The audio world has lost another legend with the passing of Max Townshend at 78. Born in Perth, Australia, he was the head of UK-basedTownshend Audioand designer of a wide range of high-end products, including cables, the Seismic series of isolation products, the Allegri preamplifiers, plus loudspeakers and other creations. I had the pleasure of speaking with him one last time about a year ago in conjunction with an article he wrote forCopperIssue 124, “The ‘Sound’ of Speaker Cables: An Analysis,”and as always he was generous with his knowledge, unflinching in his beliefs, and a blast to talk to. RIP to one of the industry’s true titans.
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
Cover: “Cartoon Bob” D’Amico
Cartoons: James Whitworth, Peter Xeni
Parting Shots: James Schrimpf, B. Jan Montana, Rich Isaacs (and others)
Audio Anthropology Photos: Howard Kneller, Steve Rowell
Quad ESL-57 electrostatic loudspeaker. it's missing its stands, but otherwise intact. One of the all-time greatest loudspeakers ever created; some would say, the greatest.
ESL-57, rear view. From The Audio Classics Collection, photo by Howard Kneller.
The fabled Mark Levinson HQD system. It included a stacked pair of Quad ESL-57 loudspeakers per side, with a Kelly ribbon tweeter in the middle, and two Hartley 24-inch woofers. The system cost $24,000 in the 1980s. (The original source for this image could not be verified as of press time.)
Doesn't everybody want an audio system with 16th century styling? 1969 Fisher ad for the Metropolitan M-299-IP console.
Returning as a live show after being held as an all-virtual event in 2021, the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) took place from January 5th through 8th, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’ve attended almost 20 CES events and the 2022 show had the feeling of past shows, but while being a shadow of its former self – especially for audio, where it was less than a shadow and more of a dying memory.
Getting ready before the show. Courtesy of the Consumer Technology Association.
Hopes were high in the fall of 2021 as many exhibitors, as well as the press that covers the show, looked forward with eager anticipation, only to have those hopes dashed by the rapid spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant. The spread of the virus and the uncertainty accompanying it led to many exhibitors and members of the press dropping out and not attending the show. I had confidential conversations with industry exhibitors, as well as with my fellow journalists, and found the reasoning to be consistent from those who decided not to go. The corporate PR reps said that upper management had made the decision to go virtual even when staff was ready to have a live show, and in fact they were excited and anxious to show off their new products and disappointed by the decision. Almost to a person, the journalists stated that while they recognized the risk of severe illness from Omicron was low if they were vaccinated and had received a booster shot, the chance of a positive test while traveling and thus being stranded far from home played a role in their decisions, especially if paying their own way. Coming down with symptomatic COVID-19 while in Las Vegas could be a very expensive proposition! There was also a sense that the show was not going to be a good one compared to past years, and that made the risk even less acceptable.
I personally hemmed and hawed before deciding to attend. Besides the risk of infection, illness and being stranded, I feared that COVID-19 protocols would make attendance something of a slog in the mud. This turned out to not be the case, and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the organization behind CES, is to be commended for their efforts in this regard.
A scene from the show floor. Courtesy of the Consumer Technology Association.
All CES attendees were required to be fully vaccinated, with their status verified by CLEAR and displayed on the CLEAR app. Masks were also mandatory and I went to the show armed with an abundant supply of KN95 masks. Registering was easy; when I checked in to get my badge at the Bellagio hotel, all I had to do was show my vaccination status on the CLEAR app, a government ID, and a barcode that was e-mailed to me beforehand. The badge was then printed and attached to a lanyard and I was sent on my way. Security checked my badge when I entered the building and again as I entered the exhibit areas, just as in prior years. Sanitizer was abundant on the show floor, as were signs reminding everyone to socially distance. Other than the vaccination step, it was little different than previous years. While measures were thorough and I saw almost complete compliance everywhere, I don’t think I would have recommended attending the show to those who have only a moderate to low COVID-19 risk profile. While the sparse attendance made social distancing easier than I anticipated, it still felt uncomfortable at times, and the social distancing process tended to break down in queues for exhibits and shuttle buses.
I’ll have a more detailed CES report in an upcoming issue but for now, here are a few highlights:
Pepcom’s Digital Experience!
The Digital Experience! is held by media showcase event company Pepcom at every CES on the night before the CES show floors open. Held exclusively for members of the media, many companies that cannot afford to exhibit at CES or who wish to connect primarily with reviewers will have tables and booths there. The Digital Experience has been held in ballrooms at The Mirage the past few years and is a favorite of media covering the show for the opportunity to check out new products, the free food and drink (which tends to be very good), and take advantage of the networking opportunities. The empty entranceway and low turnout were harbingers of things to come the next day, as the event is usually packed.
Audio/video product representation at the Digital Experience has lessened over the years, as the event has moved toward featuring more smart home and personal products than home entertainment components and TVs. 2022 continued this trend.
Not a mirage: the Digital Experience! is usually a packed CES event.
Victrola Premiere V1 Turntable Music System
Victrola Premiere V1 Turntable Music System
One notable exception was the $499Victrola Premiere V1 Turntable Music System,winner of a 2022 CES Innovation Award. The Premiere V1 features a turntable mounted in a base containing stereo speakers, which connects with a wireless subwoofer. Mounting a turntable directly on a vibrating speaker system is at odds with creating a resonance-free environment for an analog front end, but it has been done with varying levels of success byAndover Audioand other manufacturers attempting to create a single-piece system with acceptable sound. While they may not find much of an audience among audiophiles, such systems can find homes with those with limited space or who desire simplicity and low cost. The system features a Victrola VPC-190 moving-magnet cartridge, which did not bear any superficial similarities to the ubiquitous Audio-Technica models found on many if not most entry-level turntables.
The sound of the Victrola V1 was difficult to evaluate on the show floor, even if the floor was quieter than usual, but what I heard was quite a bit better than I have heard from other single-piece suitcase systems, and the wireless subwoofer filled in the bottom end nicely. If you are looking for a vinyl rig for retirees who want and need simplicity, or college students with limited space, or people who want to enjoy good sound from vinyl without a lot of fuss, the V1 could fit the bill.
Victrola Premiere V1 Turntable Music System.
Nebula Cosmos Laser 4K Projector
Nebula Cosmos Laser 4K Projector
Another product that literally caught everyone’s eye was the Nebula projector. The company offers a range of compact, high-definition smart DLP video projectors, which incorporate a permanent LED light source, a built-in sound system, and the Google/Android TV operating system into a single component for home entertainment. Connect the projector to Wi-Fi, add your favorite apps, and enjoy home entertainment on a wall or a screen. An HDMI connection is provided for use with external video sources, and the smaller models like the Nebula Capsule II and Nebula Solar Portable can even run on battery power, and can double as a good projector for business use. I have tested many Nebula projectors and am quite enamored with them due to their excellent image quality, and all-in-one convenience and ease of use.
The top-of-the-line Nebula Cosmos models can project screen sizes of up to 150 inches in either 1080p or 4K resolution with HDR10 high dynamic range. The Cosmos Max 4K projection is my personal choice for home entertainment, and I have hosted many informal movie nights both indoors and outdoors with it, wowing my audiences and invariably getting a lot of questions about this neat home entertainment product.
The newNebula Cosmos Laser 4Kis their latest model and promises a big jump in brightness, thanks to its laser light source. It will launch in March 2022 with an estimated price of $3,000. A limited number of early bird 40 percent-off coupons, redeemable through Kickstarter, are available on the Nebula website for those who want to get in on it early.
Cosmos Laser 4K projector. Courtesy of Don Lindich.
Stay tuned for Part Two and coverage of the CES show floor.
The Neil Young Archives (NYA) has a URL,https://neilyoungarchives.com/, but to call it a website is a severe understatement. It is a museum of audio, video, film, and more, that amounts to the most comprehensive artist-curated collection in the vastness of cyberspace. I spent a weekend, and then a few more days, trawling through its treasures and pleasures, thanks to a gift subscription from my longtime Neil Young advisor/advocate Barbara Heinsohn, and felt, like an afternoon at the Louvre, that I was just barely skimming the surface.
There are three levels of paid subscriptions. The free, which I had signed up for some years ago, offers little. Classic, to which I was gifted, offers plenty for $19.99 a year. Rust ($39.99) and Patron ($99.99) provide escalating other perks, the latter including, “special consideration is paid to their ticket requests.”
I’m a Neil Young fan, but not an obsessive fan of anyone, really. How many Young albums, CDs, and downloads do I have: 20? 30? They’re like pebbles in a pond. How many times have I seen him in his various configurations? At least a dozen, meaning I’ve hardly seen him at all. I freelanced a review of the mystifyingGreendalesomewhere, reviewed the Jonathan DemmeHeart of Goldmovie performance somewhere, and posted reviews on my old blog onBloggerofPsychedelic Pilland the strange, one-of-a-kindAmericana.
The NYA made me feel like an absolute beginner, but that’s a good thing, because even the total Neil nut will find plenty of fresh stuff.
Young’s many contradictions are apparent as soon as you visit. Log on, and what you want to do is go to the file cabinet. On screen, it looks like a pre-internet filing cabinet, one you’d see in every office, and it is filled with folders marked by subject (album titles) and subfolders (songs from those albums). It starts, at the bottom, with his most recent album,Barn,with Crazy Horse, an album with much to like that is almost a perfect distillation of quintessential Neil styles, from woozy harmonica ballads to nostalgic refrains to stoner scenarios to Crazy Horse jams.
As you lift the switch on the file cabinet with your cursor, you will hear the scratch of an old-school cabinet, its rollers scraping up against the sides of the steel tracks. Click on a folder, the folder opens, choose a song, and play it. When you get to the beginning of the cabinet, you’ll have access to the earliest Neil Young recordings: the surf/garage rock instrumentals “The Sultan” b/w “Aurora” by The Squires, released on the V Records label (label number V-109), produced by Bob Bradburn.
The newest recording is an unreleased album, an archives exclusive calledSummer Songsand recorded solo at his Broken Arrow ranch on Christmas Day, 2021, including “Last of His Kind,” a lament for the family farmer, and “American Dream,” in which he sings: “Don’t know when things went wrong/Might have been when we were young and strong.” Co-producer Niko Bolas is here, there, and everywhere through the years; he and Neil as a production team are known as the Volume Dealers.
There are small tags on the timeline with typed historical data (the typeface is that of a typical ribbon typewriter). “NY forms his first band, the Jades, January 1961.” “He meets Stephen Stills for the first time, at the Fourth Dimension in Fort William, Ontario, April 21, 1965.” First US gig: The Wobbly Barn, in Killington, Vermont, October 30, 1965.
By 1966, there’s a selection by Buffalo Springfield called “Kahuna Sunset.” Another surf instrumental, recorded 9/15/1966 at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, produced by Springfield’s controversial managers, Brian Stone and Charles Greene. There’s a track that I don’t remember from the self-titled Atco debut albumBuffalo Springfieldin 1966, “Baby Don’t Scold Me,” a retro pop song which sounds like a mashup of the Mamas & the Papas, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and a lick from “Day Tripper.” It’s only a glimpse of how far the harmonies of the four singing members: guitarists Young, Stills and Richie Furay, and drummer Dewey Martin, with Bruce Palmer on bass, might have taken them. Release date: December 5, 1966.
The other songs I remember: “Sit Down I Think I Love You,” “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing.” The entire mono and stereo versions of that album are in the archives. What’s missing: “For What It’s Worth.” Click on the forward arrow and you’ve got that same album, re-released on March 6, 1967, with “For What It’s Worth” added as the lead track, and “Baby Don’t Scold Me” left to the dustbin of history. But should you crave hearing it, the NYA has it for you, in its original context, as track 10 of that first release of the debut album. You can also find it again as part of a collection of demos on the July 17, 2001, box set, also calledBuffalo Springfield. It is an endless dream of rabbit holes to fall through.
Young has been forthright in expressing his distaste for the limited audio capabilities of compressed mp3s. He started his own audio company, Pono, as early as 2012, to offer better audio bandwidth. Labels wanted to charge a premium; Omnifone, which ran the Pono store, was bought by Apple, and shut down, according to the website Noise11.com (April 23, 2017).
Click on the Audio Setup button, and you’ll get a thorough explanation of Young’s audio philosophy and numbers that he says back it up. The defunct Pono has been replaced by XStream, developed by Young with Singapore’s Orastream, which the NYA claims to deliver “the highest-quality audio ever provided over the internet.” There is an article in the onsite newspaper,The NYA Times-Contrarian,on adding a DAC to your phone for maximum quality. (I have been viewing and listening through my longtime computer desktop companions, the Altec Lansing ACS-33 with subwoofer.)
There is no compression to save memory: “They are all master quality, ranging from 44.1 kHz/16-bit to 192 kHz/24-bit.” (There is some music in the archives whose source quality doesn’t match up to high-res or CD-standard audio). In the player window, there is a green bar with an old-school up/down toggle switch. It is labeled a “320” switch: If your network speed, computer processor, or memory can’t handle a high-res stream, you flip the switch down to the 320 kbps setting, which the NYA says will provide audio quality comparable to that of Spotify or Pandora.
Being contrarian, Young also offers a remarkably lo-fi recording. On Sept. 16, 2013, Neil had gone into Jack White’s studio in Nashville to cut an album calledA Letter Homefor release on Record Store Day on April 22, 2014, on White’s Third Man label. It’s an album of covers, featuring Neil on guitar, harmonica, and vocals, with White sometimes adding a second guitar and harmony. The songs include Don Everly’s composition for the Everly Brothers, “I Wonder If I Care as Much”; Springsteen’s “My Hometown”; and a few Gordon Lightfoot songs in tribute to Young’s fellow Canadian national hero.
What’s the audio catch? It was recorded in White’s telephone-booth sized 1947 Voice-o-Graph machine. Alex Petridis of The Guardian called it “arguably, the lowest-fidelity album ever made by a major artist.” But the performances are interesting, depending on your tolerance for true lo-fi.
There is plenty of data for each song: the date it was recorded, who the players are, the label it was released on, and the lyrics (when available, most of the time). Listening to “Mr. Soul,” Young’s first star turn with Springfield, as lead track toBuffalo Springfield Again, (October 30, 1967),sounds even punchier than I remembered. Again, the credits help: great L.A. studio drummer Hal Blaine is listed in the album credits, and it sure sounds like he’s on “Mr. Soul.”
Here I am, stuck inBuffalo Springfield Again, again. Let’s move forward. I fell in love with “Crime in the City,” recorded at Jones Beach, New York, on August 27, 1988. It’s on a live album that wasn’t released, if I’m reading the timeline right, until November 13, 2015, and credited to Neil Young & the Bluenote Cafe, which is related to but not exactly the same as the much-derided blues tour and record Young made with the Bluenotes also circa 1988. But the album sounded better than I remembered it, once you get used to the idea of Neil Young and “Ten Men Working,” as the opening song goes, which include a big collection of horn players, led by Steve Lawrence, his frequent tenor sax accompanist on projects through the years. This was when Neil expressed his contempt with corporate sponsorship on “This Note’s for You,” a sarcastic jab at a Budweiser commercial. A Joe Turner style of jump blues of “Hey Hey” features a line, “get off of that couch, turn off that MTV!”
But my favorite part of the trip through the archives was watching parts of a movie in the Hearse Theater, which has three screens. The screens are shaped like longer, wider rearview mirrors of an automobile. The movie that grabbed me wasLINCVOLT, a five episode, multi-hour journey from San Francisco to Wichita, Kansas. It features Neil and his longtime producer and associate, Larry “L.J.” Jackson, and stars Neil’s gas-guzzling 1959 Lincoln Continental, which got around nine miles per gallon. In Wichita, there was a car expert, Johnathan Goodwin. Neil had seen him on the TV showPimp My Ride, and Goodwin converted the Lincoln into an electric hybrid in 2007 – 2008. (Here’s a video of Goodwin:
On the road, Young’s cherry-looking Lincoln was a conversation starter in itself, and every time they stopped for gas or to admire scenery, from Las Vegas through Flagstaff to Hoover Dam, to Dodge City, KS, all sort of people: bikers, Native Americans, retirees, attendants, and stragglers, would talk to Neil about the car, and their journey. I left with Neil driving into Goodwin’s driveway, and a scene of Young finding a piano somewhere, alone in the dark, playing and singing “After the Gold Rush.”
A new year always brings New Year’s resolutions, and it’s no different for audiophiles. Here are the 10 I’m going to try to stick to:
Have Pass Labs install a modified XP-22 with Lithium ion batteries in a Tesla to boost and refine the power to the engine, while also acting as a head unit for a Milbert car audio tube amp.
Tell Rick Fryer that DC amounts to nothing at all.
Silently praise the Magician of Köln, who worked magic on January 24, 1975, my 15th birthday. “Call me, Keith. Let’s hang out! Loved you in Chicago, in 1985! I was the one without a pager.”
Have Pass Labs install a modified INT-25 to turbocharge the Roadster and warm the brioche.
Ask Phillip Glass what it’s like to be him. (“It’s just really great.”)
Have Frank Doris accidentally thank himself graciously in e-mail for an article he forgot he wrote, and see the universe implode.
Reinstall Roon again; reboot all the computers again, re-run setup, wait an hour for the NAS to scan; finally put Köln on headphones at 11:59PM. At midnight a glitch causes the monthly “re-up” to fail. All sound then stops, but I get a nasty text about paying the bill. Cry for a while. Drink beer.
Have Pass install a modified INT-60 under the Golden Gate Bridge to warm the pigeons’ toes on the asphalt and also install one in my other Tesla.
Stop talking about Nelson Pass so much.
Make a film about Roon and Köln: Midnight and Inaudible Keith Jarrett.
Octave Recordshas releasedAudiophile Masters, Volume III,the third in its series of reference-quality music sampler albums. Available as a stereo SACD in a limited edition of 1,000, and as a download bundle,Audiophile Masters, Volume IIIoffers a diverse and eclectic series of tracks, from the sonic intimacy of Monica Marie Labonte’s acoustic guitar-driven “Loving You” and the solo piano of Deborah Schmit-Lobis, to hard-driving pop-rock and jazz, a classical vocal and piano duo, and the uncategorizable “Last Chance,” performed by More Than Physics on handpans!
The tracks were recorded in pure DSD using Octave Records’ Sonoma DSD recording system at Animal Lane Studios in Lyons, Colorado, to capture the varied musical styles, vocal and instrumental clarity, dynamic impact, realistic timbres and the ambience of each individual recording with state-of-the-art fidelity. Paul McGowan, PS Audio CEO, said, “Now that Octave Records has more than a dozen releases to its credit, our artist roster has expanded to the point where we can offer a truly diverse musical and sonic palette of styles.Audiophile Masters, Vol. IIIshowcases this range with the extraordinary sonic realism made possible by the pure DSD format.”
More Than Physics. Courtesy of Jordan Bass.
Audiophile Masters Volume III (SRP: $29) is playable on any CD, DVD, or Blu-ray player. It also has a high-resolution DSD layer that is accessible only using a PS Audio SACD transport, or by copying the DSD tracks on the included DVD data discs. In addition, the master DSD and PCM files are available for purchase and download at this link, which also includes samples of each track for listeners to preview. Audiophile Masters Vol. III was recorded and mixed by Steve Vidaic and Giselle Collazo, and mastered by David Glasser. It was produced by Vidaic and Collazo, with Jessica Carson as executive producer. The album begins with Monica Marie Labonte’s “Loving You,” recorded from an intimate perspective that lets every nuance of her vocals and acoustic guitar, along wish the Dobro and acoustic bass, to be heard with superb realism. Other selected tracks include the avant-garde-meets classic-jazz “Baba Yaga’s Hut” by the Tom Amend Trio, and the Seth Lewis Quintet’s lush “Arborvitae,” featuring captivating solos by electric guitarist Dave Devine and Octave Records solo artist Gabriel Mervine on trumpet.
Monica Marie Labonte and band.
“Airs chantés, no. 4 – Air vif,” a duet written by Francis Poulenc, showcases Duo Azure vocalist Ekaterina Kotcherguina and pianist Jessica Nilles in a performance with stunning dynamics and depth. Andy Thorn’s “Fox Trail” is a bluegrass banjo and acoustic guitar workout with the instruments captured in lively detail. “Last Chance” is performed by the irresistibly-named duo More Than Physics entirely on handpans, a steel-drum-like instrument struck with the hands, with a surprisingly versatile range of sounds, all captured with extraordinary fidelity.
Deborah Schmit-Lobis. Courtesy of David Schlatter.
Most all of the tracks were recorded live with some vocals and harmonies on some tracks added in later. All of the tracks were captured directly from the analog microphone preamps (which included models from Grace Design, Manley, and Forssell Technologies) into Meitner Audio A/D converters then into the Sonoma DSD recorder. Monitoring and rough mixing was performed on a Trident analog console. Once tracking was completed, the DSD files were transferred to PS Audio's mixing room where they were converted back to analog via four synchronized 8-channel Meitner D/A converters, to then be mixed on Octave Records’ 32-track Studer 936 analog console. The final two-channel analog master was then converted back to DSD through the Meitner A/D converter before mastering.
Andy Thorn. Courtesy of Nikki Nichols.
The track listing for Audiophile Masters Volume III is as follows:
In our previous installment (Part Three, Issue 153) we determined that a truly adequate amount of clean power is advantageous in handling peak volume levels in our music, because this headroom prevents unwanted clipping of the signal and possible damage to our speakers and equipment, while providing better fidelity in our listening position. After all, the way the speaker performs at the listening position in terms of its frequency response at a given volume, along with the influence of the room on the speakers’ performance, is what we end up hearing. Taking the size of our listening room into account, along with considering our speakers’ sensitivity and the amount of power needed to adequately drive them gets us a long way toward choosing a good speaker and one that delivers a tonal balance that we’ll be happy with.
We also considered just how much amplifier power may be necessary, with some illustrative examples using a 6,000-cubic-foot room and a pair of speakers nominally rated at 85 dB. The goal was to better understand how well speakers will pressurize a room with sound and have a better idea of what a particular speaker designer’s take on how their speakers might perform and what kind of design and budgetary restraints they might have been limited to.
At the end of the article, we raised the question that’s on many a speaker buyer’s mind: “How loud will my speakers play?” The perhaps-elusive answer to this question can assist us in better understanding our speaker’s capability in this regard.
Dynamic range will not be a problem with the Wilson Audio Chronosonic XVX loudspeakers.
Audio system installation specialists, sound consultants, studio professionals and end-user customers such as you and I need accurate information so that we can be sure of what we are purchasing. However, in the commercial space, the data for a speaker’s peak linear sound pressure level may be available, but less often is this information even contemplated by domestic-market customers.
There are many different tests and standards out there for evaluating the output of loudspeakers, but not all are adhered to by all manufacturers. THX has their standards, and then there is the CEA 2034-A-2015Spinorama(ANSI) speaker test standard (originated from research published by Dr. Floyd E. Toole in the 1980s and refined by Harman International), the Skywalker Sound ISO 2969X cinema standards, the SMPTE 202M standard, and others.
What we often find is that the data that is produced may either be non-informative to the majority of customers, and so it is never requested (or certainly not by the majority of end users who may simply blindly trust a brand), or non-conclusive. Speaker “A” may have a set of measured response parameters that are the same as speaker “B” from another manufacturer, yet sound completely different because of its off-axis response, directivity index, or the total amount of power output it produces.
One example may be that a speaker with a higher directivity index – the ratio of the amount of sound it produces directly forward, compared the amount of sound the speaker delivers off-axis – may be more advantageous for use in a bigger room rather than a small room.
But where can you find directivity index information in the first place, and what does it mean? In upcoming articles we will discuss the critical value of Spinorama testing. Spinorama consists of a series of on- and off-axis speaker measurements which identify the amount of direct sound coming from the speakers to the listener, and also how much of the off-axis sound is being more widely dispersed. Importantly, Spinorama measurements can also predict whether listeners will prefer a given speaker in listening tests.
Being made aware of the directivity index of a speaker can help you decide if it may be more suitable for you and your personal situation and tastes.
There is now a relatively new test signal that has been developed by pro audio company Meyer Sound (seeCopper’sprofile in Issues99,100and101). NamedM-Noise,its goal is to standardize the measurement of loudspeakers by assessing their maximum power output and the true dynamic potential of musical source material under accurate real-world conditions, while overcoming the discrepancies that can result when using different test signals.
Modeling the dynamics of music is something that a standardpink noisetest signal is less capable of doing. Pink noise (a type of wideband noise often used in audio measurements) models the potential bandwidth of audio source material, but does not contain the type of instantaneous peaks at different frequencies that may be present in music and that a speaker may be subject to. Real music is not like pink noise. It is far more dynamic in its range – and power demands.
In particular, pink noise doesn’t have a high crest factor, an indication of how extreme the peaks are in a waveform. The crest factor of music increases at high frequencies. The M-Noise test signal is designed to more accurately represent crest factor, and therefore, music, for a more accurate emulation of how music affects a speaker.
Historically, speaker power-handling capability has been measured at the output of the speaker itself as captured by a microphone set at a specific distance from the driver, usually 2.83 volts at 1 meter for an 8-ohm speaker. What M-Noise achieves is an effective comparison between the input signal and the output at the speaker using aFast Fourier Transform(FFT) algorithm. A complex waveform (like a musical signal) can, via Fourier analysis, be broken down into the simpler waveforms that make up the complex one. M-Noise uses this technique to break down and convert the audio signal into its frequency components, which may then be analyzed for differences in phase and coherence to detect distortion. This data (the audio output from the speaker) is then combined with the music-emulating M-Noise input signal to draw conclusions about the speaker’s true peak sound pressure level, and how the speaker will perform when used in the field. In performing the measurements, the volume is turned up in specific increments until the speaker begins to exhibit distortion and a deviation in frequency response is noted. Then, a comparison is made against the test’s low-level signal input and the original “undamaged” frequency response.
So, what is obtained is data that is indicative of deviations from the original frequency response when the speaker is played at a high volume, instead of the typical measurement of loudspeaker sensitivity that is obtained from measuring the output of a standard amount of voltage (2.83 V) that is put through the speaker using a microphone at a standard distance (1 meter). The data obtained from M-Noise tests can be quantified and used to predict a loudspeaker’s ability to handle high-power bursts, long-term exposure to various frequencies at high volumes, and optimal and safe operating ranges for a loudspeaker.
What this means is that a given speaker which may, according to its published specs, handle very high power without any physical damage but will distort horribly and produce a distasteful sound under such conditions, can be identified as inappropriate for use at that power rating. Conversely, a speaker may have its optimal practical operating range more accurately mapped, which would enable it to be used according to the real-world demands that will be placed upon it.
Because of the accuracy in identifying the true performance qualities of a speaker’s genuine capabilities, I see great potential in using M-Noise testing to evaluate loudspeakers for consumer audio use. Just imagine how practical it would be to know the true volume capability of your future speaker purchases, with the potential of knowing how long it will be able to play at the highest levels it could withstand before you enter into problem territory. Over in the UK we have to get an MOT test for our vehicle once a year to make sure it is still roadworthy. Similarly, with M-Noise speaker tests, we could be more informed about how “roadworthy” or our speakers are and have a better idea of their true performance.
What the amazing findings have revealed is that once you have a three dB error reading which deviates from the reference signal anywhere on the bandwidth, you are as loud as you should go while maintaining linearity and are entering the realms of unwanted speaker distortion. Going beyond the maximum level by just one or two dB louder again incurs a 90% chance of failure due to thermal overload at the crossover or/and complete amp failure.
Detailed instructions for using M-Noise are available on the Meyer Sound website here. For a brief video explanation of M-Noise, please view the YouTube link below.
If you are interested in testing your own speakers with M-Noise and theREW Room EQ Wizardfree downloadable room acoustics software, you can download M-Noise test signals for free and try the test procedure for your own speaker set-up following the link below. For details, please see Adrian Wu’sarticle inCopperIssue 127.
Postscript:the Audio Engineering Society (AES) has a standard for measuring loudspeakers in professional applications, known asAES2-2012,AES standards for acoustics – methods of measuring and specifying the performance of loudspeakers for professional applications – drive units.While this is outside the scope of most readers, it may be of interest for those readers who would like to dig deep into the subject of loudspeaker measurement.
In Issue 151(“Shop Class”),I made a note to remember Ohm’s law and that we would come back to it later. There’s been so much national press coverage on this issue in the last few weeks that I thought maybe we might discuss it sooner rather than later, as the amount of disinformation warrants some attention.
And now, back to the Ohm’s law equation, which defines the relationship between voltage, amperage, resistance, and power. We’ll also tie this piece to that first article in the series. As the old advertising slogan said, here’s “Something to think about from the folks at Getty.”
The first Law of thermodynamics says energy can neither be created nor destroyed. If you put electricity into a powerline and not all of it comes out the other end, it went somewhere. Our Ohm’s law equation’s little secret allows you to calculate the power loss in a wire. That power loss is converted to heat. Of course, we don’t know the largest parameter of powerline loss under normal operating circumstances, the resistance, although the utilities do. To be sure, there are other losses, such as leakage due to humidity, but let’s look at the bigger picture. To keep the conversation simpler, we’ll assume we’re all residential customers and ignore thepower factor, which is how utilities surcharge industrial customers.
If you convert the energy of automotive fuels into watts, you quickly observe that making a move to all-electric vehicles is an intractable solution under today’s conditions as it would yield a frightening increase in the electric grid’s load. EvenElon Muskhas commented on this. One thing you can be sure of is if Elon Musk is interested in something, he smells money. Lots of money, and he makes it off of battery sales, among other things. And remember two things here: one, we’re not even talking about eliminating fossil fuels for heating. Further, mining and processing lithium creates large quantities of very hazardous waste. Do we really want that on our shores? After all, the sun is shining and the wind is blowing somewhere. Surely we can just move power around the country. Oh wait, that requires an already overloaded grid…
Remember twinkle twinkle little star, power equals A2R? You can see from Ohm’s law that the power loss increases with the square of the amperage. Thus, if you increase the current in the grid by a factor of 3, the loss increases by a factor of 9. Typical losses in the transmission lines of the grid are1 to 4 percentper hundred miles. You must generate that much more electricity just to cover the loss. Charging your car will generate local load relative to population density. Additionally, you mustcharge batterieswith more energy than you will get out. The actual loss depends on the charge rate, discharge rate and battery chemistry, but can be as high as 40 percent.
Ohm's law expressed as an electrical diagram showing V, I and R.
Old-technology coal-fired power plants have efficiencies in the twenty-something percent range. New-technology coal-fired plants have efficiencies in the range of 35 to 38 percent. It’s not unusual for two-thirds of the energy in coal to be lost before the electricity gets to the consumer. It’s no wonder these power plants have an impact on the environment. But they tend to be located close to sources of fuel, so we can assume the transmission losses were negligible compared to the cost of transporting the fuel closer to the load (the load is anything that consumes power, such as your lights, toaster, or high-end audio system).
The days of facilities such as theJim Bridger Plantare over, due to the inefficiencies involved. For sure, the utility companies will attempt to backfill the grid with power from photovoltaic cells or windmills, but the coal leases at Bridger are nearly expired or mined out and losing a plant of this magnitude, as an example, will leave a 2-gigawatt loss of generating capacity. There are many more examples where the generated power is shipped off to remote states rather than used locally. But, read on.
Increasing the wire diameter of the powerlines to handle more current would be problematic. Since this is alternating current, the skin effect applies. Electrons have such an intense dislike for each other that they only flow on the outer edge of the AC conductor. They try to put as much real estate between themselves and others of their kind as they can. In other words, the core of an AC wire is relatively unused, with electron flow on the circumference
Good electrical conductors are generally highly ductile but don’t exhibit great tensile strength. Suspended exterior powerline wires not only need to handle their own weight, but also what nature throws at them, including wind, the accumulation of snow or even several inches of ice, and the span between support insulators. Some of the diameter of the wire you see on a powerline is a steel core that’s there for strength. The conductor, often high-purity aluminum, is wound around the steel core. They are referred to as aluminum-conductor steel-reinforced (ACSR) wires, and they are expensive. The cost of replacing the wire to handle more amperage across the nation would be prohibitive.
Back in the 1970s, when we had all those blackouts, some of the transmission lines became so overheated from the loads that they drooped dangerously low to the ground. Think of the wires in your toaster. If you came close to hitting them with 380,000 volts, more would happen than just having the hair stand up on your head, although maybe not as much fun as being on what is now known as theContinental Divide Trailleading North fromRollins Passin a thunderstorm. I’ve hiked it in a storm and it ranks as one of the scariest and dumbest things I’ve ever done. It was literally a hair-raising experience. I was never so happy to get off that ridge. Fortunately, I did not become a study in conductivity, but I digress.
Lightning rod buddies 45 years later. All present and accounted for: Paul Kellogg (L), Steve "Hoss" Foss (R). Not one of us was struck by lightning that day.
The traditional solution to our power delivery dilemma has been to increase the voltage, so the equation becomes power equals V2/R, where V is electromotive force (in volts). Sounds easy, and it has been the time-honored solution to accommodating increased energy consumption.
However, this would require a total rebuilding of the grid infrastructure. All of the insulators and transformers would need to be replaced. And let’s not forget, we need to get those wires higher off the ground to protect anything below them from man-made lightning. A good discussion of this can be found in aGerman study, although it’s getting a little long in the tooth, that says converting the grid to a capacity of handling 1,000,000 volts would not be profitable. AnotherEuropean studyshows transmission losses approaching 10 percent in highly-developed nations.
Of course, the further electricity travels from the source, the higher the resistance it encounters (which is a relatively linear phenomenon), and the greater the power loss. What this all boils down to is that the future sources of electrical generation will need to be very close to the consumer as demand surges. And yes, youwillsee wires, and windmills, and solar cells, maybe even a new nuclear facility, and they will be in your backyard, or visible from your backyard, or maybe even on your roof. Don’t laugh. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are fundingbreeder reactorresearch for this very reason.
Utilities are already planning for distributed generation. Note how oneutilityin Colorado is adding capacity nominally equivalent to one half of a coal-fired generator, but spread throughout multiple communities. Minigrids and microgrids, with their own generating capacities, are most likely the future for the modernization of the electrical grid, as they can be detached when bad things happen to the grid at large, such as the recent Texas outage, and still maintain service to their customers. A good place to start your research is with looking at thePEERrating system.
An easy alternative would be to build additional transmission lines for the grid. Good luck getting this past concerned citizens and many legislators. You would need to acquire new rights of way, conduct environmental studies, get construction permits, deal with all the protests, and finally build the facilities. It would take decades, certainly not within the eight-to-15-year period many states are mandating to become carbon-free. Of course, it can all be brought to fruition much more quickly by uttering the two magic words that cause property owners everywhere to absolutely lock up:eminent domain.
As for alternative power generation, there are two classes of solar farm as defined in current regulations: utility-scale and community-scale. The thinking is that lots of mom-and-pop farming operations will want to lease their land out to a commercial developer. The developers can then get Federal assistance for these community-scale projects. The landowners would receive maybe $1,000 per acre per year for land that is covered with cells, (and much less for land without cells over it). Most developers will try not to have cost of living increases included in the lease, but will want to lock you down for 25 to 50 years.
Here’s the kicker. A community-scale site can only be 80 acres or less. With today’s technology, it takes 40 acres to generate five megawatts of electricity. And, your site must be within five miles of an access point to the grid, such as a substation or switch yard. The expected lifespan of the equipment is less than 25 years, and its efficiency degrades over time.
If the developer declares bankruptcy before the end of the lease, you’d then have acres of hazardous electronic waste to deal with. It would be an ecological trainwreck for the landowner. Clearly, this isn’t an easy solution. We know this, as my family has been approached about leasing land to a solar developer. We chose to stay friends with the animals and not have our forested property clear-cut and bulldozed.
Penn State University has a program that’s set up to study the industry. Thispodcastfrom the university is a good primer.
So, if we’re to solve the Earth’s woes, I’m praying for superconductors. That may seem overly optimistic, and I’m not holding my breath, but it seems more palatable than, say, a mass extinction event. I have faith in science and technology.
In the meantime, the concerned citizens of New York City have just enacted a law that states that, starting in 2023, new construction and gut-out remodels of seven stories or less must be 100 percent fueled by electricity. No more natural gas heat, hot water, or gas ranges. Their intent is to be carbon-neutral by 2050. The cost of rent is going up and the restaurant industry will be unhappy as gas delivers instantaneous heat, which chefs everywhere prefer.
Oh my, what a twisted fate those electrons hath wrought for me. I encourage you to, as Matt Damon repeatedly said inThe Martian, “do the math,” and do your own research. The math doesn’t lie. J.J. Cale said the same of “Cocaine.” He was wrong. There are a lot of dead rock stars out there. Science and mathematics are the truth. Art (music) isn’t necessarily the truth, but it makes us whole. Consider your priorities and choose wisely.
About The Author
After surviving a misguided youth, the author briefly dabbled in civil engineering and professional photography. Facing bankruptcy, he found his true calling as a software engineer. He spent the last 25 years of his career writing device drivers, firmware, protocol stacks, engineering specifications and documentation. After watching the evening news, he undergoes mandatory sensory deprivation therapy by going under the headphones for several albums.
When Van Morrison releasedVeedon Fleecein 1974 he introduced the world to something quite new. Fresh off his divorce from first wife Janet Rigsbee and onto a new relationship with fiancé Carol Guida, Van presented an album that was introspective and personal, much like 1968’s classicAstral Weeks. Gone was the Caledonia Soul Orchestra that had helped propel many of his then-recent hits with punchy horns and deep-pocket grooves. They were replaced with session players who helped him shape a sound that was daring and different. With a new folk-jazz-fusion focus, Van delivered an album that has been called “inherently Homeric in scope” and a “pastoral epic.” It would help shape the music he would create from that point forward.
I was reminded ofVeedon Fleecewhen I gave Eddie Berman’s latest album,Broken English,its first spin. Known initially as a folk artist, Berman doesn’t quite abandon his past withBroken English, but elevates the music with remarkable arrangements and extraordinary instrumentation. Berman is known for being a great picker, both on banjo and guitar, and those skills are put to formidable use on the new record. But what sets this apart from his prior work is the cinematic nature of the sound he and his band create throughout the album. It unfolds like a classic John Ford film, with terrific depth and atmosphere. This is guided by the strategic deployment of strings and various brass instruments in moments that matter. They help create a majesty that is difficult to find elsewhere in modern music being made today. Like Van Morrison’sVeedon Fleece,Broken Englishpropels Berman’s music in a manner that transcends classification and sets a course that you’ll want to follow.
We caught up with the Portland-based artist to talk about his creative process, how the record was assembled, and where he hopes it will ultimately take him and his promise-filled future.
Ray Chelstowski:This new music has a cinematic scope to it. How did you approach the making of this record?
Eddie Berman:I have heard that about my music ever since I started writing. Growing up in Los Angeles I often wondered if I would one day become a cinematographer or something. My dad worked in film and television, so I think that film has always held a big place in my mind. For me, songwriting is so visual. I could always see what I was writing as it was coming to me. I think that part of that comes from the music that got me into playing, like everything Bob Dylan did in the 1960s, from his first album to sayBlonde on Blonde. I think because of these records there was always this visual way of seeing the songs, that was baked inside of me.
It has always been less about ideas and instead about images and piecing them together. I also wonder if the instrumentation that rose from it, much of that coming from my band mates with the trombones, other horns, and some harmonium, gave it some atmosphere. The guitar does as well. What I am playing is very intricate and helps establish the atmosphere that these songs sit in.
RC:I read that when you start out writing a song it begins with the melody and you build from there.
EB:I think because I have always been a guitar player first. When I was fifteen I first heard TheFreewheelin’Bob Dylan, never before having had an interest in playing music beyond a few piano lessons. It really stuck with me and I just had to start playing. I developed an approach with a “double thumb,” where your thumb is playing the bass line [with up and down strokes] and your other fingers are playing the melody. That helped [to] create an inherent melody to anything I played. That’s [also] given me some limitations, which in the writing process is so vital. I also don’t try to get too much in the way of what’s developing, because you start to lose the flavor of it.
RC:Is the songwriting approach a collaborative one where you take input from the band?
EB:It normally is. Ever since 2013 when we put out our first EP,Blood and Rust, we decided to film ourselves playing some songs in a friend’s studio. We weren’t focused on acoustics, but instead camera angles. And when we went to listen to it we decided that it was the only way to record, just us in a room together, zero isolation. That’s the way it has been with every album up until this one. I had written everything for it before COVID and was scheduled to record it during the summer of 2020 in Los Angeles. But we all have kids, and because of COVID, decided to go in a completely different direction. Usually, my parts are all locked in when we get together as a band. Then with these amazing band mates of mine we decide together what this will shape into. This time I had to build the songs in my home studio with drum tracks etc. Then I went to Gabe Feenberg, who is the multi-instrumentalist on all of my albums and Max MacVeety, [our] drummer, and had them add their interpretations. It was all done in everyone’s own studios while we were a thousand miles apart.
RC:Not only is he recording process different these days, so is the way we consume music.
EB:It’s so different now. You put the music out there and it isn’t in the form of physical copies. Instead, you review data points on how many times a song has been streamed. I guess that’s OK but its missing the shared experience, whether it’s live or [hearing it] playing on the radio. I remember the first time that my songs were being played on [Los Angeles radio station] KCRW. They were probably played at 11:30pm on a Tuesday, but it was amazing to think that it was being heard by all of these people at the same time.
RC:Folk music has long been about storytelling. What tale you are trying to tell with this record?
EB:This album started in a funny way, even though it was written for the most part in 2019. It’s an album about isolation. It explores a lot of those different feelings about how, in this modern-day world, how we eat, spend time with your community, the ways [in which] we are entertained, how we take care of ourselves, who teaches our family, [and] it all happens [while] being isolated from each other. I think that’s why so many people are losing their minds. I had been reading a lot by people like Andy Dillard and John O’Donohue, this great Irish poet who led me on this great internal path. The album was written pre-COVID but people have [been becoming] more and more isolated for decades.
RC:How do you take this record on the road?
EB:For me these songs are an interpretation of their original versions, which is [with] a single instrument and voice. With this album, a majority of the songs were written on the banjo. Initially I thought I was going to do a “clawhammer banjo” album. There ends up being a little bit of clawhammer on the record. But eventually I transposed everything to the guitar, and they became open-tuning guitar songs. I have always approached writing with a sense of flexibility, so that I can go off and perform these songs [either] on my own or with a whole band.
RC:On “Skin of the Earth” and “Water in the Barrel” there are horn solos. Were they done with a trombone or a baritone sax?
EB:Those are both trombones. Gabe Feenberg went to the Berklee school of music in Massachusetts to study guitar, and in the end it just wasn’t his vibe. So, he moved to the trombone and on this album he did a series of trombones layered over each other.
RC:Many people find the piano to be tricky because it can quickly overpower a song. How did you decide on the way to include it here?
EB:It does [tend to be overpowering]. It’s another place where Gabe had an impact. He can sit and play a Nina Simone R&B type of piano line that just kind of breaks your heart. He has a great feel for that. You know, the songs are already dense, with guitar strumming that takes up a lot of sonic space on the bottom. This gave Gabe room to play some really beautiful stuff [on top].
RC:Whose career would you want to model your own after?
EB:The Leonard Cohens of the world have a single voice and a single instrument and that’s what got me into this. I really enjoy playing with my band and building this atmosphere together. To me it’s about this expression of a single voice and instrument. There’s a quiet dignity about it. Whether it’s filmmakers or songwriters, people who have that are committed to self-exploration and [to] having that continue to deepen their art. I often think about those great novelists who wrote their best work at the end of their lives. I would hope to do something similar, to at least continue to be interested in the world and in art and the evolution of it all. Hopefully that will always come across in my music.
Header image of Eddie Berman courtesy of Joanna Berman.
If you’re a studio denizen or a seasoned open-reel tape user, please skip this interlude before I resume discussions about the current state of acquiring pre-recorded tapes. You will find too much of it, e.g., splicing tapes, tediously elementary. However, in keeping with my desire to create a gigantic, off-putting caveat for any who might dare to enter (or return to) the world of reel-to-reel tapes in the 2020s, it would be remiss of me not to emphasize the various routines and skill sets of the past one must learn, or re-learn, as did I, along with some other sensible practices.
Unlike used vinyl, pre-recorded tapes do not offer visual clues as to their condition. It’s safe to say, within, oh, a 70/30 ratio, that if you buy used vinyl, and the LPs still shine and are free of dirt, grit, fingerprints, or scratches, they will probably be VG+ at worst, near-mint at best. Scratch-free also suggests that a session with a top-quality record cleaning machine such as those from Clearaudio, VPI and Pro-Ject will yield restorative results beyond criticism. Not so with tape.
Aside from visible mold, even if a used tape is perfectly spooled, its ends un-chewed (or, better still, fitted with leader tape and tail), and kept with a protective inner bag, there’s no guarantee that the tape hasn’t been erased either accidentally because someone hit Record or because it was stored near magnets. A visual study will not tell you of drop-outs or repairs, especially if the repairer used clear splicing tape which doesn’t announce its presence like colored splicing tape as used by the pros. Studying a tape will not tell you if it is missing the first few inches or feet into the recorded portion. Accept that this is a gamble.
Having stopped buying when I hit around 2,500 tapes, of which around 2,440 came from eBay sellers, I cannot recall a single one which the vendor described as anything other than “untested.” As mentioned in earlier columns, tapes found on eBay or other selling sites, at garage and lawn sales, in pawn shops, or through vintage record dealers invariably got there via the heirs of the original users. Grandpa passes away, his descendants find a few boxes in the attic filled with what are clearly music albums, but on some weird medium they don’t even recognize, and they either dump ’em or realize that they might have some value.
While a collection of 2,500 tapes is hardly enough to form definitive statements about used tape, it’s a start, and I have now played through just over 1,400 of them. (I know this because I store most of them in boxes which hold 19, so it was easy to do a count.) Moreover, I can tell you that at this point, by looking at the single container I have filled with their empty spools and boxes, I have only had to write off around 30 tapes as savaged beyond playability or salvation.
If you consider that ratio, it’s a far better percentage than I would expect of 1,400 LPs amassed from various sources. If anything, it completely belies any anti-tape naysayers who insist that old tapes simply do not survive the passing of the years, many who refuse to believe even their ears, as I know from demos I have undertaken.
They too-often cite the misleading “sticky tapes” phenomenon, which as far as I can tell only affected specific defective blank tape stocks sold to professional users and studios – not the raw stock used by the record labels’ duplicators for commercial pre-recorded tapes. Tape haters go on about pre-echo and tape hiss – are they any worse than an LP’s groove-tracing whoosh? In both cases, they’re insignificant compared to the sounds with which you are rewarded.
Older hands in my circle of tape collecting friends cautioned me first about the initial playing of any used or merely old tape which probably hasn’t slipped passed heads in a half-century or more. I was warned about residue, dust or other types of schmutz which would build up on heads, guides and pinch rollers, and the wear-and-tear they would cause. Their consensus was to acquire a “sacrifice” machine, like the £50 bottom-of-the-line Sony I found at the UK’sAudioJumble.I use it to fast-forward the tape’s A-side (often referred to as Side 1), then flip it over, and play back the B-side (or Side 2) at the tape’s correct speed. I then leave it for a day or two, before playing it back for actual listening on one of my preferred machines.
At this stage, before I even put the tape on the deck for the initial high-speed run, I fit it with leader tape if it doesn’t already have some. A rough estimate shows that only one in 30 or 40 tapes has leader, let alone leader-and-tail, aside from those horrible UK mono tapes. (SeePart Six,Issue 153.) Again, an indictment of the record labels for failing to do so. After the fast-forwarding, I fit the tail, and then re-spool onto the actual reel in playback mode.
As for supplies of leader tape and splicing tape, as well as splicing blocks and single-edged razor blades, all of these can be found online from specialists liketapecity.co.uk,reel-2-reel.comand numerous others, along with, yup, eBay. There are online video guides on how to do it – pretty straightforward and easy to learn – but do not for a second think that this is anything like the near-surgical skills needed to edit tapes as in studios. This no-brainer splicing is strictly for attaching leader and tail, or maybe repairing a split. I cannot even imagine what was involved in piecing together the bits of tape which created “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
It’s that first play in real time which is what’s this is all about. You learn 1) if the tape is in good condition, and 2) if the sound is as dreamily, dramatically fabulous as you hope it might be. Once the tape is played fully in real-time and monitored from start to finish, I place it in an inner bag, similar to sandwich-sized Baggies but without a Ziploc strip which makes the contents too thick and causes damage to the box, and then put it in its box. I found a supplier online for the catering industry which offers 7 x 7-inch plastic bags that are perfect for the job.
As for the boxes themselves, around one in 10 among my purchases are like new, but usually the majority require repairs as the hinges and the corners are often split. Lastly I grade each tape’s quality with colored stickers: green for pretty much perfect, yellow if it suffers only one or two drop-outs or edits, or red if seriously damaged but still in possession of some of the recording. I keep the last ones in the hope that a better copy might one day come along, though I have given up on finding a decent example ofThe Turtles’ Golden Hits.
At this stage, a particular irritant I must cite is something which happens all too often, and which makes my inner-OCD-self scream, because I use color-coded leader and tail: it’s finding out that the tape was flipped at some point, and that I put the leader at the beginning of the B-side and vice versa. And, yes, I am anally-retentive enough to then swap leader and tail if “wrong.” This is in addition to finding that they didn’t flip over the spool – a different issue which happens when the tape plays correctly from the start of Side 1, but the label is on the other side.
Do not, however, be too hasty when this occurs. Please note that the track listing on the tape spool’s label and that on the box are often reversed. How so? The artwork for nearly all pre-recorded tapes is the same as the corresponding LP, but for whatever reasons, A-side/Side 1 and B-side/Side 2 might have been flipped by the record company. I tend to regard the sides according to the label on the spool, not the information on the box. This swapping around isn’t all that common, maybe one in 50 tapes, but like I said, when it comes to tapes, I’m borderline psychotic.
Another issue is when the tracks have been changed to a completely different playing order from that on the box and the label. So far I have found only three or four tapes like this, and each one drove me nuts, thinking that someone had cut up the tape and spliced it in some weird order. Eventually, I bought a second copy of one of them and it was the same as the first. Which sucks for the artist if the track order was important.
From time to time, one gets lucky and a batch of tapes will include one or two tapes which are still sealed. Yes, I have now acquired around a dozen of these as-new tapes. That said, they still go through the same regimen of loosening them up with fast-forwarding, re-spooling in real time, and playing them back a day or so later. So far, every one of these virgin tapes –Live Cream, a couple from the Lettermen, a smattering of classical tapes – have been absolutely perfect. This is reflected in the prices that sealed tapes can command on eBay and elsewhere, and as such are pretty safe bets if you are offered any.
Inevitably, if you buy large quantities of tapes, you will end up with some which are home recordings. My 200 or so include lots of home recordings on Scotch and Ampex from US sources, loads recorded on BASF in Europe and the UK, but surprisingly few on Maxell or TDK. Why, I have no idea, considering that the Japanese tapes were among the best, in my experience. I stopped hoping I might find anything of value among the homemade tapes in my possession, like lost live sessions from Buffalo Springfield, or missing broadcasts, but the tapes themselves, given what used tapes in reasonable condition sell for online, are worth recycling.
I use the same regimen for these as I do for commercial tapes, playing them through to loosen them up. Occasionally I listen to them if the writing on the box or label suggests something interesting, but if a tape clearly contains copies of LPs, I don’t waste my time. I clean up the tapes for resale by erasing them on a 2-track professional machine in real time, I fit leader and tail, and sell them at the AudioJumble for £5 –£10, or more for 10-inch tapes on metal reels. To put this into context, branded empty metal spools can sell online for £30 – £50 (US$40 – $68), with some, like genuine Revox spools, often touching the $100 mark, so I like to think of this flea-market-priced recycling as a public service. And besides, who needs more than one 7-inch and one 10-inch take-up spool per machine?
That’s how I get rid of duplicates, too, such as five copies of Andy Williams’Moon River, four ofRoger Williams’ Greatest Hits,and six each ofCarousel, The King and I, South Pacific, Fiddler On the Roof, andMy Fair Lady. Like I’ve said before, if you don’t like MOR, soundtracks or easy listening, find yourself another format.
 Don’t laugh: I did find a long-lost radio program from a certain group, but it is not worth my freedom to tell you what it was.
Header image: KK’s arsenal of tape-care amenities.
On NewYear’s Day, my daughter and her family came over to help ring in the new year. A couple of days earlier, my son-in-law had called and asked me if I would pick about five or so tunes that had some deeper level of meaning to me, or that would show off my system to good effect. Perhaps we could take a few moments at some point on New Year’s Day and have a listen? So, on New Year’s Eve, as we whiled away the hours waiting for the ball to drop, I opened the web application for my Euphony Summus Server and started to compile a playlist of music that I either really loved, or really sounded great on the system. In about an hour, I’d created a playlist that spanned multiple genres and had 99 tunes in it!
The entire crew pauses for a quick selfie!
My son-in-law Andrew is actually beginning to show an interest in higher-end audio; he and my daughter Julie are both multi-instrumentalists, and played in a band for several years before they started to raise a family. When they arrived, we had a few hors d’oeuvres and adult beverages, then Andrew, Henry, and I went downstairs for about an hour to take a listen to the system. I placed Andrew in the most comfortable chair and in the sweet spot, in hopes of exposing him to a top-notch listening experience. We were joined shortly afterward by everyone else. Everything I played was from my digital file server; my digital playback is sounding better than ever since the addition of the Ethernet-to-fiber media conversion setup I recently implemented (see my article inIssue 153). We couldn’t possibly listen to all 99 tunes, so I skipped through the playlist, and often only played two-or-three-minute segments of lengthy or large-scale pieces.
As I skipped about, I was reminded of an anecdote that appeared in the pages ofStereophile magazine, in the issue a few years ago that contained a tribute following the passing of founder and longtime editor, J. Gordon Holt. In the anecdote,Stereophilehad just hired the edgy and unrestrained gonzo writer Corey Greenberg, and he’d invited JGH over to take a listen to his system and hopefully offer his opinion on it. The two listened for several hours, in which Greenberg played full-length songs and musical selections; toward the end of the evening, he asked JGH for his thoughts on his system. “Oh, your system sounds great,” he responded, “but I have some very bad news for you. You’re not an audiophile.” When pressed by Greenberg on his assessment, JGH informed him that “audiophiles never listen to complete works, they only skim through the best parts!”
Both Andrew and Julie were impressed with the proceedings, but Andrew took a moment to express his astonishment at the level of realism he was hearing from the system, and how he’d never really heard reproduced music that gave one the impression that the performers were actually playing live in the room with you. Of course, I regaled him with my theories that good stereo systems are actually time machines, that can readily transport the listener back in time to the recording session and venue, regardless of when the recordings took place. In one of the pieces, you could hear the pianist, Paul Lewis, breathing as he played the sonatas of Franz Joseph Haydn. Andrew was struck by how being able to clearly hear Lewis’s breathing helped him more realistically visualize the pianist and the piano in the soundfield. I told him that Lewis was almost as noteworthy for his heavy breathing as for his remarkably definitive performances of the works of Schubert, Beethoven, and Haydn.
This was an important moment for me to try and win converts for high-end audio, and besides, when I either retire or keel over, most of my most interesting equipment will go to Julie and Andrew anyway. We listened to and skimmed through about twenty different pieces, with plenty of listening left for another day. Or two, or three! I thought it would be interesting to share some of the music that I most often turn to for both sheer enjoyment and when I’m evaluating new equipment for a review.
First up was the second movement, Andante, of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, in a recording on Harmonia Mundi by Russian pianist
First up was the second movement,Andante,of Dmitri Shostakovich’sSecond Piano Concerto, in a recording on Harmonia Mundi by Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov that features the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Teodor Currentzis. Shostakovich is among my favorite composers, and I love the brashness and power of his symphonies that are often mixed with equal parts of unrestrained joy and absolute despair. This second movement is uncharacteristically tender and emotional for an orchestral work by Shostakovich, and Melnikov’s idiomatic playing is beyond beautiful. The sound quality of this Harmonia Mundi recording is magnificent, especially for an uncompressed FLAC rip of a 16-bit/44.1 kHz WAV file. This music is so very calming, and the realism of the piano and orchestra is so very good, this is one of those tunes that I find myself almost uncontrollably punching the replay button on.
We then switched gears and listened to a couple of tracks from the excellent 24-bit/96 kHz Giles Martin remix of The Beatles’Abbey Road, including the perpetually sunny George Harrison-penned “Here Comes The Sun” and the tune that immediately follows, John Lennon’s “Because.” “Here Comes The Sun” is always an absolute joy to listen to and can lift even the darkest spirits. Giles Martin’s remix provides some welcome clarity to the instrumentation and Harrison’s vocal, and Billy Preston’s synth embellishments literally bounce all over the soundstage. “Because” is the real treat; the multi-tracked voices of the four Beatles seem to float across the soundstage, and Martin’s new mix is revelatory. Andrew immediately commented on how the voices were so magically presented, and how hearing this version gave him an entirely new frame of reference for this classic music.
We stayed in The Beatles groove with two songs from the 24/96 Giles Martin remix ofThe Beatles(more commonly known as theWhite Album), Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” and John Lennon’s “Julia.” In Giles Martin’s new remix, “Blackbird” is imbued with a staggeringly good level of clarity, and both McCartney’s vocal and his Martin D28 acoustic guitar are more clearly articulated here than on any previous version of this album. Lennon’s tribute to his late mother, “Julia,” is a powerfully emotional rollercoaster of a tune. Especially considering she abandoned him as a child (he was then raised by his aunt Mimi), and was only beginning to attempt to rebuild a relationship with her when she was killed in an automobile accident when John was only 17. His vocal and acoustic guitar are particularly well-served by Giles Martin’s new mix; this would mark the only time Lennon appeared unaccompanied by the other Beatles on any album by the group.
Next up was British jazz vocalist Claire Martin’s “Traveling Light” from her albumHe Never Mentioned Loveon the Linn Records label; we listened to my DSD 64 rip from the SACD. Claire Martin’s been voted the UK’s top female jazz vocalist many times over the last couple of decades, and if you’re into jazz vocals, trust me — you know about her. This is another strictly acoustic venture, and the sound quality — as you would expect from Linn Records — is absolute ear candy. The depth of the acoustic bass will easily cause many less-capable loudspeakers to distort, but the recording captures the “woodiness” of the upright bass perfectly. And Claire Martin’s smoky-sweet alto is sheer perfection on this tune. (I apologize for the video link, it’s for the full album, I couldn’t find a YouTube link for the individual song.)
We moved on to an album ofHaydn Piano Sonatason the Harmonia Mundi label by British pianist Paul Lewis — yes, he’s the heavy breather from above. The file we listened to is a 16-bit/44.1 WAV file that’s been converted to an uncompressed FLAC. The track we chose is the second movement of the Sonata No. 49 in E flat major, theAndante Cantabile. Lewis’s Haydn is pretty darn-near definitive, and the recorded solo piano sound has an astounding level of realism for a rip of a CD-quality file. This is one of those disc’s that’s so very well recorded, Lewis’s piano is actually in your room; needless to say, my daughter Julie (who’s a classically trained pianist) was impressed by Lewis’s mastery of Haydn’s oeuvre. Andrew was taken not only by the excellence of the performance, but also by how Lewis’s breathing made the aural experience so very real.
Next up was “Missing” from Everything But The Girl’s recordAmplified Heart, which is maybe one of the best sounding dance albums ever committed to tape. Tracy Thorn’s lilting and perfectly liquid vocal is completely captivating, and Ben Watt’s guitars, synths, and orchestration help create one of the most effectively contemplative mood pieces ever. Shockingly good sound for a 16/44.1 uncompressed FLAC rip of a CD, and even three-year-old Henry was moved to get up on the floor and do a little dance turn! If you ever need a synth/pop/vocal piece to show off your gear, you can’t do much better than this.
Back to the classical thing, we listened to a couple of tracks from Fritz Reiner’s 1955 recording ofBartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesteon RCA Living Stereo. We listened to my DSD 64 rip of the Acoustic Sounds SACD for this title, checking out the second movementAllegroand the following third movementAdagio. TheAdagiois famously known for its inclusion in some of the more harrowing scenes of the movie adaptation of Steven King’sThe Shining. These are truly outstanding recordings, and when I mentioned to Andrew that they were recorded in 1955, he expressed his disbelief that such an old recording could sound so impressively modern. And then he really shocked me with his next comment, where he told me that “Listening to it, you felt as though you were present in the orchestra hall.” That’s my boy — I’ll make an audiophile out of this kid yet! (Another apology for the YouTube video; only the full performance piece was available.)
We were getting close to running out of time, so we listened to another favorite, a 16/44.1 rip to uncompressed FLAC from Linda Ronstadt’s classic albumPrisoner In Disguise. There are a lot of great tunes on this record, but one of my favorites is the duo track with Emmylou Harris, “The Sweetest Gift.” I first became aware of this song as a very young child; I’d sit in church on Sundays and look at the songs in the hymnal if I was tired of being yelled at by the backwoods Baptist preacher (we’re talking literally every Sunday of my young life). And spotted this tune there — imagine my surprise as a teenager, when I bought this LP and actually heard the song for the first time! Both Linda and Emmylou’s voices are angelic, and Emmylou’s guitar accompaniment is totally apropos; I get a little emotional every time I hear this — it really takes me back. Andrew and Julie were definitely impressed!
The last track we listened to (at least for this day) was an opera piece by the Russian coloratura soprano Olga Peretyatko, from her debut album,Rossini!Which is a superb collection of highlights from composer Gioachino Rossini’s many operas; the track I chose was “Uno voce poco fa,” which is from The Barber of Seville. The translation of the piece is “A voice from a little while ago,” and is sung by the opera’s female protagonist, Rosina, who thought she’d heard the voice of one of her many suitors. And how she’d do anything in her power to prevent any other woman from getting to him. Olga Peretyatko is one of the rising stars in modern opera, and her voice in this piece is nothing short of astounding — she has no problem hitting all the impossibly high notes demanded by the role. Another uncompressed FLAC rip from a 16/44.1 CD, but one of the most impressive sounding digital files in my entire library!
We skimmed through some other stuff; some jazz from Cyrus Chestnut, more vocals from Ella Fitzgerald and Patricia Barber, and some outstanding Ralph Vaughan Williams by the late Richard Hickox — maybe we’ll cover some of that in another installment. Till then, good listening!
Owned by B. Jan Montana, this 1992 BMW R100R motorcycle sports a custom "John Deere Green" paint job. As he puts it, "In its stock black and grey livery, the bike might as well have been a Prius – everyone ignored it. But as soon as I painted it in John Deere colors, I became an instant celebrity. Everywhere I go, people ask me about it. They usually start by saying, “I didn’t know John Deere made motorcycles!"
Landing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana was a curious relief. It had been a weird, stressful day of flying. Our initial flight to St. Louis had been delayed, and subsequently, it looked like we were probably going to miss our connecting flight from St. Louis to Baton Rouge. We had a concert in Baton Rouge that night. Making matters worse was that it was the only remaining flight for the day. Given that detail, missing that flight was going to be a real problem. I could not see a solution. Driving would not work; it was almost seven hundred miles from St. Louis.
Upon landing in St. Louis airport, I was acutely aware that we had four minutes before our connecting flight was scheduled to take off. We had to try, so we ran as fast as we could down the long corridor toward the main terminal. Moving as fast as we could, I still could not help but notice how people were dressed in their Sunday best, go to church clothes. I saw women in fancy lacy dresses, the type that would be worn at a wedding. Men were wearing their best suits. Certainly not the kinds of clothing comfortable enough to wear while flying.
Still, for most people, flying was not a common occurrence in the earlier part of the 1970s, when flying was more expensive than it is now. But flying was fun and the airlines treated you well. Most people considered flying an event, so understandably, many folks put on their fancy garb.
As we arrived at Terminal 2 and the B Gates, we saw that our gate was all the way down near the end of the concourse. The band and I were still running and as we got closer to B-22, I saw people milling around. It looked like the flight did not board, as I slowed down and tried to catch my breath.
Still breathing hard, I got to the boarding desk. I asked the gate attendant what the delay was, and she answered that there was a bomb threat. She told me that all such threats had to be taken seriously and the plane had to be searched and cleared before resuming service. If all was good, we were looking at an approximately two-hour delay. That did not make sense, I thought to myself. This was a short-hop flight, almost a commuter flight. Why would anyone call in a bomb threat on such an obscure flight, out of the tens of thousands of flights daily? A couple of hours later the plane was cleared; nothing was found, and we all boarded.
That was certainly strange. In the 1960s and ’70s there were some hijackings, with the hijackers commandeering commercial airplanes and forcing the planes to fly to Cuba (along with all the passengers). Seemed dramatic, but then again, there were no flights from the states to Cuba. Remember this was way before terrorism became more of a concern, and today’s heavy security. Back then the cockpit doors were about as sturdy as a fortified screen door.
So, none of us were particularly worried. We figured it was because of someone irrational or a jealous ex-spouse who wanted to mess with their partner. It was surprising, but we were not concerned, and actually secretly pleased that we did not miss our flight to the gig.
Upon landing we disembarked and walked down to baggage claim. We saw a limo driver holding a sign for Wishbone Ash. Identifying ourselves, we walked out of the terminal into a warm southern winter day, a soothing respite from the chilly winter up north. Wishbone Ash, still active today, are a British hard-rock band known for their twin-guitar harmonies.
Andy Powell, lead singer and guitarist for Wishbone Ash, got into the limo and asked, “where is the radio?” as he looked over the interior of the stretch Cadillac limousine. “Ken,” he asked me, “what kind of limo does not have a radio?” Just like that it hit me. “A limousine owned by a funeral parlor,” I answered. You should have seen the looks on their faces.
One of the joys for a touring band is hearing their record played on the local FM radio. Whenever we came into a new city where we were doing a concert, we would listen for airplay. It gave the band a nice warm feeling to hear their music on a local radio station. A local promoter with juice could make that happen by advertising the concert on the station. Most of the stations would throw in some airplay as a bonus to the paid spots the promoter had purchased. Secondly, it put the band in a good mood, and that was desirable as things always went better when the band was happy.
Next up after the Baton Rouge gig was Tulane University in New Orleans. When we played a college date, the school’s radio station did the promotion and plugged the group’s records. With college gigs, ticket sales were never an issue because of the built-in audience. The concert committee had booked the band into their field house (approximate capacity 8,000) and also procured us rooms right on Bourbon Street, off Toulouse Street. The hotel was in an old building most likely built just after the Civil War. It was in great shape; rustic, but not shabby in any way. I was on the second floor, and my room faced out to Bourbon Street, with a little balcony. What a great room! I stood out there on the little balcony with a beer and watched the afternoon below me on Bourbon Street getting more crowded as the evening drew near. The street was turning into a party.
After the concert the band was in a good mood. The show went well, and the audience loved it. At that point in time, they were headliners playing big venues and coliseums. When I got back to my room, I could not help but notice how noisy the celebration on Bourbon Street had gotten. For some reason it seemed appropriate and fitting. Some of us went downstairs and had a drink.
Wishbone Ash were playing two nights at Tulane and on the second day some of the students from the concert committee took us over to a modern office building facing the Mississippi River. They had made arrangements for us to have access to the roof. We were about 35 stories up with a splendid view southward toward the Gulf. It was a clear and sunny day with great visibility. Someone from the building pointed out the sights. It was an impressive perspective. If you are playing college dates and have some extra time, many concert committees will plan fun things to do.
With New Orleans behind us we headed to Hollywood, Florida for the tour’s final date. Staying at a Holiday Inn across from the beach, we were joined by the band’s booking agent, Richard Hallem (from Creative Management Associates) and Ian Copeland (of BTM, British Talent Management), who had come down from New York. The concert was held in the Hollywood Sportatorium, a big arena, nicknamed the Sporto. It was a multi-use facility for concerts, boxing events, NWA wrestling (with stars like the 7-foot-four, 450-pound André the Giant), state fairs, and rodeos, and it smelled somewhat musty. I had worked a concert in a similar venue when I was with theJesus Christ, Superstar roadshow (see my article in Issue 137). That was in Lubbock, Texas, and that place also smelled like a rodeo. Still, the Sporto was a viable concert site.
Hollywood Sportatorium, Pembroke Pines (originally Hollywood), Florida.
Here’s a quote from Suzzy Sporto, fromhollywoodsportatorium.com:“Rock’s worst venue? The Hollywood Sportatorium was Broward County’s ‘premiere’ rock mecca for 20 years. It leaked, it rattled, it was a dump…and I am shocked it did not sink in the muck….but the parking lot hosted some of the greatest parties of the ’70s and ’80s.”
After the sound check, we decided to stay at the hall because the hotel was a 30-minute drive away, and we had an early show at 8 o’clock. Richard, Ian, the promoter and I were standing together when Richard pulled out a joint and lit it. I was flabbergasted and sputtered to Richard, “what the hell are you doing? Do you want to get arrested?” He just looked at me and smiled.
A deputy sheriff who was on security for the concert was walking nearby and heard me. He turned and looked at us and then walked over. He said to Richard, “put that out,” and Richard said something snarky back to him. The deputy replied to Richard, “you are under arrest.” What was he thinking? We could not believe it, and Richard, for maybe the first time ever, was speechless. After a moment everyone started talking at the same time. Voices were getting louder, and then a more senior deputy came over. He turned to the younger deputy and said, “what are you doing?” The younger one replied, “he has a marijuana joint, and he lit it up.” The senior deputy answered, “we are hired as private security for the concert and these people are the ones that are paying.” The senior deputy put his hand on the younger deputy’s arm and said, “go over to the entrance and find the officer of the day for your assignment.” Without saying anything more, the younger deputy nodded his head and walked away.
The remaining deputy said to Richard, “do me a favor, do that in the dressing room or at the very least someplace more discreet.” Jeez, I thought, what the hell was Richard thinking? So, the show went on and the lights and sound were fine.
That night after the concert we were back at the hotel for an impromptu end-of-tour party. Everyone got ripped. Ian started to get upset – he was having flashbacks. He had just gotten back from Vietnam and discharged from the service. He had seen action and had performed bravely, and was awarded the Bronze Star for valor.
Now he was back Stateside and was attempting to deal with re-entry and culture shock. Such a sudden reversal in one’s reality – from being a soldier in a humid, remote and dangerous country to the safety of the United States. One day you were in Vietnam and the next day you were Stateside. Just a long airplane ride was all it took.
A couple of weeks later I was at home when Richard Hallem called. He said, “I just got off the phone with the FBI. They were calling about the bomb threat in Saint Louis.” Well, this must be true, I thought to myself, because how else would he know about it? The band was back in England, and I had never mentioned what had happened to anyone. In fact, I had not given one thought to the incident once it was over.
“What did they want?” I asked. Richard replied, “they wanted to know if you were someone that might have called in a bomb threat to delay the connecting flight. They understood that missing the connection was not a good thing for Wishbone Ash, so they were suspicious of you, the tour manager.” “You told them I would not do anything like that, right?” I asked. “No,” Richard said, “I told them it was a possibility.” At that moment I nearly soiled my trousers.
TheSpreckels Organis a remarkable musical instrument: it is the world’s largest pipe organ in an outdoor venue. It was built in 1914 in Balboa Park, San Diego, California, commissioned by John D. Spreckels and his brother Adolph B. Spreckels. It was dedicated on January 1, 1915 and is still in use today, carrying on a long-time tradition of performers on the organ providing free concerts to the public.
We spoke with Gordon Stanley, who has been involved with the care, curation and recording of the Spreckels Organ for many years.
Frank Doris:What is your role with respect to the Spreckels organ?
Gordon Stanley:I am one of three “at-large” vice presidents of theSpreckels Organ Society. Our mission is to preserve, protect and promote this truly irreplaceable 107-year-old instrument, built by the Austin Organ Company in 1914 and subsequently expanded by Lyle Blackinton and Associates.
Day to day, I use my 40-plus years of business experience, as a volunteer to chair the personnel committee, focus on fundraising, help with long-term strategy, and champion the constant need for succession planning. I also use my lifelong experiences in audio and media production in my role as volunteer chief audio engineer. Along with two other volunteers, we manage the FOH (front of house) sound whenever there are other musicians accompanying the organ, and we routinely record high-resolution double-rate DSD (DSD128) archival recordings of many of the concerts. The recordings are for our historic records, for the artist, and for use when we stream and replay special concerts.
The Spreckels Organ.
FD:How did you get involved?
GS:My love of organ music began at age six. My grandfather was an amateur organist and when we lived overseas in Turkey in 1960 to ’63, our entertainment was restricted to Voice of America, BBC, and Radio Moscow. There was no TV in Turkey at the time. My grandfather recorded and mailed us organ concerts on a 5-inch reel-to-reel Magnecorder, and I became hooked. I also became hooked on the fun of the recording technology and by the time I was nine years old I was making [my own original] “Squeaky the Squirrel” recordings for my younger brother and two sisters in the same vein as “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”
To this day, a formative event for me was attending a concert of the Cincinnati Symphony as an 11-year-old while living on Okinawa. Hearing the power of a live symphony left a lasting impression. [Later], just after college, my wife worked with a small accounting firm. The senior partner was a benefactor of the Houston Symphony and had fifth-row center season tickets. He frequently and generously gave his tickets to my wife and I because he knew we loved live music, and also knew that on a new college graduate’s pay it was unlikely we could afford many of the concerts ourselves.
When I moved to San Diego after graduate school in 1995, I learned about the Spreckels organ and began attending concerts presented by the then civic organist, Carol Williams. I loved the outdoor venue, but at the time didn’t fully appreciate just how special the Spreckels Organ was.
Organist Raúl Prieto Ramírez and Gordon Stanley.
FD:There’s history about the Spreckels Organ onWikipediaand atspreckelsorgan.org.But I’d like you to tell me from your perspective what makes this instrument so special.
GS:Over time, I learned that the organ was almost one of a kind. There used to be dozens and dozens of civic organs and organists throughout Europe and the United States, but as other forms of media became popular, these difficult-to-care-for, expensive instruments began to fade away. Today there is one part-time civic organist in Portland, Maine, and our full-time civic organist in San Diego. In the whole world, there are very few outdoor organs, because of the difficulties [presented by] the weather. In fact, I learned that [the original contractor]Austin Organs, Inc.had turned down the project twice before John Spreckels prevailed and convinced them to take the contract.
Personally, I like the idea of sitting outside on a Sunday afternoon or Monday evening with my dogs and [having] a picnic, listening to beautiful music and not having to go through the dressing up, parking, and other hassles associated with a more formal trip downtown to the symphony. And when I see young families and especially young children getting turned on by the live music, I fall in love again with the foresight and purposefulness of John Spreckels’ gift to the City of San Diego and the world. I would welcome anyone to visit one of the concerts on a warm summer afternoon and watch the people, especially the children, react to the power of live music.
FD:Why did John and Adolph Spreckels decide to donate an organ rather than something else?
GS:John Spreckels was an avid organist with a large pipe organ in his mansion in Coronado, CA, west of downtown San Diego. The Panama-California Exposition was in development and he had a vision to have a large outdoor organ that would bring quality live music to the people of San Diego and the world, and honor his brother and family.
You have to remember [that] at that time, to hear music you had to go to church, buy an Edison phonograph with its wax cylinders which were rare and expensive, or have the wealth to hire and bring musicians to your home. The San Diego Symphony had just been founded in 1910 and, as now, attendance was prohibitively expensive for a typical family.
Here is a little aside. To buy tickets for a family of four, have a dinner out and park downtown can easily cost $350 to $400 today. So, the chances of families exposing their children to the power of live music are quite limited. Popular music concerts are often just as, if not more expensive. My last concert cost [us] $450. The Spreckels Organ Society offers live music concerts at no charge to everyone, because of generous contributions from the City of San Diego, and a wide range of donors and benefactors who want everyone to have an opportunity to be exposed to live music. Further expansion of the Spreckels dream includes a joint program between Balboa Park and the Spreckels Organ Society where we host live concerts for fifth-grade children. However, this program is currently on hiatus due to the COVID pandemic.
Finally, as part of the Panama-California Exposition planning committee[the Exposition took place between 1915 and 1917 – Ed.], John Spreckels wanted to see a powerful centerpiece. Up until about 1930, the pipe organ was the most intricate, complex and grand creation of mankind,utilizing the best of human skills in artistic design, woodworking and finishing, metal casting and working, mechanical and electrical ingenuity, and harmonic development and tuning, as well as musicianship. These [kinds of] grand expositions, such as was being planned, were popular at the time worldwide. A large pipe organ was routinely a major feature. The Trocadero in Paris, the Crystal Palace in London, and the 1904 St. Louis Exposition immediately come to mind as notable examples. The Spreckels Organ Pavilion, or Music Pavilion as it was originally named, and miraculously constructed in just eight months, became one of five permanent structures in the expo and on opening day hosted 60,000 people, filling the venue. At the time, the population of San Diego was about 75,000.
FD:How are the keyboards, stops, foot pedals and so on arranged?
GS:Each pipe plays one note, like a key on a piano. Each group of pipes forms a rank. [The ranks play a similar role as] an instrument in an orchestra. Each rank is typically brought into play by turning on a “stop.” (It really could more accurately be called a “start”! Did you ever hear the term for a grand effort as “pulling out all the stops?” Yes, this is where it originates.) These ranks are grouped together similar to groupings in an orchestra like the percussion, woodwinds, brass, and so on. These are called divisions. Each division is typically controlled by one keyboard or pedal board. And to make it extra interesting, there are links called couplers that allow connecting the keyboards together, so for instance, you could have a group of ranks in the Great division, typically the loudest grouping, and then interconnect them to the Swell division, which is a grouping of pipes with shutters or the ability to adjust the volume up and down.
To complicate it further, these divisions can be coupled at higher and lower octaves, allowing for nearly unlimited tonal possibilities. Normally, the lowest notes are controlled by the [foot-operated] pedal board. Finally, to add extra interest and complexity, the Spreckels Organ has a “toy counter” that is a group of percussive and special effects instruments like cymbals, gong, bass drum, snare drum and more. These sounds are assigned to buttons at the keyboard and pedalboard depending on the sound and its likely use. All of these sounds are controlled by 528 thin wires, like telephone wires, encased in a robustly-insulated cable wrapped with fire hose for protection. Through a set of stops that control which ranks are on and which keyboard they are assigned to, the organist is able to control all 5,098 pipes.
FD:According to Wikipedia, the organ has 80 ranks and 5,017 pipes. Could you explain what that means?
GS:Today the count is actually 81 ranks and 5,098 pipes with the addition of a new rank called the “Majestic Flute,” a gift from benefactor Dorothea Laub in 2020. Each pipe plays one note per one instrument or rank. In some cases, there are two or more pipes blended together to create more volume, a vibrato effect, or harmonic richness for one note. Typically, each manual rank covers five or six octaves, or 61 or 73 notes. The pedal board typically covers just over two and a half octaves or 32 notes. Most symphonic instruments don’t cover more than two to three octaves, the exception being the piano, which covers 10 octaves. Noteworthy is the fact that in addition to playing its own often-thunderous ranks, the pedal board can also, via couplers, play the first 44 notes of all four manuals. The great Johann Sebastian Bach expected the feet to be able to play as nimbly as the hands!
As an aside, the Spreckels Organ’s title as the World’s Largest Outdoor Musical Instrument was threatened back in the late 1990s by the Heroes’ Organ of Kufstein, Austria. We weren’t about to lose our status as the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world, so the citizens of the San Diego region stepped up with generous contributions in the “Drive to 5000” (pipes) headed up by George Hardy, a past president of the Society, and we retook the title.
FD:How are the pipes powered?
GS:It is all about the wind. There is absolutely no electronic amplification to any of the organ sounds. Simple electronics are only used to control the electromagnets that trigger the air pneumatics that open the valves to play the pipes, and for the console stops’ preset memory system. Standard public address systems are used to amplify other accompanying musicians playing duets with the organ, when using instruments such as violin, viola, cello, trumpet, flugelhorn, harp and so on. Great care is taken to isolate the microphone amplification of the [other] instruments from the organ’s powerful sound.
The pipes are powered primarily by one large blower motor of 25 horsepower in the pavilion basement. Its turbine fans suck in massive amounts of air (up to 5,000 cubic feet per minute) and pressurize it to 10 H2O and 15 H2O column inches of water pressure, measured by water column [gauges]. This is about three times higher than [what’s required for] a typical organ inside a building. These pressures are required because the organ plays into the open air and the closest reflective surfaces are the stage, buildings over 300 yards away, and the low evening clouds we call the marine layer. There is [also] a one-horsepower special high-pressure blower developing 30 inches of pressure for the Centennial Tuba rank, added for the 100thanniversary of the organ in 2015. The movement of air would be enough to completely replace all the air in a typical home in less than two minutes.
The immense wind volumes and pressures are sent through a series of steel tubes called wind conductors, into windchests. The two large main windchests each have a spring-loaded moving wall which functions as an air pressure regulator/bellows to keep the pressure stabilized according to the varying wind volume demands and the number and size of the pipes playing at any given moment. The moving walls are linked to air valves in the wind conductors to open and close as necessary to maintain the 10 and 15 H2O pressures. The two large windchests in the Spreckels Organ are large enough that the curator can walk inside via a series of airlock doors to make adjustments while the organ is playing. Inside each windchest are the complex multi-stage valves invented by the Austin Organ company, which allow extremely responsive opening and closing of air valves for each pipe. These valves are so responsive, it is easy for an organist to play 64thnotes.
The windchest inside the Spreckels Organ.
FD:Are there any electronics involved in producing any of the sounds? How is the instrument controlled?
GS:Electricity is used in this manner: When the organist powers up the organ, he pushes a start button that powers up the main 25-horsepower blower, which draws about 42 amps at 208 volts, using three-phase power.
An automatic air pressure switch powers up the organ’s playing action transformer/rectifier, which converts 208 volts, single-phase into a nominal 14 volts DC. The organ is ready to play within five seconds.
Next, if the organ is to be used for a public performance and not just for “behind the door practice,” the organ curator hits another motor switch and a 3/4-horsepower motor with a large group of gears, much like a garage door opener, begins the five-minute process of opening a steel curtain that weighs about 10,000 pounds and protects the pipes when not in use.
Once the organ is pressurized and ready to play, the organist moves electric switches above the keyboards, which connect the ranks of pipes to the keyboards. Finally, each time the organist touches a key, a small electric current travels down one of the 528 telephone-sized wires, gets routed through the relay, which electrically triggers a two-stage air valve and lets the wind pressure into the associated pipe(s), and [then] the pipe begins oscillating [and producing] its sound. This action, termed “electro-pneumatic,” is very quick, responding up to many times a second from any key on the four keyboards or the pedal board. All in all, there could be over 300 keys that could be pressed at any second and respond at the talented touch of the organist.
The electro-pneumatic relay system controls the stops and routes air to the appropriate pipes as the organ console keys are pressed.
By the way, if you calculated the raw power of the organ, it would be about 50 horsepower, or 746 watts per horsepower, or 37,300 watts, or in BTUs at 2,545 per horsepower or 127,250. That would easily heat eight to 10 San Diego homes. If you converted this to sound at the typical 10 percent efficiency of a high-end stereo system, you would need about 375,000 watts of amplifiers. So, when you hear the organist joke about tickling the toes of the elephants in the San Diego Zoo, over a mile away, you know it could really happen.
FD:Are there any other interesting statistics about the organ?
GS:The Spreckels Organ abounds with interesting statistics. We have already mentioned a few, but here are some more that may be of interest:
When the organ is unused, it is protected by a steel door similar to a very large rolltop desk. This steel door, which we refer to as the curtain, weighs about 10,000 pounds and takes five minutes to raise and lower. It has protected the organ for 106 years from thunderstorms, ash from wildfires, graffiti, hailstorms, and vagrants trying to get access. It does such a good job that often people sitting in the pavilion relaxing are heard to say, “what’s in that building?” and then react in surprise to learn that the building is home to the world’s largest outdoor organ.
The Sunday 2:00 pm concert tradition has been ongoing for 107 years since the organ’s dedication. The rare exceptions or cancellations have been a thunderstorm with horizontal rain; ash from the Pines Fire in 2002; World War II, which caused a halt so the stage could be used for training the troops; and for six weeks while a ship’s engineering firm in Washington State rewound the armatures of the blower’s large motor. The COVID pandemic threatened the schedule, so instead [of having live shows], a small cadre of eight volunteers went quietly to the park on Wednesday and Thursday evenings and recorded concerts, which the civic organist, Raúl Prieto Ramírez, edited so they could be premiered on YouTube each Sunday for 72 weeks, until the CDC and the city allowed us to resume carefully managed, live concerts.
Organist Raúl Prieto Ramírez entertains the Sunday afternoon crowd.
Similar to a church structure being part of the organ, our pavilionisthe organ. The organ’s structure does not consist of just the pipes. A complex architecture holds the pipes in position, includes a series of windchests, and there is very careful structuring, insulating and shaping of the interior spaces, with parabolic shapes to both blend and focus the sound before sending it out to an audience of up to 2,500 seated and 5,000 standing. All in all, the organ and the 70- by 70- by 20-foot building would weigh about 500,000 pounds.
The pavilion has a green room [where] artists dress and prepare, a hallway museum for visitors [that features] photos and honors donors [spanning more than] 100 years, and a small apartment, which was [originally] planned for the curator. During normal times, visitors to the organ are invited to come inside to see the inner workings, including the largest pipe, which is 32 feet long, and about 16 inches in diameter. They can also go inside the airlock into the windchest which is about 7 by 10 by 20 feet. You can actually be in the windchest and watch the organ being played, though it is louder outside the windchest, ironically.
The Spreckels Organ Society, in conjunction with the City of San Diego, operates the organ on a frugal budget, which provides concerts free of charge to over 100,000 people at live events and that many again on social media. The cost is less than $5 per attendee, in comparison to the cost to operate a modern symphony which can exceed $100 per attendee.
In addition to the organ, since the stage is central to Balboa Park, one of the world’s great city parks, it is used for a series of summer concerts, and it is regularly booked during non-concert times for weddings and other celebrations. The beautiful colonnade that surrounds the pavilion is the background for countless wedding and quinceañera photo shoots.
The organ is made of tin, lead, wood, leather, miles of copper wire, iron magnets, and 100-year-old ivory, which has been preserved on the keyboards through four prior consoles. Besides tuning and occasionally rewinding the blower motor cores, the big areas requiring loving maintenance are: sticking console keys, adjustments to the stops, and re-leathering the bellows and relays about every 3 to 4 decades. This re-leathering process is of particular concern because modern materials have not been developed to replace leather, and modern tanning processes leave leather much weaker than the natural methods used previously.
FD:Tell us about Lyle Blackinton, the person who was the curator of the Spreckels Organ for around 50 years, and his successor.
Lyle Blackinton is the curator emeritus for the Spreckels Organ and the former president of Lyle Blackinton and Associates. He first heard the Spreckels Organ in 1948 when he was 11 years old and began working for then-curator Leonard Dowling in 1954, while still in high school. In 1970, Dowling took Blackinton in as a partner and they incorporated the business. Lyle is not a musician but [is] a true artisan at organ building, with a portfolio of very well-known electropneumatic organs around the country. Exceptional examples include organs at First United Methodist Church of San Diego CA, Bethel University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the La Jolla Presbyterian Church in La Jolla CA, and the University of San Diego. Additionally, his company was responsible for significant expansion, reconditioning, and revoicing of the Spreckels Organ in 1986, 1993, 2000, and 2020.
Lyle brought Dale Sorenson on board in the company to keep up with organ maintenance and new installation contracts throughout Southern California. Dale is a regular organist at a Lutheran church in Chula Vista, and over time, has assumed more and more of the curator duties, as Lyle became less active in the daily operations of his company while continuing his role as a trustee in the Spreckels Organ Society. When the baton was passed, Lyle became curator emeritus and Dale took over the full-time role as curator.
There have only been five curators in the 107-year history of the organ.
FD:The Spreckels Organ Society website has posted free concerts for a very long time, and continues to have them. Can you tell us a little about this, and who some of the memorable artists are?
GS: There have been eight civic organists who all held national reputations in their own right:
Humphrey John Stewart, 1914 – 1932 Royal Albert Brown, 1932 – 1954 Specialist First Class D. Robert Smith, World War II Charles Rollins Shatto, 1954 – 1957 Douglas Ian Duncan, 1957 – 1978 Jared Jacobsen, 1978 – 1984 Robert Plimpton, 1984 – 2001 Carol Williams, 2001 – 2016 Raúl Prieto Ramírez, 2018 – present
In addition to the regular concerts, the Society features 8 to 12 artists each year of national and international renown, who perform special Monday evening concerts at the Spreckels International Organ Festival. This list would include over 300 of the world’s most recognized organists.
Grayson (L) and Gabriel (R) frequently attend the organ concerts with audio engineer Gordon Stanley.
FD:What is involved in the maintenance of the organ and the facility?
GS:The organ is almost like a living being in terms of its care. It needs to be tuned weekly, which is a labor-intensive process of climbing among the pipes and making fine adjustments to the tuning collars and reeds. Because of the complexity of [the] moving parts, there is almost always something requiring attention. Think about this: a grand piano with 88 notes has about 10,000 parts, 95 percent of them moving. An organ on the grand scale of the Spreckels has an incalculable number of parts to be adjusted, lubricated, unstuck, etc. The work of the curator never finishes. Just when everything is balanced and tuned, the San Diego seasons change along with the prevailing temperatures and humidity and it all begins again.
Part Two will cover recording the Spreckels Organ, current and future plans for the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, and more.
Acknowledgements:Special thanks to Jean Samuels, 2019-2021 Society president; Dale Sorenson, curator; Mitch Beauchamp, trustee; and Robert E. Lange, photographer, who were instrumental in making this article and interview happen.
Header image: The Spreckels Organ Pavilion, looking particularly beautiful at sunset when nature’s palette of lighting and colors reflect off the Pavilion and pipes. Color photos courtesy of Robert E. Lang, USN (Ret.), Spreckels Organ Society. Black and white photos courtesy of the San Diego History Center.
While the Neumann VMS-80 and VMS-82 record-cutting lathes were endowed with plenty of automation systems, installing and setting them up was (and still is) a major challenge. First, they are heavy. Not only that, they are also very sensitive! The heavy platter must first be removed before attempting to transport the lathe from one place to another. Upon installation in a new location, first, the entire lathe needs to be leveled. Then, after the platter is reinstalled, this too needs to be leveled carefully and checked for vertical run-out. A platter with excessive run-out would make it very difficult, or entirely impossible, to maintain a stable groove depth. The groove depth is around 25 µm (0.025 mm or 0.001 inch) on average and can go as low as 12 µm (0.012 mm or 0.0005″), so the Neumann platter run-out could be adjusted to be as low as +/- 1 µm (0.001 mm or 0.000039″), measured at the outer diameter.
Crispin Murray with a partially disassembled Neumann VMS-82 lathe atAbbey Road Studios,London, UK. Courtesy of Miles Showell, freelance mastering engineer based at Abbey Road.
It is not easy to achieve such a specification, and most competing manufacturers of disk recording lathes were a bit behind in this respect. Most consumer-oriented turntables are an order of magnitude worse when it comes to platter run-out.
The cutting amplifier rack for the VMS-82, being carried in at Abbey Road Studios. Courtesy of Miles Showell.
The control systems for groove depth and pitch would then need to be calibrated with the aid of the microscope provided with the lathe.
Next up is the calibration of the cutting amplifier rack, which involves setting the signal levels for the two channels so that the cutter head would cut equally loud on the left and right channels. Then, adjusting the amount of motional feedback for each channel to achieve linear operation, and also adjusting the cutter head protection system so that it will protect the cutter head in case of overload, while also making sure that it does not come into action sooner than necessary. Other aspects of the cutting amplifier also need to be calibrated.
Partially disassembled VMS-82 lathe, in the process of being moved in at Abbey Road Studios. Courtesy of Miles Showell.
It is also imperative to ensure that the vacuum suction system for chip removal is operating reliably. (The process of cutting the groove generates chips as waste.) It is not uncommon for the suction system to get clogged halfway through a cut, or fail to pick up the chip. When cutting lacquer, this is a hazard, because of the use of a heated stylus to cut the disk. If the chip is not effectively removed during the cutting, it will adhere to the stylus, causing more of the lacquer material to ball up there, and soon catch fire. It is worth noting that the lacquer disks used in vinyl record manufacturing are essentially a nitrocellulose lacquer formulation, which is also used, in shredded up form, as the smokeless powder that has replaced black powder in modern firearm ammunition.
The VMS-80 lathe at Townsend Mastering. The control panel is on the left, with the cutting amplifier rack under the control panel, the lathe and control electronics in the middle, and the microscope monitor on the right. Courtesy of Nick Townsend at Infrasonic Sound.
The lacquer disks are highly combustible, and the chip produced by the cutting operation is extremely easy to ignite, which is why the chip jar that collects it in a lathe’s suction system is filled with water, aiming to keep the collected chip below the surface of the water to eliminate the oxygen supply that would be needed to sustain combustion. Even the static charge produced by chips rubbing together as they collect in a jar would be enough to produce a water-shedding obituary extolling what a fantastic mastering engineer you WERE, before the chip accident…(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_hqLmxvpiI)?
A Neumann VMS-82 lathe without the platter and suspension unit, in the process of being moved in at Abbey Road Studios, St Johns Wood, London, UK. Courtesy of Miles Showell.
With all this said, what do the VMS-80 and VMS-82 sound like? Well, for starters, we should take a scientific approach: The Analogue Productions Test RecordThe Ultimate Analogue Test LPwas cut on a VMS-80 lathe, by Barry Wolifson at Sterling Sound. So, get out your measurement instruments and compile a test report! The FloKaSon test record,FloKaSon Reference Series: Testtone Record Vol.1 FSTD-001was also cut on a Neumann VMS-80 by Flo Kaufmann, using a Neumann SX-74 cutter head with a modified Neumann cutting amplifier rack.
FloKaSon Reference Series: Testtone Record Vol.1 FSTD-001 (2016), cut on a Neumann VMS-80. Courtesy of Flo Kaufmann, FloKaSon, Switzerland.
As for real music, Miles Showell, mastering engineer at Abbey Road Studios in London, UK, recently told me that the very first master he cut, as soon as the converted-to-lacquer Neumann VMS-82 was installed and freshly calibrated, was for the 50th anniversary release of the Beatles’Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.By looking up the work of Miles at Abbey Road, you can find numerous other great-sounding records that showcase just how good the VMS-82 can sound in the hands of a qualified mastering engineer, when properly installed in a world-class mastering facility.
Miles Showell and Crispin Murray with the Neumann VMS-82 lathe, during the process of moving it in at Abbey Road. Courtesy of Miles Showell.
Jumping to the other side of the pond, the VMS-82 lathe atMasterdiskin Peekskill, New York, was converted to cut lacquer at some point in 2005. The work of Scott Hull, owner and chief engineer of Masterdisk, can demonstrate the equally impressive capabilities of the converted Neumann VMS-82 in the hands of a highly respected mastering engineer, using the SX-74 cutter head (just like a VMS-80 would). Scott is particularly proud of his cut for Steely Dan’sTwo Against Naturealbum, cut last year at 33 rpm, and again this year at 45 for Acoustic Sounds. (This appears to be sold out at the present time.)
For a demonstration of the capabilities of the Neumann VMS-82 in its original capacity for cutting DMM (direct metal mastered) disks, cutting a copper coated disk, with due attention to detail, in a world-class facility and again, operated by a highly experienced cutting engineer, look no further than the work of Günter and Hendrik Pauler at Pauler Acoustics in Northeim, Germany. Their most impressive achievement to date, in my opinion, would be the DMM Dubplate Vol 1, discussed at length in Issues147,148and149.
Header image: Crispin Murray next to the VMS-82 at Abbey Road Studios. Courtesy of Miles Showell.
In the fourth quarter of 2021, the Audio Engineering Society (AES) held its annual fall show online. The show’s seminars and interviews were recorded for on-demand viewing, so once again (as was the case in 2020), it was possible to participate virtually.
To recap our coverage so far: inPart Three(Issue 153),Coppercovered an extensive interview with art-rocker St. Vincent (Annie Clark), and a symposium on restoring, preserving, and archiving audio for posterity and historical reference, including a look at Elvis Presley’s first-ever acetate recording (currently owned by Jack White).Part Twoin Issue 152 featured a talk with keynote speaker Peter Asher (producer for James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt), a seminar on stereo panning and balancing during recording and mixing, and a workshop on controlling low frequencies when tuning a listening environment. Issue 151’sPart Onecontained interviews with the creators of the iconic OBX-1a and Prophet-5 synthesizers, and a session on PA system optimization protocols.
In addition to Peter Asher, AES had three other fall 2021 keynote speakers: Poppy Crum, John McBride, and Jack Douglas.
Poppy Crum, PhD
Reflecting her background as a doctor of neuroscience, chief scientist at Dolby Labs, and professor at Stanford University, Poppy Crum’s address offered a fascinating perspective on how sounds occur in nature, how the brain reacts to them in order to convey emotion, and how technology can be used to better study and understand these phenomena.
Poppy Crum, PhD.
Starting with the evolutionary development of moths in emitting sounds to jam the sonar capabilities of predatory bats, she explained how the moth’s scales act as filters and deflectors of sound that give the bats false directional cues. In another example, she demonstrated how spiders tune their webs like violins, and how the spiders will respond to different frequencies, harmonics, and other audio content, based on the vibrations they feel through their webs. This led to Crum’s questions about how these examples parallel the human brain’s development in reacting to sound.
Her next demonstration showed the pupil dilation changes of the human eye as the brain responds to different sounds.
Courtesy of AES.
Courtesy of AES.
The pupil’s dilation relates directly and autonomically to how hard the brain has to work in response to interpreting intelligibility, volume, and other sonic variables.
According to Crum, measured studies have shown that situational awareness cues and the ways in which our brains react to sound cause us to develop patterns such as changes in breathing, pupil dilation, pulse rates and other factors, that can actually indicate which cities we are from. Other common environmental circumstances that emerge due to logistical exposures over time can include examples like the elevated red blood cell counts found in people who have lived at high altitudes for an extended period of time, and other physical adaptations.
Technology can help us to better understand our cognitive processes, and Crum discussed how technology will shape us in new directions going forward. She cited three points:
1: Neuroplasticity refers to how our brains can actually change and adapt to new environments. New technologies will make us have a faster physiological response time, hear more acutely, see more sharply, think more effectively, and provide other advantages.
2: Empathetic technology will transform the relationships we have with each other, and the spaces where we work, train, heal and live. For example, using biometric signatures to input our personal data into devices, to help us know more about ourselves and our relationship to others and our environment.
3: One-size-fits-all technology will be a thing of the past. Technology has the potential to know more about us than we ourselves know.
Crum cited the example of Elizabeth Cowell, the first BBC TV presenter in 1938. Cowell posed a problem to the BBC engineers, who had standardized a 300 Hz-to-3.4 kHz voice bandwidth for audio, which also was a standard for radio and telephony. This frequency cutoff worked fine for men’s voices, but was insufficient to reproduce the proper harmonics for women’s voices, making them sound shrill, nasal and less intelligible. This technology limitation wound up negatively impacting women in broadcasting until this engineering oversight was rectified.
Crum expounded upon the huge amounts of behavioral data that can be derived solely from how we interact with our mobile devices. Aside from websites that we might choose to view, just the ways in which we type words, listen to earbuds, swipe on touchscreens, and the voices and speech patterns we use to speak into our smartphones could give multiple clues as to our respective medical statuses, and can predict the onset of psychosis, dementia, MS, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and even COVID-19 and other health impairments.
Crum’s work holds that the human ear can be likened to a USB port into our bodies, emotions, subconscious, and to our external world.
Courtesy of AES.
The personalization of our use of technology could be used in a multiplicity of ways to improve quality of life, and monitor for potential problems through AI and computer vision techniques.
From a sound and music perspective, the challenge is in using empathetic technology to stay faithful to a creator’s original intent, and for the technology to communicate and convey all of the meaning, nuance, and emotion behind a recorded performance to each individual listener.
In her work with Dolby Labs, one test Crum mentioned was in measuring listeners’ emotional reactions to music by the changes in their CO2 trace exhalation levels. Listening to musical crescendos resulted in accelerated heartbeats and breathing patterns, and elevated CO2 level traces that could be represented on a graph to determine if the creator’s idea of the music’s intent was successfully realized by the audience’s reactions.
Data privacy and the need for an effective security infrastructure are ongoing concerns that she believes will need to be addressed in order for any technology-based ecosystem to maintain trust with the people being monitored in it.
Crum closed her presentation with a plea for proactivity from those who acknowledged the trends she had identified, in order to shape their direction towards increased personalization but with improved security.
John McBride with Chuck Ainlay
Best known for his work with artists like Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Taylor Swift, and Emmylou Harris, producer/engineer Chuck Ainlay has won multiple Grammy awards and has a long affiliation with AES. He interviewed John McBride, owner of Nashville’sBlackbird StudioandThe Blackbird Academy, and producer and engineer of multiple platinum and gold records, including those of his wife of 33 years, country music star Martina McBride.
Hailing from Wichita, Kansas, McBride got his start right after high school running a live sound system rental business operated from his van. He noted that back in the day he would rent Yamaha monitor speaker wedges for $5 a day each.
Displaying canny business instincts at a young age, McBride was able to apply for a $75,000 loan through the Small Business Administration program in the early 1980s, in order to acquire the equipment needed for a professional sound system that could service outdoor festivals and larger indoor arenas. Thanks to his parents agreeing to collateralize the loan with their home, McBride was able to score a regular rental gig at the Cotillion Ballroom, which was a hub for all kinds of country, rock, pop and R&B acts in the Wichita area. This gave him ground-up audio training in working with all kinds of musical artists. The early days were a financial struggle; McBride laughed that at the time he began dating Martina in 1987, he was still sleeping on a couch in his warehouse because he couldn’t yet afford his own apartment.
John McBride. Courtesy of AES.
As McBride’s sound touring company grew to become one of the best mid-sized ones in the US, he and Martina decided to move to Nashville in 1988 and set about plans to make a demo for her to get a record contract, and for building a recording studio. In 18 months, Martina had her record deal, while John McBride had become production manager for Garth Brooks.
Blackbird Studio. Courtesy of Marian Matthis/Blackbird Studio.
McBride’s introduction to Brooks was through bassist Mike Chapman and in McBride’s company providing sound for Ricky Van Shelton, for whom Brooks was an opening act at the time. After McBride’s move to Nashville, Brooks would use McBride’s services whenever possible and rehearse at his warehouse.
In 1991, when Brooks’ career skyrocketed to playing huge arenas, McBride told him that Brooks’ requirements had outgrown his sound company, and that he either needed to hire a larger company or lend McBride the money for expansion, which Brooks readily agreed to do.
As this was at the time when suspended line array loudspeakers began to become prevalent (as opposed to the earlier use of ground-stacked sound reinforcement systems), along with computerized sound and lighting, McBride recalled the steep learning curve that he needed to master for Brooks’ upcoming tour, jokingly telling Brooks, “Garth, I need to start charging you more so I can pay you back!”
McBride eventually sold his touring sound company to Clair Brothers in 1997. At the time, the McBrides were finally able to pay off their debts, and Martina’s career would take off by 1999. McBride decided to look into building a recording studio, and found a location: the former Creative Workshop Recording studios, which in its heyday had been the source for a number of Kenny Rogers hits, but had since fallen into such disrepair that it was reduced to recording jingles. McBride took over the studio in 2002.
Chuck Ainlay. Courtesy of AES.
As he felt that Nashville was looked down upon by music industry people from the coasts, McBride’s competitive streak drove him to create Blackbird as a facility that could outdo any studio in Los Angeles or New York. His goals were to be able to offer any artist from any musical genre a place where any musical idea could be realized to its fruition, and that the sound quality would be undeniably good.
As a former roadie, McBride’s credo with Blackbird is, “always have spares for spares. I never buy one of anything!” His philosophy is that he never wants any artist or engineer to not have a piece of gear with which they need to create. This has led to Blackbird’s incredible mic collection and its fabled inventory of prized vintage sound-processing equipment.
In 2013, McBride formed The Blackbird Academy with Mark Rubel and Kevin Boettger, after finding that interns from other expensive audio engineering programs didn’t know how to mic a drum set. McBride set out to create a six-month educational program where graduates would have the skills to work on a Dann Huff record (Huff is a noted country music producer and songwriter) and work with top sound reinforcement companyClair Brotherson a live gig. He proudly boasted that 90 percent of Blackbird’s graduates are working on live shows, while 73 percent are working in recording. McBride believes this is one of the best ways to give back to the industry – provide the skilled people to continue its operation for the next generation.
McBride also praised the networking aspects of AES that enable even pros like himself to learn more, and cited his meetings with legendary producers Geoff Emerick and Phil Ramone as examples. He regards mentoring as a crucial way to accumulate critical knowledge, and mentioned how Emerick explained to him the secret to The Beatles’ piano sound on “Lady Madonna” – an AKG D19 mic as close to the soundboard of a 7-foot grand piano as possible, and then crushing the sound with Fairchild and Altec compressors.
John McBride (right) with Chuck Ainlay (left). Courtesy of AES.
His philosophical credo is, “good is the enemy of great.” If he had never strived for excellence, McBride believes Blackbird would have already gone out of business, and that kind of work ethic is what keeps his edge. He has vowed never to retire, and since he is so passionate about music, he readily admitted he would pay money to get to do what he does. In keeping with this mindset of excellence, McBride’s latest Blackbird addition is a Dolby Atmos immersive mixing room designed by George Massenburg.
Jack Douglas and Finneas
Finneas is a talented singer, songwriter, producer and actor, and is the engineering and production powerhouse behind the multi-platinum records of his sister Billie Eilish, and more recently, the title song from the latest James Bond film,No Time To Die.
A music industry legend, Jack Douglas was one of the original Record Plant East engineers in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s, working with Roy Cicala, Shelly Yakus, Dennis Ferrante, Jimmy Iovine, and others. His iconic records with Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Alice Cooper, and John Lennon are heralded around the world.
Douglas spoke with Finneas about his production of “No Time To Die,” and they compared notes between Finneas’ Gen-Z DIY approach and Douglas’ old-school professional studio production and engineering methods.
Jack Douglas with FInneas. Courtesy of AES.
Finneas noted that he and Eilish were given 20 pages of the Bond screenplay and asked to compose the song based on plot elements as written, long before the film started production. Even though the song had been completed in 2019, the pandemic delays would postpone the release ofNo Time To Dieuntil 2021. Orchestrations were recorded with Hans Zimmer at AIR Studios in Montserrat.
Finneas showed off his home studio, which was designed by Blake Douglas, Jack’s son.
Douglas noted that in his day, studios needed to have backup hardware gear for everything, and daily maintenance crews were the standard. Noting how Blake has developed a reputation as a DIY studio troubleshooter, he commented that the big shift towards software-based recording has reduced many of the old-school requirements to being optional, as opposed to absolutely necessary in order to make records.
In contrast, Douglas recounted the laundry list of vintage equipment in his studio (shared with producer Jay Messina), such as Fairchild compressors, Pultec tube equalizers, Spectrasonics mic preamps, Telefunken microphones, and Studer A-80 multitrack recording decks.
Finneas exclaimed that the production on the John Lennon and Aerosmith records had aged well and would be considered innovative if released today. Douglas replied that when he became a producer, he felt that every song’s production should stand on its own to best service the song, similarly to how The Beatles’White Albumcontained a wide range of sounds and production approaches. This would involve tuning the drums’ toms to the key of a song, for example. Douglas also credited his time as an engineer working with producers like Phil Ramone, Eddie Kramer and Phil Spector as important educational periods that trained his own production sensibilities in working with artists, in how to serve a song, and in how to use mics to re-create a particular desired sound of an instrument or voice. He stressed that one needed to be satisfied with how something sounded when played back in the room, before reaching for any EQ or other processing.
Unlike his friend Bob Ezrin, who is known for his production sound with Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, and Alice Cooper, among others, Douglas prides himself on not having “his own sound,” so that his production work will be faithful in presenting the artist and their work in the best context.
Finneas noted that Douglas has had a number of repeat clients, which is a credit to the kind of rapport he has been able to build with artists over the decades. Douglas attributes this kind of trust to his willingness to try the artist’s ideas, no matter how outlandish or ridiculous they might be, as long as it might lead to a better performance.
Douglas noted that because studio time was so expensive, pre-production time in developing songs when a band like Aerosmith had just finished a tour could be laborious and take months. He admired the fact that Finneas could work with an artist in writing a song from scratch and then swiftly completing it to the point where a demo could be made that could be turned quickly into a record, thanks to modern technology.
Douglas recollected that in producing the Aerosmith albumRocks, the band had been rehearsing in a warehouse with awful sound, which Douglas then took weeks to properly treat to make it sound good. He became concerned that the material the band was creating was tuned to the sound of the room and that it would lose its vibe if they moved to a studio, leading to the decision to hire a remote truck to record the album in the warehouse.
On the other hand, pre-production on John Lennon’sDouble Fantasyhad to be conducted with the identity of the artist remaining secret until Lennon felt the songs were ready. Douglas’ workaround involved his making charts for all of the musicians selected for the record, recording them on cassette with Douglas singing the lead vocals, and then submitting the cassettes to Lennon for approval or further tweaks. He credited the trust that John and Yoko Ono had in him to his Record Plant days when he had worked with them onImagineand on all of Yoko’s solo records.
Both Douglas and Finneas admitted that they rarely, if ever, know what the single from an album should be, and marveled at producer Jimmy Iovine’s knack for being able to hear the single – a talent which led to his successful career at Interscope Records. Douglas recalled that the only time he felt he knew what song would be a hit single was when he first heard Lennon play “(Just Like) Starting Over” on piano, which the former Beatle had been hesitant about showing him and which almost didn’t make it onto the album.
Finneas has a solo album scheduled for release, and he was excited about producing an upcoming project with British artist FKA twigs. He lamented how the music industry is now focused mostly on singles as opposed to albums. He also noted his affinity for analog gear – even though he works in digital, he still records sister Billie’s vocals with a vintage Telefunken 251 mic and a Neve preamp. He admitted that although he has access to vintage gear, he needs to spend time with someone like Blake or Jack to teach him how to use it properly.
They concluded their talk with comparisons about their production experiences with other artists and on favorite soundtracks of late, with Douglas citing the 1994 Luc Besson action flickThe Professionaland Finneas rhapsodizing aboutThe White LotusHBO series.
AES is to be commended on yet another excellent series of educational seminars. While it will be exciting to return to in-person events in the future, in-depth coverage of presentations like these offer the advantage of being able to be viewed repeatedly and in depth, thanks to on-demand streaming.
Streaming has become the most popular audio format. It’s convenient. It’s easy. You can move immediately from one recording to another. But Gilad Edelman, in a recent article forWiredmagazine, makes a case for continuing to listen to CDs and LPs:
“Streaming platforms just aren’t designed with the serious music fan in mind. Back when you had to buy a physical album to listen to it, you really listened to it— even the songs you didn’t like at first…In the pre-streaming era, I’d buy an album and listen to it over and over. With [a digital music service] I often discover a new artist, get really excited about them, and three months later forget about their existence entirely. If it doesn’t occupy space on your wall, it may not occupy space in your mind….”
“Where streaming turns songs into something ephemeral and interchangeable, a record is very much athing.It’s big. You can hold it in your hands and admire the artwork on the sleeve. If the problem with [a web player] is the lack of friction [involvement], well, vinyl records are about as frictiony as you can get. They literally require friction to function….”
“This is not a nostalgia play. Vinyl has the nostalgia market cornered. But if you look past the visual aesthetics, you’ll admit that CDs accomplish the essential function of turntables, vis-a-vis streaming, without the hassle. That is, they allow you to build a library.”
In order to get the greatest amount of enjoyment from the CDs and vinyl you play, top-quality sound should be a priority. Superior sound can make listening more interesting, realistic, and involving. It enables you to hear greater directionality and clarity, more natural timbres, the ambience of the recording studio or concert venue, the interplay among musical parts, the space around performers, and details or even lines of music that are hidden when the reproduction is inadequate.You’ll also want sound that’s in line with your taste – a little more of this, a little less of that – whether or not what you like is considered to be “accurate.”
So, if you’re a serious listener building your first audio system or upgrading an existing one, how do you go about putting together components that will give you the best listening experience? Here’s a brief history of my search for superior sound that might help guide your own decisions when building or modifying a system that’s right for you.
Once upon a time, several decades ago when I moved into my first New York City apartment, I didn’t want to set up a home music system centered on a boombox purchased from Crazy Eddie’s electronics discount store. I bought what I believed to be a good, affordable serious listener’s starter kit: AR speakers and turntable,a Dynaco amp and preamp, and a Dynaco FM tuner. To get the most natural sound I moved the speakers an inch here, a quarter of an inch there, figured out how far away from them I should sit, and how high the chair I sat on should be. I really enjoyed this all-tube aural equivalent of comfort food – a sound sometimes referred to as “chocolaty.” The equipment might not have had the greatest detail or state-of-the art-specs found in more expensive brands, but it did have qualities I liked: depth, width, and warmth, and every instrument or voice was smooth and round even if it wouldn’t quite sound that way in reality.
I needed one other item to complete my system: a reel-to-reel tape recorder. The manager at a well-known audio store made two good recommendations: either a Revox or Tandberg tape deck. I listened to both and chose the Revox because of its sound, aesthetics, ability to handle 10-1/2-inch reels, and company reputation. The Revox sounded clear and expansive; the Tandberg had a quieter background and sounded like the performers were more forward on the soundstage (i.e., closer to the listener). The Revox came with a lifetime warranty that turned out to be very useful: the recorder I received was mechanically unreliable. After four trips to the repair shop, I finally exchanged it for a Tandberg, which was trouble-free for a couple of decades.
When solid-state equipment became available I traded the Dynaco amps for a solid-state integrated amp with a variety of bells and whistles, including a tuner, bass boost, mute, and tone controls. I found the sound cold and constricted and didn’t live with it for very long, despite its versatility. I traded that and some other equipment for Conrad-Johnson tubed amps that had even greater warmth and detail than my original Dynaco equipment,then eventually traded the C-J equipment for aPathosClassic One Mk II hybrid integrated amplifier: a combination tube preamp-stage and solid-state power stage that, as one audio critic put it, “is one of those rare components that achieves a perfect balance of performance, style and value.”
Pathos Classic One Mk II integrated amplifier.
After relocating to San Francisco, I discovered several high-end audio stores and a wide variety of equipment to choose from within walking distance of my new apartment. My electronic Philips turntable (which had replaced the AR) was replaced by a Bang and Olufsen turntable (a beautifully-designed piece of equipment whose sound turned out to lack body) which was replaced by a SOTA (with a fuller, more realistic sound), which was replaced by a Clearaudio Performance turntable. The AR speakers were traded for stand-mounted aluminum-honeycomb-enclosure Celestion speakers with a transparent upper and mid-range that almost made up for their lack of bass. The Celestions were followed by floorstanding Triangle speakers that projected a warm, clear sound, and were especially captivating when playing jazz and chamber music. As much as I enjoyed the Triangles, though, I always felt they didn't have enough power to support large orchestral music, so they, too, were eventually replaced – this time by Audio Physic Classic 10 speakers (tagline: “No loss of fine detail”) that are still part of my system.
Audio Physic Classic 10 loudspeakers. From the Audio Physic website.
My first CD player was manufactured by ADS and had a more liquid sound than most of the other early digital players I had been auditioning. When SACDs started to appear, I bought (but had trouble carrying) a 39-pound Esoteric SACD/CD player. It was superb: transparent, detailed, airy, and “accurate.” I could hear the felt-covered wood hammers striking the strings inside a piano, the rosin on violin bows, and the individual hairs of brushes on drums during jazz performances. Every attack on every instrument being played was instantaneous, and every note hung in the air after being played. The detailed Esoteric reinforced the sound of my detailed Audio Physic speakers and I reveled in this combination until (you knew that was coming) once again, I needed some of the cozy warmth of tubes in my system, even if the sound might not be as accurate.
When the Esoteric started having tray problems years later, instead of repairing it I looked for a different SACD player and chose aMarantzSA-14S1, one of the company’s higher-end products that has some tube-like warmth yet plenty of detail.The first time I played a jazz CD on the Marantz I discovered I was tapping my foot – something I don’t recall happening while listening to the Esoteric. I was so impressed by the Esoteric’s reproduction I had been focusing more on the sound itself than on the soul of the music.
My current system includes the aforementioned Pathos integrated amplifier and Clearaudio Performance turntable (that “guarantees absolute speed stability and pure pleasure in listening” according to the manual and I have no reason to disagree), a Fosgate Signature Phono Preamp (all tubes) with a seductive 3-dimensional sound, the Marantz CD player and Audio Physic speakers referred to above, an Audience Adept Response power conditioner to plug everything into, and an Audience power cord to connect the conditioner to the wall outlet (it’s true: wall outlets are noisy and “audiophile” power cords, interconnects, and speaker wires can reduce noise throughout a system and allow more detail to be heard).
Fosgate Signature Phono preamplifier.
There’s a new PS Audio SACD player[thePerfectWave SACD Transport– Ed.]I’m curious about. And speakers and amplifiers by other manufacturers I’d like to audition. Continuing the search for perfection is exciting, fun…and endless. Sometimes a change can be refreshing. But after decades of buying and trading components I’ve decided my time is better spent enjoying what I have. I’m pleased with my current mix and match, yin and yang, analog and digital system that also has great aesthetics I enjoy looking at every day. This system makes my foot tap. It draws me into the music. It has great sound and the sound qualities I enjoy most.
The moral of the story
Avoid building a system you think you should have. Whether you like chocolate (a tonal balance on the warmer side of neutral that has a rich sound), vanilla (a tonal balanceon the cooler side of neutral that has exceptional transparency), or some other flavor, choose equipment you feel is just right for you.
Gilad Edelman, “You Should Listen to CDs,” (Wired, 12/23/21).
For example, after one of my many system upgrades, I was surprised to discover a musical line in Bartok’sConcerto for OrchestraI had never heard before because it had been obscured by equipment limitations.
 These “bookshelf” speakers were the perfect size for a studio apartment and could be placed on small stands and moved so they wouldn’t be blocked by furniture.
The Dynaco and C-J amps often blew tubes and were costly to maintain. Contemporary vacuum tube equipment usually requires very little maintenance.
I auditioned a larger-sized, positively-reviewed Triangle speaker that could handle orchestral music but lacked the transparent sound of my smaller Triangles, and would have been too large for my living room (they needed a greater distance between the speakers and listener in order for the sound to come together at the listener’s ears).
Marantz was one of the best manufactures of vacuum tube gear before the company transitioned to solid-state designs. Even much of their solid-state equipment is notable for having a warm sound.
Ever since there have been records, there have been pops and clicks. There are plenty of clean, high-quality records out there, both new and used, that play cleanly – while many other records are not quite as fortunate.
Dealing with noise can require taking a couple of measures. Cleaning records in a record vacuum or ultrasonic cleaner does help quite a bit, depending on the record, and should be the first step for serious collectors. Cleaning still doesn’t eliminate all of the noise, however – it is good for faint background noise and dirt-related crackles, but it still won’t do anything about groove damage in the form of scratches, or impurities embedded into the vinyl.
In this digital world we live in, why even bother with vinyl? First, there are hundreds of records I own that have never had a digital reissue, or were reissued on CD overseas for such a limited time that they are difficult and expensive to find and purchase. There are also records with mastering that is superior to any digital release. Also, 45 rpm singles or 12-inch singles often have versions of songs that have never seen the light of day in a digital format.
I may not be able to do anything about the lack of reissues. But, Icando something about the noise. I’ve been trying to do that for decades.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, two companies produced units that claimed to combat clicks and pops. KLH sold a unit designed by Burwen Research, the TNE 7000A Transient Noise Eliminator. SAE (Scientific Audio Electronics) had their own 5000A Impulse Noise Reduction System. It’s the latter unit that I owned. For the first few months of ownership it was a novelty, until I noticed that many of the transients on records were being clipped off even at lower settings, and the unit itself added a gauze over the high frequencies overall. It worked well for records that were beaten up and difficult to replace, but it wasn’t suited for everyday listening. I would use it to make cassettes for use in the car, where the cassettes’ limited fidelity and road noise would drown out many of the shortcomings of the unit.
In the mid-1990s I bought a computer with a rare (at the time) CD burner, and acquired a digital input card and theWaves Audioprofessional click and crackle filter plug-ins. I was able to make respectable-sounding CD-Rs for myself and friends. The Waves plugins worked better than the SAE 5000A but were not perfect either. The settings were fussy, and individual adjustments were often needed for separate parts of an individual track. They had their own artifacts, both in altered transients and in a change in the soundstage. More recent attempts withIzotope’sclick and crackle filters produced similar artifacts.
Based on these past experiences, I was skeptical when I first heard of the initial crowdfunding campaign for theSweetVinylSugarCube vinyl noise-reduction units. Here was yet another software-based approach to cleaning up clicks and pops (using dedicated hardware that incorporated the software), at a much higher price than anything I had used previously. Could it be “the one” that worked?
During a presentation at an AXPONA audio show a couple of years later, I finally got to hear first-hand how well it worked. SweetVinyl demonstrated how well a dollar-bin copy of Steely Dan’sAjasounded when processed through the SugarCube. Prior to that, I listened to a quiet classical record playing on the same system, with the music coming from a nearly silent background. The software used in all the SugarCube systems is proprietary, and claims to leave the sound quality intact while removing certain types of noise from the vinyl, like clicks and pops. My initial impression after that demo was very favorable in that they had attained their goal.
Late last year the opportunity came up to get ahold of a barely-used SugarCube SC-1 Plus through an online auction at a substantial discount. As I write this, I’ve had it for about a month and am still in the process of learning how to use it properly. It’s not that it is a difficult unit to use, but learning the nuances of the different levels of click and pop reduction is very important in getting the most out of it.
The reasons I wanted the SC-1 Plus over other models in the company’s lineup were the unit’s coaxial digital output (which I send to my DAC), and its USB output that would allow me to record digitally to a computer. The SC-1 Plus and SC-2 Plus also have a newly-added SVNR (SweetVinyl Noise Reduction) feature which I have not yet explored; it is targeted to reducing surface noise on tapes and older records.
The SC-2 Plus adds the ability to record the audio to a USB storage device, complete with track splitting and metadata tagging. The SC-1 Mini and Mini/Phono (with phono stage) offer only the click and pop removal, and the SC-2 Mini and Mini/Phono add the recording functions. All SugarCubes can be remote-controlled using a web browser on any type of computer, or through an app on a smartphone or tablet, which duplicates the front panel controls. SVNR is accessed only through the web or app interface.
The SugarCube is typically placed between a phono stage and preamplifier, although it can also be inserted into a tape monitor or external processor loop. The unit has a high-quality relay inside that you can use to completely bypass the SugarCube electronically, so it is safe to leave it between your phono stage and preamp without any sonic degradation. The SugarCube connects to your home network via Ethernet or Wi-Fi in order to receive software updates and provide remote control features and, for the SC-2 units, to retrieve metadata from Discogs for tagging recorded tracks.
I plan on using the SugarCube for real-time music playback, and more importantly, for digitizing many of those unusual and rare recordings that I own so that I can play them outside of my main system. While I haven’t yet set up my audio computer for recording digitally yet, I have had a month to run the SugarCube through its paces and see how it works.
And I have to tell you, it works. Brilliantly!
This is by far the best noise reduction I have ever used on records. From faint ticks to large pops and clicks, the SugarCube is eliminating them and not leaving any artifacts behind! The one thing I am marveling at right now is how I am able to play some records I had given up on, including a couple of abysmal recent “Near-Mint” purchases that were in horrid condition.
Below are three samples of the SugarCube in action. The first is the Pete Jolly Trio track “Little Bird,” in something less than near-mint condition. While it can’t cure the groove wear and general noise, not to mention the weak pressing quality by MGM, it still removes a lot of sonic crud, and makes the album listenable. (Sorry for a slight bit of background hum/buzz – I am in the middle of a room refurbishing project and the system is set up temporarily to record these samples.)
The second is an album I’ve owned since 1975, new, and rarely played. The sparse instrumentation of this Los Indios Tabajaras album (a mid-1970s RCA reissue of their 1958Sweet and SavageLP) helps show off the amount of noise that the SugarCube removes.
As a torture test, I came across an old record purchased by my mother back in the 50s. This old RCA Red Seal LP has seen better days. The outcome isn’t perfect (there is still a fair amount of background noise), but the transformation is remarkable! Now, we can hear the music.
Finally, here is a new Blue Note record from the Tone Poet series – Horace Silver’sFurther Explorations. Like a few other recent Blue Notes I’ve owned, this one is typically noisy. There isn’t much to clean up here, but the SugarCube handles it nicely.
The A/D and D/A converters in the SugarCube are high quality, and I would challenge anyone to hear the difference between the sound of the analog input and the output after passing through the unit’s processing chain. “But it’s not analog anymore!” OK, I get it. Yet if I can’t hear the difference between the original or processed signal, does it really matter?
Where will the SugarCubenotwork? It will not get rid of certain types of “gritty” or “swooshing” low-level background noise, as you’d hear on a dirty record. It will not eliminate groove burn (groove wear), my primary reason for rejecting over half the used records I buy. Certain scuffs will also not be removed. But for removing any type of instantaneous transient noise, from louder clicks to minor ticks, it is very successful. Careful administration of the repair-level setting will ensure that musical transients (such as those found in percussive or electronic music) are not clipped off. It is the most unintrusive noise reduction system I have ever used, a credit to the proprietary software and high-quality electronics used inside the unit.
Rediscovering records in my collection, I’ve had a few good weeks of listening and am convinced that the SugarCube is staying in my system. As I have not yet set my system up for recording digitally, I will cover that aspect of the unit in a futureCopperarticle. I will also be exploring the new SVNR (SweetVinyl Noise Reduction) feature once I figure out how to use it properly.
With that in mind, I need to step away from the keyboard and get back to spinning some more records!
Header image: SC-1 Plus in silver, from the SweetVinyl website.
The year 2021 marked the 200th anniversary of Carl Maria von Weber’s operaDer Freischütz.Several recordings acknowledged the benchmark, while others focused on Weber’s significant output of instrumental music.
Weber, born in 1786, is best known today as the composer ofDer Freischütz, largely because that opera had such a strong effect on the young Richard Wagner, who was inspired by it to intertwine fantasy elements into his own operas, theRingcycle in particular. In fact, Weber wrote ten operas, half of which survive complete, along with one (The Three Pintos) that Gustav Mahler finished long after Weber’s death in 1826. BesidesDer Freischütz,onlyOberon, his final opera, gets much attention these days. Weber also wrote dozens of pieces for solo piano, chorus, vocal solo, and orchestra with and without soloist.
One of the recent homages to theFreischützanniversary was a re-release of a classic compilation:Wagner Overtures,from 1957 – 1959, with Hermann Scherchen conducting the Orchestre du Théâtre National de l’Opéra de Paris and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Archipel’s digital version includes the overtures to four complete works –Freischütz, Oberon,Euryanthe,andAbu-Hassan– in addition to those of the incompletePeter Schmolland incidental music for the playsPreciosaandJubel.
TheFreischützoverture is handled with Brahmsian weight, particularly in the horns. Unfortunately, the sound quality is threadbare and marred by distortion; clearly the master tapes were not well preserved. But it’s always interesting to hear mid-20th-century interpretations of Romantic works, which often have a density that is no longer fashionable.
Laurence Equilbey and her Insula Orchestra offer a 21st-century celebration of the opera’s anniversary.The Freischütz Projectcomprises both audio and video recordings of highlights from the opera, with Equilbey conducting the Insula, joined by the very skilled chorus Accentus and a strong cast of soloists.
The recording, on Erato, has rich, nuanced sound. With a sure hand Equilbey traverses the overture’s many facets, starting with a pastoral calm quite different from Scherchen’s raise-the-roof approach. Equilbey also highlights the spooky qualities in the overture, an appropriate harbinger to the Satanic goings-on in the story.
After all,Freischützis technically a “melodrama,” which in the mid-19th century meant a German-language serious, dramatic opera with spoken dialogue. To test the level of horror and drama of aFreischützrecording, it’s always good to listen to the famous “Wolf’s Glen” scene, which is included in every music history textbook I’ve ever learned or taught from.
In the style of a Greek chorus, the men of Accentus sing in skin-crawling monotone and the women shriek. Christian Immler’s spoken Samael (the devil) is not as terrifyingly raspy as in some recordings, but Vladimir Baykov as the magic-greedy Kaspar sounds determined and unstoppable with a sure baritone.
The best new Weber recording includes some excerpts fromDer Freischützalong with a wide range of other works by the composer. On the Alpha label,Weberfeatures the Konzerthausorchester Berlin and conductor Christoph Eschenbach, recorded live at the Berlin Concert Hall for the venue’s 200th anniversary. That also happens to be whereFreischützhad its premiere in 1821. There are two guest artists, pianist Martin Helmchen and soprano Anna Prohaska.
The dark-voiced Prohaska brings out the depth of Weber’s melody writing in her interpretation of a scene fromFreischützAct 3. Weber took advantage of every opportunity to write spooky, fantastical music, even in surprising moments of a libretto. In the romanza introduction to what is eventually a happy and hopeful aria, the character Ännchen tells her friend Agathe about a cousin’s ghostly nightmare.
This recording also includes some lesser-known orchestral works, such as the symphonic overtureDer Beherrscher der Geister, Op. 27, which was a reworking of the overture to Weber’s 1810 operaRübezahl. That work was never performed and exists today only in fragments.
Helmchen’s contribution is found on a more famous piece, the Konzertstück in F minor, Op. 79, for piano and orchestra. With four sections in contrasting tempos, it is in effect a 16-minute mini-concerto. Helmchen’s graceful playing captures its intense Romanticism. His use of rubato is especially effective, pulling at the pulse of each sub-phrase just enough to make you catch your breath.
This was not the only new recording of the Konzertstück in the past year. Ronald Brautigam played it onWeber: Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra, a BIS release with Michael Alexander Willens conducting Die Kölner Akademie. The recording also includes Weber’s two piano concertos.
The most obvious difference between this and the Helmchen/Eschenbach performance of the Konzertstück is that Brautigam is not playing piano, but rather fortepiano, with a wooden frame instead of metal and no sustain pedal. Most listeners rarely associate historical performance-practice techniques with 19th-century music, but it’s an appropriate path of enquiry: What instrument would keyboardists of the time have most likely played? Because the steel-framed piano was a new invention, most would still have been using a fortepiano. The resulting sound is delicate and transparent, with each note distinctly articulated, quite different from the smooth sweep of notes possible on the modern concert grand.
Besides two piano concertos, Weber also wrote a half-dozen concertos and concertinos for various winds. His two clarinet concertos can be heard on Eric Hoeprich’s recent albumWeber and Kurpiński: Clarinet Concertos. On this Glossa release, the Orchestra of the 18th Century is conducted by Guy Van Waas. The Clarinet Concerto in B-flat Major by Polish composer Karol Kurpiński (1785-1857) is placed between the two Weber works. If this single-movement opus is any indication, Kurpiński was a skilled but conservative practitioner, heavily influenced by Haydn and early Beethoven.
Hoeprich gives a confident and elegant performance of the Weber concertos, but the painfully inadequate sound production leaves the orchestra by turns muddy and almost screeching. This is a waste of good playing and conducting, and there’s no excuse for it nowadays.
Happily, there are plenty of other recordings of the Clarinet Concertos to choose from. I recommend Karl-Heinz Steffens’ version (Tudor Records, 2011), with Radoslaw Szulc leading the Bamberg Symphony.
Judging by the row of trees, I knew we were getting near the river. We turned left into a dusty parking lot. A tired Airstream trailer was parked near the water. Several cars were also parked nearby. There was no one in sight, and I wondered what the hell we were doing here.
“Park there,” Melody ordered. I parked. “Now take off your clothes.”
“Just strip,” she responded as she removed her own clothes. “I want you to meet someone.”
We stuffed the clothes into my saddlebags, she grabbed her satchel, and we were off.
We pranced like pixies down a narrow, twisting trail through house-sized boulders and leafy trees. I was praying we wouldn’t come across any Sunday school kids.
“Who are we visiting?” I asked.
“He’s a religious studies professor at my school. We call him the Bhagwan. Keep going!”
The trail dipped down towards water level and I could see the river. Adjacent to it was a dry wash surrounded by more boulders – no doubt a turbulent pool when the snows melted and turned the river into a raging flood. As we got closer, a dozen naked, college-age kids could be seen sitting cross-legged in a semicircle facing a gangly guy about twice their age. He had long, graying yellow hair and a scraggly beard.
No one looked up at us as we approached, though they must have heard us coming.
Melody took my hand, led me down amongst the group, laid out a blanket from her satchel, and sat us down cross-legged. She closed her eyes and started to hum in a monotone along with the others. I was ignored and on my own.
What do I do now?
Why am I sitting naked on a blanket in the dirt under the hot sun with a bunch of people I don’t know facing a guy I don’t trust? Will this lead to an ugly scene like Jonestown?
Do I have to hum?
The sun is going to fry me.
I’ll get sand in my crotch.
When are we going to get something to eat or drink?
Is this Bhagwan guy ever going to say anything?
Why didn’t he acknowledge our arrival?
Damn, the flies are driving me crazy.
The Bhagwan uttered, “Thoughts are like flies; they only bother us if we pay attention to them; better to be here now.”
Did he know what I was thinking?
Be Here Nowis a book by Richard Alpert, alias Baba Ram Dass. I’d read it many times in college. Was he…wait a minute. He sort of looks like that lanky, blond guy with the beads in one of the photos. My mind was racing.
It’s hard to imagine, but there was once a time when the Motown sound did not yet exist. Thanks to the expressive, blues- and gospel-influenced singing of people like Mary Wells, the popular music of Black artists landed squarely in the center of the American musical map, where it belonged.
Born into poverty in Detroit and plagued by poor health as a child, Wells started writing songs in her teens. As a 17-year-old in 1960, she had the temerity to bring a song to record producer Berry Gordy, founder of Tamla Records and its subsidiary, Motown. Wells hoped her song “Bye Bye Baby” would be given to heartthrob Jackie Wilson. But Gordy wanted to hear Wells sing it. Blown away by her voice and delivery, he offered her a contract.
The resulting single of “Bye Bye Baby” reached No. 8 on the R&B charts. The logical next step for Gordy was to help the teen amass enough material to build an album around the song.Bye Bye Baby I Don’t Want to Take a Chancecame out in 1961, with songs written mostly by Gordy. Or at least, he took credit for them. Who knows how many grew out of Wells’ own songwriting ideas? Gordy and Mickey Stevenson wrote the album’s other hit single, “I Don’t Want to Take a Chance.”
Those great backup singers you hear on Gordy’s “I’m Gonna Stay” are none other than the Supremes. That’s what things were like at Gordy’s Hitsville USA Studios. On any given day, some of the best names in soul and R&B music were sure to be wandering the hallways, happy to help out their colleagues.
On her first record, Wells has an unusually raw style that sounds extemporaneous and unpracticed. It’s emotionally effective, but not ideal for superficial listening. It’s a market reality that pop hits are the result of music becoming accepted background noise, a radio soundtrack to everyday life. Gordy knew this, so he worked with Wells until she had a smoother, less individualized sound.
You can already start to hear the change inThe One Who Really Loves You(1962). That album is also important for marking the beginning of one of soul’s best collaborations: Wells and Smokey Robinson. During 1962, Robinson would compose a bunch of hit singles for Wells, starting here with “You Beat Me to the Punch,” which earned a Grammy nomination. His “The One Who Really Loves You” is also from this album.
The song “I’ll Be Around” is an exception, composed by Janie Bradford (best known for co-writing “Money,” which was recorded by both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones) and Richard Wylie.
Robinson continued to write for Wells on her next album,Two Lovers and Other Great Hits(1963). All three of the tracks by him became hit singles: “Two Lovers,” “Laughing Boy,” and “Operator.”
This album was the first time since her debut single that Wells got a writing credit, collaborating with Melvin Franklin for “Stop Right Here.” Wells uses her voice like a trumpet, singing in a more extroverted style than on her earlier releases. Since the energetic arrangement is so much fun, now is the perfect time to acknowledge the Funk Brothers, a group of ace session musicians who played on nearly all of the Motown records from 1959 to 1972. There would be no Motown sound without them.
In 1964, Wells scored her biggest hit ever, the single “My Guy,” also by Robinson. From the outside, it probably looked like she was flourishing at Motown, but the reality was much different. She entered into a big legal dispute over her contract with Gordy. While that battle raged, she made one more album for the label,Together(1964), a collection of duets with a little-known singer called Marvin Gaye. Gordy had put them together hoping Wells’ popularity would be good for Gaye’s career. And it was.
One of the joys of this album is the material chosen for it. Instead of ten soul numbers, which would have been perfectly fine, somebody had the good sense to look for a wider range of material, including Duke Ellington’s delightful “Just Squeeze Me (Don’t Tease Me).”
Not long after the album with Gaye came out, Wells won her bid to break her Motown contract by pointing out that she’d been a minor when she’d signed it. She landed on her feet, with a nice deal from 20th Century Fox Records. One of her first projects there was very personal to her, an homage calledLove Songs to the Beatles(1965). Not only was Wells a huge Beatles fan, but she also considered them friends, having toured briefly as their opening act.
The menu of songs ranges from “Help!” to “Ticket to Ride.” Wells’ version of Lennon/McCartney’s “Yesterday” is especially moving, buoyed by Joe Mazzu’s lush orchestrations.
20th Century Fox gave Wells two chances, but neither album had good sales. They reneged on their promised to put Wells in a movie, so she moved on to Atco Records. There she was assigned to the production talents of Carl Davis, who had worked with Jackie Wilson among others in the R&B world. Despite Gordy’s intensive efforts to stop radios from playing her music, she managed a decent-sized hit with “Dear Love,” from herThe Two Sides of Mary Wellsalbum (1966).
As the title suggests, the record was promoted as showing that Wells could do more than sing in the Motown style. It was rare for her to venture into Broadway standards, but she makes good use of the soaring melody in Alan Jay Lerner’s “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”
Wells’ time as a superstar was over. She jumped to another label briefly, and then another, before taking a 13-year break from the studio to raise her kids and navigate a divorce. Her comeback in 1981 on the Epic label wasIn and Out of Love, written almost entirely by Greg Perry, who also co-produced with Fonce and Larry Mizell.
“These Arms” opens the album with a soft R&B feel. Despite the synth-driven accompaniment with way too much high-frequency sheen, Wells seems to be in good voice with a relaxed and confident sense of phrasing.
Not much happened in terms of sales, but Wells was happy to be singing again. She made a few more albums over the years, with the final one in 1990. Her health was beginning to fail at that point, and two years later she died of cancer. She was 49 years old.
Today, Mary Wells might not be as much of a household name as the Supremes or Marvin Gaye, but she showed up at Motown at a critical juncture, and her recordings served as a stepping stone for other artists to build on.