign analog filter at the output.  In fact the bit depth is also reduced (usually to 1–3 bits) in order to simplify the process of digital-to-analog conversion at ultra-high bit rates.  That is a bit of an over-simplification, but for the purposes of the point I am trying to make today, it is good enough.

Doing such high-order up-conversion utilizes a great deal of processing power, and the provision of that processing power adds cost.  Additionally, the manufacturers of the most commonly used DAC chipsets give away very little about their internal architectures, and don’t disclose the most significant details behind their approaches.  Many DAC manufacturers are therefore quite coy about how their product functions, and this coyness is often expressed through cavalier usage of the terms ‘upsampling’ and ‘oversampling’.  Many of those manufacturers employ DAC chipsets with prodigious on-chip DSP capability (such as the well-known and widely used ESS Sabre 9018), and then fail to make full use of it in their implementations.

Let’s consider a hypothetical example.  We’ll take a 44.1kHz audio stream that our DAC chip needs to upsample by a factor of 64 to 2.88MHz, before passing it through its SDM.  The best way to do this would be using a no-holds-barred high-performance Sample Rate Converter (SRC).  However, there are some quite simple alternatives, the simplest of which would be to just repeat each of the original 44.1kHz samples 64 times until the next sample comes along (a process sometimes called a zero-order hold).  What this does is to encode the “stairstep” representation of digital audio we often have in mind, in fine detail.  (Personally, I would refer to this as oversampling rather than upsampling, but marketing types don’t tend to listen to engineers!)

If we are going to use this approach, though, it comes with consequences.  As mentioned, it results in the accurate recreation of the stairstep waveform at the output of the DAC.  The effect of this stairstep is to add additional distortion frequencies to the analog output waveform.  Fortunately, these distortions will all be at frequencies above 22.05kHz, where no original audio data was encoded in the first place.  The analog output filter will therefore require a brick-wall response to strip them out, which means that it is not so ‘benign’ any more.

So, instead of our DAC applying a zero-order hold to the incoming 44.1kHz waveform, suppose it uses a high quality Sample Rate Conversion (SRC) algorithm to properly upsample it.  Such algorithms incorporate digital filters to filter out the alias signals which are encoded above the Nyquist frequency of the incoming audio stream.  The result is a clean signal that we can pass into the SDM, and which will be precisely regenerated, without any stairstep, at the DAC’s output.  A good upsampling algorithm will exhibit essentially no ultrasonic residue, so we no longer need an aggressive, sonically worrisome, analog brick-wall filter.

Let’s take another look at these two scenarios.  The first needed an aggressive analog brick-wall filter at the output, but the other in effect had the same brick-wall filter implemented digitally at an intermediate processing stage.  If the two sound at all different, it can only be because the two filters sound different.  Is this possible?  In fact, yes it is.  An analog filter has sonic characteristics that derive from both its design, and from the sonic characteristics of the components from which it is constructed.  The digital equivalent – if properly implemented – only has sonic consequences arising from its design.  There is a further point, which is that digital filters can be designed to have certain characteristics which their analog counterparts cannot, but I’m not going into that here.  The bottom line is that, if properly designed, a diligent DAC designer ought to be able to achieve better sound with this ‘upsampling’ approach than with the previously discussed ‘oversampling’ approach (again, I must emphasize this is MY usage of those terminologies, which is not necessarily everybody else’s).

Using the ‘upsampling’ approach I have just described, it should make little difference whether you send your music to the DAC at its native sample rate, or if you choose to upsample it first using your playback software’s built-in upsampler.  However, that assumes that the upsampling algorithm used by the DAC is at least as good as the one used by your software.  There is no guarantee that this will be so, but to be fair, most half-decent modern DACs do employ sophisticated upsamplers.  If your playback software gives you a choice of upsampling algorithms then you can sometimes get to hear this for yourself.  A few years back, specialist algorithms such as Izotope were very popular for this purpose.

The bottom line here is that if your DAC is any good, you should expect it to sound better (or at least as good) with your music sent to it at its native sample rate than with it upsampled by your playback software – even if you are using Izotope or something similar.  If it doesn’t, the difference is probably down to whose upsampling implementation is better.  For some time now it has seemed to me that a good measure of a quality DAC is that it sounds better – or at least as good – with no upsampling applied by the playback software. (FWIW, This is how I use my own PS Audio DirectStream DAC.)