The English rock band Everything Everything announced that their upcoming albumRaw Data Feelwas written with the assistance of artificial intelligence software. You can hear the results in the first single,“Bad Friday.”I actually think it's pretty good. But who gets the publishing royalties?
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, Alón Sagee, 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, 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
A rare pair of Sequerra Model TI MK. II ribbon tweeters, circa 1980s? Designed and made by Dick Sequerra, they connect to a system's main loudspeakers to provide extended high-frequency response. They sound heavenly.
Sequerra Model TI MK. II, rear view. Photographed by Howard Kneller at Stereo Buyers/High-End Audio Auctions, Brooklyn, NY.
You know you want it: Altec/Western Electric 639A microphone, introduced in 1938. It featured ribbon and dynamic transducer elements (!), and a three-way selectable pickup pattern. Courtesy of the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording/Martin Theophilus.
Look on eBay and you'll see these are worth a lot more than $8.95 today! Editall ad, 1957, courtesy of the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording/Martin Theophilus.
PS Audio’s Octave Records will expand its catalog of reference-quality sampler discs with the upcoming release of Audiophile Masters, Volume IV on Thursday, February 17, 2022. The new disc offers a varied range of musical styles, and features favorite Octave Records artists like country-folk duo Bonnie and Taylor Sims, percussionist Michelle Pietrafitta, pianist Deborah Schmit-Lobis, the Briana Harris Quintet, and others. The tracks were recorded in pure DSD using Octave Records’ Sonoma DSD recording system at Animal Lane Studios in Lyons, Colorado. Paul McGowan, PS Audio CEO, noted, “Audiophile Masters, Volume IV showcases our artists in musical and sonic settings where their talents can be heard at their absolute best. The clarity, natural vocal and instrumental timbres, superb resolution, and the way the pure DSD format captures the intimacy and depth of the recordings also makes Audiophile Masters, Volume IV an ideal reference disc for audio system setup and evaluation.”
Audiophile Masters Volume IV (SRP: $29) is playable on any SACD, 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 from psaudio.com at this link.Audiophile Masters Vol. IV was recorded, mixed and produced by Steven Vidaic, and mastered by Gus Skinas. Octave Records’ Jessica Carson was the executive producer.
“Midwinter” by the Briana Harris Quintet kicks off the album with a blast of straight-ahead jazz that exudes classic cool and a lush ensemble sound. Fans of acoustic-based folk, country and Americana will find much to enjoy in Taylor Sims and Kyle Donovan’s acoustic guitar duo “Coming Home,” the dazzling guitar and mandolin flatpicking of Eric Wiggs on “Lickskillet” (with Dylan McCarthy on mandolin and Bradley Morse on upright bass), Tyler Thompson’s earthy “Stone Tree,” and Bonnie and Taylor Sims’ “Caught Between” with its propulsive bluegrass feel and plaintive vocal harmonies.
The Magee String Quartet offers a nuanced and impassioned performance of Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor in an intimate acoustic environment. Other highlights include Michelle Pietrafitta’s drum solo, “Thunder,” guitarist Bill Kopper’s bossa nova-flavored jazz track, “Santa Amaro,” the solo piano of Deborah Schmit-Lobis’ “Wapiti,” and Alicia Jo Straka’s “Au Printemps,” a beautifully-sung piece with accordion and piano that is evocative of a tranquil stroll down the streets of Paris.
Alicia Jo Straka.
The track listing for Audiophile Masters Volume IV is as follows:
“Midwinter” – Briana Harris Quintet
“Stone Tree” – Tyler Thompson
“Wapiti” – Deborah Schmit-Lobis
“Thunder” – Michelle Pietrafitta
String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor (Smetana) – Magee String Quartet
We flew into Texas knowing we were in for a tough time of it. We were looking at a no-frills bus and truck tour. It was going to be hectic, and we would travel over five thousand miles. We had thirty gigs in 35 days. There were some overnight bus rides. The routing was terrible. They had us zigzagging across the state of Texas and when we flew home all of us were exhausted. Let me back up here. It was in the early 1970s. Bruce Sachs and I got involved when Mike Martineau (the booking agent for the Peace Parade musical) called Bruce with the idea of doing a show based on the successful album Jesus Christ Superstar. We were in a unique position to implement this opportunity and were still buoyed by our recent success with Peace Parade (see my article in Issues 117 and 118). We decided to take a closer look at it. Firstly, we had cost considerations, which were paramount. We needed to have the ability to do a show every night, with the only restriction being travel issues. Keeping things simple – we knew how to do that. Salaries, while being pretty good for everyone, wouldn’t be much of a drain till we were on the road, but by then we would have cash flow. One of the things that helped us create Superstar as a road show on the cheap was that we decided to do the show as an oratorio, rather than as a full-blown production with elaborate scenery and costumes. We also had a world-class cast, with many of our performers being Broadway veterans. Most of them had served long stints in the Broadway cast of Hair. We called the show Superstar, The Original Touring Company (OATC). After a brief and successful start, some developments and realities made us have to temporarily pull the show off the road. This brought into our circle Bruce’s employer, Betty Sperber. A grizzled older gal with questionable ethics, a true music biz character. On the plus side, she had more experience than both of us combined.
Cast of Superstar, the Original Touring Company.
The pieces were in place, but we needed something more to make the show resonate. We had to clean up the show by eliminating some music, adding some original songs and making it more dramatic, while retaining the production’s ability to be nimble. Betty was friendly with Bill Aucoin (KISS’s manager) and he knew this guy Kenny Anderson, who had been a Broadway lighting director and designer. Kenny was not working, and we were told he had some issues, but we thought, let’s see, and he was brought in. The last few rehearsals were held at a theater where we could run through the set and mark the spots on the stage for the performers’ placements, so that Kenny could implement his lighting design. He had developed and created lighting cues that were truly amazing, using only hanging fixed lights. Kenny was able to create scenes, and moods. He could make a bare stage look like a specific environment. At that time he used two different kinds of fixed lights, Leko and Fresnel. These were universal lights that were used on Broadway and in theaters everywhere. Low-tech by today’s standards but incredibly effective. The Leko and Fresnel lights had what were called barn doors, essentially flaps. They shaped the light into tight beams as opposed to just flooding the stage. The lights hit the spots for the performers on stage, with no spillover. You could certainly create drama with just a few lights on an otherwise dark stage. When a performer had a solo and there was movement, Kenny incorporated follow spots. These Incandescent arc lights required professional local operators. For fixed lighting, envision two long bars over the stage. One would be in the front and the other in the back of the usable stage. In setup, the stagehands had to hang and then aim the lights using barn doors. Each of these hanging lights worked in groups of two to six lights per group. The crew also attached specific gels to the lights to create various colors. On the lighting control board, there were about 12 to 18 moveable levers, to brighten or dim these separate groups of fixed hanging lights.
Fresnel fixed hanging light with barn doors.
The lights had to be arranged in very exact placements, which increased the drama of the performance. With the combination of 65 to 90 hanging lights and three high-intensity carbon arc follow spotlights, Kenny developed an intricate lighting script that had over 167 cues over the course of the show. It was amazing, and added such depth and expression that it propelled the show to another level. This was it, the missing element.
The beauty of all this was that it cost us nothing. We could put all of it in our contract rider that required the promoters to provide this equipment. It was considered normal and appropriate for a promoter to provide sound and lights, and we asked for nothing special. The equipment requested on the rider was readily available in most theaters, and if not, could easily be rented locally. The lights were not particularly exotic in themselves. The lighting requirements for Superstar were solidified – and it was just one more reason why the show needed an advance man. I was the obvious choice for the job. I had to make sure that the rider requirements were provided for. There were also other necessities that could be problematic if they were not in place for the show. To name a few, a Hammond B3 organ with two Leslie speakers. An upright piano, freshly tuned on the day of the show. Making sure the specifications for the sound system and the size of the stage were correct. Previously, before I did the advance work, the local promoters were frequently haphazard in fulfilling the rider. When we would pull up on the day of the show, it was too late to make substitutions, and afforded almost no time to make any corrections. It was a source of frustration for all involved when our requirements were not met, a real bummer that hurt morale. The addition of Kenny’s lights made the job of advance man an absolute necessity, where previously it was only an aspiration. I would call and book an appointment with the promoter to meet at the venue a day or two before the show, and review every item of the contract rider. That forced them to make any necessary corrections, which they did. The word got out and the promoters took our requirements much more seriously. In the rare case that there was an issue, I was able to relay that information back to Bruce, and he could advise our people of any needed substitutions or workarounds. It really worked well, and I was able to smooth out the rough spots. That made life on the road easier for everyone and our touring life was much improved. When we finally resumed touring after our hiatus, the lighting gave us the added dimension the performance needed. Our production of Superstar received rave reviews.
Page from the original program for Superstar.
After a few months, the Texas block of dates came up. While we were touring in Texas, Kenny had a family emergency and would have to go home for five days. Somebody had to take over the lights. By default, that was me. I usually was a day ahead of the show and busy doing the advance work, but I was also the obvious choice for the job. My initial reaction was reluctance, because I knew nothing about lighting. The task seemed insurmountable. However, Bruce insisted that I do it. Finally, we agreed that there was no guarantee of success. I would do as best as I could, and we would hope for the best. With that understanding in place I felt less pressured. Before Kenny left, I joined him on stage for the pre-show setup and watched him direct the lighting crew, observing where the fixed lights were hung and grouped. Then the stage crew adjusted the barn doors, to be pointed at specific spots on the stage. Kenny drew up a diagram of how each light was pointed and grouped, and which colored gels would be used. During shows, Kenny and the lighting crew communicated with each other via headsets. The night before the show I would be in charge of, I listened in on a headset to Kenny and the three follow-spot operators, along with the operator of the lighting mixing board. Following along with the notes on the script, I saw and heard how he called the show, and that gave me a good idea of how it was done.
Mid-1960s lighting console. From a Solitrol Lighting Systems brochure.
Next morning Kenny flew home, and we were off to Lubbock for two nights in a dirt-floored arena. It was big and smelled rodeo-ish. I felt that I could do it, well, at least sort of, and I was up for it. My first afternoon as lighting director, the local stage crew lowered the trusses for the lighting rigs, and the fixed lights were hung as Kenny’s notes described.. Going over the diagram with the lighting crew, they set up the banks of lights and aimed them. In a couple of hours all the fixed lighting was hung, gelled and pointed, with their barn doors adjusted. Then the trussed were raised back to the correct height, and only slight adjustments had to be made. Here and there, crew members climbed ladders, made the final adjustments, and locked everything down. That evening about a half hour before the show, I took my place in the balcony next to one of the follow-spot operators, and we put on our headsets. Me, the three follow-spot operators, and the lighting board tech were all situated on the main floor, with the lighting board placed next to the sound booth. While getting familiar with the operators, I asked them how often the lighting elements had to be replaced. The high-intensity carbon had to be replaced every 30 to 45 minutes of use, and took about one minute or so to replace. They would notify me in advance so that I could find a break in the script and give them time to do the replacement. We prepared for the show to start. And away we went. I started calling the lights. This was turning out to be fun, and my operators were very professional. I gave alerts, and made the cues and lighting calls. It was going better than I had expected. The show ended and I thanked my guys. They told me it was fun, and enjoyed working with me. They were unaware that this was my first time. By my account I made just a couple of mistakes, but they were brief and quickly corrected.
Advertisements for Superstar.
I went backstage to the dressing room with a big sh*t-eating grin on my face. I was very pleased with myself. I saw Bruce, Susan (Morse, my girlfriend, who played Mary Magdalene), and everyone else in the dressing room just going about their business. I must admit I was surprised. It was inexplicable that no one paid any attention to me. No acknowledgement. nothing, nada. Well, what was I expecting, applause? Yeah, something like that, but seemingly they were not particularly interested. At that moment, I was speechless, and it began to dawn on me that nobody cared. Unless you make some horrid mistake, it seems like nobody notices. Apparently the only one who thought this lack of acknowledgement was a big deal was me. I quickly wiped the smile off my face and tried to appear nonchalant. Thinking about it later in bed that night, I realized that this is probably how a sound mixer feels. No one says anything to them except: “It was too loud!” “I couldn’t hear the monitors!” Or, some other kind of complaint. Silence is good news, because you are not going to get a compliment for a job well done; well, rarely maybe if ever. Kenny came back a day early and he also hardly said boo to me. No big deal. My lighting career was complete, finito, over. A brief but a hell of a good experience. Kenny Anderson later worked for Aucoin Management and became KISS’s production manager from 1976 – 1982.
In previous installments, this series examined Neumann disk mastering systems, with a brief look at the origin of the LJ Scully LS-76, aka “The Lathe,” in 1976. The introduction of the LS-76, with its very modern low-profile design (euphemism for flat slab) and high-tech automation features, received a very positive reception in the US, which must have acted as a strong incentive for Neumann to proceed likewise.
The Neumann company, inheritors of the German Bauhaus tradition, were not to be outdone on their own playing field! They could make a flat slab better than anyone, and they were determined to prove it! The Neumann VMS-80 and VMS-82 were far more successful than the LS-76, with much better timing and, admittedly, much better marketing.
VMS-82 DMM lathe, but converted to cut lacquer using a lacquer suspension box and a Neumann SX-74 cutter head. Courtesy of Scott Hull, Owner/chief engineer, Masterdisk Studios, Peekskill, NY.
In the United States, the import of Neumann lathes and their promotion in the industry was handled at the time by Stephen Temmer of Gotham Audio, who many have described as a rather intimidating personality, and who very aggressively and very effectively marketed the Neumann brand and products. Scully, based in Bridgeport, CT, was located right at the epicenter of machine tool development at the time. Larry Scully was already the second generation of the family to become a machinist and lathe designer, taking over from his father, John Scully, the founder of the original Scully company (which had been sold to Dictaphone just before the introduction of the LS-76, which was branded L.J. Scully, the name of the newly-formed company which specialized strictly in the lathe market) and who was the designer of the earlier versions of Scully lathes. John Scully was also reported to be a highly capable machinist. He was reported to have machined and assembled the first Scully lathes entirely on his own, as early as the 1910s!
The doctor is here! Tor Degerstrøm listening for any unwanted noises on his L.J. Scully LS-76 with a stethoscope. Photo by Anja Elmine Basma, courtesy of Tor Degerstrøm at THD Vinyl Mastering.
Their mechanical designs were solidly rooted in the Connecticut tradition of machine tool design. The state of Connecticut has a long history of engineering and implementation of machine tools, from Eli Whitney, Colt's Manufacturing Company, and the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, to the origins of Timex Group USA, Inc., Pratt & Whitney, and various other notable concerns. The town of Bridgeport itself was home to Bridgeport Machines, Inc. (manufacturers of the extremely popular Bridgeport milling machine) and the Moore Special Tool Company, Inc. (run by three generations of the Moore family, producing some of the most accurate machine tools and measurement instruments the world has ever seen), among others.
A 1914 photo of machine gun manufacturing at the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, New Haven, Connecticut.
It would have been hard for the Scully family to not be influenced by this local heritage and culture of quality engineering. Indeed, Scully lathes were always mechanically solid and reliable. I was once called in to repair an older model Scully lathe with a main bearing issue. All it needed was to be adjusted for wear. While at it, I explained to the owner the proper lubrication procedure and its importance. I was shocked to discover that the lathe, which had been operated daily, had NEVER been lubricated at all, or even adjusted, in 15 years of ownership, and still ran!
The motor, drive belt and vacuum platter on an L.J. Scully LS-76. This configuration allows the motor to spin much faster than the platter, which makes accurate electronic speed regulation easier. Courtesy of Tor Degerstrøm/THD Vinyl Mastering.
While the LJ Scully LS-76 was as much of a departure from the original Scully company’s earlier lathes as the Neumann VMS-80 was to Neumann's previous models, it did maintain the same standards as previous machines in its groove pitch computer delay time. All Scully lathes which had such an automation system fitted utilized a 1.0-revolution delay, meaning that the platter would make one revolution between the time the preview head signal reached the groove pitch computer, and the time the program signal reached the cutter head. Scully lathes were also made of aluminum, due to the metal’s favorable sound propagation properties, but this was about the only deviation the lathes had from established machine tool design notions.
The belt drive system driving the platter of the L.J. Scully LS-76. Courtesy of Tor Degerstrøm/THD Vinyl Mastering.
The LS-76 featured a flat slab bed, departing from the larger and more dominant machine-tool-style beds of the older machines.
Vacuum platter, drive belt and motor on an LJ Scully LS-76 lathe. Courtesy of Tor Degerstrøm/THD Vinyl Mastering.
Motor, drive belt and vacuum platter on an LJ Scully LS-76 lathe, at THD Mastering, Oslo, Norway. Courtesy of Tor Degerstrøm/THD Vinyl Mastering.
Like all Scully lathes, the platter was belt-driven. The LS-76 was originally offered with a 17-inch vacuum platter, but this was later revised to a 16-inch version. The bearing unit was massive and the 1-inch diameter platter shaft utilized phosphor bronze bearings, supported by a single ball at the bottom. The belt was wrapped directly around the platter rim.
J. I. Agnew holding the bearing unit for the vacuum platter of the L.J. Scully LS-76 in the right hand and the original bearing unit for the Neumann/FloKaSon AM44 lathe on the left. They say it is not the size, but what you do with it! Courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.
The LS-76 retained the same horizontal slide way concept as the earlier Scully lathes, eliminating the stick-slip behavior of dovetail slideways by means of a rolling-element-bearing "railroad" slideway. (The horizontal slideway on a disk recording lathe advances the carriage, complete with suspension and cutter head, across the rotating record, to cut the spiral groove of the desired pitch. It is worth noting that the lathes of the acoustical recording era, including the earliest Scully lathes made by founder John Scully, advanced the entire platter system under a stationary sound box. This was done for practical reasons, as the huge recording horn was attached to the sound box.) This was similar to how a train rides on the train tracks. Two "tracks" would guide two wheels at the front of the carriage, and a single wheel at the rear would keep it level and moving. This design was very simple, elegant, quiet, and most importantly, required practically zero maintenance. The leadscrew was driven by a single servo motor, controlled by the built-in pitch computer.
Tor Degerstrøm at work with his LJ Scully LS-76. Photo by Anja Elmine Basma, courtesy of Tor Degerstrøm/THD Vinyl Mastering.
The 50x magnification Spencer microscope found on older Scully lathes had now been replaced by a 150x Nikon unit, with an output for a video monitor (guess where Neumann got the idea?).
Video monitor displaying the groove structure on disk, as captured by the lathe microscope. Courtesy of Tor Degerstrøm/THD Vinyl Mastering.
The platter drive system supported speeds down to 16-2/3 rpm, for half-speed mastering, and the cutting of CD-4 disks (the obsolete quadraphonic disk format where the two channels were regarded in the usual manner and the other two were modulated by an ultrasonic carrier and recorded into the same groove, which could only be done at half-speed).
The Westrex 3-D stereophonic cutter head on a Scully LS-76 lathe, with Tor Degerstrøm's hand adjusting the cutting parameters. Photo by Anja Elmine Basma, courtesy of Tor Degerstrøm/THD Vinyl Mastering.
The Scully suspension unit was designed to accept either the Westrex cutter heads (commonly used with the earlier Scully lathes) or the Ortofon cutter heads (the Scully brochure for the LS-76 specifically mentions the Ortofon DSS 732 and Ortofon DSS 731 stereophonic cutter heads, one being specifically developed for cutting CD-4 quadraphonic disks, which required an extended high-frequency response for the additional two channels that were encoded above the human hearing range. Scully never developed a cutter head, instead partnering with Westrex for most of the company’s existence, and later moving on to partnering with Ortofon.
The HP (high-profile cabinet) version of the MCI JH-110M, with 4 channels of repro electronics (2 channels for stereo preview and 2 for stereo program signals) above the deck. Courtesy of Tor Degerstrøm/THD Vinyl Mastering.
The 1.0-revolution delay was an old standard in the US, used by Scully and also by companies offering aftermarket pitch automation systems for Scully lathes (including Capps, who also manufactured disk cutting styli). The preview and program signals were usually derived from a preview-head tape machine, which would commonly be an MCI JH-110M, an Ampex 300, or a Scully 280. Despite Scully's overall reputation and pedigree, and the technological merits of the LS-76, it is perhaps the rarest model of professional mastering lathe ever made on a commercial scale (if a total of around 10 can be considered "commercial scale"!), and rarely used for commercial mastering. If you want to hear the LS-76 in action, Andrew Hamilton of Andrew Hamilton Mastering (Cincinnati, OH), is particularly pleased with the result of his master cuts for Queen City Jubilee by The Slocan Ramblers, a bluegrass band from Toronto. In fact, the band preferred the cuts done using an Ortofon DSS731 cutter head driven by an Ortofon GO741 cutting amplifier on the Scully LS-76 lathe, to DMM cuts done on a Neumann VMS-82 DMM system, which they had already paid for and received from a different facility, so they decided to proceed with Andrews' masters for the pressing. Another one of Andrew’s masters worth looking out for is John Baumann’s Proving Grounds LP, pressed on white vinyl last year. Andrew also informed me that one of his two LS-76 lathes was originally used at Eva-Tone in Florida to cut the masters for their Soundsheets, which were flexi disks that used to be inserted in magazines and even included with cereal boxes. (See Copper’sarticle on flexi discs in Issue 129.) The other lathe had previously been used at Criteria Studios and later at Fullersound Inc. by Mike Fuller, who had cut, among other albums, Rod Stewart’s Blondes Have More Fun and Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It” (featuring Michael McDonald). Across the pond, Tor Degerstrøm at THD Vinyl Mastering in Oslo, Norway used his LS-76 to good effect in mastering “Are You Land or Water (The Deluge)” by Kitchie Kitchie Ki Me O.
The entire setup at THD Mastering: an L.J. Scully LS-76 lathe, Westrex cutter head, and associated equipment. Photo by Anja Elmine Basma, courtesy of Tor Degerstrøm/THD Vinyl Mastering.
As with most disk mastering lathes, the Scully LS-76 does lend itself to upgrades and modifications. In common with all Scully lathes, the belt-driven system was often considered a weakness. I have converted many Scully lathes to direct-drive, including an LS-76 which was missing the original drive system. It should be noted, though, that the original LS-76 belt-drive system was a considerable improvement over the belt-drive setup used on the older, "bathtub" Scully lathes. The platter and bearing system was also a great improvement, being much more accurate and requiring very little maintenance in use.
The author looking through the massive platter bearing unit of the L.J. Scully LS-76, with the much smaller bearing unit of the original Neumann/FloKaSon AM44 next to it for comparison. That particular LS-76 was converted to direct-drive by J.I. Agnew. Photo courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.
While Scully never entered the cutter head and cutting amplifier market, Scully lathes, and the LS-76 in particular, offered an extremely solid, high-performance mechanical assembly that could be used with any cutter head and cutting amplifier system available. Even though the LS-76 was specifically designed for the Westrex and Ortofon cutter heads, it is a very simple task to machine an adapter plate that would make it possible to fit a Neumann head or anything else ever made, including vintage monophonic cutter heads, if desired. The Scully LS-76 was the peak of lathe development at Scully and, their final design. There is nothing remaining of this operation now. The staff and machinery are all long gone. Fortunately, their lathes were well-made enough to still be in regular use to this day, if they have not fallen victim to one of the many professionals in the audio field who shortsightedly sent disk recording lathes to the scrapyard after a few slow years. With the current resurgence in vinyl and prices for disc-cutting lathes soaring (and all disk mastering facilities in operation currently raking it in and deserving every last cent for their hard work), there is a lesson to be learned here. Never send a perfectly good lathe to the scrapyard. Send it to me instead!
Header image: L.J. Scully LS-76 lathe with Westrex 3-D stereophonic cutter head. The large knurled knob on the front adjusts the depth of cut by means of an “advance ball" system, while the small knurled knob on the side adjusts the lateral position of the advance ball, intended to make it ride exactly where the groove will be cut, depending on the recording pitch. Photo courtesy of Tor Degerstrøm at THD Vinyl Mastering.
The bike hummed like a mantra as we made our way home from the Bhagwan’s Airstream. It was another warm, lovely evening with a bright moon and long lunar shadows. I glowed like the moon and was engulfed in a feeling of gratitude. As we passed a bar in Spearfish, Melody nudged me to pull over. She made a beeline for the restroom, and I ordered a couple of beers. “Our time with the Bhagwan has been magical,” I told her when she returned, “and I want to thank you for this mind-bending experience. I don’t know if my life will ever be the same.” She smiled broadly. “You had a mind-bending experience because you were ready for one,” she responded. “When you need a guru, he’s there. I’m glad to have been part of the process.” It was after midnight by the time we got back to the fishing lodge. Melody walked into my cabin, dropped her clothes on the floor, and collapsed into bed. I did likewise. We fell asleep in each other’s arms. We hadn’t thought to close the curtains, so we awoke early to the searing rays of the sun. I reached over and kissed her. “That was a remarkable day yesterday, and an amazing evening. Thank you.” She smiled. While she was showering, I went outside to check my motorcycle. The BMW dealer had done a good job of installing the new/used parts after Spider’s accident and everything was secure. Melody’s dad came by as I checked the oil. “Where’s Melody?” “In there,” I said as I pointed apprehensively my cabin. I hoped he wasn’t going to disapprove. “You and Melody have a good time yesterday?” he asked. I told him about the strange experience of visiting the Bhagwan. “She loves going to the Bhagwan’s camp,” he responded. “At first I was a little concerned, but hey, she’s an adult with a mind of her own.” As he walked away, he said, “breakfast will be ready in ten minutes.” Dad’s a pretty sharp guy, I thought to myself. When I went back to wash my hands, Melody said, “you know, I really ought to help my parents today. With all these bikes coming and going, the place must be pretty busy.” I told her I understood. Over breakfast, I thanked her parents for the opportunity to stay in the cabin, and that I felt an obligation to assist them in some way. “Great,” dad smiled without hesitation; “I really don’t want to leave the property during bike week so I need someone to go to Rapid City and pick up a fuel pump for the tractor. It’s paid for, just tell them who it’s for.” “No problem, I’m happy to help.” Melody smiled. I decided to detour through Spearfish to check on my campsite. Bikes and people were bustling about everywhere. The tree limb that had collapsed onto the bikes was gone and the city crew was taking down the tree itself. The affected campers were still there enjoying the rally on their rented bikes. Bert Thurston’s Gold Wing was parked on my site along with another Gold Wing and another tent. I checked my tent and found everything intact. (Bert had beaten cancer and had been riding his bike for the last six years, as told in Part 11 of this series.)
Married couples who work in the same field can often find that their relationship contains elements of both collaboration and competition. In the rarefied realm of immersive audio production, the technical skills and artistry required to sustain a reputation for unparalleled excellence are indeed rare. With multiple Grammy Award wins and nominations, as well as garnering European awards such as the Echo Klassik and Le Diamant d’Opera, Jim Anderson and Ulrike Schwarz have created a unique partnership that has resulted in a wide range of critically-acclaimed co-produced and co-engineered recordings. Currently, they have a 2021 Best Immersive Recording Grammy nomination for jazz artist Patricia Barber’s Clique (reviewed by Tom Gibbs in Issue 144). Jim and Ulrike graciously took some time to speak with us about their production approaches, techniques and philosophies, shared some anecdotes on the art of music recording and mixing, and elaborated on the particular challenges they have encountered for working in immersive audio.
John Seetoo: In a previous interview I’d read, you both went into a lot of detail about some of the special skill sets of professional recording engineers. Yet you also mentioned that the engineer’s work should ultimately be transparent or invisible to the listener, so that he or she should be able to just enjoy the music. Can either or both of you cite some examples on where this aspiration has been successful in your past recordings, and which ones in which you think the engineering aspect made itself a little too noticeable?
Ulrike Schwarz: I think I can start on the first part of the question, which means I think we can take Clique as actually a very good example. Because the idea is that you understand every word that Patricia says, but that it comes over as totally natural, and if we hadn't done anything . However, Jim had ridden the fader on her voice, almost on every word. sounds like all of happens this way, which it kind of did, because it was a one-take recording. However, doesn't come naturally, because, for example, your ending of words usually falls off in volume and stuff like that. the impression you have is like she's sitting on top; you can understand every syllable. And that's the way it's supposed to be.
Jim Anderson: We don't mean to just put this on Patricia; this is really for every singer you work with, in that you really have to ride the fader, stay with them, and keep the voice really above and all that kind of thing. It's a very natural thing to let the voice trail off at the end of a phrase. But in a recording, you really have to counteract that; you have to kind of flatten it out. Now, you could do it with a compressor, people do it all the time – or with limiters. But we would much rather have it be a more natural occurrence, rather than “kind of” fix it technically.
US: And the other thing is, of course, you hear solos, you hear bass, you hear the drum kit, and if everything was unmixed, basically the same volume all the time, it would be a big chaos. What happens is the engineer or the engineer and producer arrange the music for you. When the bass solo comes up, the bass is getting louder. But the idea is so that you don't have the idea it's getting loud. This is the thing – it always has to be natural. I can speak more to classical recordings, where basically the engineer and the producer interpret the score for you. If there is a flute solo, you have to give the flute a little bit of a push, otherwise it doesn't come through. You point the listener into the direction that they should go.
JA: It's like putting a spotlight on something or someone.
US: A subtle spotlight.
JA: Yeah, that's the kind of thing we do, but you shouldn't be realizing that that's what we're doing.
US: That this is what happened. Yes.
JA: There are techniques in how you raise the levels and drop them back. You develop them over the years about how to make them “transparent.”
US: You're not supposed to hear that somebody raised 15 dB or 2 dB or something; you just notice, “oh, the bass is in the right place” because Patricia is always understandable, but you shouldn't hear how that got to be done. Another thing that was brought up in my studies is, if you are at a concert, and you look at a certain instrument, you always hear that instrument, but on a CD, you don't have that information, all of the visual information is not given to you. And so, we kind of help it along a little bit.
JA: To illustrate what Ulrike is saying: microphones are a very dumb thing. Microphones just sit there and take in whatever is in front of them. And if you're listening, your brain is acting as the mixer. Essentially, that's really what she's saying. Because you see something, you hear something, and you kind of say , “oh, I should be paying attention to that.” But microphones don't do that. You have to be the brains behind the microphones, really.
JS: Which recordings would you say are good examples of where you’ve been the most satisfied with achieving this idea of your work being invisible to the listener?
JA: (laughs) Usually, it's the last one you did; the latest one.
JS: So, it would be Clique?
JA: It would be. We would certainly reference back to it.
Sometimes you go back and you have some distance; you look back and say, you know, I would have tweaked this here, tweaked that there… Also, you get a little bit of distance on a recording, you forget all the…everything it took to get the recording finished. And then finally you can kind of look back at it and address it honestly, can listen to it the way other people are listening to it. Because for a long time , everything you did is kind of etched in your brain. And you can't forget that for a long time. Sometimes it takes a decade or two to really go back and listen to a recording that you did, and forget what it took to get there via being in the studio or mixing or whatever. I think critics and listeners are the ones who will tell us if we've been successful.
US: I wouldn't want to take down any project we've done for clients by saying, “oh, you know what, we didn't really do such a great job.” That's something I would rather not answer. (laughs)
JS: You both have decades of experience in recording everything from small ensembles up to full orchestras. Do you have designated specialty areas when you work together, where say, one of you gets better results on drums and timpani, or the other gets better piano or woodwind sounds? This also apply to mixing: do either of you have sweet spots where one is perhaps better with recording vocals and the other is better with piano or other elements?
JA: Well, if I can speak for Ulrike…her orchestral work, I think, is really quite good. She specialized in that for 15 years and was doing it live in stereo and surround on a weekly basis. When you work under that kind of pressure and that kind of timeline, you get to be pretty good. I used to go and do a jazz festival up in Detroit every Labor Day weekend for about 20 years, doing live mixing for national public radio broadcast of 40 bands over the course of the four days and I would do it just keep my chops sharp. One hour it's a big band. Next hour, it's a trio. The next hour…and it will changing. It's a really good experience and good practice to do that kind of thing.
US: I've grown up in the hall in the classical world. , they start you off with chamber music, and then get to orchestras. My favorite thing to do was, the bigger the better. At some point, it was like, a 90-to-150-piece orchestra with 80-to-100-person choir. That's when I thought, “okay, this is fun.” My overwhelming body of work would be in classical music. Not all of it is released; most of it was for national broadcasts, or broadcasts in Germany and Europe. I have done quite a bit of jazz, and even rock, which are the things that also come along, of course, at a network, but probably what I would think my specialty is, is really large-ensemble classical music. What else I really like to do is folk music, that kind of German Alpine folk music, because , it was part of our DNA. And I’ve learned folk music when I traveled. I spent a fair amount of time in Japan, and when you know how people want their folk music to be recorded and to sound, then you kind of know how they want all their other stuff to sound like too, because I've noticed that the approach to classical music in Japan is a little bit different than let's say, in Europe. I found out more about that when I spent a lot of time recording traditional Japanese music. And I think the same goes for jazz. I mean, Americans have a different idea of how classical music should sound recorded than Europeans, and that has very much been influenced by how listen to jazz, rock and roll, and all these other things. So, there's a lot you can learn from the folk music of the continent or the country that you're in, in terms of extrapolating it to other styles of music.
JS: Actually, that touches on a question I want to ask you a little later. Say you had to record a jazz big band, like the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin band. Which one of you would be more prone to take the lead?
JA: (laughs) Probably me, only I have a long history of association with Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin. I think I've done about 10 big band albums , and probably 10 of Toshiko’s small groups. back almost 50 years, at this point. Also, I love recording big bands.
US: My favorite three recordings of Jim’s are all actually big band recordings. One of them is Joe Henderson’s Big Band. Then there is J.J. Johnson’s The Brass Orchestra and Ed Palermo’s The Ed Palermo Big Band Plays the Music of Frank Zappa. For Ed Palermo and Joe Henderson, I was actually one of the assistants, because I wanted to learn how to record a big band from a certain Jim Anderson, who was an engineer that I really admired a lot. So, there you go. (laughs)
JA: Yeah, and big bands are fun to work with. The other thing though, is – big bands, especially these days – you can't cover them with a pair of mics and do it like you maybe would live. There was one big band that we did at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center for NPR with Woody Herman in the late ’70s. They were performing a piano concerto that Chick Corea had written and the fact was that I could actually take a stereo microphone and cover all 15 horns – with a stereo mic (an AKG C-24) – that was because that band played on the road 49 weeks a year. I think that was probably the most, let's say, “audiophile” in that it was very limited in the microphones , and we were at Avery Fisher Hall. I had an AKG C-24 stereo mic over all the horns, a solo mic down front, a mic on the piano, a mic on the bass, and a mic on the drums. And that was it. It was like six microphones. And it a really great live recording, and made for a great broadcast. It was so simple. But it was a band that had played; they knew how to make an ensemble sound. You get a big band in a studio these days, and they usually haven't seen the music. Bob Belden used to say, “it's always take two or take three,” because the first take is a run through, the second one is maybe going to be OK, and then the third one is probably going to be the best. So generally, when you're working with large ensembles like this in the studio, you get – maybe if you're lucky – three chances to get it right. So, you have to be really on your game all the time.
JS: Ulrike named three favorites of your work, so what are your three favorite records of hers, where you said, “wow, I couldn't have done any better than what she did.”
JA: She recorded a box of Beethoven's nine symphonies with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Mariss Jansons conducting. I could pull three of those symphonies out, the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth, from the Beethoven box, as my favorites, if that counts (laughs). I want to say that, to me, they’re the rock and roll of classical music. It has power, it has impact, and it's just a really great set of recordings. not like it's set back from the hall. You're really, really inside the orchestra. To me, it's the state-of-the-art of what you can do with modern recording techniques in recording classical music. They were mixed from multitrack , but they're not edited to death, mixed to death. They're really spontaneous. Part Two of the interview will continue with Jim Anderson’s and Ulrike Schwarz’s experiences in recording music from different countries and cultures, thoughts on mixing for radio broadcast, opinions about working with analog tape, and other subjects.
The Rhode Island blues scene has been remarkably vibrant for decades, with a rich history rooted in jazz, folk, and swing. At the center of that modern day universe is guitarist and bandleader Duke Robillard. In 1967, when he started the brass-centric ensemble Roomful of Blues, he ignited a fire that accelerated the genre not only in the Ocean State but up and down the entire east coast. It began a musical journey that would make him one of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, a highly sought-after sideman, and a tour musician backing artists like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. But it’s fronting his own band where Duke is perhaps the happiest, pursuing projects that inspire him and that bring music new and old to his vast legion of loyal fans. Duke Robillard just loves music and is one of the most prolific artists in music today. Since 1984 he has released a solo album almost every year. In addition to his own material, he has partnered often with Al Basile, Joe Beard, Gerry Beaudoin, Eddy Clearwater, Al Copley, Ronnie Earl, Scott Hamilton, Jay McShann, Jerry Portnoy, Jimmy Witherspoon and countless others. Hot on the heels of last year’s record with Scott Hamilton, Swingin’ Again, comes a rollicking musical ride called They Called It Rhythm And Blues. Here he and his band, along with a who’s who of guests like Kim Wilson and John Hammond, put forward an 18-track collection of songs, new and old, that sets sail from the first note. It’s a sizzling spin that showcases Duke’s style and skills, often trading standout moments with a band that is tighter than bark on a tree. We caught up with Duke and learned more about how this record came about, what drives his incredible output, and what makes his home state of Rhode Island such a rich birthplace of music, the blues and so much more.
Ray Chelstowski: You may be the most prolific artist that I have ever interviewed. How do you decide when it’s time to make a new record?
Duke Robillard: Well, I definitely make at least one record a year. I just don’t feel right if I don’t. I love recording and I love making musical statements, whether that’s resurrecting something or putting out new material. Every now and then I see some things that make me feel as if I have accomplished quite a lot, but I rarely feel that way.
RC: What drives your decision to pursue a specific theme?
DR: I kind of go by inspiration. I’m a spur of the moment kind of person. If I get an idea, I want to try and pursue it right away. There are a few projects that I’ve sat on for quite a while, waiting for the right person to work with so that I make the exact kind of record that I set out to make. Mostly it comes from listening to music, which I spend a lot of time doing. Something I hear just might inspire me to create a certain type of album. If the interest stays strong for a few days or a week then usually I start pursuing it and making plans.
RC: What inspired They Called It Rhythm And Blues?
DR: At this point in my life I wanted to make a diagram of the rhythm and blues that I love, as to where it specifically came from. I tried to come up with some obscure tunes and find things that show off enough of my guitar playing while still a band sound. The main thing is making the arrangements complimentary to whoever is singing.
RC: Your band is in really tight form on this record. How does the process begin for you? Do you have it all mapped out before you head into the studio?
DR: It depends if the musicians are actually there to do the session live. With this album, some people were and some people weren’t. For the people who weren’t able to be there live, we were close enough and knew each other’s music well enough that it really went smoothly. It was actually a very easy project to do. We recorded the tracks mostly live. There were just a few horn and guitar overdubs. But overall, the music tracks were all pretty much live.
The Duke Robillard Band. Courtesy of Pat Quinn.
RC: You have so many well-known guests on this record. How did you decide who would sing what?
DR: Well with John Hammond I just let him pick what he wanted to do. With Sue Foley, on the one where we sing together, I just thought it would be a great song for us. So, I sent it to her and she immediately liked it. I think we just picked tunes that suited the people who were going to guest, really well. In some cases they picked the songs, in some cases I picked them, and in others we collaborated on which songs would work best for the album.
RC: Horns have been such a big part of your music. Do you tend to be the one that charts their parts?
DR: No. Usually we just work up head arrangements. If I work with a lot of horns we may go with written arrangements. If we work with, say, three or four horns, very often one of the guys will write the arrangement out. Then there’s more that you can do and more thought has to go into it. The music I play is not complex so it’s not often that we have to write out arrangements.
RC: Did you lean on one particular guitar for this record?
DR: No, I played quite a few. I played at least four or five different guitars on this record. I played an archtop Kay Barney Kessel guitar, a Fender Telecaster, a Gibson Les Paul; a custom-made James Murphy archtop, and a Finnish guitar. It’s called a Katar Popmaster. A similar model called Duke Robillard Bluesmaster is now being hand-built for me. A dozen will be handcrafted and made available as a limited-edition Duke Robillard Bluesmaster model.
RC: I recently learned that you once worked at Guild Guitars. What did you do for them?
DR: I was in final inspection and adjustments. You know, like filing down frets? I also made adjustments on necks, glued on bridges, all on acoustic guitars. The Guild factory in Westerly, at that time was just making acoustic instruments.
RC: Speaking about Rhode Island – it has an incredibly rich blues scene. What’s the origin of that?
DR: Well, if you go way back to the big band and jazz era, people touring on the east coast would always stop in Providence. There was one spot, The Celebrity Club in particular, that was a jazz club that also had blues people play. T-Bone Walker and Billie Holiday would play there along with all of the bop and swing era people. There was also Rhodes on the Pawtuxet that was a huge dance hall, a ballroom, that all the big bands used to play. There also were a number of different cultures present in Providence. It’s just an interesting rich cultural area. But maybe the biggest influence was the Newport Folk and Jazz Festival. Jazz, folk and blues as you know are all intertwined. That’s a big part of it. When I started up Roomful of Blues, that really drove a lot of interest in horn-driven jump and 1940s-era blues. It really became very popular not just here but up and down the east coast and a lot of musicians started learning to play that kind of music. I’d like to think that we had SOMETHING to do with it. But there are all kinds of great musicians here, from rock to jazz to folk to singer-songwriters. We have got it all here.
RC: When you collaborate on someone else’s record does it give you a sense of freedom because there’s less pressure?
DR: Sometimes leading a band gets a little tiring, especially when you’re looking to yourself for inspiration. I always get a lot of great backup from my people. But when you are the leader they expect you to come up with the new material. So sometimes it seems like it would just be easier to pick up the guitar and play for others. When I do play as a sideman it really is so much easier and I do enjoy it. But that’s just a momentary thought because I do love doing what I do and I have great guys in my band as players and people.
RC: On a personal note, I have to ask you about recording with one of my all-time favorites, singer Johnny Adams, especially on his award-winning album Room with a View of the Blues. What was he like to work with?
DR: Johnny was a quiet and fairly reserved guy. He played guitar would never play in front of me. Scott Billington, who produced the record and who knew him better than I, told me that he was a really good jazz/blues guitar . He always appreciated the way I played, so it was a real pleasure to be able to record with him. I did some gigs with him too, but the studio was really special because they always had great material for him to work with. That made it fun and exciting.
RC: I see that you are starting to book some live dates here in the northeast. Is there any chance that your tour takes you outside of New England?
DR: It’s been really hard to plan ahead. I was actually supposed to play the Iridium in a few weeks and we just got cancelled. The same thing happened with a gig in Philadelphia. It depends on what work is available and how much time there is between gigs. I’m not really sure just yet because it all really does depend on the COVID situation at that time.
It goes without saying that tape deck maintenance – such as cleaning the heads and pinch rollers, periodic demagnetizing, etc. – are essential practices which (circa-2022) only come naturally to studio denizens and habitués, or those music lovers who never forsook open-reel tape. Muscle memory being what it is, I soon reacquainted myself with the ins-and-outs of the regimen, most crucially including splicing. I suspect the same is true for any returnees. Such is the importance, however, of all open-reel-tape-related procedures that I mischievously choose to use them as a cudgel with which further to discourage the unwary from investing in the format this late in the game. Actually, it’s selfish rather than mischievous. I simply do not want to shoulder the blame for inspiring someone to buy, say, a Technics RS-1700, who finds out that there’s an irreplaceable chip the failure of which will render the deck useful only as a boat anchor or doorstop. Caveats aside, however, this is not a primer in tape hygiene, as I presume a certain level of experience among Copper readers. If, on the other hand, you are completely new to open-reel tape despite years as a hi-fi enthusiast, I would steer you or indeed any R2R virgins toward Issue 324 of The Absolute Sound (February 2022), which contains Robert Harley’s superb in-depth primer explaining the basics. Beyond that article’s usefulness, it is also a statement of great import for, in and of itself: TAS’ devotion of this much space on the topic of a virtually-defunct format, in a leading contemporary high-end hi-fi print journal, tells me that the revival is, at the very least, noteworthy. Although his article focuses on the workings of reel-to-reel tape decks and even the actual composition of the tape medium itself, Robert does, however, raise the thorny topic of frequency. Not as in 20 Hz – 20 kHz, but as to how often one has to dig out a demagnetizer, Q-Tips, alcohol, machine oil, rubber cleaner, or other housekeeping tools and potions. As one who cleans pinch rollers more frequently than heads, I was jarred by his suggestion that cleaning might be advised after each play. It made me wonder if I had been destroying tape decks, however inadvertently, due to sloth. As for regular demagnetizing, again, the frequency is debatable, but a tape sage I know suggests “every 50 hours” or, more helpfully, once a month. Why this is so important both to returning hobbyists and newcomers is because of the variable state of the machines on offer. I am lucky in that I had four or five decks languishing in a storage facility when the bug bit me. More encouraging for me is access to a brilliant tape deck restorer. Although I have since purchased a couple of machines without his prior approval, one from eBay and two from the Tonbridge AudioJumble, I was blessed in that all three were functioning perfectly. That said, all of my machines (especially the ones that hadn’t seen use in decades) have been serviced. Harsh is the realization that you really don’t know what you’re getting when you buy anything other than a fully-refurbished machine, usually at great cost, from one of the established restorers. The preferred models for revivification include assorted TASCAMs and TEACs, the Technics RS-1500, the nearly-ubiquitous Revox A77 and B77, and most of the better Sony and Akai models. Remember: I am talking solely about domestic and, in the case of some TASCAMs, semi-pro machines, not ex-studio gear. Although every one of my mentors swears by Studer A800 Series decks, that suggests having a diet of exclusively 1/2-track tapes. (Note to those who may not have read earlier installments: I undertake absolutely no recording, and play only commercial tapes of pre-1980s vintage. I am not in the position to purchase the $250-plus current fare. Thus, I am concerned only with machines that play 3-3/4 ips and 7-1/2 ips 1/4-track tapes, though I have acquired around 50 vintage 1/2-track 7-1/2 ips tapes. Pro machines have been discussed in Copper in previous issues, the articles written by far better qualified commentators.) Despite the list of the usual suspects, there is no suggestion that you’re restricted for choice of pre-owned machinery. If anything, the selection is vast, and I learn of obscure manufacturers on a regular basis. Best of all, the online marketplace is awash with affordable, excellent Sony TC377s, Akai 4000Ds, TEAC’s 7-inch-capable X-3 and X-7 (or a bit more for the X-10 if you want the larger spool size), the delightful Pioneer RT-707 (currently on a vertical price trajectory), assorted Tandbergs, etc.
Teac X3 tape deck.
However competent and useful, machines in the entry-level category, by their nature as economical buys, do not warrant the costly restoration of an R2R specialist. It’s all about relative values. Think of it this way: Would you go to the best automobile restorers, those who specialize in Porsche, Ferrari, Maserati and cars of that ilk and who charge commensurately for their labor, if you were restoring a Karmann-Ghia? Would you pay “restored Porsche” money for a mint MGB? No, you would not, if you have any sense. It’s the same for tape decks. If you find a mint or even VG+ Sony TC377 or Akai 4000D for $700 or less, grab it. Upon receipt of said machine, it is advisable to pay your local hi-fi servicing maven $100 – $200 to clean, lubricate and adjust it. You will then own a bargain. But $1,000-plus for either? Unless it’s genuine new-old-stock, never been out of its box, and was owned by, say, Jerry Garcia, just walk away. Once you’ve installed the machine, whether a basic model or a luxo-Technics or TEAC with chrome and wood embellishments, the maintenance period begins with every tape you play, viz Harley’s recommendations, but tempered with practicality and gut instinct. Common sense rules, and, if you’re playing as many vintage tapes as I am, you will soon discover that you can actually see accumulated detritus almost as easily as that periodic ball of fluff on a stylus. It might not even be the oxides that are shedding: I have acquired tapes covered with enough mildew to require a hazmat suit when handling them. Mold aside, because I am playing only tapes that are 40-plus-years-old, I have gotten used to a layer of brown muck appearing in the pinch rollers every three or four tapes, sometimes more frequently if I am curating a batch of tapes that was stored with little care. Conversely, I have acquired boxes of tapes which were categorically of “ex-audiophile” ownership, and which shed absolutely nothing, which wore leader and tail, and were stored with inner bags. Despite the Q-Tips showing less schmutz on the heads than on the pinch rollers, I always clean both at the same time. It makes sense, as in most cases one has to remove the decks’ head covers, and cleanliness is next to godliness. Harley emphasizes a point that all should heed, especially as replacement parts become more scarce and costly: use alcohol-based cleaners on heads and metal parts in the tape path, but keep them away from the rubber components. I’ve purchased dedicated cleaners online, but for the brave and/or impecunious, there are homegrown alternatives. If you want to take a Whole Earth Catalog approach to tape deck housekeeping, you can get away with using pure alcohol, gin or vodka on the heads, and a diluted solution of warm water and a few drops of dishwashing liquid on the pinch rollers. I prefer Q-Tips for both, but I often use a lint-free cloth on the pinch rollers. It goes without saying that you should let both heads and rollers air-dry before you pass a tape over them. As you’ll soon realize, cleanliness and demagnetizing affect both the tapes and the machines, so ensuring the longevity of your deck and your library is holistic. Above all, there’s the sound, which is why you might get into open-reel tape in the first place: clean heads mean a clean signal, while proper demagnetizing protects the recordings’ upper frequencies. Is it worth all the patschke and neurosis? Let’s put it this way: When I fire up my Denon DH-710 and feed it the 7-1/2 ips Capitol release of Sgt. Pepper, I pray to the spirit of Tim de Paravicini and thank him for enabling me to hear music in the home with such realism, authenticity and presence such that suddenly, I am hearing it for the first time and it’s 1967 all over again. And that’s worth a thousand Q-Tips.
To the tune of “Creeque Alley” by the Mamas & the Papas John and Mikey were gettin' kind of itchy Lookin’ to leave the Linns behind Gordon and Harry workin' for a penny Huntin' for a Goldmund to audition. In a coffee house Steve G. sat And after every espresso he’d pass the hat Rocky Mountain Audio Fest going bye bye, In Denver, was where it was at And no one's got an A in class except for Nelson Pass. Luke and EveAnna, you know there aren't many, but Skull and “La Femme d’Amour,” (French, that is), Who can sing a song the way that you do, let's use a Nagra D and make an LP, John, Art says, “Golly, don't you think that I wish, I could play guitar like you, Doc Watson?" Rick, Jerry, and Damian (not the spawn) listening (at Audible), And after every CD spun they'd pass the hat, Sterling (Trayle) and Michael (Trei) still a calibratin’ Drew Baird must “Cary” on, you know where he has dragons. And no one's gettin' PRaT except Nelson Pass.
Pass was at Threshold, planned to go to Spectral (not really), But felt a Field Effect Transformation (got FET’ed), Standin' on the turnpike, thumb out to hitchhike, saying, “Take me to Sea Cliff right away, baby" When Russ (Goddard, “Audible” owner) met Pass, he gave him only one choice: preamps, Called Gordon and Harry and that was with Maggies; Ivor, Spencer, and Dorothy couldn't get that midrange, baby. But that's what they were aimin' at La la la And everyone likes Class A especially Nelson Pass.
Pass Labs XA60.8 mono power amplifier. It delivers 60 watts of Class A power into 8 ohms.
Slick Low Billy, on an audio quest, wow and flutter, big bumps, “Don't you track at 4.0 grams!”, says Mr Carr (“Here’s Johnny!”), Make up, break up, everything is shake up (Immediately), And it's the end of the world as we know it, Guess it had to be that way, And I feel fine. The Mountain did indeed come to HP, not the other way ("I heard it backwards in a Pink Floyd song"). The coast is never really that blue, consider your New Age Cookie’s, Hana SLs just a catchin' fire, Quad-DSD will be all right, In Denver you know the In-N-Out Burglar, animal style with heavy mods. And everybody's gettin' tats except Nelson Pass. La la la JFETs, MOSFETs, Boba Fett’s, whoa, Broke, busted, disgusted, the source just blew through the gate (tech talk, baby), Some like the donuts in Portland, I like the affable audio dudes, all Brents and Jeff and The Doors of Perception; Bacon and mango crullers for me. Full steam ahead, damn the torpedoes. It’s a naval analogy. Just don’t rock the boat, baby, “don’t turn the boat over…” Paul’s (McGowan-McCartney) good vibrations (Brian) and our imaginations, Can go on indefinitely And California dreamin' is becomin' a reality (Neil Young, baby), "Hey Dude!" And no one got an A in class except Nelson Pass. “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 … … all Keith Johnsons go to Spectral …” Cristal, Maybach, Gaga and Madonna on Spotify Ya ya ya “It’s all dark, actually…”
This month's focus is on choral music: pieces for accompanied and unaccompanied ensembles, music sung by large and small groups, vocal arrangements of instrumental music, standard choral repertoire, and music ranging from the offbeat to the sublime. Many of the selections are serene, soulful, and peaceful...selections everyone can appreciate during these extraordinarily difficult times.
Ernst Toch/Valse/Northern Michigan University Choir (video) “Valse”
(Waltz) is one of the pieces from the composer's 1930 suite Gesprochene Musik (Spoken Music), a style invented by Toch. This is the same suite that includes his most performed choral work, the “Geographical Fugue,” where singers say the names of various cities, countries, and other geographical landmarks while following strict fugal form. (For more about Toch's fugue read “I Bought It for the A-Side” in Issue 141.) “Valse” is as much fun to perform as it is to hear. There isn't a satisfactory recording of the piece (in English) on YouTube but you can watch a likable performance by the Northern Michigan University Choir – entertaining, even though the waltz loses some of its energy and starts to just mosey along midway through. If you trip the light fantastic with the Choir you might want to join them at the end and rave: “What a dance!” “Valse”:
Samuel Barber/Samuel Barber: An American Romantic/Conspirare choir (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
Barber'sAgnus Deifor chorus is usually more familiar to listeners as the Adagio for Strings – the composer's 1936 composition for string orchestra derived from the second movement of his string quartet Op.11. The Agnus Dei arrangement for mixed voices has become standard fare and often appears on concert programs with or without the optional organ or piano accompaniment. In his comments about this album for AllMusic, Graham Olson points out that the Adagio for Strings has associations with mourning, nostalgia, love, and passion while the Agnus Dei adds another element to the composition:
“In recasting the Adagio for mixed choir in 1967, Barber brought to the surface the work's sense of spirituality. In contrast to the sentimental Romanticism of the original, the use of voices provides a reverent Renaissance quality reminiscent of the music of Palestrina or Gabrieli. The Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) from the Catholic mass, a humble request for forgiveness and peace, provides the text. Barber's setting is immaculate; the intense climax conveys the most urgent portion of the text, "miserere nobis" (have mercy on us), while the blissfully contented conclusion begs, "dona nobis pacem" (grant us peace). The notes themselves are essentially unchanged from the Adagio, aside from a few necessary voicing adjustments to accommodate the sopranos. From a performance standpoint, the Agnus Dei is one of the more difficult works in the choral repertoire, requiring immense lung capacity, ability to sustain long lines, and an extensive dynamic range.”
The recording and performances, as usual for the Harmonia Mundi label, are excellent. Agnus Dei:
Morten Lauridsen/Lux aeterna/Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia/Stephen Layton, cond. (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
Lux aeterna (1997), one of Lauridsen's most popular compositions, is instilled with warmth and consolation. According to Lauridsen it's an “intimate work of quiet serenity hope, reassurance, faith and illumination in all of its manifestations.” My preferred track on the disc is the shorter and slightly earlier
O Magnum Mysterium (1994). Like Lux aeterna it's a lyrical, glowing, refined, and engaging work, “a quiet song of profound inner joy.” Wherever you are – sitting in your favorite listening chair or working from home (or both) – sit back and let the music gently wash over you.
O Magnum Mysterium:
Leonard Bernstein/Bernstein Conducts Bernstein/New York Philharmonic with the Camerata Singers/Leonard Bernstein, cond. (Sony reissue CD) The opening text of Chichester Psalms (1965) translates to “Make a joyful noise” and that's precisely what the orchestra and chorus do in the first movement. The slower second movement features a boy soloist singing with harp accompaniment: The result is peaceful and bluesy. When the second movement finishes, keep the player cranked up: There's a leisurely, hushed chorale toward the end of the third movement that gives thanks for calmness and unity. The sound quality of the Psalms (its playmate is the composer's Symphony No. 3) is a bit hard but these are classic performances with Bernstein at his best. The entire Psalms can be found, complete with texts in Hebrew and English, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8gKSqVAXrg, but you might encounter drop outs. If you do, individual movements are located below:
Chichester Psalms:First movement
Gabriel Fauré: Requiem & Maurice Duruflé: Requiem/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert Shaw, cond. (Telarc CD) A terrific disc that's been one of my “go to” recordings for many years. Both Requiems are understated, especially enjoyable when programmed together, well played, and well recorded with great depth and warmth. Fauré's Requiem, scored for a choir of about 40 singers and a small orchestra, was composed in 1888. Fauré revised the score in 1893 by adding material and parts for a few brass and wind instruments. In 1901 he issued yet another version, this time for full symphony orchestra.
“Fauré’s Requiem is noted for its calm, serene and peaceful outlook. Anyone looking for morose themes is searching in the wrong place. Instead, here we find musical solace in a work that focuses not on the morbid, but on the supposedly restful and fear-free nature of death.
Of all seven sections, the Pie Jesu, Agnus Dei and In Paradisum emerge as the most glorious, filled with rich, soulful melodies. The work garnered the praise of many other composers – not least Camille Saint-Saëns, who thought it divine. It was performed at Fauré’s own funeral in 1924.”
“Introit et Kyrie” (Fauré Requiem):
Verdi/Messa da Requiem/Orchestra e Coro Dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano, cond. (EMI CD)
This is the place where melodrama can be found. There are many recordings of Verdi's Requiem (1874) but Pappano's, with an all-star lineup of soloists, is especially striking. From the unusually hushed and mysterious-sounding chorus at the beginning through the rest of the Requiem's fire and brimstone demeanor, Pappano's high-energy approach is arresting. Great sound, too: sharp, clear, spacious, and well-defined. After listening to the “Dies irae” selection, stay tuned for the calming Requiem aeternum with its short falling melodic phrase that sounds remarkably similar to the one used by Dvořák in his Stabat Mater.
Mexican Baroque: Music from New Spain/Chanticleer with the Chanticleer Sinfonia (Das Alte Werk/Teldec CD) A program of attractive Baroque music from an unexpected source, performed by the acclaimed Chanticleer vocal ensemble. Ignacio de Jerusalem (1707 – 1769), born in Italy, was a prolific composer who moved to Mexico in 1743 but didn't write music that reflected the native folk songs and instruments of Mexico. Rick Anderson, in his album review, explained:
“In 17th and 18th century New England, transplanted Englishmen like Daniel Read, Abraham Wood, and especially William Billings were composing beautiful but rough-hewn and distinctly American vocal music for use in what were called ‘singing schools.' Far to the west and south, in what was then called New Spain and would later be called Mexico, natives and transplanted Spaniards were composing liturgical music of a richness and complexity that was worthy of the greatest cathedrals of Europe – and teaching their native converts to do the same. This disc showcases the works of two of 18th century Mexico's finest composers: the Mexican-born Manuel de Zumaya and the transplanted European Ignacio de Jerusalem...The latter is represented by a polychoral Mass in D Minor, a responsory Responsorio Segundo de S.S. José>, and a gorgeous Dixit Dominus setting written in six sections...Accompanied by an ad hoc period instrument ensemble dubbed the Chanticleer Sinfonia for this album, Chanticleer does its usual job of effortlessly and thrillingly bringing this music to vivid life, and the recorded sound could hardly be brighter and richer. This is one of Chanticleer's finest and most satisfying albums.”
Responsorio Segundo de S.S. José:
Testament/The Turtle Creek Chorale and Dallas Wind Symphony/Timothy Seelig, Artistic Director (Reference Recordings CD) The Turtle Creek Chorale does it again! Testament includes pieces by several 20th century composers including Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein that have been arranged for male chorus and woodwinds. The results are wonderful, especially the song “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide, Bernstein's operetta based on Voltaire's 1759 novella of the same name. Although Candide wasn't received well when it opened, the music was an immediate hit – e.g., the overture has become an orchestral standard and one of the most frequently-performed orchestral compositions by a 20th century American composer. This is a show-stopping arrangement I enjoy no matter how many times I play it.
“Make Our Garden Grow”:
Lux Aeterna/The Gents/Peter Dijkstra, cond. (Channel SACD) Two discs featuring another all-male vocal ensemble like Chanticleer and the Turtle Creek Chorale that produces “a highly polished, rich and smooth sound, with impeccable intonation” (International Record Review). I play this recording primarily for the pieces by Poulenc. If you aren't familiar with Poulenc, start with “Salut, Dame Sainte,” the first prayer of Quatre Petites prières de Saint Françios d'Assise (1949): It's only a few minutes long but displays several elements of Poulenc's harmonic color and style. “Salut, Dame Sainte”:
John Rutter/Requiem/The City of London Sinfonia and Cambridge Singers/John Rutter, cond. (Collegium CD) John Rutter's much-loved and much recorded Requiem (1985) is a favorite with choirs and one of my favorites, too. Rutter was influenced by Fauré’s Requiem and wanted to write his own Requiem that was “intimate rather than grandiose, contemplative and lyric rather than dramatic, and ultimately moving towards light rather than darkness...” This recording is especially interesting because it's conducted by Rutter, resulting in a performance that is as close to the composer's intentions as possible.
Shaman/Toby Twining Music (Catalyst CD)
And now for something completely different. Toby Twining is a composer who uses unusual vocal sounds to form a unique musical palette. (See “Whatever Happened to Honk, Bonk, Boing and Blomp?” in Issue 126 where I discuss extended vocal techniques.) Shaman incorporates vocal traditions from around the world including American jazz, African yodeling, and Mongolian overtone singing, as well as language like “googly-goo” in a musical context – a blend that helps redefine singing. The program is refreshing and Twining's a cappella ensemble handles the sounds and harmonies effortlessly. “Hotel Destiné” in particular is accessible, jazzy, and lively...an enjoyable contrast to some of the other music in this month's column.
Graham Olson, AllMusic, 2012.
The third version was popular for much of the 20th century. However, in the 1970s and 1980s several Fauré scholars along with the English composer/conductor John Rutter worked to reconstruct Fauré’s original 1893 orchestration. Many consider that version to be closest to Fauré’s original intent, although Fauré himself never renounced the larger version for full orchestra, stating that it was appropriate for certain “concert” situations. (LA Phil “At-A-Glance” program notes.) Classic fm, “Music,” 2022. Chanticleer was named in honor of the "clear-singing" rooster in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Rick Anderson, “Overview,” AllMusic, 1994.There were many revisions after the disappointing opening in 1956. The "final revised version," conducted by Bernstein, was recorded by DGG in 1989.
If you can measure a book by its playlist, Lenny Kaye’s Lightning Striking surfs peak rock’n’roll moments, a music history that leaks pleasure. Its songs trace hidden galaxies in an exploding universe of ideas and feelings, and maps new orbits through a music that never stops revealing itself. Kaye grew up in southern New Jersey, fled to the West Coast as a teenager and then lower Manhattan in the early 1970s, a road tripper in search of scenes. He resembles that subspecies of scenester who plugs away furiously as an awestruck participant, following the music religiously as both an acolyte and then sideman. The right-place right-time karma has him backing up an early Patti Smith poetry reading in St. Mark’s Church, Greenwich Village, in 1971. “It was only supposed to happen once.” He has been leading her band ever since. You might know Kaye as an avid librarian of garage-rock lore, compiling the first Elektra LP edition of Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965 – 1968 in1972, and then many of its spinoffs. Little Steven’s Underground Garage project works, in a way, as an homage to the cathedral that Kaye first built. This affection for history reveals itself through the Patti Smith Group’s ardent covers. The Who’s ”My Generation” once had a sacred position as that band’s closer, but she often opened with the Velvet Underground’s “We’re Gonna Have a Good Time Together,” or folded in the Leaves’s “Hey Joe,” and, of course, the Byrds’s “So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star,” channeling far more legacy than many other punk acts.
Lenny Kaye. Courtesy of Ulf Hoberg.
The book highlights ten different locales and turns geography into metaphor for states of mind, world-views, and cackling tirades for where meanings go fizzy; bullet points to destiny. (The list: Memphis, 1954. New Orleans, 1957. Philadelphia, 1959. Liverpool, 1962. San Francisco, 1967. Detroit, 1969. New York, 1975. London, 1977. Seattle, 1991.Los Angeles, 1984 / Norway, 1993. Skipping Boston looks like the most glaring oversight.) Each locale gets such detailed treatment you sense a heightened awareness of how many disparate characters and their kismet collisions create a larger story about pickled fate, an unstoppable style, and new worlds of sound that quickly overtook any single figure or band. His history starts with his sponge-like ears as a teen, a doo-wop aficionado and New Orleans obsessive who adores all the inside jokes, open secrets, and sainted clown of the young style as only feisty kids can. He conveys the giant disruption of the Beatles in 1964 without diving much into their material, and sidesteps most of the other pitfalls of this well-plowed turf with sizzling details and cryptic maxims, his paragraph-thumping Zen koans turn as tempting as his dangling questions (”Who knows where a hit begins?”). Kaye’s voice, while sometimes cryptic, distills style into tart locutions: “How to sing to a girl. In the voice of a girl. That is Philadelphia’s tradition.” Or, “Records are all about need. That you’re not yet aware of. Heartbreak, heart back together, some dance floor somewhere, A favorite song for you to play along...” or this, his immaculate summary of Beatlemania: “Yeah times three. The mathematics of dream.” Kaye finds his subject’s rhythm and mood, unveils a new score for its soundtrack, all the while convincing you your own playlist matters most: so many portals into this story, his own just one of lifetimes worth pursuing. He dashes about, compresses exhilarating records into frenetic prose, and outlines a new rendition of this familiar story that sends you back to your stash, hunting down new obscurities, and grooving to new pleasures. It’s the perfect book for the streaming era: YouTube tosses up many of these quickly, thrills chasing thrills. The travelogue grid means he returns over and over again to the Sixties, which provides multiple angles on music that seemed to explode all at once in various places and yet always held sway against itself; many voices speaking as one.
You may have known about Richie Adams, who sang lead for the Archies (”Sugar Sugar”), but not that he first appeared as the lead on the Fireflies’s “You Were Mine” back in 1959, and Bobby Lewis’s “Tossin’ and Turnin’” in 1961, or went on to write Englebert Humperdinck’s “After the Lovin.’” How many such vicarious Bert Berns figures hide in pop’s shadows? Here’s how Kaye describes Memphis producer Sam Phillips, of Sun Records:
His apocryphal wish fulfillment — “If I could find a white man with the Negro sound, and the Negro feel”— is too reductive, too easy. For Sam, the music’s sui generis starts with what is called rhythm and blues. And what is called country and western. Big-band orchestras and Appalachian balladry and show tune standards and gospel of all persuasions.
The persistent curiosity of Kaye’s ear cranks out new frames like a movie projector inventing its own film. A typical sentence the crams in the pressures of capitalism alongside the heated momentum of creativity: “Cosimo starts a record company, Nola, and has a hit out of the box with Robert Parker’s 1966 ‘Barefootin’,’ but can’t turn up the cash flow like he could boost the bottom end at his studio, unable to press enough records to meet demand...” From inside the Summer of Love, he writes, “Sometimes it seems as if the Western world is in kaleidoscopic spin...” Every page yields zircons like these palmed descriptions: of Duane Eddy (”Whoops and a low-stringed sound hollowed out by the reverb of a grain tank in Arizona”), Stooges guitarist James Williamson (”He has a determined alpha dog sense of riffage that bends the substructure of the Stooges his way”), the Talking Heads (”art-savvy and paranormal), or Janis Joplin (”Alkedelic...”).
When he gets to the Beatles, he lets a few choice paragraphs do all the work, then fleshes out the surrounding context: What is it about the Fabulist Four, the perfect quartet, that sets them apart, beyond their peers, their generation, even the idea of pop music itself? They sound more randomly weird as we get equidistant from their time frame, untethered from the progression of genres that mark their contemporaries. They lead by example, and yet the results hew to no predictable landscape, blending instruments and style and overreach. That still, after these many years and maddening familiarity with each of their songs, they are capable of surprise; the revealing scope and sophistication of their musical imagination; the way each personality jigsaws together for an all-too-brief decade, and then the inevitable solo albums, individual brilliance showing how much they relied on each other to make a four-ever magic. Then this:
Their creation encapsulates the cultural transformations of the 1960s. The voyage between “She Loves You” to the endgame of “I Am the Walrus,” with all the magnificent shards of creativity in between, spreads across the take-anything spectrum of popular music, the heart on the sleeve and the bite in the tongue, sound collage and lyrics a-twist with layers of meaning and mnemonic, instruments chosen without regard to what has come before, each phrase and hook and texture of arrangement existing as if it always meant to be there. Decades later we arrive at bio-discography through outtake, remix, remaster. Every anniversary commemorated; the emphasis on process rather than the songs themselves. Snippets of studio conversation, live performances, works in progress, false starts, all show our desire to know how it was done, how four musicians could make such incessantly interesting music, and have it change the course of popular music.
Connecting unlikely dots like a good historian, Kaye makes you hear each end of things differently. John Simon, the producer who made the first two Band albums sound so rustic, had already produced the first Big Brother and the Holding Company record, Cheap Thrills, the one with the cover by cartoonist Robert Crumb. Kaye’s deep dive into Detroit garage band history follows the threads leading to the MC5 and the Stooges, who each tower in new and fascinating ways here. But Kaye also off-ramps into a quick description of the regional energies unfurling throughout the lo-fi DIY epoch of 1966: nationally — Minneapolis, and the Castaways (“Liar Liar”), Chicago, and the Shadows of Knight (“Gloria”), Cleveland, and the Outsiders (“Time Won’t Let Me”). Michigan seemed especially fertile territory when Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Hanky Panky” (from Niles), and ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” (from Bay City and Saginaw) both topped the charts in 1966. Sonic Youth “picks up where Radio Ethiopia leaves off...,” then mentors this upstart Seattle troupe, Nirvana.
At one point, he describes Jimi Hendrix leaving his Greenwich Village Electric Ladyland studios on his way to play the Isle of Wight concert in 1970, “weeks to live,” where a young Patti Smith awaits him, and “He told her of his dream of an abstract universal musical language, beyond key and tempo...” When Kaye himself enters this larger story, he does it with modest strokes and clean lines: that poetry reading leads to callbacks, and suddenly a career. Clive Davis needs an alt-act to prove his street credibility for his new Arista label, and the young Bruce Springsteen, busy getting out of a bad contract, co-writes “Because the Night” and performs it with Smith on her breakout stage. Backstage photo with Bob Dylan in Rolling Stone — career launched. And here’s where one hit comes from:
While in the Record Plant we’re visited by Bruce Springsteen, working on what will be Darkness at the Edge of Town down the hall. Jimmy has engineered for him, and Iovine puts his fast-talking persuasives to good use by asking for a track that seems left by the wayside as Bruce piles up song ideas. Springsteen has already written us a couple of shots in the dark, but they sound like him trying to be us, which is not the point. Jimmy gets Patti a cassette of “Because the Night”; one night she plays it over the phone to me, waiting for Fred to call from Detroit, its chorus undeniable.
He devotes a lot more time to the music’s history than his own gigantic strokes of skill (and luck) inside the larger arc, and he pulls off that rarest of tones: a lead guitarist with humility, and ears that always chase the more. While he partied along with his crews, his luck extended to his health, his perseverance, and steadying counter-balance to his charismatic front-person. Critics never get enough credit. And now for the buried lead: this is actually Kaye’s third book. The first, You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon, on romantic singers of the 1930s, appeared in 2004. Me want to go there. He also co-wrote Rock 100 with David Dalton. Go back to the complete Rolling Stone online archives and you’ll find Kaye reviewing major records in the early 1970s, including a white-hot streak through Exile on Main Street (the Rolling Stones), Moondog Matinee (the Band), Quadrophenia (the Who), and Led Zeppelin IV.
How many writers help shape the next chapter of rock to a string of records like that? Kaye champions the undersung New York Dolls with first-person color and particulars, but has equal affection for the Ramones. And he’s sensitive to the fickle notions of Gods that would plunder the creative forces of a band as great as the Velvet Underground and then bring together Lou Reed, David Bowie and Iggy Pop as a regal cabal throughout the 1970s to commit commercial-aesthetic revenge. When he veers off to Norway to bolster his heavy metal chapters of the 1980s, he handles death-cult sludge with almost too much respect, although you fear that’s what the music summons in this crowd. Power chords unleash Nordic dread. At one point, he marvels at Sex Pistols’s manager Malcolm McLaren’s reaction to hearing the first New York Dolls record: “It made me laugh so much,” Malcolm remembered to Dolls historian Nina Antonia. “I was actually shocked. I suddenly thought that you can be brilliant at being bad and there were people loving them for it.” For Malcolm, it was “better than being bad at being bad, or being good at being good.” Kaye finds himself in this story even as the style swirls all around him, a 512-page seduction etched in cosmic detail.
Photographed at Mission San José de Tumacácori, at the Tumacácori National Historical Park. James chose to make the focal point out of focus, which lends a somewhat haunting quality to the photo. The Santos were preserved from various Spanish missions in the Southwest.
Back around 1980 was when I first started having some awareness of the importance of good audio connectivity. Of course, any of the mid-fi-ish equipment I typically had bought prior to then came with the usual garden-variety, thrown in, cheaply-made stock interconnects, and most everything had a captive AC power cord attached. We hadn’t yet reached the era of ungodly expensive cabling back then – I don’t even think it had really even become a huge thing yet, but I was at least beginning to read and hear about the value of upgrading to more substantial interconnects and speaker cables. I started buying cables via mail order from Vampire Wire, where I could at least get 10-gauge speaker cables terminated with heavy spade lugs, and they were significantly more robust than the zip cord I’d mostly been using all my life. I also picked up early-production interconnects from Monster Cable, which also seemed to be more well-made than the cheap and cheesy manufacturer-supplied crap cables. Of course, I wasn’t at all thinking about how the improved cabling might affect the sound of my system, I was mainly concentrating on just getting good signal transfer between components and loudspeakers. And I was, at the time, perfectly happy with that.
I still have an old bottle of Tweek sitting around!
Around that time I also first became aware of using contact enhancements from my local stereo shop, which sold a small bottle of a clear liquid called Tweek. It had a brush-on applicator inside the cap, and was intended to be applied to RCA plugs and jacks on both the cables and on the connected equipment, where it purportedly improved metal-to-metal conductivity. Tweek was pretty inexpensive, and a little went a long way, and back in those days, most cables and equipment termination jacks were made of similar metals. And some manufacturers were beginning to gold-plate connections, especially on higher-end gear. Tweek provided – at least, inside my brain’s thought process – better sound through enhanced conductivity. And you only had to apply it when you changed components, perhaps once a year to maintain good system conductivity. Unfortunately, there was a problem with Tweek that soon started rearing its ugly head: the problematic issue of dissimilar metals. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it mainly deals with the concept that when dissimilar metals – metals that are unlike each other – come into contact with each other, they begin to slowly corrode. This can seriously degrade an audio connection. Tweek was causing a chemical reaction that was accelerating that degradation, and it was eventually pulled from the market following a barrage of consumer complaints. As boutique cable manufacturers began to appear with increasing frequency, many started using a variety of metals for terminations that didn’t always agree with whatever equipment they were connected to. Unfortunately, Tweek only made what could be an already bad situation much, much worse.
Caig DeoxIT and DeoxIT GOLD G-Series are available in a variety of useful configurations.
Fortunately, other contact enhancers like Caig DeoxIT and DeoxIT GOLD G-Series (formerly known as Pro Gold) soon appeared to help assuage the anguish of those seeking perfect audio connections. And I was reading the other day on SoundStage Network’s website about another contact enhancer that’s infused with microscopic gold and silver flakes (depending on what type of termination your cables use) to provide better metal-to-metal contact. That particular manufacturer seems to have gone out of business since then (the link was dated 2003), but there are other, similar products that abound on the internet and that are still available; just do a Google search. I grew up in the farm country of northeast Georgia, and not unlike many of the young men in that 1970s demographic, somewhat fancied myself a bit of a cowboy. This required all the necessary accoutrements, including cowboy boots, a hat, and garish brass and silver belt buckles. The belt buckles were great, but I soon discovered that they required frequent polishing, which was a bit of a sticky wicket, to say the least. With time, I found the perfect polishing cloths – one for brass, a different one for silver – and also discovered that after polishing a buckle, washing it with soap and water and then drying and buffing it to a brilliant shine helped keep them glistening for much longer intervals. That was my first experience with keeping tarnishable metals pristine, and also with using products specific to each type of metal. I had no idea at the time that decades later, this would play heavily into my audio connectivity routine!
Fast Forward to the (Current) Future
A few years back, my system got completely upgraded with new interconnect, loudspeaker, AC power, and HDMI (for I²S connection) cables from AudioQuest (AQ). I also installed a pair of AQ NRG Edison AC wall outlets to the two dedicated AC lines running into my room, and added AQ Niagara 1200 and Niagara 3000 power conditioners. The new cabling and power conditioning have easily made the biggest overall differences in my system’s sound quality, with blacker, quieter backgrounds, and lending greater clarity to both analog and digital sources. If you’ve never used a power conditioner (AudioQuest actually describes the Niagara units as Lo-Z Power/Noise-Dissipation Systems), I highly recommend the AudioQuest units – the difference has been nothing short of dramatic.
The AudioQuest Niagara 3000 is the real deal.
I’ve installed countless AC outlets, switches, and the like over a period of decades, but the installation of the AQ NRG Edison AC outlets was without a doubt the most labor-intensive outlet installation I’ve ever undertaken. Each Edison unit is constructed of heavyweight beryllium copper and weighs over a half pound; compare that to a weight of about an ounce for a typical construction-grade outlet. They’re wider and deeper than construction-grade outlets, but they do fit in conventional, new-construction outlet boxes – well, just barely! In my case, the difficulty was compounded by the nearly unyielding 10-gauge Romex dedicated lines I’d had the electrician install in those locations at the time my new home was built, and it was darn-near impossible to maneuver the wiring from the connections to the Edison outlets to get them to fit inside the boxes. I can usually do an outlet install in less than ten minutes, but it easily took an hour each to get the Edisons connected and installed! Yeah, I know – bring out the flamethrowers – the $189 (each) Edisons arrived weeks before the Niagara units, but the improvement in my overall sound was shockingly good with just those in place. The difference wasn’t subtle, and bass transients, especially from my dual subwoofers, were deeper and had much better definition, and both subs seemed to integrate much more effortlessly with my Magneplanars.
The NRG Edison Outlets are really robust, especially compared to cheaply-made builder grade.
AC power cords and connections aren’t really a big area of concern when it comes to maintaining conductivity. All my AudioQuest AC power cords – which range from their NRG X, Y, and Z series to their Blizzard with DBS cords – employ direct-plated gold connectors. And of course, gold doesn’t tarnish. But all the interconnects (AQ Yukon), loudspeaker cables (AQ Type 9), and HDMI cables (AQ Cobalt) employ heavily-plated silver connectors. I noticed that when I unboxed all the cables, each box included two types of polishing cloths, one for silver connectors and one for everything else. At that time, all those silver connections absolutely glittered – based on appearance alone, they’re a 10/10. But I’m also a firm believer in silver as a superior conduction medium in audio, and I’ve owned quite a few cables over the years that utilized either silver-clad or solid silver conductors. There are two trains of thought on silver cables: they’re either harsh and overly bright, or they add a significant level of clarity to the signal. I definitely fall into the latter camp. And needless to say, after getting everything connected, I put the polishing cloths out of sight, and out of mind.
Houston, We Have a Problem!
When my daughter had her new baby in December, we stayed at their house for five straight days, watching after my three-year-old grandson Henry, their two dogs, and a pair of guinea pigs. Prior to heading over there, I turned off the audio system and disconnected it from my home network, just in case there were any lightning events while I was gone (I didn’t yet have the fiber media conversion setup in place yet that would have protected the network-connected equipment from that possibility). The morning after we returned, I went back downstairs and reconnected and rebooted everything to get some music playing, and immediately noticed a problem. The right channel continuously fuzzed in and out, as if there was some kind of short. I went immediately over to the equipment stack, started futzing with the interconnects between my preamp and amplifiers, and when I jiggled the AudiQuest Yukon balanced cable in the right channel amp input, that exacerbated the situation. Holy crap, these cables were less than two years old – had one of them developed a short already?
The AudioQuest Yukon balanced interconnects are exceptionally well-made.
I have a huge box of cables in the storage area of my basement, and pulled out the Blue Jeans balanced cables that the AQ Yukons replaced. That totally solved the signal problem. The sound was now restored to a perfect level of connection, but it also sounded flat and lifeless. I reached for the Yukons to reconnect and take another listen, and at that point, I noticed that the silver input connector of the balanced cable was almost completely black with tarnish! I’d handled these cables countless times over the last couple of years, especially with the almost constant flow of review equipment in and out of my system, but had never previously noticed anything in their appearance that drew my attention – they'd always looked perfectly pristine. It was almost as though the tarnish appeared out of nowhere; the process could possibly have gotten accelerated when my system was completely down for months while my preamplifier was away for repairs. Regardless, this caught me completely off guard!
The "silver" polishing cloth (on the left) was actually silver in color before removing all the tarnish from the connectors.
I scrambled, located one of the silver polishing cloths, and proceeded to thoroughly polish, rinse and clean the connectors on all my silver-clad cables. And they all showed some level of tarnish and blackness, though none of them were anywhere near the level of the right-side balanced Yukon cable. By the time I finished cleaning multiple sets of interconnects, loudspeaker cables, and HDMIs, the formerly light-silver colored polishing cloth was now a very dark gray with the tarnish it had removed! After everything was reconnected and rebooted, the sound was restored to its previous state of audio glory. I was astonished, if perhaps a bit embarrassed by my negligence. I happened to think afterwards, that during the period from early August until November, when my PS Audio Gain Cell DAC/Preamp was off for repairs, that all the interconnect cables were just lying about the room, unconnected. Maybe this had accelerated the tarnishing process? The room is climate-controlled, so there are no temperature or humidity issues, so who really knows. But I’ve definitely learned my lesson: unless you’re using anything other than gold-plated connectors, you need to check them for cleanliness periodically. Probably once a year would be sufficient, and I definitely would still recommend getting an appropriate contact enhancer to assist with the inner pins of balanced and single-ended connectors and the like. Believe me, this stuff really does make a difference!
All images courtesy of AudioQuest, Caig, and the author.
When the Brazilian music of the 1960s comes to mind, we commonly think of the many composers and artists who were popular in bringing the samba, bossa nova and Brazilian music to the world. Names like João Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfa, Laurindo Almeida and Sergio Mendes were familiar to many. Equally important in Brazil during the bossa nova movement, but often overlooked, was the work of classically-trained pianist and composer Luiz Eça, who was also known for being part of the Tamba Trio. Featuring Eça’s brilliant piano performances and his trio partners’ ability to play and sing tightly in sync, the trio’s recordings were unlike their contemporaries, who either sang, or played instruments. The Trio’s members did both, simultaneously. The earliest lineup of the Tamba Trio on record featured leader Luiz Eça on piano, Bebeto (Bebeto Castilho) on flute and bass, and Hélcio (Hélcio Milito) on drums and percussion. (The group members, aside from Eça, were usually referred to by their first names or nicknames.) From about 1966 onward, Ohana (Rubens Ohana) took over on drums and percussion. Their signature tune “Tamba” led off their 1962 debut album, Tamba Trio.
One of Tamba Trio’s first hits was a recording of Jorge Ben’s “Mas Que Nada,” a few years before Sérgio Mendes would record his signature version with Brasil ’66. This song is from their 1963 album Avanço.
Also featured on Avanço, the Trio would also record one of the first performances of “Garota de Ipanema.” httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fb2_pzSwggk Luiz Eça & Cordas was an album that featured Eça’s piano and string arrangements. His fellow Tamba Trio members back him up on the recording, but only instrumentally. Here is “Imagem,” which was also an alternate album title for reissues.
In 1964, the Tamba Trio provided backing for the debut album A Música de Edu Lobo por Edu Lobo by newcomer Edu Lobo, who would soon become one of the voices of the MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira) movement, where bossa nova was cast aside in favor of songs echoing Brazil’s growing social consciousness. The Trio provides their typically brilliant backing to Lobo’s album. Among others, some of Lobo’s most famous tunes would appear on this album and become standards in the following years: “Chegança,” “Reza,” “Arrastão,” and “Borandá.” In this recording, the lead vocal and guitar are Edu Lobo, while the remaining instruments, voices and string arrangement are courtesy of Eça and the Tamba Trio.
One of the earliest albums recorded for Creed Taylor’s CTi label (at first an imprint of A&M Records), was We and the Sea, an album by Tamba 4, essentially the Tamba Trio with an added member. The fourth member is Dorio (Dorio Ferreira) who plays guitar, and bass on all but two of the tracks on the album. This album was perhaps the most adventurous in both the Trio’s catalog as well as the A&M/CTi label. The album opener (featured below) was “O Morro” (“The Hill”), in an arrangement that wanders between moods and numerous variations; the equally stunning “Consolaçao” is also worth hearing, as is one of Eça’s most beautiful (and perhaps best known) compositions, “Dolphine.”
The follow-up album Samba Blim was not quite as adventurous, yet the Tamba Trio spirit was still evident in their take on Edu Lobo’s “Reza,” making it one of the highlights of a somewhat sleepy album. The accelerando ending in particular is noteworthy.
In 1969, a third Tamba 4 album was rumored to have been recorded but was never released. (This was around the time Creed Taylor left A&M.) The only music issued was a promotional 45 RPM single containing the tunes “California Soul” and “No Onda do Berimbau.” In 2019, the album California Soul was finally released. As with all of the A&M/CTi albums, this one featured Sam Antupit’s bold white border design, with a previously unseen Pete Turner photo used for the jacket. Musically it’s hardly essential, but it is nonetheless a fun listen. What gives the album a different feel is that Eça plays electric piano throughout the album. All the horn arrangements backing Tamba 4 were penned by Eça as well. (Note that the digital release of this album uses a different photo not taken by Pete Turner.) Bebeto takes a lead vocal on the Milton Nascimento tune “Travessia” (also known as “Bridges”).
Confusingly, a 1970 album released in Brazil was credited to Tamba 4, but was an offshoot project featuring Bebeto, Ohana and Dorio with Laercio de Freitas on piano; Luiz Eça was not involved in this recording. In the mid 1970s, however, the Trio released two more albums featuring the original 1962 lineup of Eça, Bebeto and Hélcio. The following song by Ivan Lins, “3 Horas de Manhã,” is from the 1975 RCA album Tamba Trio.
A Selected Tamba Trio Discography
Most of these titles were reissued on import CD, and some are still available despite being discontinued. The easiest to find are the three A&M/CTi releases. For the earliest Tamba Trio recordings, your best bet for a compilation may be the 1997 Classics 2-CD set, or the single 1999 CD Millennium: 20 Músicas do Século XX. The group had four original albums entitled Tamba Trio; rest assured, they are all different recordings. Tamba Trio: Tamba Trio (1962, Philips) Tamba Trio: Avanço (1963, Philips) Tamba Trio: Tempo (1963, Philips) Edu Lobo Com A Participação Do Tamba Trio - A Música De Edu Lobo Por Edu Lobo (1964, Elenco) Luiz Eça: Luiz Eça & Cordas (1965, Philips) Tamba Trio: Tamba Trio (1966, Philips) Tamba Trio: Tamba Trio (1968, Philips) Tamba 4: We and the Sea (1968, A&M/CTi) Tamba 4: Samba Blim (1968, A&M/CTi) Tamba 4: California Soul (1969; released 2019, A&M/CTi) Tamba Trio: Tamba (1974, RCA Victor) Tamba Trio: Tamba Trio (1975, RCA Victor)
My first exposure to hi-fi audio came from reading Ken's writing in Hi-Fi News & Record Review magazine, and his witty and incisive writing style has weathered the passage of the past forty years. He has discussed the trials and tribulations of acquiring pre-recorded reel-to-reel tapes, but he has not (yet) touched on the subject of keeping these ancient machines running. I have some recent experience in this respect that I’d like to share. My first tape machine was an Otari MX-5050, which was a very flexible machine that could play 2- and 4-track tapes at multiple speeds and equalizations. I bought a Nagra IV-S portable tape recorder for making live recordings in concert halls, and later a Nagra T- Audio studio recorder to facilitate the editing of these recordings. The T-Audio is no slouch as a playback machine, but the playback electronics were not designed with audiophiles in mind. The sound can come across as being too up-front and lacking in finesse. I therefore wired the playback head directly to my DIY tube tape head preamplifier.
Adrian's Nagra-T tape deck.
The last time my Nagra machines were serviced at the factory was five years ago. I heard that the gentleman who had been in charge of the analog recorders and wrote the service manuals for both of my machines was retiring, and I quickly sent the machines back for a tune up. Mr. Herbert Bartels very kindly agreed to return to Nagra on a part-time basis to do the work. New heads were installed and the machines were regulated and recalibrated. Everything worked well on the T-Audio except for an annoying squeaky noise coming from the reel holder mechanisms. The noise was so distracting that I had a soundproof cover made. It is an enormous black blob that looks completely out of place in my living room, but it can be dismantled and folded up when not in use. I took to listening to tapes only when my wife was out of the house, to spare her from the eyesore. The T-Audio has two belts that drive the reel holders. There are two pairs of reel holders for 10.5-inch and 7-inch reels respectively. A short-toothed rubber belt runs between the motor pulley and the two reel holders in a triangular configuration on each side. The tension of the belts needs to be adjusted just right since under-tension can result in the belt slipping when the reels are stopped during fast forwarding and rewinding. Over-tightening can result in excessive vibrations. I have dismantled the mechanisms and adjusted the tension to no avail. I vented my frustration in the reel-to-reel forum at the What's Best Forum, a fountain of wisdom. An expert replied that the noise is due to aging of the belts; the rubber loses elasticity over time since the belts were made more than 40 years ago, and this happens even with belts that have never been used. He also knew someone who had made a new batch of belts according to original specifications. I contacted this gentleman, Tom, who does maintenance and repair work for Nagra and other brands of tape recorders. I bought two sets of belts from him for a very reasonable cost. After the belts had arrived, I went to work on the machine. Removing the old belts according to the instructions on the service manual was straightforward. However, the old belts had left some very sticky residues that looked like dried snot on the pulleys. The gaps between the teeth on the pulleys were very narrow, and I used a dental pick (a must-have in the tool kit of audiophiles, much more than just for cleaning teeth!) to patiently scrape off the globs. The remaining film of residue was then removed with acetone. The new belts were installed, the tension adjusted, and the mechanisms reassembled.
Note the dry snot-like substance sticking to one of the reel holders. It had to be carefully removed.
The machine fast-forwarded and rewound smoothly. So far, so good. I then hit play and the tape started playing for a few seconds. And then everything just stopped. I tried again with the same result. I dismantled the reel holders and inspected everything, and then reinstalled them to no avail. I inspected the circuit boards to look for signs of solder balls shorting something out, but everything looked normal. My diagnostic training kicked in and I started to go through the differential diagnoses. The reel holders were not moving, and in fact, they were unmovable by hand. The right capstan was spinning, but the left one was not. I measured the voltages. The voltages at the reel motors suggested that the electronic brake was engaged. The voltage at the right capstan was correct, but it was erratic on the left. I went through the 576-page service manual (yes, this thing is probably more complicated than an MRI machine) to try and find a reason for such an ailment. I called my recording partner who has more experience with the Nagra recorders than I do. He managed to find a table buried within the pages of the manual that mentioned similar symptoms. Apparently, the blowing of a particular fuse at the power supply board will trigger the emergency electronic brakes. I wrote an e-mail to Mr. Bartels at Nagra, but I received a reply from another gentleman informing me that Mr. Bartels had been in full retirement for several years, and that the only thing I could do was to send the machine to Nagra in France for servicing. The need to pack such a delicate instrument for shipping filled me with dread. I contacted Tom, the technician who sold me the belts. He was very kind and measured the voltages at the power supply board of a machine he had in for servicing at the time. The voltages were the same as what I found on mine, and therefore the power supply was not the issue. I started to think that the logic control board was perhaps faulty. This raised the possibility that I could just send the board for servicing, not the whole machine. And then a miracle happened. Mr. Bartels apparently still checked his company e-mail from time to time, and he answered my message. He said that there could be a faulty filter capacitor at the capstan motor. I dismantled the motor and found the two capacitors. After removing them, I measured their capacitance with my LCR meter, and they both measured correctly. Since I did not have a working capacitor tester (only an antique Sprague tester that no longer works), I installed new capacitors from my spares box. Just like that, the machine was working again. And as good as promised, the squeaking was gone, and there is now only a quiet whirling sound that is barely audible at the listening seat. But I worry that Mr. Bartels might not answer my e-mail next time. Not having a local technician capable of servicing the machine is a headache. There are now at least four brand new tape machines on the market, two from Metaxas and Sins, and two from Ballfinger. Analogue Audio Design in France will be releasing one soon. These all come with the manufacturer’s warranty and should be plug-and-play without any hassle. I have no experience with them and do not know how well they perform. Greg Beron of United Home Audio has been restoring and upgrading Tascam recorders for many years, and these too should be hassle-free. They also enjoy a very high reputation amongst audiophiles. A company in Slovakia, SEPEA Audio as resurrected the cult-favorite Stellavox TD9 studio recorder using new old stock and freshly manufactured parts. However, none of these options come cheap. On the other hand, audiophiles can dip their toes into the reel-to-reel universe by acquiring a machine from the used market. This approach will often require the owners to get their hands dirty, since most of these machines would have been lying in grandpa's basement for decades. This could be part of the fun, depending on how you look at it. Except for the Tascams, it might be difficult to find spare parts and expertise to maintain and repair ancient consumer machines. On the other hand, servicing is still available for the more popular professional machines from companies such as Studer, Nagra, Telefunken and Ampex, since many professional studios still use these machines. However, they tend to be big, heavy and complicated. As more and more audiophile-quality pre-recorded tapes become available, the demand for these machines will only increase. I will address the sources for new pre-recorded tapes in future articles Just one more thing. I recently replaced the series-resistor stepped attenuators in my tape head preamp to ladder-type stepped attenuators, as one of the switches had become intermittently faulty. I needed to rearrange the layout of the preamp to accommodate the much larger volume controls, but otherwise nothing else was changed. I was expecting perhaps the kind of differences one might find when listening very carefully and intently (and having an active imagination), the type of things non-audiophiles would scoff at. Since I had listened to a tape of the Decca Ansermet Three Cornered Hat recording the day before, I put it on again for comparison.
The two large red things are the new stepped attenuators. Luckily, there was just enough space for them, but they had to swap places with the selector switches. The downside is, the silkscreen on the front panel no longer indicates the correct knobs.
The magnitude of improvement in dynamics when I compared the tape with the LP in the past was impressive, but this time, it was shocking. I was in awe. Not only were the transients faster, but the sound had a lot more weight, and the clarity was startling. I never imagined master tapes (a production master in this case) to actually sound like this. I never realized how much of the dynamics and the detail was lost at the volume controls previously. Going from having 24 resistors (even though they were Vishay metal film SMDs) and solder joints in the signal path to just two made a huge difference. Just imagine going from the good ol' plastic volume pot straight to this. Some people are spending thousands of dollars for things like power cables when they should be spending their money first on something with far more impact like this. I wish I had done it years ago. The reason why I had not was because all the ladder types available in the past did not keep the input resistance constant at every step, but this one almost does (with a maximum 6 percent deviation after putting a 100 Kohm resistor in parallel to achieve 50 K). This is important in order for the tape equalization in my preamp to maintain accuracy. I don't think the deviation here is large enough to be sonically significant, but I will do some measurements this weekend to be sure. Even if it is, I am still willing to trade a little frequency non-linearity for the scale of improvement I have just witnessed. The thought of doing the same for my phono preamplifier is very tempting indeed…
Alessandro Stradella (1639 – 1682) was as colorful a figure as he was a great composer. The circumstances of his death were so dramatic (he was stabbed by a paid assassin!) that the German Romantic composer Friedrich Flotow wrote a three-act opera about him. Yet Stradella is not widely known these days. A handful of recent recordings give a good sense of why he’s worth adding to your playlists. Although he only lived into his early 40s, Stradella managed to become a bit of a star in musical circles, with patrons falling over each other to hire him and the best poets and playwrights hoping for a chance to provide him with words to set to music. He was trained in Rome, which was simply the best place in Europe to learn to write vocal music in the 17th century. His fame stemmed from his operas, oratorios, and shorter works for voices. Indeed, he had a magical touch when it came to writing melodic lines in particular. His arias alternate between movingly fluid and charmingly bouncy, long pre-dating the bel canto style. Some of his smaller-scale works can be heard in a new recording by an Italian group that loves Stradella so much that they’re named after him. The Alessandro Stradella Consort was founded in 1987 by director Estévan Velardi. (They record music by other Baroque composers too.) Their two-volume set on Dynamic Records is called Stradella: Cantatas and Serenatas. These chamber pieces would have been performed in wealthy patrons’ homes as unstaged or semi-staged works that had a dramatic flair but didn’t require sets or costumes.
Any great vocal recording rests in large part on the quality of its accompaniment. As a small period-instrument ensemble, the Alessandro Stradella Consort has a sprightly energy, perfect for the era, that balances precision with fluidity. This is demonstrated in the instrumental Ritornello movement from the cantata Infinite son le pene (In case you doubted these pieces were dramatic, that translates as “The pains are infinite.”)
Rosita Frisani, a specialist in these kinds of vocal chamber works, is one of four sopranos involved in the collection. Volume 1 also includes tenor Mario Nuvoli and bass Riccardo Ristori, with bass Gianluca Buratto joining on Vol. 2. In this short duet between Nuvoli and Frisani, you can hear the prominence of the harpsichord and Baroque guitar, as well as the similarity in style to the early Baroque madrigal (a la Monteverdi).
The late 17th century was prime time for the development of the oratorio as a genre. Stradella played a key role in figuring out what an oratorio entailed, decisions which would influence Handel in the coming decades. Stradella seems to have written six oratorios, the first of which he composed in about 1672. This is Santa Editta Vergine e Monaca, Regina d'Inghilterra. (Saint Edith, Virgin and Abbess, Queen of England), dealing with a 10th-century English saint named Edith of Wilton. As is often true of oratorios, there’s not exactly a story, but just Edith and several allegorical characters (nobility, humility, beauty, and so forth) singing arias, recitatives, duets, and choruses. Santa Editta has recently been recorded by a multinational group of voices and period instruments, Ensemble Il Groviglio, founded two years ago. I wish I could say this was good news. In the role of Editta, Italian soprano Laura Andreini is simply not up to the task, particularly the tricky jumping melismas that Stradella often decorates his melodies with. And some sign of understanding mid-Baroque vocal ornamentation would have made a lot of difference.
There aren’t many recordings of this work, but you’re better off with Ensemble Mare Nostrum’s 2016 effort featuring Veronica Cangemi in the title role. That recording is part of the ensemble’s ongoing series of releases on Arcana Records called the Stradella Project. The singing and playing are outstanding throughout. One recent recording in this series is the opera Il Trespolo Tutore (Trespolo the Tutor), a goofily complicated tale of people falling in love with somebody who is in love with someone else. Composed in 1679, this is the only one of Stradella’s seven operas that he classified as comic. It’s also one of the first Italian comic operas ever written. That subgenre is another area where Stradella was historically influential. Conductor Andrea De Carlo makes the most out of the instrumental and vocal figures that would soon become standard comic tropes. In this duet between baritone Riccardo Novaro (as Tespolo) and Roberta Mameli (his pupil, Artemesia, who loves him although he doesn’t realize it), listen for the large leaps in the vocal line, as well as the pounding chordal accompaniment to give it an over-the-top, farcical sound.
A common feature of Stradella’s basso continuo (the two or three people keeping a rhythmic and harmonic foundation going at all times) is the use of Baroque guitar. Here it provides chords under the short aria “Ma che fo?” (What am I doing?), sung by soprano Silvia Frigato, whose voice glitters confidently through all those awkwardly comical leaps. httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhOMGOdodKs Although the bulk of Stradella’s output was vocal music, he did compose some instrumental works. You’ll find a nice example in Stradella: Complete Violin Sinfonias, new from Brilliant Classics. Ensemble Giardino di Delizie is led by artistic director and soloist Ewa Anna Augustynowicz on Baroque violin. These 12 single-movement violin sinfonias are historically important, even if they’re not well known. In them, Stradella has gone a long way toward inventing the concerto by contrasting the sound of a solo instrument with that of a group of players. That compositional procedure has been standard for so many centuries that it’s hard to remember that somebody had to come up with it first.
So, give a thought to Stradella and his innovative music. During his short life, his candle burned bright and was snuffed out violently. But the tendrils of his creativity stretched into the future, nourishing composers for generations.
Drawing comparisons to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Blondie, and other female-led, punk-influenced bands, the New York-based Yeah Yeah Yeahs have been making artsy garage rock for over twenty years. They started out indie – in the sense of doing everything on their own, in their own way – but by now they’re an integral part of recent pop music history. Pianist and singer Karen O (born Karen Lee Orzolek), guitarist and keyboardist Nick Zinner, and drummer Brian Chase formed the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in 2000. Chase and Karen O had met while music students at Oberlin College and Conservatory, where they listened to avant-punk together. When Karen O transferred to New York University, she became friends with Zinner. Chase joined them in New York, and they soon gained the attention of some big groups: the White Stripes and The Strokes invited them to open their shows. Yeah Yeah Yeahs was their first EP, released in 2001 on their own label, Shifty. It hit the top of the indie charts in the UK, giving the band a solid jumping-off point. Critics liked it, too. The five-track collection literally opens with a bang: a song called “Bang,” that is. As the lead singer, Karen O has described herself as a female Iggy Pop, and you can hear that wildness in this track:
For its first full-length album, the band signed with Interscope Records, where they remained for the next decade. Despite that contract, in 2003 they self-financed their debut, Fever to Tell, so they could maintain as much control as possible over its creation and marketing. It was produced by David Andrew Sitek, producer and member of the band TV on the Radio. He became a long-time collaborator with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The single “Maps” became a big hit thanks to its video. Many of the band’s inventive music videos have earned them attention and awards. At the time, a critic in TheGuardian called Fever to Tell “ecstatic dance punk,” which is an efficient description of the various stylistic forces at work. This isn’t just garage-punk revival; it’s also flavored with the pulse and gloss of club music. On the other hand, some of their songs have more of a true punk-rock rumble, like “Black Tongue.”
The next record, Show Your Bones (2006), earned a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album. Reviews started using terms like “minimalist” to describe the group’s DIY sound. The three band members did all their own multitracking, covering all instruments, arrangements, and programming themselves without bringing in session musicians. They do, however, use a secondary guitarist when they tour. This album shows a new emotional vulnerability. The song “Dudley” is effective as a breakup song, not in the traditional torch-song way, but because its melody is based on tropes from children’s songs. That simplicity in the music paired with the directness of the lyrics gives the song’s message an elemental power.
By contrast, there’s “Warrior,” as philosophical as it psychedelic, with long lines and a melody that wanders into the musical wilderness, changing meter every couple of lines. Zinner’s choice to pick out the melody on guitar in unison with Karen O’s voice in some sections provides an interesting pensiveness. And then, inevitably, it all opens up into a big, bang-the-drums-in-the-garage sound.
As they toured in support of Show Your Bones, tensions within the band grew severe, and they considered hanging it up. Instead, they channeled their rage into an EP called Is Is, which was released with an accompanying short film in 2007. Wanting a raw, sexual resonance, they tapped producer Nick Launay. Although he is best known for his work with Arcade Fire and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the band wanted Launay because he had produced a favorite of theirs, British punk band Public Image Ltd.’s no-holds-barred Flowers of Romance, from 1981. “Down Boy” on the Is Is EP got some national attention thanks to TV appearances, but the gem of the collection is “Isis,” with its organ-like sustained minor chord and Karen O sounding particularly like Siouxsie Sioux.
Launay returned for the next full album, It’s Blitz (2009), coproducing with Sitek and thus combining their distinct approaches to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ sound. Featured on more than 20 “Best of 2009” album lists, It’s Blitz was also nominated for a 2010 Grammy Award for best alternative music. In truth, the label “alternative” is not entirely applicable to this album. It is fundamentally built on borrowed styles, particularly disco. “Dragon Queen,” with its slo-mo clubbing vibe, repetitive internal lines, and melody doubled at the lower octave, is reminiscent of late-1980s The Cure. There’s a touch of funk in the bassline, which seems to trap the harmony in a small cage.
The bonus tracks on the deluxe edition CD included an acoustic reimagining of the single “Skeletons.” Where the electronic version is atmospheric, the acoustic rendition, O’s voice over a simple and imperfect guitar fingerpicking pattern, brings more focus onto the melancholic melody.
Their last album (so far) was Mosquito, which charted well in 2013. On it, the band embraced the burgeoning lo-fi movement; the iffy, retro equipment and vaguely distorted sounds fit well into the band’s garage-punk aesthetic anyway, so it was a logical move. In a way, it was a return to their roots after the shinier sounds of It’s Blitz. The crackling dissonances of “Under the Earth” are a good example of the way lo-fi, when done in an intelligent, sophisticated way, can indeed have satisfying sonic depth. This song gives you the sense of being in an alien forest: you’re surrounded by countless unidentifiable sounds that add up to an all-encompassing climate.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs took a hiatus for a few years after Mosquito, eventually reassembling for some gigs in 2018 and 2019. Although they have not completed a studio album in over a decade, that doesn’t mean it will never happen.
In our first installment of this two-part series examining Spinorama data (Part One ran in Issue 155), we looked at the information represented by the plots at the top of an example Spinorama graph, and what this information reveals about a speaker’s performance. These plots are: On-Axis response, the Listening Window, Early Reflections, and Sound Power. Here in Part Two, we’ll look at the plots at the base of the graph: the Sound Power Directivity Index and the Early Reflections Directivity Index (DI), both of which serve to further lift the veil on a loudspeaker’s sonic behavior, and critically, what all this means for us as discerning listeners and potential customers. First, though, let’s briefly recap what Spinorama is. Spinorama is a method of loudspeaker measurement pioneered by Dr. Floyd Toole. This method helps the listener by revealing a speaker’s performance characteristics, and their correlation to sound reproduction. Spinorama produces a set of data derived from measuring a speaker from multiple positions, with microphones measuring the speaker’s output through 360 degrees around the speaker. The measurements are done in an anechoic chamber. The resulting computer-processed Spinorama charts are based on measurements of the speaker’s frequency response at 70 different points, starting on axis, and then at each 10-degree angle around the speaker both horizontally and vertically. The difference between these curves and normal anechoic frequency responses is that they have been selected and processed to reveal aspects of loudspeaker performance as they are likely to be heard in typical listening rooms. Bumps and ripples that are evident in all of the curves are strong indicators of system resonances, which color the sound, modifying the timbre of voices and instruments. Smoothness is the first requirement.
Spinorama chart of a Revel Performa F328Be loudspeaker. Image courtesy of Harman International.
The results of countless double-blind listening tests indicate that flat and smooth On-Axis and Listening Window plots are generally desirable. However, keep in mind that recordings and movies are not always consistent in spectral balance, especially in the bass region, so it is not uncommon to make small “tone-control” adjustments from time to time. Overall, good Spinorama measurements have been shown to correlate highly with listener loudspeaker preferences among listeners with “normal” hearing, which includes about 75 percent of the population. Even moderate hearing loss causes increased variations in sound quality judgments – opinions are not reliable. Sadly, this is an occupational hazard in many industries (and recreations), including audio professionals and musicians. As stated on page 15 of the online document, “Interpreting Spinorama Charts” by Manny LaCarrubba of Sausalito Audio: “The higher the directivity index, the more directional a speaker is. That is to say that more of the speaker’s energy output is biased forward. Virtually all loudspeakers are omnidirectional (DI = 0 dB) at low bass frequencies, exhibiting a directivity index that slowly rises with frequency, often reaching or exceeding 10 dB at 20 kHz. How smoothly the DI changes over the frequency range is a significant factor in how a loudspeaker sounds in a room. Reflected sounds should resemble the direct (on-axis/listening window) sounds in timbre, otherwise they draw attention to themselves. DI curves that show strong discontinuities indicate design flaws.
Back in 1985 – 1986 Dr. Toole reported that resonances and directivity flaws are readily heard in monophonic (single speaker) listening comparisons, but less so in stereo. In 2008, Olive, Hess and Welti confirmed the finding and observed even less awareness in multi-channel reproduction. It may not seem obvious, but hard-panned left or right stereo sounds are monophonic, and in multichannel programs the (monophonic) center channel delivers the featured artist, and most of the on-screen action in movies and TV. The moderately wide dispersion mid-frequency DI common with forward-firing cone/dome speakers appears to be desirable for stereo reproduction. Stereo is fundamentally a directionally and spatially compromised format – it matters less in multichannel systems (with a higher proportion of direct sound arriving from many directions). The measurements can help us in assessing how accurately a speaker may reproduce its source material, or if it is prone to anomalous resonances and peaks in output. This alone goes a long way in helping to identify a good-sounding speaker. Back to the chart in the illustration. At the bottom are two important frequency response curves which are calculated based on information already obtained from previously plotted measurements. The second (lower) green plot is the Sound Power Directivity Index. This “classic” DI is arrived at by calculating the results of the Listening Window minus the Sound Power plots. This is useful to look at because many of us want to enjoy having good-quality sound in more than one seating position, on a sofa for example. Perhaps the easiest “at a glance” way of determining how directive the sound is, is by examining how steep the slope is. The lower red plot is the Early Reflections Directivity Index, and this is simply derived as the difference between the Listening Window and the Early Reflections graphs. This is a metric invented for Spinorama when it became clear that the early reflections were a powerful indicator of what listeners hear in small listening rooms. If we see a response with little slope to it, that means the speaker has little directivity. What this information helps you to determine is, what amount of directivity you’d want for your personal tastes and room. For example, you may have a room with a lot of hard reflecting surfaces like tiles, large windows, patio doors, or glass cabinets. If so, you may prefer a DI with a higher slope on this plot, meaning the speaker will deliver a higher ratio of direct to reflected sound. Conversely, if you have a more absorptive room with things like carpeted flooring, bookshelves filled with books, heavy curtains, and no open spaces into other rooms, you may enjoy speakers with a lower DI. The steeper the upward slope, the more of the forward directivity of those frequencies you will hear at the listening position.
All of this information may seem a little overwhelming at first, and it’s true to say that ultimately there is a gamut of preferences as to what individual listeners may prefer to hear. (Personally, I enjoy a bright and focused sound and have a particular appreciation for dual-concentric loudspeaker drivers but I completely understand that is not for everyone, and there are of course many approaches to high-quality sound reproduction when it comes to loudspeakers. I have also owned some dual-concentric speakers in the past that were not as good as the ones I have today – though I haven’t done any Spinorama measurements on them yet!) However, when looking at Spinorama information, there are many correlations between the plotted speaker characteristics and what many people consistently find more appealing in the sound of loudspeakers in blind listening tests. According to Dr. Toole, in the real world the problem is that competently-done measurements are unbiased and accurately repeatable, whereas the kinds of subjective evaluations most people (including reviewers) are able to do are biased and not repeatable at different times and places – a true dilemma! (It leads to endless internet discussions, though.) Much of the rigor in testing and in verifying the attributes of loudspeaker sound that listeners generally agree upon can be read about in detail in Dr. Floyd Toole’s publication, Sound Reproduction: the Acoustics and Psychoacoustics of Loudspeakers and Rooms, now in its third edition. Below is a link to an informative seminar conducted by Dr. Toole in conjunction with the CIRMMT Distinguished Lectures in the Science and Technology of Music. httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrpUDuUtxPM The video itself is over an hour long but it is highly insightful and outlines decades of pioneering research, and I recommend you watch it right now! In my humble attempt at oversimplification, here are some helpful bullet points garnered from the seminar:
The Early Reflections curves will look very similar to the On-Axis and Listening Window curves in good-sounding speakers.
The nearer the Listening Window curve matches the On-Axis response, the better the sound will be for those seated in the listening area.
Large peaks and troughs in the graphs usually portray undesirable resonances or uncontrolled frequency response deviations in less-well-designed speakers.
The higher the Directivity Index, the more directional the speaker will be.
Of course, there are limitations with Spinorama information. The main thing to keep in mind is that every room will massively influence the sound heard from the loudspeakers, each room imposing itself on the sound in its own unique way. Additionally, it’s important to remember that the Spinorama data itself is collected from the speaker’s behavior when measured in an anechoic chamber, a controlled acoustic environment which is very different from any room in which a speaker will be listened to. That said, it would be impossible to collect the extremely useful Spinorama data any other way. (Others have attempted Spinorama measurements in rooms other than anechoic chambers and have had to add caveats to their measurements as a result.) You could perhaps think of the Spinorama data as akin to the manufacturer’s specifications for a vehicle’s mileage ratings. When you drive your car, it’s likely that the routes you drive on won’t match the manufacturer’s test conditions. Yes – your mileage may vary. But this does not invalidate the value of the specifications provided by the car’s manufacturer, in the same way that Spinorama measurements will be a valid indicator of a speaker’s performance. One could hope that the use of Spinorama will become more prevalent in the industry and among reviewers. An experiment worth trying out, which I have found to be very supportive of the value of Spinorama data, is to listen to a demonstration of, say, three or more different sets of speaker pairs (if the audio salon will accommodate you). I find it’s easier to compare just a few at a time, for the sake of recalling details and mental notes. (In an ideal world you would conduct the test under double-blind conditions to enable non-visually influenced assessments.) Take note of the speakers you like the most and simply rank them. When you return home, look up the Spinorama data for each, if it exists of course, and see for yourself if the best-sounding speakers conform to the Spinorama data indicating which would be best. You may be encouraged to discover that the speakers you enjoyed the most did in fact follow the desirable characteristics in their measurement plots, whereas those you disliked did not. I will have a little more to say about this experiment in a future article. As always, enjoy your listening-comparison experiments with music that is most familiar and well-known to you in its nuances, whether focusing on the vocals, drums, woodwinds, strings, or each in turn. It’s all part of striving towards a positive listening experience. It’s worth the proportionately small investment of time compared to the many years of listening pleasure you will likely derive from your speakers.
Header image: from Sound Reproduction: the Acoustics and Psychoacoustics of Loudspeakers and Rooms, third edition.
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