Issue 151

Issue 151

Issue 151

Frank Doris

Happy holidays, everyone. We at Copper wish all of you the very best. The past couple of seasons have obviously been tough on everyone, but we also have plenty to be thankful for.

Show us your vintage, and maybe not-so-vintage gear! In the more than two years of doing Copper’s Audio Anthropology column, I’ve been surprised at how little photographic documentation exists for many audio components. If you have interesting gear and would like to share it with us, please send photos to frank@psaudio.com.

In this issue: Tom Methans pays tribute to the great Stephen Sondheim. Wayne Robins reviews Adele’s new 30 album. Anne E. Johnson finds great music from soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom and respects the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. J.I. Agnew begins a new series, Around the World in 80 Lathes, of the record-cutting variety, that is. Harris Fogel has a lot more photos from Capital Audiofest 2021. Unusual record covers? Rich Isaacs has them, well, covered. I ask: just what makes music good or bad, and offer some mini-reviews, for better or worse. Ken Kessler has another installment in his reel-to-reel tape series. Ray Chelstowski covers Eric Clapton’s new album, done during the lockdown.

John Seetoo begins his coverage of the AES (Audio Engineering Society) Fall 2021 virtual show. WL Woodward asks: is rock and roll missing in action? Ivan Berger considers the knob with the misleading name. (It’s the Loudness control.) Andy Schaub revisits audiophile heaven. Rudy Radelic continues his deep dive into the music of Burt Bacharach. Russ Welton offers part two of his look at getting an ideal blend between speakers and subwoofers. B. Jan Montana continues his epic journey. Jack Flory goes to shop class. We round out the issue with some music therapy, easy listening, a Magic Brain, and an artistic nightingale.

Staff Writers:

J.I. Agnew, Ray Chelstowski, Cliff Chenfeld, Jay Jay French, Tom Gibbs, Roy Hall, Rich Isaacs, Anne E. Johnson, Don Kaplan, Ken Kessler, Don Lindich, Stuart Marvin, Tom Methans, B. Jan Montana, Rudy Radelic, Tim Riley, Wayne Robins, Ken Sander, John Seetoo, Dan Schwartz, Russ Welton, WL Woodward, Adrian Wu

Contributing Editors:
Ivan Berger, Steven Bryan Bieler, Jack Flory, Harris Fogel, Robert Heiblim, Steve Kindig, Ed Kwok, Alón Sagee, Andy Schaub, David Snyder, Bob Wood

“Cartoon Bob” D’Amico

James Whitworth, Peter Xeni

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

Audio Anthropology Photos:
Howard Kneller, Steve Rowell

Frank Doris

Paul McGowan

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

 – FD

AES Show Fall 2021 Highlights, Part One

AES Show Fall 2021 Highlights, Part One

AES Show Fall 2021 Highlights, Part One

John Seetoo

As 2021 entered the fourth quarter, the Audio Engineering Society (AES) held its annual fall show online in October, because of the pandemic still being in effect. Thankfully, the show seminars and interviews were recorded for on demand viewing, so once again, attendees could still attend virtually, and reporters and others could cover the show. While AES is still adding videos as of press time, here are some selected highlights that are available to registered users:

The Soul of the Machine: Do Electronic Instruments Have a Personality?

Some of the most iconic sounds of the 1980s were not guitars, but synthesizers and drum machines. While the late Eddie Van Halen is one of the most revered guitar players of the modern era, Van Halen’s “Jump” was the band’s biggest single, driven by Eddie playing the Oberheim OBX-a synthesizer. The song’s introductory riff is so immediately recognizable that now, other synthesizer brands that emulate a similar-sounding program usually label the preset as “Jump.”

Peter Gabriel’s So is his biggest-selling album, and featured a number of classic songs such as “Sledgehammer,” “Big Time,” “Red Rain,” and “Don’t Give Up.” Much of the sound of So was created with the now-classic Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer, which was one of the first analog synthesizers to be able to digitally recall programmed patches and store them as presets.

The more recent advent of digital modeling of guitar sounds, which are at the point where they can rival those created by the beloved amps and guitars designed in the 1950s and pedals from the 1960s, as well as present-day guitar and amp sounds, has sparked an ongoing analog vs. digital debate regarding the use of these devices. (Sound familiar?) Strangely enough, the camps are not solely generational. For example, relatively new bands like Rival Sons embrace old-school analog, with guitarist Scott Holiday reveling in his Orange tube amp stacks and fuzz pedals, while prog rock pioneer Steve Howe of Yes became an early convert to Line 6 modeling amps and has played them for decades. He even used an often-derided beginner model Line 6 Spider series amplifier for every track on the latest Yes release, The Quest.

The Soul of the Machine: Do Electronic Instruments Have a Personality? offered an interesting discussion with some of the architects of these and other synthesizers, devices and sounds. The panelists included Dave Smith, founder of Sequential Circuits; Marcus Ryle, a co-founder of Line 6 and former Oberheim synthesizer designer; and Jennifer Hruska, who was involved in the creation of the Akai MPC Renaissance MIDI controller favored by hip-hop artists, as well as the Solina Redux software (a hybrid combination of the ARP Solina String Ensemble with a sequencer and analog synth) and other products.

Dave Smith and Jennifer Hruska at AES Fall 2021. Dave Smith and Jennifer Hruska at AES Fall 2021.

Along with Michael Bierylo, Chairman of Electronic Production and Design at Berklee College of Music, the participants gave a number of fascinating perspectives on the development of electronic instruments, analog and digital technologies, and how electronic instruments can assume musical and tonal personalities much like their guitar and keyboard analog cousins.

Dave Smith noted that polyphonic synthesizers in the early 1980s were initially sought for their emulative qualities in recreating orchestral strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion. He cited how the digital Yamaha DX7 and Korg M1, featuring actual instrument samples, assumed market dominance. The re-emergence of the current popularity of analog synths has as much to do with the music and the sounds of the era standing the test of time as a retrospective appreciation for the intrinsic sounds of the instruments themselves.

Marcus Ryle took the notion a step further, explaining how the Hammond organ and even pipe organs were originally designed as “early synthesizers,” with the concept of emulating certain timbres from other instruments, such as flutes or trumpets.

Jennifer Hruska concurred, citing how modular systems (synthesizers comprised of separate electronics modules rather than built into an all-in-one keyboard configuration) have also experienced a renaissance of sorts, with musicians and producers now actively seeking specific analog-type sounds for their own qualities rather than looking for emulations of other instruments.

The tactile aspects of playing actual keys, turning knobs and pushing buttons and switches also has an appeal to the creative spark that many might feel is missing from using a mouse and manipulating software on a computer screen.

Conversely, all of the participants agreed that software is wonderful for obtaining sounds that would be economically or physically unfeasible to get in the real world, such as the Notre Dame pipe organ or a vintage Bösendorfer grand piano.

Marcus Ryle even explored the notion that software synthesizers could also have a “soul,” based on the level of expertise of the programmer. He posited that it was possible that a truly creative programmer could create a plug-in (a software sound or effect) with all of the character and interactive qualities of an analog synthesizer, and make the difference almost indistinguishable. Perhaps his success with Line 6 and their guitar amps and Helix modelers has informed this point of view, which definitely sends the debate into a gray area. He did note that programmers tend to write software based on how analog synths sound when notes are triggered, but don’t tend to take into account the way the sound may change when notes are held for a longer period, which can be a shortcoming of current plug-ins.

Recalling their respective moments of validation as creators of new musical instruments, Smith cited the 1978 NAMM show, where artists like David Bowie and numerous others all were sufficiently wowed by the Prophet-5’s first public demonstration that they ordered units for themselves that same day. Ryle related Tom Oberheim’s revelation that while Oberheim was aware of all of the sounds that could be made on his synths, it wasn’t until he heard Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul use them on “Birdland” that he experienced a true comprehension of what he had achieved.

A reissue of the classic Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer. A reissue of the classic Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 synthesizer.



Reminiscing on the rivalry between Prophet-5 and Oberheim fans, that in many ways parallel the ongoing guitar debate between the merits of Gibson vs. Fender electric guitars, both Ryle and Smith humorously noted that today’s musicians are open to buying both, and acknowledged that the virtual-instrument software versions make the likelihood even more affordable. As long as these instruments can offer such a wide palette of sound choices, artists will find something in them in which to create music.

The panelists also lamented a didactic attitude from purists who don’t care as much about how the instruments sound as much as whether they have only pure analog circuitry, with no digital elements intruding into the signal path.

Sound System Optimization: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Something that all live sound-loving Copper readers could probably appreciate, Sound System Optimization: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, was hosted by Bob McCarthy. The workshop was designed for those under time pressure and with less than optimum equipment and resources to achieve the best sound possible from a sound system, whether one has two days, two hours, or two minutes. The session considered situations in the theatrical, fixed-installation, and touring worlds, as well as what is involved with setting up in spaces with less-than-optimal acoustics. The participants, all engineers with practical experience, included Carolina Anton (freelance), Michael Lawrence (Rational Acoustics), Jessica Paz (freelance, Tony award winner for Hadestown), Finlay Watt (freelance), and Jim Yakabuski (Yak Sound).

The 90-minute presentation began with a historic overview of hardware, ranging from Koenig’s phonautograph (an early wax cylinder recorder), to the Shure Unidyne SM545 mic (popular in the 1970s), and early real-time frequency analyzers., McCarthy illustrated how far sound system optimization has developed by recalling his own history:

  • Shure 545 SD or SM58 mics were used for everything, including vocals and instruments, until later in the 1980s.
  • Speakers were stacked to achieve the required volume, and greater care was taken over making sure they didn’t topple over more than how they sounded.
  • Everyone would painstakingly check cabling and crossovers, only to listen to how the system sounded using a mono cassette player!

Early time alignment was conducted by physically moving speakers closer or further from the edge of a stage, and then the resulting sound was measured on an oscilloscope. Linear analysis of frequency response during the 1980s was a seven-step process when using a SIM System I (SIM stands for Source Independent Measurement; the device was created by Meyer Sound), and one would have a paper printout roll of the waveform. McCarthy noted that a 1990s SIM calibration test system that previously sat in a 600-pound rolling rack (and used a $1,100, 1 MB memory card) is now software that can be run on a laptop.


From Bob McCarthy's historic overview slide of SIM Systems. From Bob McCarthy's historic overview slide of SIM Systems.


Live sound system optimization has the goals of uniform coverage throughout the space, along with maximum SPL capability with a minimum of phase variance. In addition, latency and loudspeaker time-delay need to be dealt with. A variety of considerations are interrelated, yet need to be addressed by category:

Loudspeakers: factors include placement, the speakers’ coverage angle, setting crossover points, and aiming and spacing the speakers.

Outboard Electronics: EQ, compression, delay and other outboard electronics must be properly used to optimize the performance of the loudspeakers.

Acoustic Modification: this involves the use of baffles, drapes or other physical materials to change the sound in a room.

Yakabuski and Lawrence shared their similar methodology of measuring the sound at the front of house) mixing position in order to pinpoint any setup errors early on, such as mis-wired cabling or an out-of-phase speaker cab within an array. Paz noted that it was important to time-align the speakers first (starting with the subwoofers) before doing any EQ or other processing; otherwise, there was a high likelihood that all of the work in initially tweaking the sound would need to be scrapped if the system had latency, phase, or other issues.

Anton mentioned that she often uses multiple mics, measuring platforms like SMAART, and a variety of audio processors when tuning post-production studios. She prefers to measure the acoustic properties of a live venue (with no sound system installed) first, since the genre of music often will force certain sound design choices. A Placido Domingo concert will require a more nuanced system than a hip-hop or DJ event where sheer amplifier power is the dominant consideration.

Carolina Anton. Carolina Anton.

One tip that Michael Lawrence offered was that they should have ballpark expectations for how a system would measure, so that if something fell notably outside those parameters, they’d know to deal with the issue immediately. He’d learned from experience in tuning a sound system for West Side Story that it’s important for the sound engineers to actually get an audience perspective of the sound in each different area of a venue, since measurements can sometimes give a false sense of what the audience is actually hearing. This is even more critical in the case of outdoor sound systems, where audience size, weather, and other elements can affect the sound.

Additionally, some sound systems have practical considerations that may override achieving optimum audio quality. Lawrence amusingly cited the example of a system he designed in a college that purposely needed to have one speaker pointed oddly in a different direction. The reason was so the sound could be heard by the Dean in her office. It was a mandatory requirement that was actually written into the contract.


Michael Lawrence. Michael Lawrence.

McCarthy pointed out that today’s sound systems are considerably more complex due to the advent of digital technology, where any number of parameters can be adjusted with a few strokes on an iPad. However, this makes it more difficult to determine if, say, a speaker might not be working because of being blown or miswired, or if it was simply shut off accidentally.

As system engineers, Lawrence and Yakabuski both aim for a balanced and flat sound from the main left and right speaker arrays at the front of house (mixing) position, with a +/- 2 dB differential between the main and ancillary zones and not more than +6 dB of additional level from the subwoofers. In that way, a mix engineer will have a fairly clean canvas upon which to work. The exceptions are live sound for hip-hop or EDM (electronic dance music), where mix engineers may want the low end to be boosted as much as 18 dB to deliver extra low-frequency energy for these music genres, with less emphasis on an even overall balance.

For theaters, Paz said she prefers a relatively flat frequency response, but rolls off 3 dB on the high and low ends, and as much as 6 dB if the house has excessive reverberation.

Jessica Paz. Jessica Paz.

Yakabuski, who also engineers frequently for corporate clients, will use an extremely flat response, so that tweaking the individual lavalier mics often used at these types of events is easier to accomplish on the fly. He will add back some low end on some playback tracks to make them sound “bigger,” which, as he notes, usually makes for a contented client. He has certain ballpark frequency curve templates for corporate, rock, and hip-hop projects and venues. Outdoor festivals, he says, pose different challenges. System engineers (the ones who set up the sound system) who tailor the frequency curve for a particular music genre need to communicate clearly to the mix engineers as to what degree of deviance from a flat response the system has been tuned to, and as early as possible before the event begins.

Anton, who works frequently in Mexico City, says she has often found herself in a situation where, because of her previous work with certain artists, she has had to check the work of a systems engineer who may have left the premises hours earlier, in order to gauge what the system’s frequency response curve has been set to, and whether or not the system can cleanly handle the demands of those artists’ music. As a result, she often has to formulate workarounds for the FOH mix engineer in advance, as there is usually insufficient time to do a full soundcheck, so her depth of experience is crucial.

Finlay Watt’s experience with sound system rentals in the UK has given him a wide mix of experiences. He tries to communicate in advance with the designated mix engineer to get an idea of the engineer’s preferences, in order to customize a system as close as possible to his or her taste during the system-tuning phase.

McCarthy is often hired to design permanent installations, and he estimates that 80 percent of the time is spent on determining proper speaker placement in order to attain optimum audio fidelity. He has an interesting technique of creating a line array of microphones that corresponds with the hung speaker arrays, and then works to get the performance of the speakers to match what he hears from the mics.

Given her specialty in theater sound, Paz advised calibrating all the microphones that will be used in measuring a venue, since she uses 15 mics on average when configuring a system setup. Sometimes, variances in even the same brand and model of mic can often be too wide to make them acceptable for use in these situations.

Anton also cited that live sound has no fixed rules, because each location has different obstacles to be overcome, whereas in studio sound design, there are very specific rules that need to be observed. In designing setups for smaller spaces and venues, Watt routinely will re-use his own reference tones, which enable him to more easily factor in the effects of the reflective surfaces often encountered in smaller spaces.  Then, he’ll use a piano and vocals to tune the system for the room, and then adjust for live drums, if needed. As smaller spaces often have considerable amounts of reflective concrete and glass, the primary goal is to achieve maximum clarity with these elements, which may be harder to EQ later on when mixing for an audience.

McCarthy half-jokingly offered the adage, “Never underestimate the power of a Twin Reverb (an extremely loud Fender guitar amp) to destroy [the fill from a speaker].” Electric guitar sound pressure levels are often the hardest to deal with, when the players insist on using ear-shattering stacks of 100-watt amps in small venues where a 15-watt combo would be more than enough.

While mix engineers depend on such devices, system setup engineers find that EQ and outboard processing (such as compression and reverb) are actually the weakest tools in their arsenal, as “you can’t EQ your way out of poor speaker placement.” All the participants on the panel still use their tried-and-true reference music tracks which they are thoroughly familiar with in order to tune specific parts of the frequency spectrum, although they’ll use pink noise for initial system measurements.

Part Two will feature coverage of a presentation on stereo panning, a keynote speech by Grammy award-winning record producer Peter Asher, and an analytic look at low frequencies.

Words and Music by Stephen Sondheim

Words and Music by Stephen Sondheim

Words and Music by Stephen Sondheim

Tom Methans

Readers don’t necessarily rely on Copper for theatrical news, but there is a good reason why the recent passing of Stephen Sondheim (1930 – 2021) should matter to anyone interested in music: he is an integral part of American songwriting. Although Broadway cast albums rarely get the same treatment we audiophiles lavish on other recordings, Sondheim’s massive oeuvre is covered by hundreds of our favorite artists. You might think otherwise, but I guarantee everyone knows one Sondheim tune, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music (1973). It was brought to prominence by Bobby Short and then covered by Sarah Vaughn, Barbara Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins, Shirley Bassey, Patti Labelle, Cher, Judi Dench, Peter Criss (KISS), and about 350 others. And if that isn’t mainstream enough, it was even performed by Dan Castellaneta as Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons.


As Sondheim reminds us in Six by Sondheim, a 2013 HBO documentary about six of his greatest songs, most popular music before rock and roll came from scripted live shows and Hollywood films. He is a product of both – stretching back to the original masters of song-crafting.

Let’s start in the murky past before the turn of the 20th century when downtown vaudeville and variety shows dominated theatre. As New York music publishing houses moved uptown from Union Square to Tin Pan Alley on 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, entertainers followed. Set among the Garment District’s furrier houses displaying pelts, coats, and stoles, publishers employed musicians as “song pluggers,” selling sheet music by performing live for customers on rickety clangy upright pianos (the name Tin Pan Alley came from a newspaperman characterizing the sound of people in the building banging on pianos). Notable lyricists and composers came out of that tradition, including Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, George M. Cohan, Oscar Hammerstein II, and many others who contributed to the development of theatre and movies as we know them.

To place Sondheim within this context, consider these three easy-to-remember eras of theatre while imagining black and white photo images of men, primarily, in shirt sleeves smoking cigarettes, banging on typewriter and piano keys, and scrambling to come up with the next big hit. Naturally, the timeframes are not intended to be exact, and the lists of performers and shows are not exhaustive.

1920 – 1940

This is the age of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, a prolific team until Hart’s death in 1943. Unless you’re a theatre enthusiast, their 1920s shows might not be familiar, but fans of crooners and jazz standards will undoubtedly recognize the songs from the 1930s:

“Isn’t it Romantic?” (1932)
“Blue Moon” (1934)
“My Funny Valentine” (1937)
“The Lady is a Tramp” (1937)

1940 – 1960

This era’s biggest hitmakers were Richard Rodgers (the same who collaborated with Lorenz Hart) and Oscar Hammerstein II, whose shows are recognizable to multiple generations.

Oklahoma! (1943)
South Pacific (1949)
The King and I (1951)
The Sound of Music (1959)

During the early 1940s, Sondheim became close friends with Oscar Hammerstein’s son, James. Due to his parents’ divorce and strained relationship with his mother, Sondheim spent so much time with the Hammersteins that they became his surrogate family. Oscar was also a teacher and musical mentor who essentially put 15-year-old Sondheim through Broadway boot camp in a single day as Hammerstein professionally critiqued “Stevie’s” high school play, By George! as “The worst thing I ever read.”

In the 1950s, classical composer Leonard Bernstein turned his attention to theatre and wrote the music for Peter Pan (1950) and Wonderful Town (1953). Bernstein’s most significant hit was a collaboration among bookwright Arthur Laurents, director Jerome Robbins, and a 25-year-old lyricist named Stephen Sondheim, on West Side Story (1957).

1960 – 2021

For the next 60 years, nearly every show on Broadway was a product of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jerome Robbins, Harold (Hal) Prince (1928 – 2019), and Stephen Sondheim, or a collaboration of Prince and Sondheim on some of the pair’s most memorable shows:

Company (1970)
Follies (1971)
A Little Night Music (1973)
Pacific Overtures (1976)
Sweeney Todd (1979)

In 1981, Sondheim and Prince staged Merrily We Roll Along, an adaptation of George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1934 play, which was panned by the critics and closed after sixteen shows, ending Sondheim and Prince’s partnership. Nevertheless, the cast album and worldwide revivals have made it a staple of theatre majors and young performers to this day. It was a setback and disappointment for Sondheim, but future collaborator James Lapine convinced him to begin a new Off-Broadway project, Sunday in the Park with George, with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. After rehearsals at the Laurie Beechman Theatre and a 25-show run at Playwrights Horizons on 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, Sunday moved to the Booth Theatre in 1984, where it ran for 604 performances. After Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim would do just four more shows, but his legacy was cemented.


It’s rare for a living person to get a theatre named after them, but on March 22, 2010, Sondheim’s 80 birthday, Henry Miller’s Theatre on 43rd Street was renamed The Stephen Sondheim Theatre. At age 91 and after a year and a half of COVID lockdowns, Sondheim was back in his rightful place in early November of 2021, attended not one but two of his revivals: Assassins (1990), a story of America’s political complexities, and Company (1970), an account of marital complexities. He died shortly thereafter on November 26, 2021 at his home in Connecticut.

Stephen Sondheim Theatre, New York. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/ajay_suresh. Stephen Sondheim Theatre, New York. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/ajay_suresh.

Naturally, there were numerous tributes, and kind words followed, but Stephen Sondheim’s send-off was different. He seemed to belong more to the fans, actors, writers, and musicians, and less to the industry. Online theatre forums overflowed with messages of heartfelt adoration and grief. Theatre lovers jammed into Greenwich Village piano bars to sing the standards long into the night. Others sang along at home with worn out show albums, while cast members from current Broadway shows gathered in Times Square to sing “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George.


Sondheim wrote with honesty, passion, and love, and that’s what connected with people. He did not strive for happy fluff but rather challenged us with the human condition with all its joy, sadness, and disappointment. As a life-long admirer of his own teachers and mentors, Sondheim also taught his students how to sing, write, communicate, hear, and see. Some successful artists can be selfish about sharing their craft, but Sondheim loved to nurture new talent such as future Broadway stars Jonathan Larson (1960 – 1996), the co-creator of Rent (1996), Lin-Manuel Miranda, and even Richard Rodgers’ grandson, Adam Guettel, a composer and lyricist.

He also taught by example: that not every play should or can be a hit; muses cannot replace hard work; money doesn’t mean success and vice versa; and some works take years to mature and be rediscovered with fresh eyes and ears. When Arthur Laurents, bookwright of West Side Story, was ready to revive and revise the show in 2009, he and Sondheim worked with Lin-Manuel Miranda to culturally update the staging. In a fitting homage to the play, more Spanish-speaking and Spanish-singing actors were cast in the roles. Sondheim also worked with Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner on the latest, more diverse, film version of West Side Story, which premiered at Lincoln Center on November 29, 2021. Thirty percent of the new dialogue is in Spanish.

After influencing three generations, it remains to be seen who the next legend to continue the tradition of Hammerstein, Bernstein, Sondheim, and all the others who fill our lives with music, drama, and song will be. At 41 years of age, Miranda is certainly a contender, but the possibility of the next great collaboration exists whenever young people get together and say, “Hey, let’s put on a show!” Or, maybe there’s a future Sondheim in some young kid who’s unearthed their grandparents’ cast albums and finds themselves riding the subway  humming,


“…Walking off my tired feet.
Pounding Forty-Second Street
To be in a show.
Broadway Baby,
Learning how to sing and dance,
Waiting for that one big chance
To be in a show.
I’m a Broadway Baby,
Slaving at the five-and-ten,
Dreaming of the great day when
I’ll be in a show.

“Broadway Baby”
Follies (1971)


Header image: Stephen Sondheim in 1976.

The Knob With the Misleading Name

The Knob With the Misleading Name

The Knob With the Misleading Name

Ivan Berger

Component audio systems were still comparatively rare when my college roommates and I put one together (see my article in Issue 149), but there was at least one other in our dormitory. Two flights below us, my friend Skip had a simple mono system consisting of a big Klipschorn, a 10-watt integrated amp, and a turntable (possibly a 45-only changer like my first turntable). 

I was still new to audio components, so I took a close look at the amp’s control panel. it had a source selector switch of course, plus bass and treble controls, a volume knob, and another labeled “Loudness.” Volume and loudness? Weren’t those both the same thing?

Skip’s explanation, if he gave one, went right over my audio-newbie head. But I do recall him saying that it added bass.

But why, if there was already a bass control? “Well,” said Skip, “I like a lot of bass. That’s why I got the Klipschorn, for starters. But to get the bass I like, I start with 45rpm records that have heavy jukebox bass. And though the turntable I play them on has a ceramic cartridge, I feed it into the magnetic phono input, because the RIAA equalization boosts the bass,” (that much, I understood), “and I turn the bass control all the way up, and then I set the loudness control for maximum bass boost.”

I still wondered why his amp had two controls that boosted bass, and why one was labeled “Loudness.” But then he turned the system on, and I just listened. Even with just 10 watts, Klipschorns can play very loud. And there sure was a lot of bass! I could no longer hear Skip’s system when I went back to my room, two flights above, but I could swear that, standing in my stocking feet, I could just about discern the beat. And I began wondering about that knob again…

I’d have wondered less if the knob had been labeled properly – not “loudness,” but “loudness compensation.” It compensated for the way our hearing system’s frequency response changes with sound level. Make a sound softer and it seems to lose some bass and a smidgen of treble. Those frequencies are still there, but we no longer hear them as well.

We don’t notice this when the music itself gets softer, because we’re used to the difference in sound between a forte and a pianissimo. But if we’re listening to loud music at soft levels, as we often do at home, the sound is noticeably thinner and may lose some of its sparkle.

This is often called the Fletcher-Munson Effect, after the two Bell Labs researchers who first measured it. In 1933, they published a set of “equal-loudness contour” curves showing, for sound pressure levels (SPL) from 0 to 120 dB, what amount of boost (and, sometimes, cut) would be needed to make tones at various frequencies sound as loud as a 1-kHz tone. These curves have been revised a few times since [1], by others, but they all show basically the same thing.


Fletcher-Munson curves. Note that before frequency was referred to as "Hertz," it was given in cycles per second. Fletcher-Munson curves. Note that before frequency was referred to as "Hertz," it was given in cycles per second.

To counteract this effect, a loudness compensation circuit modifies the signal as you turn your volume control down, lowering the volume less in the bass and upper treble than at mid-frequencies. Today, that’s usually controlled by a simple switch rather than a knob, though I’ve seen fairly recent gear from Yamaha, Marantz, and others with loudness knobs.

Loudness switches are less confusing and expensive than variable loudness-compensation knobs and they do help restore a natural fullness to the sound, adding compensation as the volume is turned down. But variable loudness controls offer greater precision and accuracy, because the position of the volume knob is far from the only factor governing how much compensation is needed.

Proper compensation varies with both the sound level of the original performance and the difference between that and the sound level reaching your ears at home. According to the Fletcher-Munson curve [2], reducing the volume 30 dB would require about 8 dB of boost at 100 Hz for sonic accuracy if the performance’s sound level was 100 dB SPL – but would require about 25 dB of boost if the performers had been playing at 70 dB SPL.


ISO 2003 loudness curves, compared to the Fletcher-Munson curves. ISO 2003 loudness curves, compared to the Fletcher-Munson curves.


So, the first factor that loudness compensation must take into account is the recording or broadcast you’re listening to. How loudly were the performers playing? And how much headroom did the recording and mastering engineers leave between the loudest recorded note and the point at which the signal would become distorted? And how are these affected by the output levels from your phono cartridge, CD player, or streaming device? The amplifier’s designer can only guess.

That designer will at least know your amp’s input sensitivity, its gain for every volume setting, and its output power – but not the sensitivity of your loudspeakers. Skip’s 10-watt amp could deliver a lot of sound from Klipschorns, which were and are among the most efficient speakers ever [3], but the results using acoustic-suspension speakers like the then-new AR-3 [4] would have been much quieter.

The room’s acoustics are another variable. Sound levels in a large room with a lot of carpets and upholstered furniture will be lower than in a small room with fewer soft surfaces.

For an amplifier with a simple loudness switch, a designer will calibrate the compensation circuit for average recordings, played through a speaker of average sensitivity, in an average room. That will satisfy most listeners, because few pay close attention to the sound in background listening. But if the designer wants his amplifier’s loudness compensation to be really accurate, he’ll give it a knob that lets you adjust it for this recording, over your system, in your room.

How do you set that knob? According to both a Yamaha manual I found online, and an article I wrote in 1965, you adjust such controls by raising the volume to the highest level you expect to listen at, then you use the loudness knob like a volume control. That fits with my recollections of Skip’s amp, whose volume and loudness knobs were both the same size.

But I’ve also heard that you should play music at normal volume, then turn the volume down and adjust the loudness compensation until the frequency balance sounds the same as it did before you changed the volume setting. After that, leave the loudness knob alone, because you’ve now set loudness compensation for the variables in your room and system (at least for one of your signal sources) – the next time you’ll need to touch that knob is when you change your room’s furnishings or your system’s components. That fits with the fact that loudness knobs on modern amps I’ve seen are usually much smaller than volume controls.

I don’t really know which version is correct, but I’ll bet someone who does will soon tell us in the Comments.

Even if Skip’s still listening, I doubt he’ll care. Though his amp’s loudness control was meant to preserve realism, he joyfully perverted it to give him the unreality he wanted – fun over fidelity. And nowadays, he’d have a better way to make his walls rock: subwoofers.


[1] In 1957, D.W. Robinson and R.S. Dadson, of Britain’s National Physics Laboratory, produced a new set of curves, which became an ISO standard 30 years later. That standard was revised in 2003

[2] Chosen here because it’s the simplest curve, and easiest to read.

[3] Rated 105 dB SPL for 1 watt at 1 meter, though 1959 models might have been a bit different.

[4] I don’t think AR published a sensitivity spec, but I’ve seen it quoted as 83 dB, which means it would have taken about 100x as much power as the Klipsch to achieve the same output.

Header image: the variable loudness knob on a Yamaha receiver.

Who Decides What’s Good or Bad? And, Some Mini-Reviews

Who Decides What’s Good or Bad? And, Some Mini-Reviews

Who Decides What’s Good or Bad? And, Some Mini-Reviews

Frank Doris

In the process of putting together a list of 150 favorite albums for Issue 150, the thought struck me yet again: what determines whether music is good or bad, anyway?

I think we can agree that there are standards of musical craft that apply: melody, harmony, orchestration, lyric writing and other attributes. No one would argue about the monumental genius of Bach, or the fact that the Shaggs were pretty bad singers and players. But people enjoy listening to “My Pal Foot Foot,” to the point where it’s become something of a not-so-underground classic. (Bach did not write “My Pal Foot Foot.”)


Who am I to say? A lot of schlocky music gives me great pleasure to listen to, and vice versa. A song like Keith’s “There’s Always Tomorrow” may have a certain charm, but there’s a reason it’s on no one’s list of great songs. On the other hand, U2’s undeniably classic “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” puts me into instant turnoff mode.

I like to think I’m qualified to judge music. Among other things, I’m a trained musician who plays professionally. But my worldview was shaken to the core at a Dionne Warwick and Rumer concert a few years ago. Rumer doesn’t tour extensively and I was thrilled to hear her live. She was everything I expected and far more; that beautiful voice against a lush orchestral background, a dream come true seventh-row center. By the third song I was in tears. After the concert, I lingered, not wanting the wonderful experience to end.

Then, at random, an older man came up to me and said, “You can throw that concert in the garbage!”


“She had nothing, no soul. Ehhh! She’s not an artist.”

I thought, jeez, everyone’s a critic in New York. But I was rattled. And realized, no matter how I felt or how wrong I thought he was, our individual reality of the situation was totally opposite.

How do you decide upon some equation that adds in objective craftsmanship, the “X” factor that makes a song magic (is anyone going to debate that “Like A Rolling Stone” or Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy” qualify?), and the weight of opinion, informed or otherwise? If some piece of pop crap makes a lot of people happy, doesn’t that count for something?

I will never yield in believing the idea that there are objective standards of quality. Try doing a recording session and singing off pitch, or playing out of tune or off the beat, and see how it goes down. Yet, I’m conflicted. I’m beginning to accept the fact that the idea of what constitutes good or bad music may never be resolved, in my mind, or anyone’s.

Well, whether I’m shooting myself in the foot or confirming my good taste, here’s the first installment of mini-reviews of my favorite 150 rock and pop albums, in semi-random order.

801 Live, various artists

Those various artists being Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, Lloyd Watson (slide guitar, vocals), Francis Monkman (electric piano, clavinet), Bill MacCormick (bass, vocals), Simon Phillips (drums and “rhythm generator”) and no less than Brian Eno on keyboards, synthesizers, vocals and guitar. The live concert recording features some Manzanera and Eno songs, among them Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire” and “Third Uncle,” a hyperdrive “Miss Shapiro,” and a dazzling take on Manzanera’s “Diamond Head.”


Shelby Lynne, Love, Shelby

I Am Shelby Lynne is the critics’ darling album (and rightfully so), and Just A Little Lovin’ truly does have demonstration-quality sound and wonderful interpretations of a variety of great songs, but the poppier, breezier Love, Shelby is the one that stirs me the most.

Daryl Hall and John Oates, The Atlantic Collection

Most of the good pre-mega-hit stuff is on here, including “She’s Gone,” “When the Morning Comes,” “Las Vegas Turnaround” and a good chunk of the War Babies album. Until they hooked up with Todd Rundgren for the latter, they had a folkier, more open sound, with John Oates singing a greater percentage of the vocals than on the later hits.

Daryl Hall and John Oates, War Babies

This isn’t the Hall and Oates you’re thinking of. Rundgren laid the production on heavily here, to the point where it sounds like this could almost be one of his albums – no surprise, since he and members of Utopia play on it. H&O took a major stylistic shift here before settling into their remarkable megahit-making run, and this harder-edged album sounds like nothing they’ve done before or since. The material fades on side two, but that’s more than made up for by the soaring “You’re Much Too Soon.”

Genesis, Nursery Cryme

The first Genesis album to feature Phil Collins and guitarist Steve Hackett, it’s also the one where the classic Genesis progressive rock sound came into full focus. That’s apparent from the first 10 seconds of the magnificent opener, The Musical Box,” and side one’s closer, the immortal “The Return of the Giant Hogweed.” The layered acoustic and electric guitars, arpeggiated motifs, sci-fi lyrics and complex arrangements are all here, though the band takes a black-humor detour with the sad tale of “Harold the Barrel.”

Genesis, Foxtrot

Every song is off-the-meter good. The Mellotron opening to the titanic “Watcher of the Skies” is surely the greatest opening in progressive rock, and “Get ’Em Out By Friday” shows the band could rock with the best of them. The majority of side two is taken up by the 23:06 “Supper’s Ready,” which many Gabriel-era Genesis connoisseurs consider to be the band’s finest hour. I won’t argue.


Genesis, Selling England by the Pound

An undeniable progressive rock masterpiece (although you could also say that about Foxtrot), though sweeter and more nuanced than most of that genre, SEBTP offers some of the most intricately compelling music ever created. The first time I heard “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” I was stupefied, and its impact hasn’t lessened much all these decades later. And, never mind Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” – “Firth of Fifth” gets my vote for being the most epic rock guitar solo ever recorded, courtesy of Steve Hackett.


Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

The songwriting and music become a little more monolithic here, and the recording is muddier, but the title track is a classic, the music is seamless through the length of a double-LP, and “The Carpet Crawlers” is strangely moving, strange lyrics and all.

Genesis, A Trick of the Tail

The first post-Peter Gabriel album with Phil Collins on lead vocals, this is still mostly the “good” Genesis, before they went unabashedly (if remuneratively) pop, with sublime cuts like “Dance on a Volcano” and “Ripples.”

Have a Nice Day: Super Hits of the ‘70s

I’m cheating here; this is a 25-volume CD set of 1970s singles. It’s got the good- and the good-bad stuff (Spiral Starecase’s “More Today Than Yesterday,” The Cuff Links’ “Tracy”), as well as the bad-bad stuff (“Heartbeat – It’s a Lovebeat” by the DeFranco Family and the beyond-cringeworthy “Playground In My Mind” courtesy of Clint Holmes), but sometimes you just have a craving for musical junk food.

Iron Butterfly, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida

The Rodney Dangerfield of rock bands gets no respect from most critics. Bah, I say! “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” has the all-time greatest psychedelic guitar riff, and the shorter songs on side one are full of Sixties psychedelic energy, Vox Continental organ, crushing fuzz guitar and boundless youthful energy (guitarist Erik Brann was 17 years old when he blasted these riffs out). The Mobile Fidelity UHQR LP reissue is sold out, so I’m not the only one who digs this. In fact, when first released in 1968 it outsold every previous record ever released.

Iron Butterfly, Ball

More poppy and less psychedelic than the landmark In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the songs range from lame (“Lonely Boy,” “Her Favorite Style”) to pretty darn good (“Soul Experience,” “In the Crowds”). But…the guitar sounds are even more fantastic than In-A-Gadda…”, especially on “It Must Be Love,” which has a grinding, fuzz tone akin an industrial machine gone out of control. It must be noted that bassist Lee Dorman is criminally underrated.

James Gang, Yer Album

In which Joe Walsh and his guitar exploded onto the world. The guitar solo in “Take A Look Around” will get you stoned even if you’ve never gotten high in your life.


Billy Joel, Turnstiles

I’ve had mixed feelings about Billy Joel over the decades. I was captivated by his earlier work, and songs like “Captain Jack,” “Summer, Highland Falls,” “I’ve Loved These Days” (the latter two included on Turnstiles) and “The Stranger,” but by “52nd Street” and songs like “Big Shot, ”I was losing interest. The disillusionment was complete by the time “We Didn’t Start the Fire” rolled around. Yet on his later albums he’d come up with songs like “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” or “A Matter of Trust,” and I’d be reminded of what a great songwriter Joel is by anyone’s standards. Turnstiles is also a sentimental favorite because everyone in my whole family liked it (something you couldn’t say when I played Zappa or Black Sabbath), so it got a ton of play in our house when it first came out.

Jeff Beck Group, Rough and Ready

A sorcerer among guitarists, and of course Blow By Blow deserves all the accolades it gets, and the stuff he did with Rod Stewart and company is essential British blues rock, but Rough and Ready is the album where I really got Beck. The band is a steamroller, and Beck’s playing is, as always, next-level insane. I spent many, many, many hours copying his riffs on this one.


Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bayou Country

What’s not to love? Here’s the group’s breakthrough smash, “Proud Mary,” an absolutely ripping version of Little Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and maybe the greatest one-chord jam of all time, “Keep On Chooglin.” It’s cliched to say that singer/songwriter/guitarist John Fogerty is a natural treasure, except it’s true. But all their other hits are also essential, so I screwed up here and should have picked one of their greatest hits collections.

Donovan’s Greatest Hits

Out of all the great singer-songwriters of the Sixties and Seventies, why do I like Donovan so much? Well…the voice, the hippy-dippy but sometimes great songs, and the fact that this music takes me back to a musical era that some of us boys and girls were very lucky to have lived through. Even the fact that “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” was used in a Love Cosmetics commercial didn’t ruin its charm for me, and “There Is A Mountain” is either one of the dumbest or one of the most profound songs ever. (Hey, it was good enough for the Allman Brothers to jam on endlessly.)


The Good Rats, Tasty

Yeah, I’m from Lawn Guyland. And if you grew up on Long Island in the 1970s, the club scene was huge, as were bands like the Good Rats, Twisted Sister, Harlequin, Harpy, Railway and Gunn, the Stanton Anderson Band and many others. Long Island spawned numerous acts who made it big, including Billy Joel, Mountain, Pat Benatar, De La Soul, Twisted Sister, Public Enemy and many others. (Does Fotomaker count?) But the Good Rats always occupied a gray area between being local heroes and hitting national success. Tasty was their one major-label release (on Warner Brothers Records) and it’s packed with hard, fast and loud rockers, seasoned by the gritty, hurricane-force vocals of Peppi Marchello and the dizzying twin-guitar interplay of Mickey Marchello and John “The Cat” Gatto. Some wags thought they just weren’t good looking enough to make it. They certainly had the talent.


Laura Nyro, Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro

Long before I knew who Laura Nyro was, I fell in love with the 5th Dimension’s version of “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues,” Barbra Streisand’s take on “Stoney End,” and even Three Dog Night’s overblown “Eli’s Coming.” When I found out that Nyro was the writer behind all of them, I had to hear her original versions, which are earthier, funkier, and less “produced,”. Sad that she had to be posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Actually, no, shameful. Her first album, More Than a New Discovery, proved she had the goods right off the bat.


Love, Forever Changes

No contest, my favorite album of 1967, and that was a hell of a year for great albums. In fact, it’s in my top five. The songs are anywhere from great to spellbinding, as in “Alone Again Or,” “Andmoreagain,” and…I’ll get to it. It’s well-known that Love main man Arthur Lee and the rest of the band had a tough time getting their substance-impaired act together, and the music offers a strange mix of beauty, paranoia, and profundity. The string and horn arrangements add wonderfully to the largely acoustic-flavored songs. I’ll just come right out and say it: “You Set the Scene” is one of the greatest songs ever written.


Love, Revisited

This 1970 compilation is essential, a must-hear by anyone and everyone. It compiles Love’s greatest singles and tracks, and every one of them is superb. In addition to the three from Forever Changes mentioned above, it has such pop rock marvels as “Orange Skies,” “Signed D.C.,” “Your Mind and We Belong Together,” “Your Friend and Mine – Neil’s Song,” and ever a credible, hyperventilating cover of “Hey Joe.” One of the greatest greatest hits collections ever.

Martha and the Vandellas, Greatest Hits

I could name a hundred singles by soul, R&B, disco and Black artists off the top of my head, as well as loads of Fifties and Sixties girl groups, but I have a soft spot for Martha and the Vandellas. It doesn’t hurt that they had a string of fantastic hits, like “Heat Wave,” “Quicksand,” “Dancing in the Streets,” “Come and Get These Memories,” and my favorite, the theme song of writers on deadline everywhere: “Nowhere to Run.”


The Mothers of Invention/Frank Zappa, Freak Out!

It’s hard to believe that an album like this could even be made, but it was 1966, after all. Zappa’s first record gave the world a double-album blast of his satire, refusal to accept social norms, love of doo-wop, Varèse and complex, angular sounds, and his biting, totally distinctive guitar playing (although his “air sculpture” guitar style was not fully developed yet). As an unsuspecting teenager, hearing stuff like “Hungry Freaks, Daddy,” “Who Are the Brain Police?” and “It Can’t Happen Here” really was mind-blowing.

The Mothers of Invention/Frank Zappa, Absolutely Free

Tighter and more song-oriented than the sprawling Freak Out!, the Mothers’ second album is even more viciously satirical than the first, and more musically complex, even slipping in quotes from Stravinsky. I think this has to be considered a flat-out classic, considering the presence of songs like “Plastic People,” “Call Any Vegetable,” and the monumental “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It.”

The Mothers of Invention/Frank Zappa, Weasels Ripped My Flesh

A little more inconsistent and unfocused than the above two albums, considering Weasels is a mix of live and studio tracks. More avant-garde, jazz, and noise-rock influences are evident on this, Zappa’s 10th recording, and the sound quality has dramatically improved. “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama” became one of Zappa’s more well-known songs, and the “Oh No”/The Orange County Lumber Truck” sequence is one of Frank Zappa’s finest moments.

The Mothers of Invention/Frank Zappa, One Size Fits All

By 1975, Zappa was delving more heavily into lyrical silliness but still hadn’t quite approached the some would say embarrassingly juvenile lyrics of material like “Bobby Brown” (which I won’t quote here). Whatever. The real appeal of this album is the insanely, ridiculously, incredible musicianship from the likes of Zappa, George Duke, Ruth Underwood, Chester Thompson and others. The sound quality is really, really good on most cuts also. But really, the reason that this is a Zappa must-hear is the remarkable “Inca Roads.” The playing on this is so extraordinary that is seems impossible that mere humans can be making this music. And Zappa plays what many people consider to be his finest guitar solo ever on this track. I would be one of them.


Our Heads Are Spinning

Our Heads Are Spinning

Our Heads Are Spinning

Frank Doris

Fit for a King (Marilyn King of the King Sisters, that is): the Roberts 990 stereo tape recorder. Courtesy of the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording.

Recording engineer and TEC award winner David Hewitt's personal manual for the Sony PCM-1610, an early digital recorder. He recounts a story about the early Sony machines: "It was at an early Sony digital display at an AES Convention in New York. They were playing what I dimly remember as a live digital recording I had done on a Sony PCM-3324, when a well-known engineer started a rant about digital recordings 'instantly damaging your hearing!' The 3324 was out of his sight behind some other display. We let him blather on for a while before exposing the rolling digital tape. We didn’t ask how his hearing was... Sometimes it’s better to do like the Frank Zappa album says: Shut up and play your guitar!"

A stunning harman/kardon ST-6 turntable circa 1977 – 1981, complete with Rabco tangential tracking arm! Photo by Howard Kneller, from The Audio Classics Collection.

Our heads are spinning over this 1940s RCA Victrola record changer ad.

Howard Kneller’s audio and art photography can be found on Instagram (@howardkneller, @howardkneller.photog) and Facebook (@howardkneller).

Audiophile Heaven, Revisited

Audiophile Heaven, Revisited

Audiophile Heaven, Revisited

Andy Schaub
What will the audiophile section of heaven be like? Andy pondered it briefly in Issue 149, and pays another visit here:
  1. There will be a Hawaiian lagoon with PerfectWaves controlled by Paul McGowan.
  2. All the floors are made from vintage Magneplanar woofer panels powered by Audio Research all-vacuum-tube monoblock amps from 1978.
  3. Everyone has Eames chairs in their listening rooms and they never, ever hurt.
  4. No one can speak any four-letter word with "os" in the middle, like "Bose."
  5. CDs last forever but no one cares.
  6. Plasma tweeters are still a thing.
  7. Saying the words "psychologically irrelevant" gets you a celestial time out.
  8. Cables do not matter, ever; but they are all very thin and cheap.
  9. Ivor Tiefenbrun spells angel "ainjell."
  10. Record cleaning fluid flows from a natural fountain, works flawlessly, tastes like Louis XIII, and is free.
Is it safe to clean records with alcohol? Here's a very expensive way to try: Louis XIII cognac from Remy Martin. Is it safe to clean records with alcohol? Here's a very expensive way to try: Louis XIII cognac from Remy Martin.
Header image: Hawaiian lagoon, courtesy of Pixabay.com/Michelle Raponi.

Adele: Too Big to Fail

Adele: Too Big to Fail

Adele: Too Big to Fail

Wayne Robins

One of my daughter’s colleagues at work was asked to do a task while on a mini-break, expressing some reluctance as he pulled pods out of his ears. “You’re taking me away from my Adele time,” he said, not quite kidding. When she told another friend this, instead of worrying about the young man’s work ethic, she was told: “You can’t listen to Adele at work. You need to be home so you can cry.”

Many tears are shed, some literally, on Adele’s new album, 30, which is as sculpted to perfection as the one publicity shot that had been released at the time I’m writing this. The hair, makeup, and photo shoot may have taken as long to produce as some of the tracks, which are as smooth as beach stone burnished for decades by the tides.

It’s been Adele time for the last few weeks, ever since she upstaged Peter Jackson promoting his Beatles Get Back movie on 60 Minutes with a checkmate promotion of her own: Adele introducing her new album, 30, with both a live performance, along with a sit-down interview with Oprah.

Adele names, or rather numbers, her albums by the age she is when working on the albums: 19 (2008), 21 (2011), 25 (2015); and 30, released November 19, earns its title because Adele, now 33, began working on this in 2018, when her marriage to Simon Konecki was breaking up. It’s too bad this information is so readily available on the internet, because the fact that it is called 30 might be the topic of much discussion around the bong if she were a bongwater sort of artist.


 Adele, 30, album cover. Photo by Simon Emmett. Adele, 30, album cover. Photo by Simon Emmett.

Adele is not that, of course. The blessing of a pitch-perfect, innately soulful voice able to curl up around a lyric, is grounded in a childhood fascination with Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald, and in tune with the more contemporary stylings of Lauryn Hill and Beyoncé.

The purity of tone and flexibility of her instrument makes her this era’s Barbra Streisand, if Adele had been raised on show tunes. The range of her audience is also similar: Streisand might be the one artist (along with soundtracks to South Pacific and My Fair Lady) a child of the 1960s might find in his parents’ record collection. Taylor Swift’s audience may be deeper and Swift is much more prolific, but she and Adele are among the only artists that sell substantial amounts of hard CDs and vinyl in the streaming era. Demand for Adele vinyl and a dearth of manufacturing facilities has elbowed aside every other artist hoping to deliver gift LPs during the holiday season.

It’s been 10 years since all sources and comparisons were made moot by Adele’s single “Rollin’ in the Deep,” a soul shout that announced her presence the way her version of the title song for Skyfall announced the beginning of that James Bond movie in 2012. She should, and probably will, do more movie theme songs, although Bond themes are becoming more recherché than they were when Shirley Bassey, another classy British pop singer with a potent voice and wide audience comparable to Adele, made the title song of Goldfinger another landmark of British cultural dominance in 1964.

Adele is therefore critic-proof, and I am not here to bust that balloon: 30 is a very enjoyable, impeccably made record, and it is essential to note that Adele co-wrote every track. She doesn’t just turn the project over to songwriting hacks and producers, enter the studio when they are finished, wave her magic wand, and return home in her gilded carriage.

Her songs are about the challenges of a difficult life that no amount of success can spare the sensitive artist. She was born to a teenage mother and an alcoholic dad, and her preternatural artistic maturity led her into relationships with much older men. She is a mother to a nine-year-old boy, Angelo, with now former husband Konecki. Depression and weight problems are part of her public story.

The credits to new song “My Little Love” credit “voice notes” to Adele and Angelo. This is where crying time comes in. It sounds like a taped phone conversation between mother and son, and she is dumping some hard facts on the boy, if she is indeed addressing him. “I’ve had a very bad day. A bit stressed. Had a hangover.” She’s sobbing now. Crying. Snorting back tears, but they keep coming.


If you’re an older doo-wop fan, you’ll recognize the technique in “Valerie” by Jackie & the Starlites, in which the singer breaks down in tears at the end of the song. Listeners used to question how the producer of “Valerie” got Jackie to break down in tears. One does not ask the same question of Adele: they seem to flow naturally, the guilty overachieving mom consumed with work, the kid missing her, the hangover that is probably redolent of painful moments of her own childhood. It’s not easy listening, it’s queasy listening. But it sounds grounded in something real.

Aside from string orchestration credits here and there on 30, Adele co-wrote with a handful of producers and one-man-band multi-instrumentalists. Greg Kurstin is the most frequent cohort, the co-writer and producer of six of the 12 standard edition tracks. (There are three extras on the Japanese and Target stores editions.) “My Little Love,” with Chris Dave on drums and percussion, features Kurstin, as do some of the other better than average tracks, including the first single, “Easy On Me,” and “I Drink Wine.” Kurstin is one of the only musicians on these tracks, credited with a laundry list that includes bass, claps, drum programming, Hammond B3 organ, keyboard, percussion, and piano (with Chris Dave on drums), on “Oh My God.”


This often works well enough to suspend my bias for recordings made by different musicians on various instruments, with all the fallibility and search for chemistry that is required. But even with Dave on “bongos, drums, and vibraslap,” the Motown-ish “Cry Your Heart Out” cries out for a modern version of Funk Brother Benny Benjamin pounding the beat.

Adele’s monumental singing skill allows her to make this dependence on hired guns and studio-dependent sound work. In early listenings I thought about the “Versificator” in George Orwell’s 1984, (published in 1948), the machine that turned out catchy music to keep the proles distracted.

Now instead of the Versificator we have Max Martin, the human with a hit machine touch. From Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys in the 1990s to Katy Perry, Maroon 5, The Weeknd and Ariana Grande, Max Martin makes hits.

Martin and another Swedish producer, who goes by the name of Shellback, are with Adele on “Can I Get It,” although probably not really with Adele as this single three-and-a-half-minute track was recorded in three different studios, in Stockholm, London, and Los Angeles.

Yet another track was recorded with a dead man: the great jazz pianist Erroll Garner (1921 – 1977). On “All Night Parking (With Erroll Garner) Interlude,” Adele gets a co-write for creating lyrics. Joey Pecoraro gets production credit with Kurstin, and plays drums, additional piano (additional piano with Erroll Garner: that’s nervy), trumpet, and violin.

There are also three songs with Inflo: “Love is a Game,” “Hold On,” and “Woman Like Me,” aka Dean Josiah Cover, producer/instrumentalist from Adele’s native North London. He’s still pretty new. If you do a Google search for Inflo, the top result is a company with that name that “empowers accounting firms with revolutionary computing intelligence.”


I had to think about this twice, and then a third time, wondering whether this was the particular Inflo for which I was looking. My bet is that Adele will be performing with live musicians, and will sound even better, when she begins her Las Vegas 12-weekend residency (Friday and Saturday night shows) at Caesar’s Palace, scheduled to begin January 21, 2022 through April 16, 2022.

Copper’s Wayne’s Words columnist also writes Critical Conditions, the Substack newsletter, at waynerobins49.substack.com

Header image: photo by Simon Emmett.

Around the World in 80 Lathes, Part One

Around the World in 80 Lathes, Part One

Around the World in 80 Lathes, Part One

J.I. Agnew

Audiophiles and record collectors often obsess about what kind of turntable or tonearm or cartridge works best for a certain record. In the process, they go to great lengths in their pursuit of historical information regarding what instruments the musicians played, what microphones were used for the recording, which studio it was recorded in, what mixing console was used, all the way down to what type of compressor and reverb plate made the signature sound of each recording. They read (and sometimes write) diatribes on VTA adjustment, debate on the sonic qualities of different brands of the same amplifier tube (whether for the home hi-fi setup that reproduces the recording, or for the guitar amplifier used in the making of it) and wonder if they can actually hear the signature sound of the Steinway on the record, even if it was never explicitly stated that a Steinway was indeed used.

Some, usually once past a certain level of affluence, even go so far as to spend millions collecting John Lennon’s guitar and Jerry Garcia’s socks, in the hope of getting a little bit closer to the process of creating the masterpieces of recorded sound we all cherish.

For many years, I have been observing a gap in this desire to collect every last bit of information (and the physical objects) related to a favorite recording:

Nobody talks about (or collects) the disk mastering lathes used in making records. I have never encountered long debates about whether this or that cutting amplifier was a better choice to drive this or that cutter head, unless among seasoned disk mastering engineers. Perhaps this is too geeky for most, but most probably it is because there is really not that much information out there regarding disk mastering and the equipment used. Most people simply have no idea what lathe was used to cut the Beatles’ albums (even if they know exactly which microphones and tape machines were employed), or what lathes Pye Records was using in the monophonic era, although they do know what a “Decca Tree” (a stereophonic microphone technique involving three microphones; left, center and right) is.

The lathe market had ended up being very small and exclusive towards the end of the game in t

Neumann VMS-70 cutting lathe at SAE Mastering. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/VACANT FEVER. Neumann VMS-70 cutting lathe at SAE Mastering. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/VACANT FEVER.

However, there was a time when every industrialized nation in the world was producing at least one type of disk recording lathe, if not several models. These were the days before the invention of magnetic tape recording in its present, accessible form, and the days prior to its widespread commercial use.

The vast majority of early sound recordings were done on a lathe, direct to disk. Also, many collectors know the story of how Sam Phillips accidentally met a young Elvis Presley, then working as a truck driver, who stopped at Phillips’ Sun Records to record a song for his mother. Yet, far fewer know that this recording was done using a Presto 6N disk recording lathe, idler driven, with a 16-inch platter.

I have had in my workshop, over the years, more Presto 6N lathes than I can count, as well as nearly every make and model of disk recording and mastering system ever made, anywhere in the world, during the entire electrical recording era. I have repaired them, modified them, tested them, learned all about their quirks and history, and have immensely enjoyed using them. I have even recorded our wedding ceremony and my father’s speech for that occasion, direct-to-disk, on a portable lathe that was used during the 1930s by the BBC internationally for recording both on location and in the studio.

Today, my dear readers, we shall together embark on a journey around the world in 80 lathes. It most probably will turn out to be considerably more than 80 lathes, but we will glance through them from the windows and magic-eye tubes of my custom vacuum tube-driven time capsule. From the humble beginnings to the disappearance of the industry and its eventual rebirth, decades later, we shall discover the lathes of the world, their inner workings, their particularities and quirks, their personalities, and their glorious designs.

These are perhaps some of the most outstanding feats of audio – or any kind of – engineering, right at the junction where the former collides with art, just at the critical velocity required to release a neutron, which travels through matter until it eventually expires.

These immensely beautiful contraptions, consisting of creatively-shaped chunks of metal, wood, resins, ceramics, precious stones, and occasionally polymers (plastics) were, already in their early primitive cavemanly beginnings, able to machine sub-micron information on rotating disks, with exceptional surface finish, back when this was unheard of in most other fields of science and industry.

Not only that, but the final product – a record – was actually rather affordable, becoming a widely available, mass manufactured, consumer medium, available in most parts of the world even before electricity got there. Yet for all its widespread availability, the technical challenges involved in the manufacturing process, the extremely low price point of the various types of disks (especially when compared to any other product with a similarly complex manufacturing process), and the sheer number of records produced, the sound quality that the medium is capable of delivering is simply astonishing.


Legendary engineer C. Robert Fine at the cutting lathe. Courtesy of Tom Fine.

As far as record cutting lathes go, their history can be split into five distinct eras, each signified by refinements and changes in the machinery and associated technology.

First came the acoustical recording era. There was no electricity involved. The platter was either powered by a hand-cranked spring-loaded system, or a weight at the end of a string, set up for a long drop. A mechanical speed governor regulated the rpm. The sound was captured by a horn with a diaphragm at the other end, which transferred the diaphragm motion to the cutting stylus through a mechanical linkage system. The information was stored on the so-called “wax” disks of the time (which were more of a metallic soap formulation than actual wax).

Then came the wax era of electrical recording. An electric motor would now power the platter, using a belt or reduction gearing. The motors of that era would spin much faster than the platter. The cutter head was now an electromechanical transducer powered by an electronic amplifier. The sound was converted to electricity by means of a microphone. Recordings were still done direct to disk.

Next was the monophonic lacquer era of electrical recording. The technology was similar to the above, but the blank disks were now made of nitrocellulose lacquer coating an aluminum disk. Hot stylus recording (where the stylus was literally heated) became popular during this time. Advancements in electric motor design resulted in the ability to direct-drive the platter with a motor that could now spin steadily at the same speed as the platter rotation.

Although first invented in the 1930s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that stereophonic recording saw widespread commercial application. This development ushered in the stereophonic era of electrical recording. Wax disks were by now entirely gone and hot stylus recording was de rigueur. Automation systems of intense complexity started appearing and soon dominated the market. As the equipment became more and more complex while the market was shrinking (apart from disk mastering for vinyl record manufacturing, all other users of sound recording equipment had moved away from the disk medium in favor of tape recording and decades later, digital recording), more and more manufacturers started dropping out of the disk recording field. The market became very highly specialized and diversity of design started waning. The two remaining companies competed against each other, using very similar design concepts.

By the 1980s, only one company remained active in manufacturing disk-cutting lathes, and that company, along with one other, was the only manufacturer of cutter heads left. Direct-to-disk recording was by now a very small niche market, sustained entirely by die-hard audiophiles and renegade audio engineers on a mission.

Technologically speaking, the next noteworthy deviation from the aforementioned eras came at some point in the 1990s, when those concerned about the continued availability of vinyl records started to worry about the fact that the only way to make records was to use equipment several decades old, in various states of disrepair, with no official sources for parts and essentially having to deal with a monopoly in the supply of lacquer master disks and disk recording styli. A scene of experimenters started to appear, trying to cut records on other materials, such as polycarbonate plastic, PVC sheets, X-rays (medical X-ray film), and anything else one could imagine, using home-made styli and modified or even homemade equipment. This scene was instrumental in preserving knowledge, equipment, and parts, which later made it possible for the revival of the vinyl record to be technically viable.

From the next episode onwards, we will start our time travel, visiting the historic lathe manufacturers around the world, and their products. You will get to find out which kinds of machines were used to cut which records, and what the technical circumstances were under which recordings and records could be made in different eras. Buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Header image: J.I. Agnew on a Neumann lathe.

They Don’t Make 'Em Like They Used To…(Part Two)

They Don’t Make 'Em Like They Used To…(Part Two)

They Don’t Make 'Em Like They Used To…(Part Two)

Frank Doris
As I said in Part One (Issue 149), I like physical media. There’s something about having the information and artwork that comes with LPs and CDs that seems essential to me. I like to be able to refer to the personnel, engineer, and producer of the music to which I listen. I have digitized hundreds of LPs in my collection and generally listen to those digital copies for the convenience factor. That said, I would never get rid of the originals for the above reasons.


Fifty years ago (give or take a few decades), when vinyl was the primary medium for recorded music, a lot of attention was paid to the visual presentation of the product. Album covers were designed to pique the consumer’s interest through images and, in some cases, creative packaging. Unusual shapes and materials were occasionally utilized instead of the standard square cardboard jacket. Extra inserts (beyond the inner sleeve) often accompanied new releases. Nowadays, it seems that only boxed sets and reissues include such bonus material.

3-D Covers

Another idea for making a standard cover stand out from the pack was to affix 3-D artwork. Lenticular printing is a technique that utilized a thin, finely ridged plastic “lens” layer over a specially printed image. This gives the appearance of depth, and/or the ability for alternating images to appear depending on the viewing angle, all without the need for special glasses.

Captain Beyond album cover. Captain Beyond album cover.

Captain Beyond – Captain Beyond

The original release of this album featured a cover with a glued-on 3-D image of the band’s avatar (?), a sort of space pirate. The surrounding pattern mimicked the background often seen on lenticular prints. This overlooked group from the 1970s featured vocalist Rod Evans (from the original Deep Purple), Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt and Lee Dorman (both of Iron Butterfly), and drummer extraordinaire Bobby Caldwell (from Johnny Winter’s band – not the crooner). Their first album was progressive hard rock with odd time signatures. Personnel changes led to their second album, Sufficiently Breathless, having a Latin feel. More changes brought a return to hard rock with Dawn Explosion, albeit with a different vocalist. The band is apparently still going, with only Caldwell as an original member.

Johnny Cash, The Holy Land album cover. Johnny Cash, The Holy Land album cover.

Johnny Cash – The Holy Land

This 1969 album was inspired by a visit to Israel. Johnny Cash wrote almost all of the material, which combined songs with narrative tracks. The image on the cover shows Cash standing in front of a church (mosque/temple?), and the building appears to be behind him while the trees seem to be in front of him.

The Rolling Stones, Their Satanic Majesties Request album cover. The Rolling Stones, Their Satanic Majesties Request album cover.

The Rolling Stones – Their Satanic Majesties Request

The Rolling Stones’ answer to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper is probably the best-known album with 3-D artwork. As the Beatles album cover featured an allusion to The Rolling Stones, Mick and company returned the “favor” by hiding tiny images of the Fab Four amongst the busy floral piles surrounding the band. They are pretty hard to spot in the 3-D image, but subsequent 2-D issues clearly show Paul and George on the left side with Ringo and John on the right.

The Hollywood “Pops” Symphony – Motion* in Percussion and Orchestra album cover.

The Hollywood “Pops” Symphony – Motion* in Percussion and Orchestra album cover. The Hollywood “Pops” Symphony – Motion* in Percussion and Orchestra album cover.

The Hollywood “Pops” Symphony – Motion* in Percussion and Orchestra

In the early 1960s, stereo was starting to catch on and many recordings sought to show off the spatial characteristics made possible by this new technology. Sound effects recordings featured trains and other objects moving from side to side. This one combines music with effects that include a flamenco dancer, a roller coaster, and horses’ hooves. Extensive technical notes detail the microphones, mixing and mastering equipment used along with the recording techniques employed. The cover gives an example of the alternating-view aspect of lenticular prints.

Pop-Up and Fold-Open Covers


Jethro Tull, Stand Up, front and inside covers. Jethro Tull, Stand Up front and inside covers.

Jethro Tull – Stand Up

Pop-ups had been popular in children’s books for years, but this was one of the first rock albums to utilize the concept. As the title implies, the band “stands up” when the cover is opened.

Man, Be Good to Yourself at Least Once a Day, front and inside covers. Man, Be Good to Yourself at Least Once a Day front and inside covers.

Man – Be Good to Yourself at Least Once a Day

Man was a Welsh jam band from the 1970s. This one actually startled me when I opened the gatefold jacket. It unexpectedly unfolded into a two-by-two cartoon map of Wales (no one expects a map of Wales…). You could put an eye out with this one.

The Andromeda Strain, folded and unfolded album cover. The Andromeda Strain, folded and unfolded album cover.

Original Soundtrack – The Andromeda Strain

This truly unusual shiny silver cover housed a hexagonal disc. You had to unfold the front “petals” to reach it. Although you might think otherwise, re-folding it was no simple task – it always seemed to take me a few attempts to get it right.

"Window" Covers

Sometimes an album cover design incorporated a thin plastic “window” through which additional artwork was visible.


The Doors, L.A. Woman album cover. The Doors, L.A. Woman album cover.

The Doors – L.A. Woman

The original issue of this LP featured a rounded-corner shape with a yellow-tinted window on which was printed the images of the band members. It was one of the earliest rock records (if not the first) to feature this technique.

Gentle Giant, In a Glass House album cover and insert. Gentle Giant, In a Glass House album cover and insert.

Gentle Giant – In a Glass House (Import)

The window of this album had negative images printed on it of the members of the band playing instruments. Behind that was an insert with different negative images where the members were playing (mostly) other instruments. It gave a classy and creative look. The inner sleeve featured the lyrics printed on a background image of the Giant logo.


Mott the Hoople, Mott, album cover. Mott the Hoople, Mott album cover.

Mott the Hoople – Mott (Import)

British rockers Mott the Hoople were no strangers to eye-catching covers when this follow-up to All the Young Dudes was released. Their debut album, Mott the Hoople, had used a colorized version of M.C. Escher’s arresting “Reptiles,” an illustration of lizards crawling out of, and back into, a two-dimensional black-and-white jigsaw pattern of lizard bodies. For the UK version of Mott, they chose to use an image of a head like a classical Greek sculpture, set off by a swath of fluorescent pink across the lower half of the cover. The die-cut outline framed a silver and black face printed on the clear window. The US cover was a very generic shot of the group.

Uriah Heep, Look at Yourself album cover.

Uriah Heep – Look at Yourself (Import)

Technically, this isn’t a window cover; it’s a “mirror” cover, in keeping with the album title. You can see my blurry reflection in the photo. There are many more covers to feature. If you have some suggestions for future inclusion, please leave them in the comments below.

Header image: Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jean-Luc.

Scenes From Capital Audiofest 2021, Part Two

Scenes From Capital Audiofest 2021, Part Two

Scenes From Capital Audiofest 2021, Part Two

Harris Fogel
In Part One (Issue 150) we featured write-ups on Capital Audiofest 2021 from Steve Kindig and Harris Fogel. We wrap up our coverage with more photos from the show taken by Harris.
Jose Ramirez and the Reed Muse 3C turntable. Jose Ramirez and the Reed Muse 3C turntable.
The Distinctive Audio room featuring Genesis Maestro loudspeakers. The Distinctive Audio room featuring Genesis Maestro loudspeakers.
Accessories make the man: Christopher Hildebrand of Fern & Roby. Accessories make the man: Christopher Hildebrand of Fern & Roby.
Some stunning field-coil (!) speakers and electronics from Treehaus Audiolab, Some stunning field-coil (!) speakers and electronics from Treehaus Audiolab.
Göbel Divin Marquis loudspeakers in the Bending Wave USA room.
Clean machine: an iSonic ultrasonic record cleaner. Clean machine: an iSonic ultrasonic record cleaner.
Aaron Sherrick and John Bevier of audio dealer Now Listen Here and John Bevier of importer The Sound Organisation</a>. Aaron Sherrick and John Bevier of audio dealer Now Listen Here and John Bevier of importer The Sound Organisation.
The Daedalus Audio room with Apollo Series loudspeakers. The Daedalus Audio room with Apollo Series loudspeakers.
Loudspeakers from Bache Audio. Loudspeakers from Bache Audio.
Michael Fremer of Stereophile and Analog Planet) with Roy Hall of Music Hall and Copper. Michael Fremer of Stereophile and Analog Planet with Roy Hall of Music Hall and Copper.
Acoustic Signature Maximus NEO turntable.
Boris Meltsner of Amped America. Boris Meltsner of Amped America.
Capital Audiofest 2021 featured the debut of the B&W 801 D4 speakers, powered by McIntosh MC901 amplifiers. Capital Audiofest 2021 featured the debut of the B&W 801 D4 speakers, powered by McIntosh MC901 amplifiers.
Reeling them in: the Thrax Audio room. Reeling them in: the Thrax Audio room.
Mark Conti, co-founder of MC Audiotech. Mark Conti, co-founder of MC Audiotech.
The VPI Industries room with JBL Project Everest loudspeakers.
Pierse Chaisson of Déjà Vu Audio with Audio Note electronics and speakers. Pierse Chaisson of Déjà Vu Audio with Audio Note electronics and speakers.
Ken Stevens (right) of Convergent Audio Technology showing off his CAT SL1 Legend Black Path Extreme preamp to visitors. Ken Stevens (right) of Convergent Audio Technology showing off his CAT SL1 Legend Black Path Extreme preamp to visitors.
DR Audio Works Model 1 loudspeakers. DR Audio Works Model 1 loudspeakers.
Elliot Goldman of Bending Wave USA with the mighty WADAX Atlantis Reference DAC. Elliot Goldman of Bending Wave USA with the mighty WADAX Atlantis Reference DAC.
Dennis Murphy of Philharmonic Audio was offering restored Dynaco A25 loudspeakers. Dennis Murphy of Philharmonic Audio was offering restored Dynaco A25 loudspeakers.
A visitor admires the Acora Acoustics lineup. A visitor admires the Acora Acoustics lineup.
Michal Jurewicz, Damian Mosiolek and Chebon Littlefield at the Mytek exhibit. Michal Jurewicz, Damian Mosiolek and Chebon Littlefield at the Mytek exhibit.
Martin Ramos of Audeze sums up the show. Martin Ramos of Audeze sums up the show.
Header image: Graham Clancy of Technical Audio Devices Laboratories (TAD).

Shop Class

Shop Class

Shop Class

Jack Flory

In my first installment, “When I Was A Boy,” (Issue 150) I spun a yarn of growing up as a budding audiophile by using song titles as references. Many of the people who know me well and had previewed the piece said I left way too much out. So, I’ll add a few more installments to fill in some of the blanks along with some streams of consciousness along the way just for entertainment.

No, this piece is not like Bill Cosby’s rendition of “Shop” at all. My life’s version is closer to elements from “Driving In San Francisco.” Somehow, it’s all worked out and I’ve made it over the top of the hill, past the stop sign.

Like it or not, my high school had a well-established caste system. Students were ranked by the categories of College Prep, General Business, Future Farmers of America, and Industrial Arts, pretty much in that pecking order. Most kids destined for college were put into one of the College Prep sections and taught subjects they would need after high school, such as higher mathematics, foreign languages, and so on. For the most part, the athletes (jocks) got put into Business, the farmers in the FFA classes and those that didn’t fall into one of the obvious groups were placed in Industrial Arts.

The year I was in tenth grade, my school added Electrical Shop to the list of available classes. They’d had a long previous history of Wood Shop, Metal Shop, Auto Shop and Auto Body Shop. I elected to take Electrical Shop, as I thought I would learn electronics and it would be an easy boost for my grade point average. As it turned out, I was the only one in that class with any intention of learning electronics. Everyone else was there to learn how to wire a house and they were convinced I was there to destroy the grading curve (I did).

Since my school was in a fairly rural area, they didn’t have a large budget for furniture, and some heavily-used workbenches had been acquired from somewhere. They were greasy, grimy things painted US Navy battleship gray. Our first task was to refinish the workbenches.

Most of the class was truly proficient with such manual labor. Or maybe it was the chance to breathe volatile organic solvents that really got them going. In any case, all the gray paint was scraped away. Lo and behold, there was beautiful butcher block maple under all that greasy grime and paint. A little poly finish and we had some nice benches, but we still had to sit on metal stools that were quite uncomfortable after a while. This would become a real problem later.

The next step was to attach green tunnels down the middle of the benches. This separated four kids into two on each side of the bench. The tunnels were then fitted with power supplies, meters and all kind of things designed for a preprogrammed lesson plan from the manufacturer. I suspected the real purpose for the tunnels was to keep the equipment from being stolen. A real electrician was brought in to connect power to the tunnels, ending the dreams the hoodlums had of “Burning Down The House.”

Having outfitted the shop to his liking using free student labor, the shop teacher then started his lesson plans. Ohm’s law was first on the list. It quickly became obvious this wasn’t going to work. multiplication and division were beyond the math skills of the hoodlums in the class, and I already knew that “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” power equals I2R, where I is amperage and R is resistance in ohms. Save that thought. We’ll come back to it in a later installment.

While most kids my age were Desperately Seeking Susan or someone like her in a purloined copy of Playboy, I had hit on the Holy Grail. Somehow, my father had wrangled a copy of the Amateur Radio Relay League Handbook and brought it home, maybe by accident. It had lots of articles detailing schematic diagrams and pictures of how to build radio transmitters and receivers. This was way better than naked women. Years later, this culminated in my Amateur Extra Class radio station license. Yep, I had become a certified Nerd with a capital “N” and with the ARRL Handbook, I had a ready supply of future projects.

The Radio Amateur's Handbook, 1959. The Radio Amateur's Handbook, 1959.

My 11th grade project for shop class was to build a device to slew the clock on a telescope. I got the plans from Sky and Telescope magazine. Small telescopes such as those most amateur astronomers use have motors that are sensitive to the frequency of the power source. In our case, 60 Hz from conventional electric power. The trick is to get main axis of the telescope lined up on the star Polaris, and then take an exposure with your camera through the main telescope, letting the clock drive follow the stars. However, in almost all cases of deep-space photography, the exposure is long, and needs some hand guidance to avoid having the stars look like trails of light. This is accomplished by aligning the spotting telescope on a bright star and then backing out the focus until the star almost, but not completely, fills the spotting telescope. Even a slight error in tracking is obvious with this methodology. Then, you press one of two buttons to either speed up the frequency or slow down the frequency as needed.

By now, I was 16, had a driver’s license, and the use of our family’s Jeep. It was a “Dangerous” combination. My grandmother had fallen ill and my parents left me Home Alone most weekends. I had a part-time job at the local grocery store bagging groceries, and had a few extra coins in my pocket. I wasn’t really flush with cash, but had enough to get tickets for Steppenwolf, The Kinks and an occasional theater production. Yes, girls were involved.

For my 12th grade shop project, I found the plans and schematic for a stereo preamp in Popular Electronics. Transistors were all the rage and everyone wanted to design DIY projects. I started by etching my own circuit boards, drilling the holes, and then soldering all the discrete logic components to them. Being a nerd, I got the idea it would be cool to mount the circuit boards on the top of an inverted Bud box. The volume and tone controls would be inside the box. Each channel consisted of two 3-inch square circuit boards I mounted on risers so they could be seen in all their glory. This certainly wasn’t the best shielding for electronic noise, but there wasn’t as much of it back then. And, the preamp didn’t sound worse than our family’s Zenith. When my parents were out of town, this became my bass guitar amp, going through the preamp into the line inputs of the Zenith.

I had become interested in theater and became the only member of the stage crew. As it turned out, the shop class teacher became the sponsor of the stage crew. Being the star performer in his class had its special bonus. I received a standing hall pass that enabled me to cut out of boring things like study hall and an occasional class. As the only member of the stage crew, I got to pick the work I wanted to do, and also took responsibility for the lighting.

Soon, several of my friends figured out that I was hanging out in the auditorium while they were stuck in study hall. They too, wanted to be part of the stage crew. We became a little mafia of the stage. If you wanted to do something in the auditorium, you needed us to help. Not only were there the usual and customary school plays, we also worked on the senior class fund raiser. Every year, the senior class brought in a “real” act and charged admission to raise money. One year, we did a Shakespeare production with actors from New York. Another year, we had the O’Jays play a concert. Along the way we had some fun. Whenever the school principal spoke during an assembly, there would be a time when the kid running the sound system would shut him off. The principal would tap the microphone and it would work just fine. As soon as he spoke again, nothing. Then a big howl of feedback. Today, I would surely have received a text with the ROFL emoji after that one, but the iPhone wasn’t a gleam in Steve Jobs’ eye just yet. (Integrated circuits had just been invented. Fairchild had one in production with five transistors.)


This book could come in handy too! Learn Electronics Through Troubleshooting, Second Edition, 1977. This book could come in handy too! Learn Electronics Through Troubleshooting, Second Edition, 1977.

All this was beginning to grate on the nasty creatures in the class, and the late 1960s wasn’t just the dawning of “The Age of Aquarius, it was also the dawning of the age of Super Glue, and two of the shop class hoodlums, brothers, had discovered they could glue a straight pin on the end of a ballpoint pen. One of the them would sneak up behind me as I walked down the hallway headed toward shop class and jam it into my posterior. Of course, this delighted everyone in the hallway. And then, I had to sit on that metal stool.

I became primed for revenge. I had no real plan, other than the fact that my mother had made it clear to me that being expelled from high school wasn’t in my best interest. This was especially true as I had a scholarship in process. All plans for revenge were cancelled and I swallowed my pride. Believe me, it never occurred to me to settle differences as high school kids do today.

I went off to college and pretty much stopped thinking about all the indignation I had encountered in high school. However, “Revenge Is Sweet.” It’s sweetest when you have nothing to do with it, even if you don’t find out about it until the call comes years later for your first high school class reunion. It might not have been “Instant Karma,” but it worked for me. The older hoodlum brother hadn’t listened to the “I Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.” The younger one was involved in a construction accident and fell from a roof. I ignored the reunion. I would never return to that place again. Instead, I found solace in skiing, the great outdoors of the Rocky Mountains and my art. C’est la guerre and I won.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss building my first pair of speakers.

Header image: from Radio-TV Experimenter, spring 1961.

The Nightingale Has Landed

The Nightingale Has Landed

The Nightingale Has Landed

Michael Walker
Taken at the Aztec Ruins National Monument in Aztec, New Mexico. The nightingale is part of a mural depicting the ancient site. The arm and hand are more recently posed! The site includes a 900 year old pueblo great house of over 400 rooms, made of masonry.

Pilgrimage to Sturgis, Part Nine

Pilgrimage to Sturgis, Part Nine

Pilgrimage to Sturgis, Part Nine

B. Jan Montana

Interstate 90 back to Spearfish was packed with Harleys doing 55 – while sounding like they were going 105. I soon tired of the freight-train pace, waved to the renegades, and took the next off-ramp towards the hills. It was time to enjoy some twisties.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I wouldn’t make it back to Spearfish City Campground that evening.

I wasn’t sure where I was going and didn’t actually care much, so long as the roads were twisty. I remember passing Custer State Park and the perpetually incomplete Crazy Horse Memorial. The locals told me it would never be completed as there were too many faults in the rock formation to support the carving, but the owners kept collecting donations.

When I spotted a pond and a Trout Fishing sign by the side of the road, I pulled in to check the map. I was closer to Spearfish than I thought. Behind the pond was a small bar, a residence, and some cabins – a mom and pop venture. Like every other place during bike week, there were a bunch of Harleys parked out front. I grabbed the only single unoccupied stool remaining, at the end of the bar. A perky little coed named Melody took my order. She reminded me of a brunette Goldie Hawn.

Most of the other riders were wearing identical patches – Mutants, Mongers, Mongols, Morons, or something equally juvenile. They were a rough-looking bunch and seemed to have more scars than teeth.

The guy next to me was too drunk and obnoxious to live. He grated on me over the course of two beers, but I decided to say nothing so long as he stayed put. When Melody refused to give him another beer, he reached across the counter to grab her. Before any rational thought processing could intervene, I swung my arm around like the boom of a sailboat and slammed him backwards off the barstool and onto the floor.

As he stumbled up, he threw a string of invectives and threats at me, but I wasn’t worried about him, I was worried about all the other morons. This was going to take some quick thinking. Melody ran out through a back door.

Walking around behind the bar, I stood as tall as possible and addressed them. “What the hell is the matter with you guys? You let your buddy make an ass out of himself in public and don’t step in to intervene? If he’d gotten ahold of her, that would be aggravated assault!” I shouted in my best legalese. “You think any jury in this county would be sympathetic?”

Many of them stood up with hatred in their eyes and murder in their hearts.

“I’m serious, you need to think about this,” I continued. “That bump on his head will be gone in three days. An assault charge will cost him at least three years. I did your friend a favor!”

As they were deciding what to do, I heard some boots clomping across the wooden floor behind me, probably coming out of the restroom. They were sure to grab and hold me while the rest of the gang took turns venting their anger. This was going to hurt.

I determined that they weren’t going to mess me up without taking some souvenirs home themselves. I grabbed a whiskey bottle and swung around to engage in battle.

But there weren’t any clubbers there, just two cowboys – a young one and another twice his age. They were each holding a pump-action shotgun across their chests.

The older one said with intimidating authority, “I figure this is a good time for you boys to head back to camp and sleep it off. You’ll be a lot happier in the morning if you don’t let this get out of hand.”

The morons stood motionless not knowing what to do. One of them clandestinely reached underneath his leather vest. The younger cowboy lowered and cocked his Remington. Nobody moved for several pregnant moments. Then the older cowboy lowered and cocked his gun also and stated calmly, “There’s more of you than us, but as these shotguns hold five shells each, our odds’ll be a lot better after the smoke clears.”

The boss moron turned and exclaimed, “This is getting way too serious. It’s time for us to forget this misunderstanding and ride out.” They slowly gathered their gear and shuffled out the door. The cowboys followed them. I followed the cowboys. My heart was pounding like a log splitter. The boss moron cuffed the drunk one on the back of the head and growled, “you’re more f*cking trouble than you’re worth.”

They started their open-pipe Harleys with bombast and roared away, kicking up dust and gravel. Perhaps that was their way of having the last word.

We looked at each other with relief. A woman came from around the side of the building and exclaimed, “Thank god you kept Grandpa’s guns!” The older man nodded and the younger one wiped his brow in agreement.

Melody threw her arms around me. “That was the scariest thing ever!” she exclaimed. “You’re a hero!”

The historic commercial district of Spearfish, South Dakota. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jerrye and Roy Klotz, MD. The historic commercial district of Spearfish, South Dakota. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jerrye and Roy Klotz, MD.

Then she introduced me to her mother, father and brother.

After some small talk, I turned to the dad and carped, “Not sure why you guys would let a young girl sling drinks alone during bike week.”

“Yah, we’re not going to do that anymore,” the father responded.

“She wanted to do it, she loves it!” the brother countered, “She begged my dad…”.

“It’s getting dark,” dad interjected; “why don’t you park your bike ’round back and join us for dinner. We’ll provide a cabin for the night.”

As I wasn’t interested in dealing with the morons or any other animals on the dark road back to Spearfish, I readily accepted.

Just then, the sheriff and a deputy roared into the parking lot in two SUVs. Apparently, Melody had called them when the drama started. Dad gave them a report including the boss clubber’s license plate number – which impressed me. They accepted his invitation to dinner. I felt much more comfortable at the dining table with two police cruisers in the parking lot. We all enjoyed a fresh-caught-trout meal.

During dinner conversation, I asked the sheriff if he’d been one of the officers responding to Red’s accident. Turns out he was. He didn’t get there as fast as the first responders, but he was involved in the investigation afterwards. To my surprise, they couldn’t find any mechanical problems with what was left of the motorcycle, no flat tires, broken spokes, etc. It was his opinion that Red’s blood alcohol level wasn’t high enough to have caused his accident. He believed that excessive speed for the road conditions was the culprit.

I was immediately reminded of Chip in the Big Horn Mountains with Candy on the back of his motorcycle, overcooking a decreasing radius turn. Their tires were on the edge of the pavement and somehow, they pulled through without damage. Why couldn’t Red have done that?

Turns out dad and the sheriff went to college together and it was the sheriff who talked him into moving to the Black Hills. Dad was originally from Minneapolis and decided to buy a farm near the sheriff when he got married. Farming didn’t work out too well for him, so he dammed up the creek and started the trout fishing business.

When he got old enough, the son decided to give farming a try. But instead of growing grain, he built greenhouses and grew organic vegetables. The son beamed as the father admitted this farming venture was much more successful.

Melody was on summer break from her nursing studies at the University of South Dakota. She wanted to be an operating room nurse. She also wanted a ride on my bike, and asked if I’d take her out in the morning. I looked over at dad and he approved with a shrug and a nod.

“Sure, where do you want to go?” I asked.

“The badlands!” she eagerly responded.

I knew nothing about the badlands, but I loved the idea of riding there with Melody.

Back To My Reel-To-Reel Roots, Part Four: Making eBay Profitable

Back To My Reel-To-Reel Roots, Part Four: Making eBay Profitable

Back To My Reel-To-Reel Roots, Part Four: Making eBay Profitable

Ken Kessler

By now it has been established that my renewed interest in reel-to-reel is unnaturally narrow, in that I am not a recordist in any manner. I may be the only audio scribe who didn’t scratch his head when Thorens announced, at the last Munich High End Show, that its version of the Ballfinger tape deck would be playback-only. The only time I ever hit the Record button is when I am erasing old homemade tapes for recycling.

No wild claims for effect, no melodrama: I genuinely do not tape live music or off-air broadcasts, nor do I transfer LPs or CDs to tape, as I am not (yet) part of the niche group which finds it improves the sound. I am only interested in playback of commercial tapes, and that excludes the fare from the current practitioners, a.k.a. The Open Reel Revivalists.

Again, I do not wish to criticize any of the labels presently and bravely issuing pre-recorded open-reel tapes in the 2020s, nearly all of which are 1/2-track/15 ips releases, with prices up to around $1,000, but averaging $300 – $500. Partly it’s because I simply cannot afford them, but mainly it’s about repertoire. I just don’t have any desire to buy tapes of artists I’ve never heard of, performing music which I don’t care about, while the reissues of known works are simply out of my price range. And this is despite having heard examples of the Revivalists’ output, and been dazzled by their sonic worth.

Thus, you might have already surmised that I have restricted my playback to tapes produced during The Original Open Reel Era, roughly the period of 1952/3 to circa-1985 (give or take a year or two on either end), with the likelihood that some of the earliest binaural tapes may have appeared as far back as 1948. This is not as limiting as you might think, because – as best as I can estimate – in excess of 10,000 titles were released by labels ranging from the legendary pioneering audiophile labels such as the Livingston Tape Libraries, Everest, Command, Audio Fidelity, and so on, to nearly all of the majors. That figure of 10,000 comes from me manually counting the titles in my collection of 40 or 50 catalogues, as found in the used tapes I’ve acquired.

Part of KK's rock collection. Part of KK's rock collection.

Because RCA, Columbia, Capitol, London (the US wing of Decca), Mercury, and nearly all of the other mainstream labels supported open-reel tape for, at least, their major artists, and because the smaller independent labels, too, had access to well-known performers, the repertoire is huge, but severely skewed in terms of genre. It is blindingly obvious that – like the earliest LPs – the labels were targeting “grown-ups” for lack of a better term, because tape decks, and the tapes themselves, were costly.

Noting manufacturers’ prices printed on the boxes (as opposed to retailers’ price stickers), $7.95 – $12.95 was charged, depending on whether the tape was 1/2- or 1/4-track, a single album or a double-play, and occasionally thanks to some other factors, such as album length. (There were also budget labels and special sampler tapes from the likes of RadioShack for as low as $3.95.) Most of the vintage open-reel tapes seem to have playing times of 13 to 17 minutes per side, but many classical titles and some compilations ran to 30 minutes per side, while boasting this on the cover. Whatever the reasons, the prices equate to $60 – $110 in today’s values. In other words, feeding a tape deck back then was costlier than buying LPs. Plus ça change, eh?

Back to the genres. During the pre-Beatles era, the then-new teenager demographic got its musical fix with singles, not albums. Although major artists such as Elvis Presley (especially his soundtrack albums), Duane Eddy, Johnny Tillotson, Connie Francis, and Roy Orbison were given the reel-to-reel treatment, they were the exceptions.

One suspects that younger listeners would not become a market force until the mid-to-late 1960s, arguably the result of the perfect storm of college radio, the ascent of the rock LP, the arrival of affordable Japanese separates, and the emergence of outlets like Tech Hi-Fi, which catered to music lovers other than well-heeled professionals and seasoned audiophiles. It is therefore no surprise that the most poorly-served genres for pre-recorded tapes were soul, rock, R&B, and blues. By the time these genres did merit open-reel tape releases, the cassette had arrived and its convenience trumped that of open-reel, further limiting its commercial or practical appeal. And while many hundreds, if not thousands of rock titles ultimately were released on open-reel tape, the survival rate is low, while demand today outstrips that of all other genres. But we’ll get to that next time.

Surprisingly, there were more (US) folk and country and western titles available than one might have imagined. The former genre was hot in the early 1960s, with the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, the New Christy Minstrels, and others benefitting from the “hootenanny” craze, crossing over into the pop charts and enjoying TV coverage. Country music was more radio-supported than album-oriented, but huge crossover stars, including Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Chet Atkins appeared on open-reel tape.

At this point, to provide some basis for these observations, please note that my research is based on analyzing the aforementioned catalogues, and on cataloguing more than 2,200 tapes I have acquired in the past three years. While that is hardly a large enough sampling to make broad generalizations, neither is it so tiny as to be risible or insignificant. Moreover, I have forced myself to develop an open mind, beyond rock, pop, soul, blues, and the like, and, out of necessity, have not limited myself by genre.

I have now spent many hundreds of hours in my dotage listening to music which never before issued forth from my sound systems. If you told me five years ago that I would be listening (as I write this) to Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic’s album, Russian Sailor’s Dance (Columbia MQ801) with selections by Glière, Grieg, Copland, et al, I would have asked you to share your hallucinogens with the rest of the class. I have sat enthralled by Mantovani, marveled at Percy Faith, swooned to Jerry Vale and even sat through Half a Sixpence.

19 tapes per box, and KK has 80 of them.
19 tapes per box, and KK has 80 of them.

Next month, I’ll get to the rock tapes and why they’re so rare, but for the moment, here are my musings. Out of 2,200-plus tapes, there are around 150-200 duplicates, so my study is based on 2,000 tapes purchased at random. Aside from a dozen purchased at the UK’s AudioJumble and a box of 40 or so from a record store, all are from eBay vendors – around 50 different suppliers. And I have watched prices treble since I started collecting, so I am not imagining a revival in interest in reel-to-reel, and I claim no credit for it.

It swiftly emerges from the sheer presence of so many multiple copies that the best-selling tapes back in the day appear to be the soundtracks or Broadway scores to The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Carousel, Camelot, The King and I, and South Pacific; popular music from Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Englebert Humperdinck, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Tom Jones, Johnny Mathis, and Barbra Streisand; easy listening from Percy Faith, Ray Conniff, and Mantovani; and classical recordings from the aforementioned Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, Andre Kostelanetz, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops and others of that caliber.

Jazz is represented by the Dukes of Dixieland, Dave Brubeck, Al Hirt, and a few others, but it might be that – like the best rock titles – they haven’t been fed to eBay because the lucky owners hang on to them, e.g., Miles Davis tapes fetch a fortune. The most common tapes from the pop, soul and rock era are the Supremes, the Carpenters, Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Neil Diamond.

If open-reel tape is beginning to seduce you – all it takes is one good demo at a hi-fi show from the likes of Jeff Joseph – be warned. The cutoff date for open-reel means no Rage Against the Machine, no Prince, no Ed Sheeran, no Beyoncé, no Foo Fighters. It is a format locked in the past, like 78s. But if you do venture forth, you might find, as I did, that Julie London and Tony Bennett and Billy Vaughn are more than enough in the wee small hours.

Header image: Ken Kessler’s pension fund.

Burt Bacharach: The A&M Years

Burt Bacharach: The A&M Years

Burt Bacharach: The A&M Years

Rudy Radelic
Previous installments of our series on Burt Bacharach appeared in Issues 146, 147, 148 and 149.

Instrumentally Bacharach

As the tail end of the Dionne Warwick era came closer, Burt Bacharach signed a record deal with A&M Records. With the label, he would not only get to record his own instrumental albums, he would strike gold with three recordings, each propelling an A&M single to the top of the Billboard singles chart.

Bacharach’s recordings for A&M spanned 12 years, with the release of his first album for the label, Reach Out, appearing in 1967, and concluding with the Woman concept album in 1979. Apart from the final two albums, Bacharach’s albums were primarily reimagined arrangements of tunes that were hits for other artists. While they could pass for easy listening, Bacharach’s meticulous arrangements and demanding conducting gave them a timeless appeal. He had recorded a set of tunes for the Kapp label a couple of years prior in the UK, but it did not have the same appeal.

While the A&M albums are primarily instrumental recordings, occasional refrains of verses or choruses are sung by a female singer or group of singers. In addition, Bacharach was not afraid to take the spotlight on a track on each album and sing the lead part himself. On the first album, Reach Out, his roughshod voice does a remarkable job on the tune “A House is Not a Home.”


His third A&M album, Make It Easy on Yourself, was very similar to Reach Out, this time featuring Bacharach’s vocals on the title track. Bacharach’s self-titled fourth album would expand his horizons with more lengthy arrangements on a couple of tracks. His new arrangement for “Wives and Lovers” (devoid of its dated lyrics) totally upends the original with multiple sections and occasionally-shifting time signatures. Opening side two of the LP, “And The People Were With Her (Suite for Orchestra)” is a similar workout for the large ensemble.


His fifth album, Living Together, represents a turning point. Recall that in 1972, his partnership with Hal David had fallen apart after the Lost Horizon soundtrack failure, and Dionne Warwick had sued both partners for breach of contract with her new label, Warner Brothers. Living Together tied up the remnants of that era and the Lost Horizon soundtrack. A good example of his sophisticated instrumental pop was evident in one of the album’s instrumentals, “Monterey Peninsula.”


Futures, his sixth A&M album, is perhaps Bacharach’s most difficult. Long past the Hal David/Dionne Warwick era, Bacharach collaborates with other lyricists, and includes a handful of vocalists including Joshie Armstead, Jamie Anders, Sally Stevens and Peter Yarrow. David Sanborn makes an appearance as well. This is perhaps Bacharach’s most interesting album up to this point – complex orchestrations, many guest vocalists, and lyrics that touch on emotions past Hal David’s work require a lot of keen listening. There are many highlights on the album, and this is just one of my favorites.


Bacharach has called his seventh and final A&M album, Woman, an “expensive failure.” Yet it is a formidable exercise in instrumental pop. The concept of the album is loosely foreshadowed by its title. It’s an album of mostly instrumental tunes, but three of the songs feature guest vocalists Libby Titus, Sally Stevens, and Carly Simon. The other aspect of this concept album is that it was recorded in its entirety with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, unlike past albums which were products of the studio. It was difficult to choose a favorite here, but I went with “Summer of ’77” due to its dynamic nature. And the recording itself is demo quality.


Striking Gold

A&M Records is also home to three Bacharach Number One singles…sort of.

In 1962, a vocalist/trumpet player recorded a single in his garage, and after bringing a business partner on board, parlayed the success of that Number 6 Hot 100 single, “The Lonely Bull,” into the world’s largest independent record label. Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass organization would go on to dominate the album charts in the mid-1960s, at one point placing as many as five albums in the Top 20 of the Billboard Top 100 Albums chart. He had also scored many Number One albums, but a Number One single proved to be elusive.

It would take a segment of a television special, The Beat of the Brass, to light up the phones at the CBS Television Network’s offices, asking where to buy a single release of a tune Alpert had sung to his then-wife Sharon called “This Guy’s In Love With You.” It was quickly pressed as a single and rose up the charts, accomplishing the hat trick of becoming the first Number One single for A&M Records, for Herb Alpert (billed without the Tijuana Brass), and for the Bacharach/David songwriting duo. Here is the segment from the TV special.


This next track appears on A&M only on a technicality. Bacharach’s second A&M album was the soundtrack to the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. While B.J. Thomas was contracted to Scepter Records (on which the re-recorded 45 RPM hit single version was released and rose to Number One), “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” appeared on the A&M soundtrack album. Two B.J. Thomas versions are on the soundtrack. Thomas had a cold when he first tracked the song, and that version with his rough voice was used on the montage tune, “On A Bicycle Built for Joy,” which is the musical segment with the tune that appears in the film. (Both A&M versions are unavailable on YouTube, although the film clip can be seen here.)


Finally, A&M would get its second Number One single courtesy of a brother/sister duo from Downey, California. “They Long to Be Close to You” was recorded earlier by other artists – Richard Chamberlain, Dusty Springfield and even Dionne Warwick took a shot at it but failed to make it a hit. Bacharach even gave the tune to Herb Alpert as a follow-up to the smash single “This Guy’s In Love With You” but, not happy with the result, Alpert shelved his recording. (It eventually surfaced on Alpert’s Lost Treasures rarities collection.) Alpert then passed the tune along to the recently-signed Carpenters, who were recording their second album. After working out the arrangement with Richard Carpenter, Richard commented that it would either be an enormous hit, or a complete dud. This Bacharach/David song caught on fire, becoming A&M’s next Number One single, complete with a slight parenthetical change to the original song title: “(They Long To Be) Close To You.” It set the Carpenters off on their own remarkably successful run of charting hits.


In addition to these hits, many of Bacharach’s A&M labelmates covered his songs. The groups and artists included Herb Alpert (with and without the Tijuana Brass), Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, The Sandpipers, Claudine Longet, The Baja Marimba Band and others. I won’t pursue these here, other than leaving you with this gem, from an album that has become a cult favorite among “sunshine pop” collectors. Here is Roger Nichols & The Small Circle of Friends with their version of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” (Roger Nichols is also a well-known composer, having co-written another Carpenters Number One hit, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” with collaborator Paul Williams, and numerous others that have charted for other artists.)


Aside from Dionne Warwick’s tunes in the 1960s and early 1970s, many other artists performed Bacharach/David songs. We will look at those in the next installment.

Header images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com.

One Size Fits All? Part Two: Mind the Gap

One Size Fits All? Part Two: Mind the Gap

One Size Fits All? Part Two: Mind the Gap

Russ Welton
In our previous article (Issue 150), we discussed the fact that selecting the “small” setting on your receiver or A/V preamp/processor in the speaker setup menu allows you to assign the low frequencies to a subwoofer, and the midrange and highs to the main speakers. This also, alleviates some of the power-handling demands on the midrange and tweeters, which can be highly advantageous. 

One area where this can perhaps be easily notable is if you are watching an old black and white film that was originally recorded in mono, and may have been subjected to some remastering to try and enhance some of the details in the sonic spectrum, particularly in the vocals. The soundtrack may have added reverbs or processing to widen out the spatial quality of the recording. You may often notice that the vocal tracks have been boosted to give them more lift and punch in the overall mix.

Setting your main speakers to “small” will tend to give that vocal clarity its cleanest separation, as the frequency range of vocals is largely in the midrange, and the main speakers will be free to reproduce these vocal frequencies, while the bottom end is handled by the subwoofer rather than the main speakers. You may in fact find that some older film soundtracks can be a bit shrill in their upper mids, but nonetheless, I think you’ll be able to easily appreciate the difference when changing between speaker size settings of “large” and “small” it can become a good mental reference point.

When it comes to using movie soundtracks, though, one problem is that we simply don’t know which channels the bass has been mixed to. Some bass may have been assigned to the surround speakers, the fronts or even the center channel, particularly if the action is happening center-screen, or in the relative positions of where the action is taking place. Also, Dolby Digital soundtracks have a dedicated LFE or low-frequency effects channel. We weren’t there when the film was mixed and mastered, so what can we do if we find that a lot of the movies and music we listen to are perhaps lacking in the vocal punch and presence we wish to hear? Again, this is another good reason to set your main speakers to “small,” so that they are free to reproduce that frequency range more readily and without being overshadowed by overlapping lower bass frequencies.

NAD receiver speaker setup screen. NAD receiver speaker setup screen.

Some A/V receivers and preamp/processors, such as the Yamaha receiver I own, actually have both a vocal level and a “lift” setting so you can manually boost either to taste. The level controls up to three volume levels. If vocal sounds cannot be heard clearly, you can turn up their volume by increasing this setting from “one” to “three.” The lift is adjustable from “one” to “five” and alters the perceived height of the dialogue sounds; the bigger the value, the higher the position. (This may be more pertinent for adjusting the vocals when watching a film if they sound like they are coming from too far below the TV.) The lift function comes into available operation when using one of the Yamaha’s surround-sound programs that accommodate presence speakers, or when Virtual Presence Speakers is turned on, but not when in 2-channel stereo or “7-channel stereo” modes. This can be very useful when trying to get the best sound “on the fly” for the varying audio qualities of TV broadcasts, most of which have been subject to all manner of compression.

For these reasons and those mentioned in our previous installment, many subwoofer manufacturers will extol the virtues of setting your main speakers to “small,” and also because they want to sell you subwoofers. And that’s fine. They may point out the reality that running your speakers full-range can also put huge dynamic power demands on your A/V receiver, causing it to get hot. Also, in the case of physically small speakers, such as bookshelf monitors and/or speakers with smaller woofers (around 8-inches in diameter or less) that are limited in bass extension, it makes sense to set the speaker setup to “small.”


11.2 channels of whack: the Yamaha Aventage RX-A8A receiver. 11.2 channels of whack: the Yamaha Aventage RX-A8A receiver.

In our last installment, though, we suggested that there was a good case for running speakers full-range, with the receiver or preamp/processor’s speaker setup set to “large,” but also using a subwoofer at the same time. Why?

The first reason is that many speakers are capable of producing a lot of bass, and to crop off their production of it at around 80 Hz is basically handicapping the speakers’ output and the tonal character the designer had in mind. It’s true, the main speakers, even if they’re floorstanding towers, may struggle to get below, say, 25 Hz or even much higher, but setting your subwoofer crossover at 80 Hz and your speaker to the “small setting” potentially leaves a frequency range gap (in this example) of up to 55 Hz that the main speakers could potentially deliver down to. Is this really what you want to do?

It’s worth mentioning that many A/V receivers and processors sound better when they are warmed up, and are capable of running hot quite safely, given adequate ventilation as per the manufacturer’s guidelines.

As a case in point, I have recently changed my upright, open multi-shelf wood and glass rack unit to a closed-cabinet glass-fronted horizontal design, and although I can operate the controls perfectly via the remote through the glass, I choose to open the front of the cabinet door to allow for good air circulation. I don’t mind the unit running within its specified operating temperatures, but equally, I don’t want to unnecessarily shorten its lifespan by cooking it for hours at a time. Yes, the equipment runs a little hotter than it used to. (Incidentally it has also saved me some space in my listening room, which is a welcome bonus, and still allows me space for changing power amps.)

If you decide to run your speakers full-range, you potentially avoid the handicap frequency gap we just mentioned, (the size of which will vary according to what your speakers are actually delivering and what you set your crossover to), but by also using a subwoofer, you plug a further more common frequency range gap of about 40 Hz down to 20Hz. In this situation, your main speakers are running at their optimal frequency range and tonal balance, with a dedicated subwoofer to consistent and solid bass up to the crossover point that you choose for sonic preference. Equally important, you can adjust the balance between the main speakers and subwoofer to accommodate for the room’s influence over your sound. Keep in mind that the room may influence your sound from a significant 50 to as much as 70 percent.

This too is important, because running your speakers full-range with a sub means that more locations in the room are generating lower bass frequencies, which may more readily compensate for the null points in the room where bass frequencies cancel out. I am personally running a quadraphonic (four-tower) system with one sub, and for music listening, this supportive bass envelopment from multiple locations makes for a richer and more fulfilling sound throughout, as more nulls have been quashed.

If you do decide you would like to set up your system this way or just integrate a subwoofer, it’s important to check that your speakers are operating in phase with the sub. Most subwoofers come with a phase switch allowing it to be set to either 0 or 180 degrees, or perhaps a dial to allow you to select in between those two options. Getting the subwoofer phase-correct with the main speakers is essential for achieving the most natural, full sounding, and cohesively integrated bass.

A bulletproof way of visualizing the effect of the sub’s phase is by measuring its response within Room EQ Wizard. When measuring this, you will be able to see either a trough, or the opposite, a fuller frequency response according to the phase you set. Although you can also listen for it, taking room readings gives you greater insight and specificity when making before and after adjustments, particularly for smoother integration with your speakers’ in-room frequency response.

This is just part of the process of integrating your subwoofer along with other procedures for setting up your system speakers, such as compensating for their distance from the listening position (delay time), and setting volume levels for each. Similarly with your sub, once you have set its position, distance and now phase correctly, you may then finely adjust he volume to further blend its frequency response in with the curve of the rest of the room, and eradicate any unwanted residual frequency troughs which may still remain. You may of course need to turn your sub volume down if the resultant measurement revealed too much of a peak! Either way, it’s good to remember that if you intend to further EQ your room’s response, it’s much easier to remove an unwanted peak rather than fill in a trough.

You want bass? The GoldenEar SuperSub XXL subwoofer delivers it down to 10 Hz! You want bass? The GoldenEar SuperSub XXL subwoofer delivers it down to 10 Hz!

Another advantage I have found is that by running the speakers full-range, and properly integrating the bass from the subwoofer with the main speakers, is that because the bass volume has now naturally increased by about 5 dB, and is smoother across the lower frequencies, I can choose to turn up the bass further still, but without it sounding artificial or imbalanced due to peaks and troughs in the low-frequency response. This means I can run the system at different volume levels and still get a great sound. It’s particularly advantageous if I want to listen to music late into the night, albeit at lower volumes, without disturbing the neighbors’ sleep. (Well – I haven’t had any complaints so far!) Then, during the day, I can just turn up the volume to taste and continue to get that full and well-integrated sound.

Sometimes, though, I may turn the speaker setting back to “small” to listen to movies or documentaries that are heavy on dialogue, because of the increase in clarity discussed earlier. Also, in action movies and other material, the dynamics can be very dramatic and even overpowering with only the LFE channel handling the super low bass and explosive sounds. But, overall, I much prefer the way my system sounds with the “large” setting and the main speakers running full-range, for its timbre, depth, richness, musicality and more evenly -balanced bass response throughout the room. There is so much music present in movie soundtracks that I tend to leave the system set this way – and it’s optimal for me for pure music listening.

Header image: KEF KC62 subwoofer and LS50 Wireless II speakers.

Easy Listening

Easy Listening

Easy Listening

Peter Xeni
Our BS Detector headphones cancel the snake-oil noise (talk) at the Hi-Fi Show.

Rock and Roll – Missing In Action?

Rock and Roll – Missing In Action?

Rock and Roll – Missing In Action?

WL Woodward

My wife Diana and I were in the European Café in Colorado Springs a few Saturdays ago when a guy came through the patio door, looked at me and asked, “You the guy with the Red Sox license plates?” I was proud to answer “yes,” because the Red Sox were still in the League Championship Series and hadn’t yet forgotten how to swing their bats.

Diana and I grew up in Connecticut and it turns out this dude had as well. He was about my age, plays guitar, and used to play in bands around CT as I had. We even played in some of the same nightclubs like Mad Murphy’s and The Russian Lady, which is still in Hartford. I believe I still owe some money at the Lady on a band tab.

This man named Mark and I bored Diana into a coma as we waxed nostalgic about the circuit back there and our favorite bands. He asked me if I knew who Al Anderson was, and we sure did. Big Al was the phenomenal guitar player for NRBQ and originally with the Wild Weeds. NRBQ played all around New England and eventually all 48 states and was a wild favorite everywhere they went.

Eventually he got around to the big question: “What do you think about modern music?” I replied, “It sucks.”

To be fair, when he said modern music, I immediately thought of Adele, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Rihanna, basically the darlings of the Grammys. He knew I was a column writer for Copper because we had talked about the series I’m doing on Tom Waits. Also, I tell everyone I meet that I’m a writer, hoping to impress someone fer cryin’ out loud.

Mark suggested I do a column on what’s happened to rock and roll.

I initially dismissed the idea. I was mentally in the middle of the Waits series and wanted to stay focused. I have a short attention span. But within an hour and after some reflection I thought this was a pretty good idea. Thanks, Mark. Waits will have to um, wait.

Again, that cursed attention span.

I can feel the hairs springing up on the back of my neck. That usually means I’ve struck a nerve and I’m going to get some nasty comments from the pop fans out there about how wonderful life is with Taylor Swift. Bring it on. I’m not through yet and bound to piss off many more.

I will not compare today’s pop to yesterday’s. Dat crap’s been done. I won’t even compare current wunderkind guitar players, and they are out there, folks, to guys like Hendrix, Page, Van Halen and Stevie Ray. That doesn’t explain anything.

What I found interesting were my talks with people on this subject. I asked 20- and 30-year-old folks who their current favorite guitarists were. For the most part they looked embarrassed, and finally stammered out someone like John Mayer, Jack White or David Grohl. Note: none of those players was born after 1978.

My research did turn up fantastic young players, unbelievable guitar players. My son (thedeanwoodward.com), who helps run a music store, pointed out that guitar sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic, so possibly we may see a resurgence in interest and guitar-playing genius. He also directed me towards Norway and Finland, where the guitar is still a god. But what had happened ubiquitously to guitar as a major influence since 1985 took reflection.

Certainly, the disappearance of guitar in pop music, starting in the 1990s, and the emergence of keyboard techno and sampling, played a part. Still, that had to have happened because the public lost interest in rock and roll in general and guitar in particular. No small part of that causation can be blamed on the takeover of the radio waves by corporate classic rock idiots who think the only hit Hendrix ever had was “All Along the Watchtower.”

So, chicken? Egg?

Consider this. For you old coots out there, remember the dominance of guitar in music from 1965 to 1985. I can name a song, not necessarily a hit, and the lick will jump into your head. If you hear a snippet of that song your brain opens:

  • Opening bars to Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary”
  • Opening bars to Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker”
  • First bars of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride”
  • Signature opening riff to Deep Purple’s “Strange Kind of Woman”
  • Opening to the Who’s “Pinball Wizard”
  • Opening riff to “Layla”
  • Opening to the Allman Brothers’ “Statesboro Blues”
  • That four-note haunt that starts “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”
    • I’m at work so sans guitar, but as I remember, Bb, F, G, E [yes – Ed.]
  • Any part of Van Halen’s “Eruption”
  • Opening riff to Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung”


And what about acoustic guitar in rock? Like:

  • “Wish You Were Here”
  • Steve Howe’s beginning of Yes’ “Roundabout”
  • Recurring refrain in Tull’s opus, “Thick as a Brick”
  • Jimmy Page’s use of acoustic on songs like “Stairway to Heaven,” “Over the Hills and Far Away” and most of Led Zeppelin III.

By the way. I’ve been waiting to say this somewhere. “Since I’ve Been Loving You” off Zeppelin III is hands down the best studio rock blues recording ever done. Stop, just stop. I’m right and you know it.

All right. There’s only one way to prove this. Headphones on please. Shhh. Just relax. If yer reading this, you have nothing better to do.


But I digress.

The list of licks is endless, and my intrepid readers will no doubt point out some glaring omissions.

Guitar defined rock and roll from Chuck Berry to Elvis Costello and the Clash. We do need to consider how record companies and radio stations kept remembering how to mold pop tastes. When I was a mere prat, AM radio dominated the airwaves, and certainly the stations owned by corporate nincompoops had already locked in on what they considered sales material. There are plenty of instances, even back in the mid 1960s, of hits shoved down everyone’s throats like “Winchester Cathedral.” Lord, my mom loved that song, and I use the term “song” loosely. There is a good story about the production of “Winchester Cathedral” and I’m ashamed to know it.

Turn the page to my teen years and the advent of FM rock. At first these stations mostly consisted of college stations with DJs who were as stoned as we were and had full reign in the studio. I remember when our whole school was abuzz when one local FM station announced they would play “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in its entirety on a Tuesday evening at 7 pm. The waste of that evening belies the tale. There was a buzz.

The format for the college FM stations was so open that the college kids who DJ’d at the stations could choose the music being played. We were exposed to everything from the Allman Brothers to Zappa. It was glorious, and one developed loyalty to certain DJs because of the types of music they played.

So, what happened? This is not one old guy’s rant about how life was better when we had to walk to school carrying rocks. Backpacks my ass, man. You walked with a serf’s load of books twice a day and ate lunch that damn near killed you.

I honestly want to understand.

Recently I was watching a video on Rick Beato’s YouTube channel (he’s a well-known YouTube musician and video personality) titled “Has Every Song Been Written?” with guest Rhett Shull.


They were talking generally about what had happened to rock, and Shull mentioned something that grabbed my attention. Shull’s point was there was a phenomenon he called a “negative feedback loop” that happens when listeners gravitate to something simple, and the record companies who really know nothing better than to replicate anything successful, rinse and repeat. The audience’s ears get used to that simplification and the downhill slide continues until bingo, you have Doja Cat and autotune.

This spectacle is not without precedent. Rock had slid down that slope in the late 1950s. Elvis had decided he wanted to do movies and become Sinatra. People stopped listening to rockabilly, or rock- or blues-related material (in the US, anyway) and the negative feedback loop by 1962 left us with hits like “Ahab the Arab” by Ray Stevens and Bobby Vinton’s “Roses Are Red.”

Shame on you (and welcome to the monkey house) if either of those songs just popped into your head.

Then came the Beatles. In 1963 they released Please Please Me and With the Beatles. There were six cover songs out of 14 sides on the former and five covers on the latter. They had not completely formed as a band writing all their songs, but they had a good start. Still, the hit songs were bubblegum drops like “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me.” Wow. Autocorrect changed ‘hit’ to ‘sh*t’ right there and I almost missed it. Maybe autocorrect was right. The songs were still pleasing to the average pop ear and not representative of anything that really stretched sensibilities.

But the Beatles were sneaky.

Each subsequent album raised the bar slowly on what pop could be. And others were coming. In 1964 the Rolling Stones released the Rolling Stones and 12 X 5. In contrast to the Beatles, there was one original song on the first and three on the second. However, the Rolling Stones were tapping hard into the blues from America and developing a following that was separate from the Beatles.

As albums progressed further along the positive feedback loop, ears were getting accustomed to more sophisticated material. Look at the progression from A Hard Day’s Night to Rubber Soul to Revolver. By 1965 you had the Yardbirds, the Who, the Sonics, the Kinks, the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd. Frank Zappa was getting his feet wet at that time, but you can’t count him in this discussion. Frank was an alien.


None of those bands would have had a Gremlin’s chance at Le Mans before 1963, but by 1965 the pendulum was swinging and clanging a siren song to ears that would eventually spawn King Crimson, Yes, Weather Report, Brand X and Gentle Giant. The tree of rock grew vociferously and stayed growing that way for 30 years, and in some ways is still growing in patches.

I believe we are again in 1962 territory where pop is gathering moss…and waiting. To follow the ways of feedback loops, if a Yes-type band came along now, and folks I am telling you they are out there, the listeners would be no more ready for it than they would have been in 1962. The Beatles certainly didn’t plan their journey; in many ways they followed their muse to Sgt. Pepper’s. Plus, there was a heady stew of competition between all those bands as they tried to outdo each other on every subsequent album.

No, the next revolution will start innocently with a band that begins with something harkening back to earlier rock and progresses slowly and willfully, with more bands following and creating a new genre that will still be undeniably rock and roll.

I would trade in my IRA to experience 1963 to 1985 again. Of course, I only have $600 in my IRA but…I’d still do it.

To paraphrase Zappa, rock and roll isn’t dead, it just smells funny. We wait patiently for the next generation to wake us up.

Header image: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, 1971.

Jane Ira Bloom: A Unique Voice on Soprano Sax

Jane Ira Bloom: A Unique Voice on Soprano Sax

Jane Ira Bloom: A Unique Voice on Soprano Sax

Anne E. Johnson

Jane Ira Bloom embodies the point where formal academic training and traditional jazz performance meet. With a master’s degree from Yale School of Music, this Grammy-winning composer and soprano saxophonist has made a career of interesting and innovative projects, including a commission from NASA!

Bloom was born in 1955 in Boston and grew up playing drums and piano. Although she tried alto saxophone first, soprano sax better suited her fluid, mercurial style in both playing and composition. Her interest in all things art-related has made her the perfect collaborator on multi-media works, including a dance piece for the Baryshnikov Center in New York and a sound-and-light installation for the Philadelphia Music Project.

The NASA commission was an unprecedented honor: in 1988, Bloom became the first musician invited by NASA Arts to create a work of art reflecting space exploration in some way. Previously, only visual artists had enjoyed such commissions. The result, Most Distant Galaxy, is an ethereal, eight-minute jazz chamber work. Not only did Bloom record it for her 1992 album Art and Aviation, but NASA rewarded her efforts by renaming Asteroid 6083 after her; it’s now called janeirabloom.

Bloom currently teaches at the New School in New York. Enjoy these eight great tracks by Jane Ira Bloom.

  1. Track: “The Man with Glasses”
    Album: Mighty Lights
    Label: Enja
    Year: 1983

Mighty Lights is a quartet album with Bloom on saxophone, Charlie Haden on bass, Fred Hersch on piano, and Ed Blackwell on drums. This was one of several collective projects for these musicians. With this 1983 recording, the 28-year-old composer/saxophonist demonstrated to the jazz world how intriguing and energetic a soprano sax can be. That instrument is too often associated with vacuously smooth jazz and “elevator music” arrangements, so any artist who gets a different sound from it is making an important contribution. (With a completely different style, of course, Branford Marsalis has followed just as individual a path.)

Bloom wrote “The Man with Glasses,” which features a reflective, meandering melody. She has excellent control over tone and dynamics, giving the piece an intricately sculpted shape.


  1. Track: “Child’s Song”
    Album: As One
    Label: JMT
    Year: 1984

Working again with pianist Hersch, Bloom exhibits a leaning toward free jazz on As One. Both musicians take risks in their solos, barely staying moored to the original melody and harmony. The album contains numbers by Bloom and Hersch, as well as Wayne Shorter and Alec Wilder.One of the Hersch compositions is “Child’s Song,” dedicated to bassist Charlie Haden. It’s an interesting play on 12/8 time, seeming to be in interlocking meters simultaneously. When she enters, Bloom takes a quiet, conversational tone before flitting off to explore nearby musical planets.


  1. Track: “Most Distant Galaxy”
    Album: Art and Aviation
    Label: Arabesque
    Year: 1992

“Most Distant Galaxy” was the piece Bloom wrote for her commission from NASA Arts. Here it serves as the centerpiece of a particularly imaginative album. Bloom experiments with electronic sounds (which she plays herself) in conjunction with her saxophone, and the effect is mesmerizing. She is joined by a half-dozen acoustic jazz musicians plus an “elektro-acoustic percussion” player, Jerry Granelli.

As for the NASA work itself, Bloom truly seems to have captured outer space in a bottle. This is done with a dizzying array of pitch, rhythmic, and timbral motions that swirl like space dust and shoot by like comets.


  1. Track: “Jax Calypso”
    Album: The Red Quartets
    Label: Arabesque
    Year: 1999

Another team effort by Bloom and Hersch, The Red Quartets also includes Mark Dresser on bass and Bobby Previte on drums. Jazz critics at the time gave this album high marks, both for the precision ensemble playing and for the range of styles and moods on display from track to track. Indeed, these four musicians seem perfectly suited to each other, responding to cues of phrasing and expression in a way that continuously fleshes out the work.

The album includes an interesting experiment in this Bloom’s mash-up of her own piece, “Chagall,” with the Irving Berlin standard, “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Another excellent track is “Jax Calypso,” which has a gentle Caribbean syncopation under some sweet-toned virtuosity from Bloom. Stick around for Previte’s inspired drum solo, much of it on the rims.


  1. Track: “Jackson Pollock”
    Album: Chasing Paint
    Label: Arabesque
    Year: 2003

Chasing Paint, featuring the same lineup as The Red Quartets, is one of several concept albums she has made focusing on a particular artist. The overarching theme is abstract painter Jackson Pollock, and many of the tracks refer to him.

On the tune titled “Jackson Pollock,” Bloom might be using her free-floating melodicizing to describe either the painter’s technique or his directionless personal life. The runs on the saxophone interact with the poly-metered snare phrases. Bloom seems to use every possible embouchure to find the extremes of her instrument’s timbral spectrum.


  1. Track: “A More Beautiful Question”
    Album: Mental Weather
    Label: Outline Records
    Year: 2008

In 1978, Bloom released the first of many albums on her own label, Outline Records, for which she has continued to record for decades. Mental Weather is one such project. Among its many strong points is the interplay between Bloom and pianist Dawn Clement, whose filigree touch at the acoustic and electric keyboards is the perfect foil for Bloom’s long, thoughtful lines and intricate patterns on the saxophone. Mark Helias plays bass, and Matt Wilson is the drummer.

Written entirely by Bloom, the album opens with the atmospheric “A More Beautiful Question.” Her upper register is crystal clear, without the reedy strain often heard on that end of the instrument.


  1. Track: “Good Morning, Heartache”
    Album: Sixteen Sunsets
    Label: Outline Records
    Year: 2013

It’s impossible to hear the song “Good Morning, Heartache” and not think of Billie Holiday. Therefore, it’s appropriate that Bloom approaches her arrangement of this jazz standard with more of a retro feel than usual, mostly staying in her saxophone’s lower registers until the gloriously high-arching final verse.

Cameron Brown’s bass playing is so sensitively crafted that he threatens to draw focus away from Bloom’s melody. Dominic Fallacaro plays piano while Matt Wilson stays laid back on snares.


  1. Track: “Singing the Triangle”
    Album: Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson
    Label: Outline Records
    Year: 2017

Wild Lines is another of Bloom’s concept albums, this one commenting musically on the writings of poet Emily Dickinson. The project was a commission from Chamber Music America, although Bloom had already written three of the pieces and recorded versions of them on an earlier album before receiving the commission. Wild Lines is unusual for offering two works for each title, one occurring on either of the two discs.

The titles themselves refer obliquely to imagery in Dickinson, rather than making an obvious parallel with particular poems. “Singing the Triangle” begins with actress Deborah Rush reading from what seems to be a letter or diary entry by Dickinson, describing the circus arriving in her hometown of Amherst, Mass. in 1866.

Header image courtesy of Jane Ira Bloom/photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

Music Therapy

Music Therapy

Music Therapy

James Whitworth

Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul

Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul

Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul

Anne E. Johnson

It’s been said that the way people respond to your death is the best indicator of how you were regarded in life. When Aretha Franklin passed away in 2018 at the age of 76, the internet was flooded with a tidal wave of grief. Theaters and concert halls paid homage to her on their marquees. Celebrities and fellow musicians tearfully recounted the many ways this giant of soul music had inspired them. Many of them traveled from afar to pay their respects at her funeral. Without question, this was a proportional response to losing one of the most influential performing artists of the modern era.

The Detroit native, born in 1942, was raised on gospel music. She signed with Columbia Records when she was only 18. Although she moved on to Atlantic in 1966, she would go on to make over 40 albums, score countless hits, and enjoy honors such as an honorary Pulitzer and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. At the foundation of the reverence the world held her in was Franklin’s earth-shaking voice, her musical intelligence, and her dedication to her craft. She was the definition of irreplaceable.

Because Franklin was so prolific in the studio, all I can hope to do here is meander through her library, shining the light on a few tracks that weren’t released as singles and probably aren’t as familiar to most readers as her big hits. So, sit back, click on the videos, and glory in that Franklin sound!

During her six years with Columbia, among Franklin’s recordings was Laughing on the Outside (1963), her fourth studio album. This was the first time she released one of her own songs, called “I Wonder (Where You Are Tonight).” While the string-heavy arrangement by producer Robert Mersey is overly sentimental, Franklin’s delivery of her fluid melody line shows a sophistication that’s remarkable for a 21-year-old.


Having moved to Atlantic Records and now being produced by Jerry Wexler, the industry tastemaker who coined the term “rhythm and blues,” Franklin released Lady Soul in 1968. It was a monster success, reaching the No. 2 spot as an album plus spawning hit singles like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”

Somewhat surprising is the cover of the Young Rascals’ 1967 hit “Groovin’.” Franklin is just as comfortable with this contemporary pop sound as she is with more blues-based material. The album was recorded at the heart of American soul, the FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and was supported by in-house studio musicians like the wonderful Spooner Oldham on organ. Engineer Tom Dowd contributed to the dense, thrilling sound.


Wexler and Franklin became an unstoppable creative pair. In the last two years of the 1960s, their output included the huge-selling singles “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Ain’t No Way,” off the hit albums Lady Soul and Aretha Now. In 1968 she also won her first two (of a total of 18) Grammy awards.

The hits continued, including the No. 1 “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” with Spirit in the Dark (1970). By this point, she was writing almost half the material on every album, proving herself as gifted at the music’s creation as with its interpretation. “Spirit in the Dark” was her own song, and it made it into the Top 10. But Franklin wasn’t always focused on hit-making formulas. She reminds us what a great barrelhouse pianist she was on the album-only track “Try Matty’s,” which she wrote in the style of an old-school blues-rock number, complete with the bone-shaking Muscle Shoals horns.


Fans followed her breathlessly as she reconnected with her gospel roots on the album Amazing Grace, but then they started to abandon her. Sales began slipping in 1974 when With Everything I Feel in Me managed no Top 40 singles.

One of the joys of that album is Franklin’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Love Every Little Thing About You.” This track is an interesting combination of the usual R&B horns with Ken Bichel’s rock- and jazz-inspired chords on the Fender Rhodes keyboard. Franklin’s voice is incredibly supple and effortlessly wide-ranging.


Sales continued to dwindle. Fame is fickle, and no one in the recording industry could quite pinpoint what had dethroned the Queen of Soul or how to fix the problem. Some suggested it was because disco had taken over from R&B. Franklin finally had enough after her disco-themed La Diva was released and flopped in 1979; she left Atlantic after making 20 records there. Still, there are some nice tracks to be unearthed among the albums of the late 1970s.

On Almighty Fire, for example, composer/producer Curtis Mayfield celebrates the struggling singer’s gifts, even if her style was sounding seriously retro to younger ears. Franklin had collaborated with Mayfield on the movie soundtrack for Sparkle in 1976, and the success of that venture inspired them to work together again. Almighty Fire was not a commercial hit, but songs like “No Matter Who You Love” make it worth a listen:


After jumping from her foundering Atlantic contract, Franklin landed at Arista Records. Things immediately started to improve when she created two albums produced by Luther Vandross. This gained her a Grammy nomination for “Jump to It,” a gold record for “Get It Right,” and a re-entry to the Top 40. The albums themselves, however, still weren’t selling the way she’d hoped, so she moved on to another producer.

That was Narada Michael Walden (currently the drummer with Journey), who pondered ways to make younger listeners notice Franklin. On Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (1985), Walden’s fusion of trendy sounds like hip-hop and synth pop into Franklin’s R&B foundation proved to be exactly what the singer needed to get back on the map. “Freeway of Love” was a big hit, and the guest spot with the Eurythmics on “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves” didn’t hurt either. The new sound is well demonstrated in the song “Until You Say You Love Me.”


The mid-1980s marked the end of Franklin’s chart-topping days, despite 1989’s Through the Storm (1989), which found her singing duets with fellow stars like Elton John, James Brown, and Whitney Houston. Sales notwithstanding, Franklin had achieved a permanent icon status that nothing could alter. She continued to tour, playing to sold-out venues of adoring fans. 

Franklin’s final studio album of entirely newly-recorded material was Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, from 2014, four years before her death. This collection of covers was the only record she ever made for RCA. At the age of 72, Franklin remained a vocal powerhouse and one of the most expressive singers ever to delight listeners.

Eric Clapton and The Lady in the Balcony

Eric Clapton and The Lady in the Balcony

Eric Clapton and The Lady in the Balcony

Ray Chelstowski

In 1992, when Eric Clapton recorded an episode of MTV Unplugged at Bray Studios in London, the series featuring artists playing acoustic instruments was already well into its third season, having started in 1989 with a session by the band Squeeze. For MTV Unplugged, Clapton rearranged many of his classic songs and added a few blues classics. The record not only went on to sell 26 million copies, it became the best-selling live album of all time. It also earned Clapton six Grammy awards, including Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, (“Tears in Heaven”), Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Rock Male Vocal Performance, and Best Rock Song. It’s hard to top that, but when it comes to live albums, Eric Clapton has always set a sterling example of how to take well-known material and make it sound fresh and new.

Arguably the finest example of that is 1991’s 24 Nights, recorded at the Royal Albert Hall with all-star guest appearances from Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughan, Joey Spampinato and Buddy Guy, along with epic string arrangements by The National Philharmonic Orchestra that take songs like “Bell Bottom Blues” and allow them to catch air and soar in the most spectacular fashion. The record has great majesty and along with Unplugged, has become a master class on how to put together a live record.


Eric Clapton and band. Photo courtesy of Dave Tree.


Now, Eric Clapton presents his fifteenth live album, The Lady In The Balcony: Lockdown Sessions, and it’s a nuanced, understated and intimate representation of songs that he and others made famous. Frankly, it’s perhaps the most delicate offering he may have ever given the public, inside or out of the studio. It was recorded at Cowdray House, a grand old countryside estate in West Sussex, England. The estate is home to the Cowdray family, is world-famous for being the center of British polo, and has welcomed royalty from all over the world, including the Queen and the late Prince Philip.

There, in what appears to be Buck Hall, with its vaulted ceiling and minstrel’s gallery, he and his band set up shop and in a circle, tossed together a casual and yet often complex interpretation of a variety of music. He is joined by longtime sideman Nathan East, who played upright bass for most of the performances. East also provides his hallmark honeyed harmony sound to Clapton’s raspy blues vocals, and that balance runs throughout the recording. His playing never adds much bottom to the songs but rather gives them a border that keeps them on a solid glide path. Drummer Steve Gadd rarely uses anything but his hands and brushes on a kit that is tight and small. More than any member of the band, Gadd adds a human element to the sound that is both earthy and real. Rounding things out is the legendary Chris Stainton on keyboards. His style is much different than keyboardist Chuck Leavell’s (currently on tour with the Rolling Stones, and who famously took a solo turn on the Unplugged record with the song “Old Love” that made everyone, including Clapton, turn around in awe). With Stainton in the mix the keys have more of a honky tonk, toe tapper flair, and he brightens the music up in ways that make this feel like you are hearing it live from a pub in the village.


The record rose out of the COVID-19 lockdown and the need for Clapton to put his scheduled concerts on hold. They were to begin in May of this year, ironically at the Royal Albert. Looking for a viable alternative and hoping to keep his options open, he reconvened with his band to the English countryside and staged a concert with just the band and his wife Melia (who inspired the record’s name) in attendance. The project was overseen by Clapton’s longtime producer Russ Titelman (James Taylor, George Harrison, Brian Wilson, Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones). Titelman, who also produced Unplugged, helps make this album more than just Unplugged 2 by introducing electric guitar later in the set, which brings just a bit of grit to the record and allows it to build and close strongly.

What I find the most rewarding about The Lady In The Balcony: Lockdown Sessions is how not a single song begins with an obvious opening. At times the music just casually spins into a song you know and does so with the kind of ease that only a group of world-class musicians who have played together as these musicians have could deliver. This is very much the case with the slow, cool smolder that becomes “After Midnight.” Then there’s the loosely-knitted “Bell Bottom Blues,” which sways with a kind of simple elegance that is hypnotic. While Clapton’s take on any blues classic like “Key To The Highway” is always welcome, it’s the addition of the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac tracks “Black Magic Woman” and “Man of the World” that bring a new and important musical reverence to bear. It’s really great to see so many artists deciding to tip their hat to guitarist and singer-songwriter Peter Green these days and broaden awareness of that band’s early work.


This record isn’t poised for the kind of greatness that Unplugged earned. The market has moved and the arrangements here are too wide open for radio. But they present some incredibly rich musicianship and some of the finest examples of Clapton’s acoustic guitar-playing abilities. While he doesn’t fly across the frets like someone like Ottmar Liebert, he brings forward performances that leave his fingertips with real feeling and flair, and he often carries the run time for each song well beyond their familiar studio versions. Those who follow his style of playing will want to spend time with the video release of the album, where a significant amount of attention is given to his hands and how he attacks the notes. For the fan who isn’t a musician but just loves the music, you’ll find the way that the concert is shot, interspersed with lush aerial shots of the grounds, to be perfectly in pace with the tempo of each tune.

I often wonder whether it would even be possible for someone of Eric Clapton’s stature to take a show like this on the road. It’s probably a logistical impossibility, and that’s why releases of this kind are such wonderful gifts from artists to their fans. More than Unplugged, across each available format, you’ll feel like you are sitting right there in the room with the band and Melia, captured with a sense of wonder, and for a moment, released from the ongoing uncertainty this pandemic has brought to our modern era.


Track Listing:

  1. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out
  2. Golden Ring
  3. Black Magic Woman
  4. Man of the World
  5. Kerry
  6. After Midnight
  7. Bell Bottom Blues
  8. Key to the Highway
  9. River of Tears
  10. Rock Me Baby
  11. Believe in Life
  12. Going Down Slow
  13. Layla
  14. Tears in Heaven
  15. Long Distance Call
  16. Bad Boy
  17. Got My Mojo Working