Issue 163

We All Belong...

We All Belong...

Frank Doris

Thanks, mom. For everything.

“La, la la la, la la la, la la la,
Sing a simple song,
We all belong,
Only to Time…”

– Jim Dawson, “City Song/Simple Song" (click below to listen)

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Audio designer and reviewer Bascom King recently passed away at the age of 84. He was chief engineer for Infinity Systems and did design work for Marantz, Constellation and many others including PS Audio, whose BHK Series electronics bear his initials. RIP to a true audio legend and an inspiration to so many. We will have a full tribute to him in Issue 164.

In this issue: I continue our coverage of AXPONA 2022, and talk about new vinyl releases from Octave Records. Ken Kessler keeps spinning reel-to-reel tape tales. Ray Chelstowski interviews Ronnie Barnett of the Muffs in celebration of the reissue of their landmark Really Really Happy album. Rich Isaacs ponders live versus recorded music. Tom Methans gazes into the heaviness of Slayer. Rudy Radelic races…or maybe putters…through the 24 Hours of Lemons road rally. Ken Sander gets pranked on public access TV. John Seetoo begins a two-part series on an American original, singer/songwriter Shelby Lynne.

Our Mindful Melophile Don Kaplan ponders some percussive performances. J.I. Agnew continues his in-depth (groove depth, in this case) series on record cutting lathes. Anne E. Johnson looks at the careers of jazz pioneer James Reese Europe, and the Everly Brothers, and B. Jan Montana admires a Big Brother. Andrew Daly talks with Cathal Coughlan of Telefís, Microdisney and other Irish bands. Russ Welton has an unusual customer. Guest writer Ted Shafran concludes his interview with Andrew Rose of the Pristine Classical label. We conclude the issue with some hot jazz, lightning, ambient music, and continental geography.


Staff Writers:

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

Contributing Editors:
Ivan Berger, Steven Bryan Bieler, Andrew Daly, Jack Flory, Harris Fogel, Steve Kindig, Ed Kwok, David Snyder, Bob Wood

“Cartoon Bob” D’Amico

James Whitworth, Peter Xeni

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

Audio Anthropology Photos:
Howard Kneller, Steve Rowell

Frank Doris

Paul McGowan

Advertising Sales:
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 – FD

Octave Records Debuts Audiophile Masters, Volume VI Compilation

Frank Doris
Octave Records has expanded its series of reference-quality music-sampler discs with the release of Audiophile Masters, Volume VI. The new compilation offers an eclectic selection of music by a diverse group of artists, including flamenco guitarist Miguel Espinoza, the avant-jazz Seth Lewis Quintet, the classical piano and vocal group, Duo Azure, plus a strong selection of rock, pop and Americana, and other not-so-categorizable music. All the tracks were recorded at Animal Lane Studios in Lyons, Colorado, using Octave Records’ Pure DSD process and the Sonoma multi-track DSD recording system. Paul McGowan, PS Audio CEO, noted, “Like every album in Octave Records’ Audiophile Masters series, Volume VI offers a wide-ranging palette of musical styles and sounds, from up-close and intimate to expansive and dynamic. As always, although the sound is reference-quality and will really tell you what your system is doing, the music and the artistry of the performers comes first.” Audiophile Masters, Volume VI (SRP: $29) is playable on any SACD, CD, DVD, or Blu-ray player. It also has a high-resolution DSD layer that is accessible by using any SACD player, 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 (including DSD64, DSDDirect Mastered 192kHz/24-bit, 96kHz/24-bit and 44.1kHz/16-bit PCM), along with Octave’s newest addition, 24-karat gold CDs at standard resolution. These CDs have been cut directly off the DSD master using BitPerfect’s state-of-the-art Zephiir filter. Audiophile Masters, Vol. VI was recorded and mixed by Steven Vidaic, Jay Elliott, Gus Skinas, and Zach Balch, with Giselle Collazo as assistant engineer. The recording was mastered by Gus Skinas. Octave Records’ Jessica Carson was the executive producer. The album kicks off with a flourish, with Miguel Espinoza’s dazzling “Journey Home,” featuring flamenco guitar, cello, bass and percussion. The Seth Lewis Quintet navigates through harmonic twists and turns with the contemporary jazz of “Dream Theme.” There’s plenty of pop, country and Americana courtesy of Bonnie and Taylor Sims’ contemplative “Sleep,” Dylan McCarthy’s bluegrass workout “Marigold,” the piano- and vocal-driven title track from Clandestine Amigo’s Things Worth Remembering album, and the irresistible funk/rock/pop “Drug of Choice” from Dechen Hawk. Duo Azure offers “Liederkreis, Op. 39, no 6 - Schöne Fremde,” a beautiful classical piece for piano and voice. Additional selections from accordionist/vocalist Alicia Jo Straka, singer/songwriter Monica Marie LaBonte, and the marimba/handpans duo More Than Physics round out the album with the ethereal “Why We Fell In Love.” The track listing for Audiophile Masters, Volume VI is as follows:
  1. “Journey Home” – Miguel Espinoza
  2. “Ménilmontant” – Alicia Jo Straka
  3. “Dream Theme” – Seth Lewis Quintet
  4. “Sleep” – Bonnie and Taylor Sims
  5. “Marigold” – Dylan McCarthy
  6. “River Song” – Monica Marie LaBonte
  7. “Drug of Choice” – Dechen Hawk
  8. “Liederkreis, Op. 39, no 6 - Schöne Fremde” – Duo Azure
  9. “Why We Fell in Love” – More Than Physics
  10. “Things Worth Remembering” – Clandestine Amigo

Rallying With Lemons, Part One

Rallying With Lemons, Part One

Rallying With Lemons, Part One

Rudy Radelic

I’ve liked cars back since my days as a youngster and have been involved in various activities most of us perform with our cars – commuting, road trips, maintenance, detailing, and modifying. Road trips are the highlights of my year but beyond that, I’d never done anything else fun with cars. I had no classic car to cruise in or display at car shows, and I am not into racing. Road rallies seemed like fun, but many of them were high-dollar affairs, driving with exotic cars costing more than our houses, at triple-digit speeds that attract law enforcement.

I needed something the common man could do, on a typical household budget, driving a sensibly-priced automobile. The answer came to me a few years ago.

The Spirit of Lemons

I always got a chuckle out of the 24 Hours of Lemons. An obvious takeoff on the 24 Hours of Le Mans races, this series is a race that is driven, in the words of Lemons founder Jay Lamm, among “the thick scrum of crapcans.” In essence, piloting $500 cars in an endurance race to the finish. Simply finishing the race is the goal for many; actually winning a Lemons race is a lofty expectation.

The $500 budget is flexible – if you buy a $2,500 crapcan, and sell off $2,000 in parts to prepare it for racing, your net cost is $500, as long as you can prove it with documentation (and beg for mercy). Also, safety equipment is not part of the budget – items like fuel cells, fire extinguishing systems, roll cages, brakes, racing suits and so on are required to race safely, the total cost of which is as much as the team can afford. As silly as the event is, safety is taken dead seriously.

For a great account of a trio of 24 Hours of Lemons races, and the spirit of the Lemons organization, read about the late Rush drummer Neil Peart’s adventures in Lemons races: “Bamm Bamm and the Lemon Slug,” “The Adventures of Bamm Bamm – Part 1,” and “The Adventures of Bamm Bamm – Part 2.”

Given the fact that the race is growing in popularity, the organizers took the Lemons concept on the road. “Why break on track, when you can break on the side of the road?” They created the Lemons Rally. Unlike the race, there are no cost limits. You can even bring a daily driver or rental car, although it’s not quite as much fun. Driving an older or unusual car, especially if it is a questionable choice, ramps up the excitement. In essence, if your car is a hooptie, you can score major points.

Judging of the entries takes place before the driver’s meeting prior to the start of the rally, where points are assigned for various vehicle characteristics. For instance, cars are scored by country of origin. The least-reliable car-making countries (Italy, France, the UK, etc.) are judged with the most points, while some reliable Japanese brands have points deducted. Cars made in the 1980s or earlier receive extra points, and the car and occupants can get points for having a theme; the more outrageous the better. The themes often include drivers and co-pilots wearing costumes, although the costumes are sometimes saved only for the pre-rally judging and the finish line.

Aside from initial judging and events (roadside repairs) which happen en route, the rally is scored based on checkpoints along the way (posted to Instagram for proof), along with daily challenges for extra points. Acquiring the most points is how you win a Lemons Rally.

No budget. Possible mayhem. Hoopties, and unusual and classic cars. Gasoline fumes. Interesting locations. Tool bags. Tongues firmly in cheek. This seemed to be right up my alley.

I’m in!

Unfortunately, my choice of hooptie would be hampered by the weather – I had only six weeks to work on a theme and do some needed engine work. Yet, having no garage to work in (ours is used for storage), and having to deal with late winter/early spring weather that included rain, overcast skies, cold temperatures, and wind, this left me having to take a daily driver and abandon the theme I had in mind.

The Lemons Rally I participated in was the recent Rocky Mountain Breakdown, last month. Emphasis on “breakdown,” of course. An initial list of destinations included the starting point in Denver, travel to Santa Fe, Flagstaff and Moab, and returning to a spot near Denver for the “finish line.” The details that are provided to participants were scant ahead of time, only consisting of a list of recommended hotels and optional end-of-day get-togethers at nearby restaurants. This rally traveled through four of my favorite states in the country, the “Four Corners” states (Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah). Future Rocky Mountain Breakdown rallies will take different routes.

I left the Great Lakes area on April 18 loaded up with granola bars, caffeinated beverages, hydration, and a tool bag in case I needed to assist others along the way. Our pre-rally night location was Castle Rock, Colorado.

Rally Day 1: Training Day

The next morning, we had instructions to find the Rambler Ranch. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the Rambler Ranch refers to the Nash Rambler, an automobile model and brand that were eventually merged into American Motors Corporation (AMC). The ranch is a small and notable museum of these cars. An appropriate place to start a rally.

Prior to our 8:00 am deadline, the hoopties rolled in. I could say I felt underdressed compared to the other vehicles!


Photo of "lemons" (old cars).

Photo of rally participants dressed like prisoners.

Photo of "lemons" (old cars).

Some of the lemons and their drivers.


After a driver’s meeting (basically “drive safe, don’t break the law, don’t do anything stupid, don’t die”), we were allowed some time to view the collection at the Rambler Ranch before heading out to find the day’s checkpoints.

Overall, a small number of the checkpoints were quite obvious, but many were not directly found on Google Maps. So, it is not a matter of just picking endpoints and driving to them. It requires some research and thinking to figure out the day’s stops. Driving alone, I had to do the work myself. But for other teams, the copilot(s) would be the one(s) assisting the driver.

Each day had a “Find It” clue to solve. The first: “Find the site of a famous physicist/inventor’s barely-used laboratory along the route.” This was Nikola Tesla’s laboratory in Colorado Springs. While the exact location is now in a residential neighborhood (a home, peppered with multiple “No Trespassing” signs), there is a historical marker in a park about a block away.

One of our first checkpoints would be one of three “muffler men,” this one located at the Copperhead Road Bar & Nightclub in Colorado Springs. The muffler man started in 1960 as a fiberglass mold for a large Paul Bunyan statue. By the mid-1960s, the statue was made in sizes from 14 to 25 feet tall as advertising props for gas stations, many along Route 66. They often sold mufflers or tires. The muffler men that remain are typically sporting different themes.


A muffler man at one of the checkpoints.

A muffler man at one of the checkpoints.


In Pueblo, Colorado, one of our checkpoints was the Grumman and Rohr TLRV (Tracked Levitation Research Vehicle), a prototype train designed to ride along a single rail on a cushion of compressed air.


Prototype Grumman and Rohr TLRV (Tracked Levitation Research Vehicle).

Prototype Grumman and Rohr TLRV (Tracked Levitation Research Vehicle).


A maglev (magnetic levitation) train also sat in the yard. Plans are in place to eventually restore these and turn the property into a museum.


The maglev train awaiting restoration.

The maglev train awaiting restoration.


Continuing the railway theme, we had to locate others in southern Colorado (the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad locomotives 169 and 494 in Alamosa and Antonito, respectively), as well as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe locomotive 5030 in Santa Fe, along with an abandoned railroad water tower in Tres Piedras, New Mexico.

Our D&RGW #169 stop in Alamosa:


The Suzuki Every microvan.

The Suzuki Every microvan.


This was one of our fellow rally participants, driving a Suzuki Every microvan, right-hand drive, imported from Japan. The pink paint and tentacles were, of course, not on the factory option sheet. The tiny kei trucks are common work vehicles in Japan and feature a rear-engine design with an engine size of 660cc or less. (Kei trucks have restricted dimensions and engine displacements to qualify for tax and insurance benefits over larger vehicles.) This model had the four-wheel drive option.

Our goal for the evening was Santa Fe, New Mexico, and what visit to Santa Fe is complete without a visit to the oldest church in America? Built circa 1610, the San Miguel Chapel was constructed by Tlaxcalan Indians from Mexico, under the direction of Franciscan Padres.


San Miguel Chapel, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

San Miguel Chapel, Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Rally Day 2: Projectiles, Pie, and Antennas to the Sky

Departing Santa Fe the next morning, our route took us to the second muffler man in our checkpoints, this one in Albuquerque, attached to the May Café.


The muffler man at the May Café.

The muffler man at the May Café.


Once we located the Owl Bar & Café checkpoint in San Antonio, New Mexico, the next checkpoint took us to the historical marker for the Trinity Site, the location of the first detonation of an atomic bomb back in 1945.



Trinity Site, location of the first atom bomb detonation in 1945.

Trinity Site, location of the first atom bomb detonation in 1945.


We also visited the entrance to the Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico, an array of 27 radio antenna dishes in a “Y” configuration that are operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. The VLA was closed, but the large dishes were visible throughout the area. The three arms of the “Y” are built of tracks, on which the dishes can be moved anywhere from two thirds of a mile to nearly 23 miles apart (end to end), depending on what the observatory chooses to focus on in space.


Site of the Very Large Array radio telescopes in Socorro, New Mexico.

Site of the Very Large Array radio telescopes in Socorro, New Mexic


After finding the checkpoint that sold pies in Pie Town, New Mexico, the next was Becker’s Transcontinental Garage. This was the site of the oldest continuously-running Ford dealership west of the Mississippi from 1910. The historical plaque was missing, but the building in Springerville, Arizona was not too difficult to find, with the Springerville Fire Department occupying the building on the right.


Becker's Transcontinental Garage, New Mexico.

Becker’s Transcontinental Garage, New Mexico.


Approaching Flagstaff meant that we were also nearing one of the nation’s most popular highways: Route 66. With Route 66 now having many sections abandoned, our next few checkpoints would be a series of ruins along the way. What remained of the Tonto Drive-In in Winslow, Arizona consisted of only the theater sign.


Tonto Drive-In, Winslow, Arizona.

Tonto Drive-In, Winslow, Arizona.


And not far away is located the old observation tower for the Meteor Crater in Winslow. The site of a meteorite impact approximately 10,000 years ago, this observation tower allowed travelers along Route 66 to view the site remotely. Today, a modern facility on the rim of the impact site caters to visitors, but the ruins of the old observation tower still remain. We were hampered by a portion of road (presumably an abandoned stretch of Route 66) being closed off to the public, so the best we could do, without trespassing, was a remote photo.


The old observation tower at the Meteor Crater, Winslow, Arizona.

The old observation tower at the Meteor Crater, Winslow, Arizona.


The Twin Arrows Trading Post on the eastern side of Flagstaff was another checkpoint along old Route 66, and like the Tonto Drive-In, was located just off to the side of Interstate 40.


Photo from the Twin Arrows Trading Post, Flagstaff, Arizona.

Photo from the Twin Arrows Trading Post, Flagstaff, Arizona.

Photos from the Twin Arrows Trading Post, Flagstaff, Arizona.


The day ended with a visit to the third and final muffler man on our list of checkpoints in Flagstaff, this one located at the Northern Arizona University, home of the Lumberjacks.


Muffler man at Northern Arizona University.

Muffler man at Northern Arizona University.


By this time, the elevation has gotten higher, and the weather has turned chilly, with snow and ice pellets lightly flying through the air as we pulled into the hotel.

Are we having fun yet?

Of course!

The second half of this travelogue will cover the third and fourth days of the Lemons Rally, along with some closing thoughts and observations.


All photos courtesy of the author.

Around the World In 80 Lathes, Part 13

Around the World In 80 Lathes, Part 13

Around the World In 80 Lathes, Part 13

J.I. Agnew

Previous installments discussed various design approaches to record lathe cutter heads.

In terms of sound, floating record lathe cutter heads actually are at a disadvantage. The floating of the cutter head fulfills the conditions of a resonant mechanical system. The frequency of resonance is determined by the effective mass of the suspended head and the stiffness of the system. Above this frequency, everything works as expected. Below this frequency, however, the cutter head will just move up and down instead of recording the stylus motion as groove modulation. At the frequency of resonance, we have a crossover point. Does that sound somehow familiar? That’s because what happens at this crossover point is the exact equivalent to the crossover network in a loudspeaker. A loudspeaker crossover network uses electrical components to split the incoming signal into two or more separate frequency ranges, each being directed to a different driver (a woofer and a tweeter, in a typical 2-way system). The frequency at which the incoming signal is split is called the crossover frequency. (Multi-way loudspeakers will have more crossover points, but let’s keep to a 2-way system for our example.)

This is never a hard split, however. The woofer is still receiving signals above the crossover frequency, but progressively more attenuated, and the tweeter is still receiving signals below the crossover point in a similar manner. The rate of attenuation past the crossover point is defined by the slope of the filter, which is defined by its order (first-order, second-order, and so on). A first-order filter provides an attenuation of 6 dB/octave, a second-order filter 12 dB/octave, and so on. In the case of loudspeaker crossover networks, an electronic circuit is designed to intentionally split the audio range into narrower ranges, with the desired slopes, to best match the performance of the different drivers used in the system.


A FloKaSon Caruso cutter head, floated on a prototype suspension unit. The disproportionately large screw in the front is just adding additional mass to fine-tune the crossover frequency of the unintentional mechanical crossover filter which occurs in all floating head systems. Courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.

A FloKaSon Caruso cutter head, floated on a prototype suspension unit. The disproportionately large screw in the front is just adding additional mass to fine-tune the crossover frequency of the unintentional mechanical crossover filter which occurs in all floating head systems. Courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.


A floating cutter head suspension system does the same thing, but “unintentionally,” if you will. The suspension system is, in effect, a mechanical crossover network, with a specific crossover frequency and a certain filter slope. Instead of utilizing resistors, capacitors and inductors, it is made up of the mechanical equivalents of these electrical components. The filter behavior of the suspension system can be analyzed using equivalent circuits. Above the crossover frequency, the audio is directed to the disk. Below the crossover point, however, it is simply lost to wasted motion. This is of course entirely unintentional, but it is an unavoidable side effect of floating a head.

If the crossover frequency of the mechanical system is around the lowest frequency of interest present in the recording, then no part of the frequency range will be left out. However, due to the filter slope and in accordance with filter theory, there will be a phase shift (a disturbance in the time domain) affecting frequencies that are well above the crossover point, into the audible range. In practice, on some lathe suspension unit and cutter head combinations, the crossover frequency can be as high as 50 Hz, limiting the low-frequency extension and time-domain accuracy of the system, even if the cutter head alone would have been capable of accurate performance down to 10 Hz. The transfer will be limited by the weakest link in the chain, as the entire complex electromechanical system is working all of the interactions of its individual components into the transfer function to the grooved medium. (The transfer function essentially describes what happens to the audio signal upon the transfer, in this case from an analog electrical signal to mechanical movement and storage within a groove).


A Westrex 3D cutter head on a Scully lathe. This system is not floating, it is resting on an “advance ball." The depth of cut is set by means of the large knurled knob on the front of the cutter head. Courtesy of Tor H. Degerstrøm at THD Vinyl Mastering, Oslo, Norway. Photo by Anja Elmine Basma.

A Westrex 3D cutter head on a Scully lathe. This system is not floating, it is resting on an “advance ball.” The depth of cut is set by means of the large knurled knob on the front of the cutter head. Courtesy of Tor H. Degerstrøm at THD Vinyl Mastering, Oslo, Norway. Photo by Anja Elmine Basma.


The advance ball system (covered in Part 12, Issue 162), on the other hand, creates a rigid coupling between the cutter head and the disk. Instead of suspending the mass of the cutter head, it is meant to rest on a ball which rides on the surface of the record. The depth of cut is then defined as the relative height of the advance ball to the stylus tip. The cutter head is therefore essentially DC-coupled to the disk, in terms of its equivalent circuit. The frequency response at low frequencies on the disk is the same as the frequency response of the cutter head alone. There is no unintentional crossover filter and as such, there is no phase shift at low frequencies.


Microphotograph of the cutting stylus (red ruby) and advance ball (clear sapphire) on the underside of a Westrex 2B cutter head, repaired and modified by the author to accept a more obtainable type of cutting stylus. Courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.

Microphotograph of the cutting stylus (red ruby) and advance ball (clear sapphire) on the underside of a Westrex 2B cutter head, repaired and modified by the author to accept a more obtainable type of cutting stylus. Courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.


The unfortunate consequence of phase shift due to the presence of a mechanical crossover filter in floating head systems, is that the phase shift is in the same direction as the phase shift created by the mechanical crossover of the playback system, due to the floating of the playback cartridge, which is suspended by the tonearm. As discussed previously in Issue 97, the suspension of the playback cartridge also creates a mechanical crossover filter, the frequency of which depends upon the effective mass of the cartridge and the compliance of its own internal suspension (of the cantilever assembly that holds the playback stylus). Above this frequency, groove modulation causes the cantilever to move, generating an electrical audio signal. Below that frequency, the entire tonearm moves. At resonance, the tonearm is likely to move uncontrollably, due to the lack of damping, which causes skipping. Below resonance, any information contained within the groove structure is lost to unintentional tonearm motion, and no signal is generated.

The mechanism of the mechanical crossover on a playback system is exactly the same as the one encountered on a floating-head disk recording system. The phase shift of both is in the same direction, so it is accumulative, unlike the RIAA pre-emphasis and de-emphasis filters, where the phase shift caused by the de-emphasis network is the exact opposite of the phase shift caused by the pre-emphasis network, and they cancel out, delivering a signal free of the phase shifts that would normally be associated with such filter networks.

With mechanical crossovers, the phase shift of the floating head suspension just adds to the phase shift of the tonearm/cartridge system, resulting in more exaggerated overall phase shift. To make matters worse, most domestic loudspeakers exhibit pronounced phase shifts at low frequencies, contributing further to the problem.

In fact, many loudspeakers introduce phase shifts at low frequencies that are so much worse than those introduced by mechanical crossovers in disk recording and playback, that they even mask such effects incurred during the disk recording and playback process.

The floating cutter head suspension approach  had an advantage in a different respect, an advantage that was widely utilized in disk recording systems and helped establish the floating systems in the industry.


A Neumann SX-74 cutter head, floated on a Neumann VMS-70 lathe. Courtesy of Greg Reierson, Rare Form Mastering, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

A Neumann SX-74 cutter head, floated on a Neumann VMS-70 lathe. Courtesy of Greg Reierson, Rare Form Mastering, Minneapolis, Minnesota.


As automation systems began being introduced in disk recording, it was soon realized that an automatically-variable pitch system made it a lot easier for less-experienced operators to fit more music into a record side (as the parameters of recording pitch and groove depth are automatically adjusted by the machine in near real-time, in response to the audio signal, faster, more accurately and more repeatably than an inexperienced operator could hope for). In addition, the automation could be further increased by means of an automatically-variable groove depth system working together with the variable-pitch system. In a floating cutter head suspension, this was fairly easy to implement. An electromagnetic solenoid was placed in the suspension unit and the current through that solenoid could be varied to alter the groove depth, by creating forces that would pull the freely-suspended cutter head away from the record surface, or push it towards the record. Most Neumann lathes came with a combined automatically-variable pitch- and groove-depth system, and the ability to cut longer sides with less operator skill and perspiration was welcomed by the industry.


A Neumann SX-74 cutter head floated on a Neumann VMS-80 lathe, with Scott Hull fine-tuning the cutting parameters. Courtesy of Scott Hull, owner/chief engineer, Masterdisk, Peekskill, New York.

A Neumann SX-74 cutter head floated on a Neumann VMS-80 lathe, with Scott Hull fine-tuning the cutting parameters. Courtesy of Scott Hull, owner/chief engineer, Masterdisk, Peekskill, New York.


Implementing an automatically-variable groove depth system on a non-floating cutter head, where the groove depth is set by means of an advance ball, was far more complicated. One of the attempts at doing so, by Westrex, involved a servomotor assembly attached to the front of a Westrex cutter head, to directly act on the knob that was normally used to manually set the depth of cut. This looked rather intimidating, as the already massively big and heavy Westrex cutter head became almost twice as big and heavy. The other approach involved improving the point of the DC coupling between the cutter head and the disk. DC was injected into the cutter head drive coils, in addition to the audio signal. The DC would cause the coil to be displaced away from its normal resting point, thereby increasing or decreasing groove depth, since any displacement of the cutting stylus can only cut deeper into the blank disk, or shallower, depending on the direction. The basic depth would be set by the advance ball assembly and the cutter head was too heavy to go anywhere, even as the stylus would dig deeper into the lacquer disk, when displaced by direct current to the drive coils. This was a form of DC biasing of the drive coils.

Intentionally displacing a moving coil transducer from its center position was not without its side effects, however. There was a price to be paid in terms of the remaining available excursion, which led to increased distortion. As such, further efforts were directed towards simply removing the advance ball assembly from Westrex cutter heads and floating the heads using a suitable (or suitably modified) suspension unit. The phase shift from the mechanical crossover of the floating head was generally deemed less detrimental, comparedto what records would sound like if cut by less-skilled operators without automation systems to assist them. Despite the widespread availability and use of such automation systems, some of the world’s most widely respected mastering engineers, with decades of experience behind them, still prefer to use manual systems with no automation and/or advance ball cutter heads, for their work. There is certainly no consensus among cutting engineers on this point, and there is still room for diversity in this sector.


Westrex 3D cutter head floated on a Scully lathe, using the rare A&M suspension unit, with electronic groove depth control. Courtesy of Eric Conn, Independent Mastering, Nashville, Tennessee.

Westrex 3D cutter head floated on a Scully lathe, using the rare A&M suspension unit, with electronic groove depth control. Courtesy of Eric Conn, Independent Mastering, Nashville, Tennessee.


Header image: A FloKaSon Caruso cutter head, floated on the modified suspension unit of a pre-war Fairchild lathe, which was originally equipped with a Fairchild cutter head with an advance ball system. Courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.

Previous installments appeared in Issues 162, 161160159, 158, 157, 156, 155, 154153, 152, and 151.

Shelby Lynne: An American Original, Part One

Shelby Lynne: An American Original, Part One

Shelby Lynne: An American Original, Part One

John Seetoo

The tale of actress Kim Novak is one of Hollywood’s greatest walk-away stories. As a rising “blonde bombshell” starlet, she epitomized intelligent women who possessed an underlying sadness but could also enjoy comedy. Roles in hit films like Picnic (1955, which earned her a Golden Globe award win for “Most Promising Newcomer,”) The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and the biopic of heroin-addicted silent screen star Jeanne Eagles (1957) paved the way for her mesmerizing performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), considered by many critics to be the director’s masterpiece, and one of the greatest feature films ever made.

However, after a devastating 1966 mudslide in which she lost her home and virtually her entire net worth and personal belongings overnight, she decided to walk away from Hollywood to pursue her first love, impressionist painting, and would only sporadically act in films again, on her own terms and only on projects that appealed to her personal interests.

If there was ever an American music equivalent to Kim Novak, Shelby Lynne would certainly qualify for the short list. With a soaring contralto, a knockout music-video-ready face, a defiantly stubborn streak, and a Southern songwriting gift for storytelling and conveying emotion that could be compared with William Faulkner as easily as Hank Williams, Shelby Lynne has followed the integrity of her music’s demands and has often paid the price for her refusal to compromise.

Born Shelby Lynn Moorer in Virginia, she was raised with sister Allison Moorer, an acclaimed country artist in her own right (and frequent duet collaborator) in tiny Frankville, Alabama. Theirs was a musical home where the girls would sometimes join their parents onstage. Their abusive alcoholic father’s actions prompted their mother to flee to Mobile while they were still in their teens. Their father tracked them down and murdered their mother with a shotgun before committing suicide in front of them.

This emotional tragedy would find its way into Shelby Lynne’s music throughout the rest of her career, starting in 1988 at age 19, when she was signed to Epic to record a duet with George Jones: “If I Could Bottle This Up,” which reached Number 43 on the Billboard country music singles chart.


Writing songs from a Deep South lyric perspective and a musical sensibility drawn from Delta blues, old time bluegrass, rockabilly, and swing jazz, she had already begun to chafe at the country-pop mold Nashville imagemakers tried to shoehorn her into, and although she won the 1990 American Country Music award for Best New Female Vocalist, she was looking towards more fulfilling, albeit less commercial musical horizons.

After several formulaic pop-country releases, she left Epic to record Restless (1993), a country/swing jazz album, for Morgan Creek records. “I Need a Heart to Come Home To” is a great example of Shelby Lynne’s ability to channel the “torch and twang” of singers like Patsy Cline while putting her own spin on it.


Still trying to avoid getting lumped together with Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and other pop-country sirens, she relocated to California and finally teamed up with Bill Bottrell, known for his work with Sheryl Crow, another singer-songwriter with rock and Americana roots. Lynne and Bottrell recorded I Am Shelby Lynne in 1998. Island/Def Jam released the breakout confessional album, which earned her a Grammy award for Best New Artist in 2000. Her acceptance speech left jaws agape when she commented with some bitterness that it only took her “thirteen years and six albums to get here.”

Hailed by critics and giving Lynne her first taste of success, I Am Shelby Lynne drew musical comparisons to Dusty Springfield, Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow, and her sultry looks put her on the radar for music video VJ rotations. “Your Lies” is a good example of the power of her vocal delivery in a more commercial setting.


Island tried to strike a second time while the iron was still hot, and teamed Shelby Lynne up with producer Glen Ballard, then riding the success of his work with Alanis Morissette on the mega-selling Jagged Little Pill album. Although Lynne was starting to write even more high-quality songs, the music industry image mavens at Island once again tried to tame their high-strung hellion into a marketable product.

The best-selling Helen Fielding novel Bridget Jones’s Diary was being made into a movie starring Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant, and two of Shelby Lynne’s songs were chosen for inclusion: “Dreamsome” from I Am Shelby Lynne, and “Killin’ Kind,” a new song she had written for her forthcoming album, Love, Shelby (2001).



Despite being one of her best compositions and a song that has become a concert staple, the music video for “Killin’ Kind” displayed Shelby Lynne in the most sexualized and glittery package a marketing PR team could ever devise. From her luxurious golden tresses, bare-midriff tank tops, short shorts, and sheer dresses barely covering her breasts, to shots of her with only a towel to preserve her modesty, “Killin’ Kind” played up Shelby Lynne as sex kitten. The cover of Love, Shelby echoed this strategy, and Ballard’s pop-oriented attempts to smooth out the rough edges of her music on songs like “Jesus On a Greyhound” unfortunately took a chunk of her music’s character with it.

In comparison to the Ballard arrangement, Lynne’s subsequent concert versions of “Killin’ Kind” demonstrate the kind of emotional depth and delivery range for which she has earned her fans’ devotion and loyalty, and which has made the song a fan favorite:


Although she had attained commercial success, the sexy coquette and pop music trappings grated on Shelby Lynne, and she retreated to her home studio to focus on doing the music her own way, stepping back from the pop success of Love, Shelby.

The aptly titled Identity Crisis (2003) saw Lynne self-producing and exploring the other influences in her music with a decidedly more down home, lo-fi approach, and the bravado to mix and match genres as her muse dictated. From the folky-jazz doo-wop meets gospel of “Telephone,” the Delta blues of “Evil Man,” and the honky-tonk of “10 Rocks,” to the swing jazz of “Lonesome,” her material laid many of her emotional conflicts bare lyrically even as her musical chops started maturing.

Identity Crisis also served to showcase Shelby Lynne’s burgeoning and underrated guitar skills. Playing all of the acoustic and electric guitar parts, including solos, her electric guitar playing is reminiscent of David Bowie’s on “Diamond Dogs” and “Rebel, Rebel” in both its rawness and effectiveness for the material at hand. Acoustically, her solo on the introspective Cassandra Wilson-ish “I Will Stay” has an atmospheric, Bill Frisell quality that sounds concurrently both structured and improvised. Meanwhile, her bluesy acoustic and electric excursions on “Button And Beaus” and “One With the Sun” are solid and surprisingly playful-sounding.

“Gotta Be Better,” a rockabilly-meets-Patti Smith punk-meets-proto metal mash-up is an example of one of Lynne’s more interesting experiments. The punk and over the top Link Wray-esque guitar elements are more pronounced on the album, but this live version still captures the energy of her approach:


Suit Yourself (2005) built upon the foundation of Identity Crisis, as evidenced by Lynne’s increased confidence in her production skills. She added elements of Dylan, Cat Stevens and R&B to her musical jambalaya with the wordplay of “Where I Am Now” and “You And Wem” and the Philly soul-influenced “You Don’t Have a Heart.”

Suit Yourself also marked the beginning of a long-term musical friendship with songwriter Tony Joe White, best known for “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia,” the latter of which Lynne covers, untitled, as “Track 12.”


Although she had traded in the Daisy Duke short shorts and tank tops for T-shirts and jeans and was assiduously avoiding the sex-kitten image in the pursuit of artistic credibility for her music, Shelby Lynne nevertheless was still on the radar of producers who wanted her in front of the camera for the intangible qualities that she embodied: pride, melancholy, tragedy, and Southern stoicism in the wake of adversity. She was ironically cast as Johnny Cash’s mother, Carrie, in the biopic Walk the Line, wearing glasses and a character-appropriate dowdy look (she is, in reality, only five years older than Joaquin Phoenix, who appeared as Cash).

The day Johnny Cash passed away, she wrote “Johnny Met June,” which, as the single from Suit Yourself, opened at  Number 20 on the Billboard country music charts.


Shelby Lynne was a fan of UK pop-soul singer Dusty Springfield, especially welcomed the frequent comparisons made by critics and fans between them, considering it “the ultimate compliment,” even though she was quoted in 2010 as saying: “There’s absolutely nothing about us that’s alike.”

She nevertheless decided to showcase her interpretive skills with her next release, a Dusty Springfield tribute album titled Just a Little Lovin’ (2007). The story of how this record of cover songs (and one original, “Pretend”) came about (per Wikipedia) involves a confrontational meeting she had with a Capitol Records rep over the lack of Suit Yourself’s commercial success:

“Over drinks in a dark bar in Hollywood I put my cards on the table. The record company man told me that they didn’t know what to do with the last record I made. We sat there and tossed around bullsh*t for an hour or so. Round two began and we had some more drinks. We were just getting fuzzy and not a lot was accomplished. Towards the end of a frustrating evening, I remember saying, ‘Hell, I’m just going to call Barry Manilow and cut the Dusty Springfield songs! Maybe somebody will like that! Everybody loves Dusty!’ Record company man almost dropped his drink, got all saucer-eyed and said: ‘Well, I can see getting behind that.’ I laughed out loud. Record men respond when you talk about Dusty Springfield.”

With a cover-photo homage to the landmark LP, Dusty in Memphis, Shelby Lynne selected Phil Ramone to produce the record and Al Schmitt (who eventually received a Grammy nomination for Just a Little Lovin’) to engineer. (See my articles about Ramone and Schmitt in Issue 162 and Issue 160.) Going old-school, Lynne wanted the record recorded on analog tape and opted for relatively sparse instrumentation to showcase her voice and the slow-burn nature of her approach to the material, which she has described as “down.”

The majority of critical responses were highly positive, with many acknowledging Shelby Lynne as “one of the few singers who could make a Dusty Springfield song her own.” The most negative comments came from those expecting less restraint and more bombast, with one reviewer shallowly conceding, “it’s killer make-out music.”

The sterling production and superb Al Schmitt engineering has since made Just a Little Lovin’ an audiophile library “must-have.” PS Audio founder Paul McGowan has cited it in one of Paul’s Posts: https://www.psaudio.com/pauls-posts/just-a-little-lovin/

Phil Ramone, who cut the original Dusty Springfield version of the Bacharach-David song “The Look of Love” for the Casino Royale movie soundtrack, was well-suited for the approach Shelby Lynne wanted to take, as the record was recorded live at Capitol Studios with no overdubs.



Just a Little Lovin’ became Shelby Lynne’s most successful record, reaching Number 41 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. Ironically, Lost Highway Records ended up releasing the album, as Capitol’s record division underwent upheaval during the recording sessions.

Part Two will continue in Issue 164 with the release of Tears, Lies and Alibis, the first record from Shelby Lynne’s independent label, Everso Records.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Justin Higuchi.

The Muffs’ Ronnie Barnett: Really Really Happy Again

The Muffs’ Ronnie Barnett: Really Really Happy Again

The Muffs’ Ronnie Barnett: Really Really Happy Again

Ray Chelstowski

You probably know the Muffs from their 1995 cover of the song “Kids in America,” originally done by Kim Wilde in 1982. It added a bit of roar to the Clueless soundtrack, and the song continues to ramp up crowds at sports stadiums across the country. But this band’s legacy is much more than that. Rock trios led by women on guitar were rare when the Muffs were founded, and somehow are as rare today. That’s surprising because the energy, attitude, and conviction that bands like the Muffs delivered sit at the center of the female-focused perspective evident in every aspect of this important band’s body of work.


The Muffs were formed in 1991, and in many ways owned the Los Angeles post-punk scene. Led by singer/guitarist Kim Shattuck and backed by Ronnie Barnett on bass (article header image) and Roy McDonald on drums (right, header image), the band released four full-length studio albums in the 1990s, as well as numerous singles including “Lucky Guy” and “Sad Tomorrow.” After a long hiatus beginning in 1999, the band released a fifth album in 2004 but effectively disbanded thereafter. Almost a decade later, the three core members of the band reunited and started performing again. Their sixth album, Whoop Dee Doo, was released in 2014.

Sadly, Kim Shattuck died on October 2, 2019, following a two-year battle with ALS. On that same day, the Muffs confirmed that they had disbanded. Shortly after, the Muffs released their seventh and final album, No Holiday.

The Muffs have just reissued Really Really Happy on Omnivore Recordings. It’s the 2004 album that, according to the liner notes, kicked off the second phase of the Muffs’ career.” Omnivore states, “After eight years and four albums, The Muffs had been writing, recording and touring nonstop. After a break, the group was ready to do it all again, and were approached by…Charlotte Caffey (the Go-Go’s) and Anna Waronker, who had just started their own label, Five Foot Two Records. The album arrived to rave reviews.” Omnivore has reissued a greatly-expanded version of the album with 22 bonus tracks, including 16 of Kim Shattuck’s original demos. It’s a comprehensive second look at one of the band’s most pivotal albums.


The Muffs: Ronnie Barnett, Kim Shattuck and Roy McDonald. Courtesy of Kristen Shattuck.

The Muffs: Ronnie Barnett, Kim Shattuck and Roy McDonald. Courtesy of Kristen Shattuck.


The Muffs remind us of the joy in the naughtiness, smugness, reverence, appreciation, and wonder that one song can hold all on its own.

We caught up with Ronnie Barnett and asked him about how this reissue came about, and why the Muffs have always been a band for the ages.


Ray Chelstowski: When you were growing up, who was your favorite band?

Ronnie Barnett: Well, that would have to be KISS. I became aware of them when I was 10, which is when I started to go through rock magazines. I have older brothers, so before that, I would look through their Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath records. But KISS was the first record that I bought, with money that I borrowed from my uncle. I went down to Kmart and bought Dressed to Kill and subsequently became a KISS maniac. In fact, they were the first concert that I got to go to, that I asked to go to in 1976 when I was 11.

RC: The Muffs had an unconventional career, didn’t they?

RB: We had this kind of working mid-level career for 27 years. We kind of had a hit with “Kids in America” but it wasn’t really a single. But it is a song I can point to, and most everyone has heard it. It gets played in places like sports arenas. So, our career is very interesting in that way. Maybe if we’d had a big hit we wouldn’t have lasted. Or if we’d been big like Alanis Morissette and had to travel hard for a year, maybe that would have killed us too like it did to so many other bands. Yeah, I feel lucky looking back that we were able to work, fill clubs, and have people that love the band see us.

RC: Were there bands that you looked at over the years, admired, and wondered whether your career would have been different if your sound was a bit more commercial like theirs?

RB: The funny thing about us, and I’ll be speaking here for Kim as well, we didn’t look at things like that. There are a lot of things that we could have done to play the game when we were on a major label. We didn’t. We never hired any trendy person to mix or produce our records. All of our records are either produced or co-produced by Kim. She was just so locked into what she liked. I wouldn’t call it narrow. She wanted to make the kind of music that she wanted to hear. This may sound weird, but we admired groups like the Pixies [who] came up later, that were original, did their own thing and did well because of it. Not because they were trying to bend or adhere to some commercial sound. We were just lucky enough in our major-label experience to work with people who got us and pretty much let us do what we wanted to do, for better or worse.

RC: As punk-driven as your music is, there is an underlying pop sensibility to it.

RB: You’re right. Underneath all of the “punkiness” and screams are pop songs. Kim’s favorite bands were groups like Gerry and the Pacemakers and Herman’s Hermits. There’s a lot of Merseybeat in there. And yeah, she did love good melodies. Almost every song of ours has a melody, which is why we were able to play punk festivals, power-pop festivals, and garage festivals. I used to say that we could really open for anyone.


RC: There’s a great irony about this album’s name, because you don’t look “Really Really Happy” in the cover photo!

RB: Oh, I can’t stand that cover, but that’s another subject. But when we were doing this reissue, the only thig the Kim’s husband Kevin said was to keep the artwork intact because she worked hard on it. You learn [that] in a band with a strong personality that you should just yield to them and let them pick the photo!

RC: This record is brighter-sounding from a musical standpoint than your previous work. What helped shape that newer sound?

RB: We had made three records on the major label with $200,000 budgets. We then signed to Fat Records for our album Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow that came out in 1999, and we actually had a good budget for that one as well. It was still made in a real studio. That’s how we did it in the 1990s, right? You paid $1,000 a day and recorded in a room next to Eric Clapton. We did that. Then when it came to [Really Really Happy], we did it at Kim’s. Today everyone has home recording equipment. But at the time it was rather new. We basically recorded this album in Kim’s apartment. We did the drums in a real studio but everything else was recorded at her place. I love your description about this record sounding “brighter.” I hadn’t heard it since it came out. Its 17 songs but it’s also like 44 minutes. There’s a lot of really good songs on here that I’d forgotten about.


The Muffs, Really Really Happy, LP version.

The Muffs, Really Really Happy, LP version.


RC: Some of the bonus tracks sound like they should have belonged on the original tracking. How did you decide what got cut?

RB: When you are sequencing a record, sometimes you lose a strong song, and it hurts. But for some reason it just doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. In terms of the bonus tracks, two of them were from a Japanese version of the CD and two were from a Spanish version of the CD.

RC: The demo tracks are backed by a full band. Did you and Roy play on those?

RB: No. That’s [Kim]. The drum parts were manipulated from other drum tracks that Roy had recorded. Her demos were always good, but these are the most fully-realized demos she would ever do. What I think is that it was a test run for the real recording. If you listen to the arrangements, the demos are not very dissimilar to the final album. They don’t have the feel of the band, but it does prove how great a songwriter she was.


RC: You have influenced a number of popular artists. What is the biggest compliment you have ever received by an established artist?

RB: One of the highest compliments that we ever received was from Dee Dee Ramone. He appeared out of the blue in Amsterdam, came backstage, and told us that our records got him through rehab. That’s one of the highest compliments that you could ever receive. Then, Ronnie Spector played here in L.A. at the Viper Room in 1996 or 1997 and she requested us to open. I remember at sound check we finally met her and [we] asked her how she discovered us. She said, “Well I was talking to Joey [Ramone] and he said, “if you’re playing L.A. you have to have the Muffs open.” So, even more respect from the Ramones. How are you going to beat that? When Kim passed away, Elvis Costello praised her songwriting in a written statement. If Kim had been around to hear Elvis Costello praising her songwriting she would have been really humbled.

RC: You say that you are retired, but do you ever feel a responsibility to this music and keeping it alive and to the band’s legacy?

RB: First off I do consider myself retired. I was not [even] supposed to be in a band. I played in bands in high school and then gave it up until I wound up in my girlfriend’s band. As a friend once pointed out, I didn’t play bass in The Muffs. I was in the Muffs and played bass. I’ve done some other things along the way but that was my band. That’s said, I do try to keep our legacy afloat by doing these reissues, taking care to make them good, and writing good historical stuff for the booklets. And just keeping these things in print. Most still are. The Warner Brothers records have never gone out of print, which I am very proud of.

Header image of Ronnie Barnett courtesy of the Muffs PR.

How AXPONA Got Its Groove Back, Part Two

How AXPONA Got Its Groove Back, Part Two

How AXPONA Got Its Groove Back, Part Two

Frank Doris

Part One of this report appeared in Issue 162. To recap my usual caveats: it was impossible to cover everything even in three days. I never make definitive judgments about sound at shows. If I hear something I like, great; if not, I know it’s tough to get good, let alone optimal sound at these events. I’m not going to go into chapter and verse about every product spec (and I managed to miss some prices and model numbers, mea culpa); links to products and manufacturers are provided with more information.

This installment will be on the shorter side and there will be a longer Part Three conclusion in Issue 164.

On with the show:

MoFi Distribution (part of Mobile Fidelity) had three rooms packed with gear – no surprise, considering the extent of their product catalog. Just a small sampling: Balanced Audio Technology (tube electronics), Dr. Feickert Analogue (beautifully-made turntables including the $7,495 Blackbird on exhibit; I think these don’t get the attention they deserve), Falcon Acoustics (makers of the classic LS3/5a BBC-designed monitors, $3,295 – $3,495/pair, which I could happily live with forever after were I forced to choose one small speaker to ride out into the sunset with), Koetsu cartridges, QUAD, Piega, and Wharfedale loudspeakers, Whest Audio phono preamplifiers, and a lot more.

Two things struck me the most: first, the Fender-branded Fender x MoFi PrecisionDeck turntable ($3,495), replete with a gorgeous, classic three-tone sunburst guitar finish. Talk about smart cross-marketing. I was told the first run sold out almost immediately. Secondly, the Manger Audio P2 floorstanding speakers ($21,995/pair). The Manger Sound Transducer is a proprietary driver which utilizes the principle of bending waves, where high frequencies propagate from the center of the driver, and the frequencies the driver produces get lower towards the edge. Ever since I first heard a Manger driver 30-odd years ago, I have been impressed by the rightness of its sound, and the P2 emphatically confirmed this impression.


Manger loudspeakers and associated equipment in one of the MoFi rooms.

Manger loudspeakers and associated equipment in one of the MoFi rooms.


Once again proving that you can’t make definitive sonic judgments at shows, I had heard EMM Labs electronics and Credo Audio speakers at a previous show and, though they could play remarkably loud and clear, they didn’t blow my mind. At AXPONA, they did. By chance, they happened to be playing the same electronic dance music track I’d heard before, only this time the sound was warm, rich, and spacious. And did I mention loud? The bass extension was almost scary. You’d expect to hear nasty distortion – or the sound of drivers blowing – at such volume levels, but this system simply sailed through everything. The room also included a VPI turntable with DS Audio optical cartridges, and van den Hul cartridges.


A new generation for a new generation: the Audio Research I/50 integrated amplifier. It comes in five other striking colors.

A new generation for a new generation: the Audio Research I/50 integrated amplifier. It comes in five other striking colors.


You always want to sit in the sweet spot.

You always want to sit in the sweet spot.


One of the Ansuz/Aavik/Borresen rooms has what I thought was the best visual presentation idea at the show, with this attractive video backdrop. The gear was quite attractive as well.

One of the Audio Group Denmark (Ansuz/Aavik/Børresen) rooms had what I thought was one of the most attractive presentations at the show, with a video wall as a backdrop for their striking gear.


Spotted at the Focal Naim America booth: the Naim Uniti Atom, one of several all-in-one streaming audio products at AXPONA.

Spotted at the Focal Naim America booth: the Naim Uniti Atom, one of several all-in-one streaming audio products at AXPONA.


Disclaimer: Roy Hall is a friend and a Copper contributor. Now that that’s out of the way, I have to say that the Music Hall Audio/AMPED America/Acoustique Quality/Pangea (equipment racks) and Spin-Clean (you can guess) room had excellent sound. One system featured the recently-introduced Music Hall Stealth direct-drive turntable ($1,649), which comes with a pre-mounted Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge, and plays 33-1/3, 45 and yes, 78 rpm records. The system included AMPED electronics and Acoustique Quality Canto 5 loudspeakers. Not only did this system sound musical and detailed, it made me realize something so obvious I should have thought of it 40 years earlier: you know an unfamiliar system is good when you can tell who the artist is who you’re hearing. Sounds like a given, right? Not always. On this system, when I heard an unfamiliar track by a familiar singer, I immediately knew who it was. On other systems, not so much.

The AMPED electronics also once again proved that, at this point in the audio technology game, any prejudices one may have about Class D amplification should be thrown out the window. If the point hadn’t been hammered home to me with the AMPED gear (AMP 2250 250 watt-per-channel stereo amp, $3,500 and the new AAP-1 preamplifier, $3,000), the Atma-Sphere Class D monoblock amplifier removed any trace of a shred of a speck of a doubt. It was especially surprising to encounter this diminutive 100 WPC unit in light of the fact that the company has been known for statement-quality tube electronics for more than 35 years. But here was this unassuming little amp just singing smoothly in a modest system, with a you-are-there quality to the music. My apologies for not taking notes on the rest of the system, which was not listed in the show directory.


A selection of Acoustique Quality loudspeakers.

A selection of Acoustique Quality loudspeakers.


DIY heaven: loudspeaker drivers in the Parts Express room. They were playing speakers that were built from parts from their catalog, and they sounded good. Do it yourself for less!

DIY heaven: loudspeaker drivers in the Parts Express room. They were playing speakers that were built from parts from their catalog, and they sounded good. Do it yourself for less!


Can record cleaning machines be beautiful? Sure, if they're the Clearaudio Double Matrix Professional SONIC.

Can record cleaning machines be beautiful? Sure, if they’re the Clearaudio Double Matrix Professional SONIC.


I’m continually heartened by the seemingly never-ending developments in record-playback technology. Just how much is really in those vinyl record grooves anyway? According to someone who didn’t want to be named, there may be even more to be heard, thanks to a potential advancement they wouldn’t give any details about. In the here and now, among the smorgasbord of turntables, arms, cartridges and accessories, the new Radial Audio Stealth One linear tracking tonearm caught my attention. The arm uses optoelectronic tracking of the stylus position to maintain a 90-degree position and eliminate any skating forces. According to engineer Dean Slindee, he had the ideas for producing it 30 years ago but had to wait until now for the necessary tech to become available. The arm retails for $4,500 and comes with a T-square alignment tool.


Going straight: the Radial Audio Stealth One linear tracking arm on a Linn LP12 turntable.

Going straight: the Radial Audio Stealth One linear tracking arm on a Linn LP12 turntable.


Bucking trends has always been…well, something of an audiophile trend. And to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of CD are greatly exaggerated. The McIntosh Group/Pro-Ject introduced not one, but two new CD players. According to the Group’s Jeff Coates, this enables Pro-Ject to now offer every type of source component. All products are made in Europe, including their very cool phono stage that has infinitely variable cartridge loading for precise fine-tuning, and which can accommodate two turntables.

It’s an old salesperson’s trick: any system can be made to sound “better” if played loud. There was a lot of loud music to be heard at AXPONA. At one point an exhibitor warned me, “They’re about to play Nine Inch Nails and they like to listen loud!” Well, that wouldn’t have fazed me in the least (maybe I would have countered with some Meshuggah) but I appreciated the heads up. It’s quite another thing for a system to sound good at lower volumes. A few exhibitors took this strength-in-subtlety approach, including Luxman. They played a selection of music at quieter levels, a welcome respite during a frantic show. The sound was exceptionally pure, and when I mentioned that to Luxman’s John Pravel, he responded that there are no odd-order harmonics in nature, and audio equipment shouldn’t have them either!


The Luxman/Magico exhibit.

The Luxman/Magico exhibit.


At first, I thought the room was a little bass-shy until I listened more carefully and realized my ears had become skewed by the bass bombast of a couple of rooms I’d visited just before. (I have a sound level meter app on my phone, but remind me to spring for a spectrum analyzer phone app one of these days.) Luxman showed a bunch of new gear, all beautifully minimalist and elegant in design, including the M-10X mono/stereo power amp (from 150 to 600 watts into 8 ohms depending on configuration, $19,995), D-10X SACD player with MQA and USB DSD ($16,995), PD-151 MKII turntable ($6,490) and LMC-5 cartridge ($2,695), along with the C-900u preamp ($15,995) and E-250 phono preamp ($2,395). All of this was heard through Magico M6 loudspeakers ($185,000/pair).


Header image: Credo Audio loudspeakers and EMM Labs electronics. Photos courtesy of the author.

Back to My Reel-to-Reel Roots, Part 15

Back to My Reel-to-Reel Roots, Part 15

Back to My Reel-to-Reel Roots, Part 15

Ken Kessler

Producing what one considers to be revelations from what is the “bloody obvious,” as the British would say, is a waste of anybody’s time. What could I possibly tell Copper’s audience of seasoned audiophiles about reel-to-reel tape? But nearly 40 years after the demise of any format, one might presume that an audience now exists which never used that format, and which might be equally unaware of both its sound and/or capabilities, as well as the artists who recorded in it. Again, I think of that YouTube clip where kids cannot figure out how to use a cassette.

Every music format lives or dies according to whether or not the content providers (what used to be called “record labels”) embrace it. No matter how much better it may be, any format launched without a vast catalogue of pre-recorded material to support it will not take off, which is why the amazing Elcaset never stood a chance. Equally, any format will die when the labels abandon it. This means that all playback methods are locked into the era during which they were viable, thus embracing and depending on contemporary artists, though also able to access all that has gone before with reissues. Thus, you can find Caruso CDs, though he died in 1921, and Jimi Hendrix lives again on SACD.

Yes, there will be straggler manufacturers and artists, especially those exploiting a dead format for effect, be it retro or kitsch, but usually they are gone forever, like 8-track or MiniDisc. For example, aside from a few novelty items like Moby Grape including one 78-rpm track on Wow!/Grape Jam, 78s died when 45s and LPs came out in the 1950s. As a result, no artists which emerged after the mid-1960s have had their singles or albums on 78s. Yes, I know there were Beatles 78s in India, as the format lasted longer there, but you get my drift: 78s are dead and buried, though I know one jazz buff in the UK who still swears by them – as in, “You haven’t heard Charlie Parker until you’ve heard the 78s.” And I would love to hear Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith 78s just to know if he’s right.

It goes on, and anyone releasing cassettes today, such as Kylie Minogue or Metallica, is doing it strictly for fashion, because sonically they still suck and they remain fragile. But to deliver even more extreme examples, you will not find Edison cylinders of Billie Eilish, nor 8-tracks of Ed Sheeran or Michael Bublé (though the latter’s music begs to be heard on 78s…).

It’s slightly different with open-reel tape because the format, though no longer supported by any commercial or major labels, survived the digital juggernaut because many studios never abandoned it. But we must differentiate between pro, semi-pro and domestic usage. It is possible for formats to serve the first two users, while being totally ignored by the third, and vice versa.

Here’s a couple of illustrations: Early digital recording on Betamax tapes, to choose a format of not-too-distant memory, was strictly a studio pursuit, though I am sure there were audiophiles who splashed out on a Sony PCM-F1 rig; these are the same audiophiles who now use 1/2-track 15 ips machines at home. Conversely, 8-track machines were designed for the car, though there were domestic players. Would studios bother with them? No way, except possibly to have one around to compare the commercially-released 8-track to the master tapes.


Sony PCM-F1 Digital Recording Processor, introduced in 1981.

Sony PCM-F1 Digital Recording Processor, introduced in 1981.


Then we come to the other anomaly that distinguishes reel-to-reel from all other dead, moribund or simply niche formats (unless you know of labels still producing cylinders, 78s and 8-tracks). Those same audiophiles who dabbled with the Sony PCM-F1 and always had a big Studer or Ampex reel-to-reel deck are today’s customers for the only pre-recorded open-reel tapes currently being produced. So, unlike other certifiably dead formats, open-reel tape has always enjoyed a tiny element of support. (But please note that cassette tapes and hardware, too, like LPs and turntables, never disappeared completely before their recent, respective revivals.)

Except for a few isolated cases, all currently-produced pre-recorded open-reel tapes are 1/2-track 15 ips releases on 10-inch spools. The repertoire, as has been discussed here before, is severely limited to a precious few famous reissues from the likes of Analogue Productions and The Tape Project, or brand-new recordings almost entirely of jazz or classical music from relatively unknown performers. And as incredible as the latter might sound, it takes a well-heeled, open-minded, generous-of-spirit individual to drop $500 on a 25-minute recording of Frenchmen playing the blues, or solo piano tangos, or Danish jazz trios.

Why am I bringing this up after 14 previous columns about returning to reel-to-reel? Because more than one reader has berated me for not emphasizing the dearth of material available if they want only new tapes, nor the seemingly-antique repertoire on offer if they are brave enough to acquire used, pre-1980s tapes. Common sense should tell them two things, the first of which is about the repertoire ending in the mid-1980s.

Again and again, I have stressed: you will not find Rage Against the Machine on open-reel tape! Coldplay, Oasis, Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Adele, Beyoncé – whatever you prefer listen to, if it emerged in the last 35 years, it will not be available on reel-to-reel.

Secondly, any rock era tapes you acquire are bound to be unplayable. This statement, while less simple to prove than the above, is based on my small sampling. Yet again, I leave it to you as to whether or not my findings have any merit, given that the number of tapes I own is 2,500 in total, not 25,000, so your skepticism is valid. But let me tell you that, of 200-plus rock-era tapes from Carole King to CSNY to Simon and Garfunkel to the Beatles to Aretha Franklin to the Supremes to Blood Sweat & Tears to Roy Orbison, I’ve found a 4/1 ratio of ruined to playable. Yes, the abuse was that widespread, but I have no way of knowing for certain if it’s down to mishandling the tapes, poor machine maintenance, or other maltreatment.

Why this is so has been referred to in earlier columns, but the possible reasons strike me as obvious (and please keep your trolling to yourself if this generalization offends you): Younger people seem less fastidious than their elders, and – especially during the 1960s/1970s when hi-fi was booming – too many stoners would have been spooling, in the most clumsy manner, what are now ruined copies of the Doors’ Soft Parade or Buffalo Springfield’s Last Time Around or the Bee Gees’ 1st.

Instead, that is what you must expect if – as did I – you’ve gone the second-hand tapes route and search eBay on an hourly basis. To give you an idea of what the audience was for pre-recorded tapes, using both my own collection as “sort of” indicative, while comparing the lists in the catalogues which came with the tapes, the biggest sellers included the following in no particular order – and by that I mean I have eight or more titles by each:

Andy Williams, Enoch Light, the Lettermen, the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, the Ink Spots, Trini Lopez, Jackie Gleason, the Mills Brothers, Percy Faith, Doc Severinsen, Ray Conniff, Roger Williams, Martin Denny, Al Hirt, Leonard Bernstein, Andre Kostelanetz, Eugene Ormandy, Arthur Fiedler, Si Zentner, Ferrante & Teicher, and a number of others in the popular, jazz/big band/easy listening, and classical categories. Arguably the biggest genre of them all was my other huge cache of tapes: soundtracks and Broadway scores.

Here are some general observations, of neither scientific nor statistical validity. Please bear in mind that these tapes came from multiple sources, so no lone, ham-fisted tape user can be blamed for any of the barbarism:

Most tape releases: Andy Williams; Tom Jones; Percy Faith; Ray Conniff; Arthur Fiedler


One third of Ken's Andy Williams tape library.

One third of Ken’s Andy Williams tape library.


Worst-treated tapes (other than rock-era albums): Trini Lopez and Barbra Streisand; all country artists, especially Loretta Lynn

Best-sounding: Jackie Gleason easy-listening albums; soundtracks on RCA and Columbia; Bernstein on Columbia

If this is a cautionary tale, it is aimed at those under 60, or maybe 70, whom I don’t want to be disappointed if they have been bitten by the tape bug, perhaps after hearing one of Jeff Joseph’s (Joseph Audio) demos at a hi-fi show. Boomers, even when toddlers, were regaled with “Stranger on the Shore,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” and anything force-fed to us through appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Hollywood Palace, etc., so the above might seem logical…and maybe obvious.

There’s an upside to all of this I wouldn’t change for anything, despite wishing I had more mint Beatles tapes. Thanks to these reel-to-reel adventures, my tastes have broadened, and my appreciation of the artistry of the above – especially Andy Williams – is a great reward for the time, effort and expense. But the biggest pleasure has come from something my father adored: film soundtracks and Broadway scores, which sound better than one can imagine.

As for proof of their popularity, I have more than five copies apiece of The King and I (screen), South Pacific (stage and screen), West Side Story (stage and screen), My Fair Lady (stage), The Sound of Music (stage and screen), Oklahoma! (screen), Gigi (screen), The Music Man (stage and screen) and Fiddler on the Roof (stage). No surprises here, understandable as they were huge hits. And it makes me so happy that only one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s atrocities – Jesus Christ Superstar – has emerged so far on open-reel. Yes, both the stage and film versions.

As Fiddler probably only appealed to 1960s Jewish audiophiles – and remember that we owe the greater part of our hobby to lantsmen such as David Hafler, Avery Fisher, Sidney Harman, Saul Marantz and other nice Yiddishe bochers – maybe it’s why I play that particular tape whenever I want to dazzle visitors. Zero Mostel’s “Oy!” has never sounded more real. So, my father’s passion for tape aside, I guess open-reel is in my blood.


Header image: a Bernstein buffet! Photo by Ken Kessler.

Ambient Music

Ambient Music

Ambient Music

Frank Doris

The Luxman L3 integrated amplifier, sporting one of the coolest logos of all time. Howard Kneller paid $395 for it at New York’s Harvey Electronics in the 1970s, quite a sum of money at the time.


Among the L3’s many features were Class A operation, dual tape monitoring, and these separate bass and treble controls for each channel. From Howard Kneller’s personal collection.


Who needs high-end audio when you’ve got a boombox with 1980s Panasonic Ambience Sound! Earth, Wind and Fire look like they were digging it.


The Audion Piano, 1915. Created by triode tube inventor Lee De Forest, this contraption used heterodyning, the technique of combining two high-frequency sounds to produce a lower tone within the audible range. Thanks to Ivan Berger for finding this.


1975 Tandberg ad: we’d buy these for their looks alone.


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

Pristine Classical: Preserving Priceless Historical Recordings, Part Two

Pristine Classical: Preserving Priceless Historical Recordings, Part Two

Pristine Classical: Preserving Priceless Historical Recordings, Part Two

Ted Shafran

In Issue 162, we profiled Pristine Classical, a company dedicated to improving the sound of historic classical music recordings, many of which were recorded using primitive equipment under less-than-ideal conditions. However, during the first half of the 20th century, some of the greatest musicians who ever lived gave performances that remain, today, the subject of legend. Andrew Rose of Pristine Classical is dedicated to making those sounds more accessible to modern ears. Our interview with him continues here.

Ted Shafran: So far we’ve talked about your early career, some of the technical details of your restoration processes, and the business realities of running your label. Let’s turn to the music. Do you have a personal preference with respect to period, specific artists, type of music, and so on?

Andrew Rose: (Laughing) I actually get so many e-mails and messages and requests, so a lot of the time I’m sifting through what people are asking me for. I’m also looking at building a catalogue in different directions. I’m aware of the artists that sell. I have to be clear that this is a business, where we really need to put out some Toscanini and Furtwängler and Callas at reasonably regular intervals in order to keep sales ticking over, and it’s a case of balancing it out across the genres as much for any particular artist or composer.

When we began there were obviously big gaps in repertoire. For example, someone e-mailed me and said you’ve not got Cosi fan Tutte in your catalog and I realized he was right. He suggested that the von Karajan recording [was] desperate for [restoration]. And I have various collectors who will come to me with suggestions and projects and recordings that they’ve managed to source, which they send to me. I’m working with the Busch Brothers Institute in Germany. And I’m also working with Misha Horenstein and doing a lot of Jascha Horenstein recordings from his private archive.

So, it’s a case of planning out roughly six to 10 months of weekly releases. I start by focusing on the big projects and then I look at the gaps and I might [think], I could really use some more solo piano recordings. Then I look at what we’ve got and what is missing from our catalogue. And if we find something that’s missing we look at who recorded it. Sometimes it’s obvious, but sometimes we ask ourselves: do we really need another set of Beethoven sonatas or another set of Chopin preludes? How about something different, like Erik Satie? But then we’ll realize that the reason we haven’t done it is because no one had recorded him until the late 1960s, apart from one album that was recorded in 1956, which we issued a few weeks ago. So, there’s no single strategy. I do try to see what and who we are missing, but also what will sell, and try to balance those out to something that looks like a reasonable set of releases over a six-to-eight-month time period.


TS: You mentioned that some of your materials come from private collectors. Are there are other, more common sources where you find these older recordings?

AR: (Laughing again). I’ve actually had several people donate big collections of LPs to us, 78s, and reel-to-reel tape, so I’ve got a big collection there. And if there’s something that I haven’t got, I will go out and find it. If that involves buying it and getting it to cross the world to here so that I can digitize it, then so be it. If there’s something that I really want, and I’ve asked around to various collectors and people that I know and I still can’t find it, then I’ll go online. And if I still can’t find it, well, there’s no shortage of other things to do until a copy comes along. But there are a number of people who are very good at this and have been in collectors’ circles for a long time. Sometimes they can find someone in their network who can furnish a copy of something that I’ve been looking for. Sometimes I honestly don’t know how recordings came to the person who got them to me. Going back quite a number of years ago, I worked on a Toscanini Bruckner 7 which was a fragmentary recording which I believe exists in the Library of Congress, and nobody knows how it escaped [from] there.

TS: Yes, that’s quite a performance; I’ve played it quite a few times and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone take the Scherzo that fast.

AR: It’s a shame there’s so much missing. One of the downsides of this job is that I’m always working on the next project and once something is finished, I move on to the next one. So, you often forget recordings, even ones you’ve done recently. And frankly, if I’ve been plowing through some tricky restoration work, I just prefer to have a bit of silence afterward. Most of the people that I communicate with are listening in a different way than I listen. If I listen to a recording, I’m looking for the faults rather than listening to the performance. I think back to when I was working in radio. And when you’re working in live radio and you’ve got a fast-paced show that’s about three hours long, there’s always the next item that’s about to come up, and you’ve got to get a lineup from somewhere and you’ve got jingles and you’ve got news inserts and you’ve got sports and all this kind of stuff going on. And you’ve got to make sure all the levels are right, and the equalization is right and everything is working sonically. So, I would get to the end of a three-hour news show and [would] have to put the TV on to find out what was going on in the world! And I think that’s actually helped me in this job, because I don’t get carried away by the performance. I concentrate on how it sounds, what needs to be fixed and how long it will take to fix it as I’m going through the recording. It also means that, for a while after I’ve finished something, I don’t really want to listen to it again, in case there’s something that I missed.

TS: Well, nothing in life is perfect.

AR: (Laughing) There’s always one more thing that you could have worked on.

TS: I understand what you mean. A lifetime ago, I did some sound work for an amateur theater and I remember that my entire focus was on the next cue. I’d have to think hard to tell you what the plays were.

AR: I can think of any number of very famous people that came through our studios when I was at the BBC and I can’t remember anything about any of them, except for [violinist] Nigel Kennedy. And that was because he arrived about 40 seconds before we went to air, and he was supposed to be playing live for us. But he thought we were [going to be] pre-recorded, so I had 40 seconds to mike him up do a sound check before we were on air.

TS: There are different copyright rules in different jurisdictions. Do you run into any copyright issues?

AR: Very, very rarely. I think it is an interesting situation because United States laws are the tricky ones. The rest of the world seems to be OK. The European Union where we’re located seems to have laws that are easy to understand and to follow. The US laws have been chopped and changed over the years, and Naxos Records got into trouble years ago in that respect. On the whole, we haven’t had an issue. Occasionally I have had contact from orchestras. I can remember an American orchestra and a European orchestra whose managing directors got in touch and said, “you can’t use our stuff.” I explained that we don’t actually sell many copies and we’re not making a lot of money out of these, and they went quiet because I think they realized we’re not stealing their revenue to any substantial degree. On the other hand, we have had very good working relationships with other orchestras and performers. The San Francisco Symphony asked if they could sell some of our recordings, and usually it’s the other way around, so we have a good relationship with them.

There was a recording I did a long, long time ago and I don’t remember the record company, other than that it was an American label. They got in touch and asked if they could issue it on their label, and asked about the copyright issue. I told them that if they had the masters and wanted to issue it, we would just take it off our catalog, since we weren’t selling that many copies anyway. We [did] have an issue with the Horowitz estate; there were a couple of recordings that we [had] issued [and] they weren’t happy about us selling downloads from Europe to the US. So, they [put] Sony’s lawyers on to us, and we ended up in a compromise whereby people can buy the CDs from Europe and import them to the States. Aside from that, I’ve always been very, very careful not to gamble in anything borderline copyright-wise. Anything published before 1963 is fair game.

There’s a sunset clause for more recent recordings, which allowed us to issue some Horenstein recordings with the Gothenburg Symphony that were made in the late 1960s. These were recordings that were sent to Horenstein’s cousin Misha but were never used. They were neither broadcast nor released, so they fell into the public domain after 50 years. But you’ve got to be very careful to make sure that you’re not stepping on anybody’s shoes and you’re absolutely watertight legally. I can’t afford to go to court over anything like this. There’s so much that’s in the public domain that we can [use]. It’s a shame that the European laws changed, because we used to have a nice time at the end of each year when we could access another year of recordings. But that stopped, probably to keep the Beatles in copyright.


TS: So, this is no longer a moving line?

AR: No. Basically, what has happened is that what used to be a 50-year rule is moving to a 70-year rule. In theory, in 2034, 1963 will fall into the public domain. I strongly suspect that by then there will have been further lobbying to increase the law from 70 to 90 years in much the same way as [things were done in the US] to keep Mickey Mouse in copyright. But by the time that happens, I probably won’t be doing this anymore..


Andrew Rose in the Pristine Classical archives.

Andrew Rose in the Pristine Classical archives.


TS: That leads into my next question. I know that you have restored a number of early stereo recordings. Do you plan to do more of that?

AR: I see no reason not to. For example, I’m working through the Maria Callas EMI recordings and [we’re] about to [get to the point where they] go stereo, and I will carry on for as long as we can make a difference. I don’t want to issue something just for the sake of putting it out. I won’t do it unless I think that there’s something that I can bring to it that makes it a worthwhile investment for anybody who likes that recording. What’s fascinating about the 1950s – and I’m into that decade at the moment – is that the pace of change technologically over that decade was enormous. Sometimes you feel that the engineers of the day couldn’t keep up with all the new things that were being thrown at them in terms of microphones, tape, and then stereo and so on. By the mid 1960s there were fewer problematic recordings being made. But during the ’50s, particularly the first half of the decade, there are recordings that can be vastly improved with the approach that we use. And that definitely takes us into the early stereo era.

TS: On the subject of stereo, I know that many, if not most of the recordings that you release are available in Ambient Stereo. As far as I know, no one else in the historical recordings field is using that technology. What is the reasoning behind this?

AR: It started out with a bit of software that was released quite a long time ago now; I think maybe it was 2007 – 2008, about the same time as the XR technology I developed, and I liked what it brought to the sound of a recording. We initially would offer this as an option, so you could buy a download in mono 16 or 24-bit, a mono MP3, and an Ambient Stereo 16-bit FLAC. It quickly became apparent that people liked the sound of [the process] so we basically followed the market in that respect. Other [technologies] came along which further enhanced what we were doing, and by following the technology and seeing how people responded, I’ve ended up in a position where all of the mono recordings that I do now go through these various processes of equalization, Ambient Stereo, and using convolution reverb to create the feel of the concert hall while [still] keeping a mono-ish sense of the original recording. It was really a case of [accommodating] what our public seems to want. Almost never do we have someone telling us they don’t like Ambient Stereo and want mono. I do get e-mails saying they wish that Mark (Obert-Thorn) would do it too. And from a business perspective, I think you’ve got to have a unique selling point.


TS: Personally, I like it [Ambient Stereo] very much. I agree that I think it adds something to those recordings.

AR: It’s something that has evolved over about 15 years. I do keep abreast of new technologies as they arrive. I’m beta-testing new versions of the restoration software that I use, and helping companies come up with new products. We try to keep as close to the cutting edge as I can, and hopefully that’s reflected in an improving product from us as the years go by.

TS: That actually leads into a question I was going to ask. Looking to the future, I’ve often wondered whether it would be possible to “rebuild” missing frequencies on older recordings by interpolating things like overtones. Do you think that kind of technology might be available in the future, and would you be inclined to use it?

AR: I think we’re not far away from that. There is software in development – not necessarily for this particular purpose [and] what I’ve seen so far has been working with speech rather than music – but it’s certainly using a degree of artificial intelligence processing. It is certainly something that is feasible. I wouldn’t have said that three or four years ago, but seeing some software in development I can see that being a possibility. The problem really is that what you and I would like in music is a very, very small field to try and market and develop software for. If you’re developing a suite of digital audio restoration software, a guy working with acoustically-[recorded] 78s is going to be a very small market for you; not something you’re going to devote a lot of time and effort to. But I think it’s certainly something that could probably be done in the next five to eight years.

There are other things that I likewise would like to see and would have [thought] impossible until quite recently, and one of them for example would be the idea of taking a recording of a string quartet or a piano trio and to be able to take an instrument and place it [in a stereo mix]. I think that’s almost possible now, but it’s something that the company that’s working on that technology hasn’t applied it to. They’re looking at how to remix a rock music track from just a stereo master by using artificial intelligence. For example, I can take a song and remove the bass, or increase the volume of the vocals, or change the basics of the mix, bring up the guitar, etc. That’s where the market is and I don’t see them yet addressing classical music. That would be fun to try and do at some point. These technologies are floating around and it comes down to the question of where the people who developing these technologies see their market. And I’m afraid that our small corner of historical classical music restoration is not really one that is big enough.

TS: True enough. One just needs to look at the death of record stores in past decades.

AR: Ironically, that kind of helped us. At first it initially nudged, and then forced people online. You can imagine that our customer base is at the older range of the spectrum, and not necessarily people who would have looked for their music online until they had no other alternative. We used to get record shops contacting us after someone read a review of our CD in such-and-such magazine, and [asked] how can we [could] get it to them. But that hasn’t happened in quite a few years because I don’t think most of those [kinds of] record stores exist anymore, and that is really sad.


TS: Turning back to music: what about so-called “pirate recordings” or air-checks? There are thousands of those floating around out there, at varying levels of audio quality, most of them really bad. What are your thoughts on restoring any of those?

AR: We have worked on some recordings that were privately recorded. It comes down to a number of things. First of all: what is it and who is it? And then, what is the sound quality, and if the quality is poor, is it worth [restoring]? If it’s [something from] a major artist and a very, very rare recording of them doing something that doesn’t otherwise exist, then maybe the quality threshold is a little lower than if it’s something like Toscanini doing a Beethoven symphony where there are dozens of [already-available] recordings. And then you have to ask: why do we want this specific one? These are all questions that get weighed when I’m trying to decide whether to go down the road with a particular recording. Something that came off shortwave radio and onto an acetate disk 80 or so years ago would generally not be of sufficient quality to bother with unless it was something very unusual.

TS: I’m familiar with some smaller companies who are releasing opera performances that, I assume, were recorded off the air and they’re often very interesting performances, but many of them are in very poor quality. I’m thinking of a Carlos Kleiber Elektra that’s been floating around and I thought could be something wonderful to restore. But I don’t know what the copyright issues might be.

AR: I know that there are other [companies] who are sailing close to the wind on copyright. But this is our livelihood, and if there’s any doubt in my mind, I don’t go there. The other side of it – sound quality – one of the things that people come to us for is [for] the highest-possible sound quality, so I don’t really want us to release anything that goes below a certain standard. There’s no shortage of recordings at a suitable standard that we can elevate to a higher standard, so I’m not looking to lower that, if I can possibly help it.


TS: That actually begs one of my future questions: how often do you run into a situation where you start a restoration and realize it just can’t be done?

AR: It becomes very apparent very quickly, but it’s very rare. This would normally happen with something a collector has sent to me, and I wouldn’t get very far into the restoration process before saying that [it’s] a non-starter. It would usually take me five minutes to tell you that something was impossible or not worth it. And if passes that five-minute test then I’m 99.9 percent sure that it will be a viable recording.

TS: You talked about emerging technologies. As restoration technology changes and improves, do you ever think about revisiting some of the older work you’ve done?

AR: This is a question that comes up from time to time and my general policy is not to do so. I think you can end up going round and round in circles with that approach. If we ran out of new material, and if I didn’t have months of weekly releases programmed out ahead with no apparent shortage of things to work on – well, maybe. But I don’t really want to go and do that. The exception to that rule was some recordings we [recently] released of Sir Adrian Boult conducting. I wanted to [reissue] a specific collection of recordings and one of them was among the very first 12 titles that we released back in 2005, and the new [collection we brought out] this year didn’t make sense without that as a part of it. [That said, the original 2005 release was sourced] from some 78s but I redid it from a very good vinyl transfer, so it was coming from a different source second time around. I don’t think it’s fair on customers who want to hear something new who have already bought this stuff, just because I can maybe make a marginal improvement on something.

TS: Do you have some specific favorite performances on Pristine?

AR: This is a question [where] I need to go away and think about [it] because my mind immediately goes blank. We have over 1,100 releases and to select any specific one is really difficult. There are some recordings that are special for sentimental reasons, going back to the formation of the company. The Edwin Fischer Bach Preludes. But it’s a very difficult question to answer..

TS: So, when you’re not in front of your equipment, do you listen to music?

AR: I do. I listen to a very diverse range of music. I listen to classical, jazz, rock, alternative rock, I’ve got very broad taste – outside of modern pop music and rap.

When I’m not doing [restorations] I have a little sideline. I’ve worked with a number of rock groups around the world doing mastering of new recordings. They are small, independent rock musicians and bands and if it’s something that catches my ear I will maybe ask them if they would like me to master an album or single for them. And it’s very, very different to this kind of [restoration] work and it’s interesting; so I get to listen to a bit of that. I wish I could have recorded Miles Davis, but alas, that wasn’t possible.


TS: Is there a performance or an artist you wish you could lay your hands on?

AR: Good question. There are gaps in repertoire of certain musicians. Along with Misha Horenstein, I would love to complete the Mahler symphonies with Horenstein conducting. A few years ago, we managed to find a 5th symphony which had never previously been issued and since then we’ve managed to issue two more. Stuff like that would be nice to find, but as far as anybody’s aware, no recordings exist, But then, we’ve heard that before and you never know.

TS: I guess you never know what’s hiding in the archives of radio stations and orchestras.

AR: Well, this is the question. You never know what’s hiding in the archives and it’s such a vast field and it’s hard to know what you might be missing. Completing missing cycles like Horenstein’s Mahler would be wonderful. But it may never happen.

TS: On the subject of imaginary recordings, I would have loved it if Mahler had been recorded as a conductor.

AR: (Laughing) Well, when you get into this sort of speculation you start saying, “it would have been nice if Beethoven had recorded this…” But more seriously, I think about Debussy, who recorded some piano rolls, but not actual recordings. I would have liked to hear him play his own music on an acoustic [pre-electrical] recording.

TS: I believe that Brahms actually did make an acoustic recording.

AR: The problem when you go that far back is that it becomes very, very difficult. The earliest recording we have dates back to 1899. It’s a military band playing Gilbert and Sullivan, and at that age, restoring those recordings is hard work. Classical disk recordings don’t really take off until you get Caruso in 1902. Prior to that there was very little, whether disks or cylinders; they were considered novelties.

TS: I have a very general question for you and if it’s too vague, please feel free to let me know. Any regrets? Anything you wish you had done or that you wish you could do?


AR: I don’t think so. If I haven’t done it yet, I feel like I can still do it. I regret that the copyright laws were changed [which put more limits on what we can do], but, of course, that’s out of my hands. [Our work] is an ongoing project I’ve no intention of drawing to a close anytime soon. I enjoy it, and I think Mark enjoys it. It pays the bills you know; it’s our living. And if there’s something I didn’t do a year or so ago, then maybe I’ll do it next year. There’s no reason to have regrets, because I don’t think any of these recordings are going to disappear out of reach.

TS: I want to thank you for taking so much time out of your day to speak to me.

AR: It’s been a pleasure.


About the Author:

Ted Shafran is the president of Connectability.com, a Toronto, Canada-based IT solutions company. He has studied piano, music theory, and voice, and sings with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the oldest arts organization in Canada. He is also a long-time record collector and audiophile.

Lightning Strikes

Lightning Strikes

Lightning Strikes

Peter Xeni

Customer Relationship Management: Give it Some Stick!

Customer Relationship Management: Give it Some Stick!

Customer Relationship Management: Give it Some Stick!

Russ Welton

Almost 20 years ago, my family and I took over a guitar shop business. It was a fantastic opportunity and represented some of the most rewarding, fun and enjoyable experiences I have had in retail and in my working life. It led on to other interesting music-related career opportunities, which I would never have anticipated or thought of entertaining when I was back in school planning my future. That said, it definitively came about as a result of pursuing things I had a passion for, and because of the support of my family in making the project fly. It was an exceptional decade of my working life.

During those years I came to coin a bit of a catchphrase: “There is nothing general about the general public.” Anyone who has worked in retail will no doubt relate: if you operate a specialist store which caters to a leisure- or professional-industry-level clientele, then you will become something of a beacon (of varying illumination) in your neighborhood.

As a guitar shop retailer, if you have a front door open to the public during daylight and early evening hours, you open a portal to an interesting and mysterious world of musicians and the artistically inclined. It in fact becomes something of a networked hub of exceptionally talented creatives, as well as those just looking for a place to go to hang out. We never installed a coffee machine or a couch, but I reckon that if I had put a different sign hanging on the front wall which said Free Social Care instead of Guitar Shop, it may not have looked that much different on the inside! I exaggerate – but you get the point. After all, I had started out as a Saturday boy because I too had spent so many hours hanging out in the shop that, unknown to me, would eventually become my own business.

I have lot of memorable experiences from opening my doors to the locals, and thought I’d share one of the more uncommon ones.

Our building was split over three levels: The garage, where we kept our store stock, and cardboard boxes for all the items we would ship out or sell. Then there was the basement floor, which held the majority of our bass and guitar amplification and also had a small kitchen and reasonably-sized workshop for guitar setups, repairs and general maintenance. The third level was the ground floor, which had its main entrance out on to the high street. There was no dedicated parking, just the on-street available residential spaces which were open to all after our 10 am opening time.

One day I was in the shop on my own. I had caught up with the repairs and there were no customers in the shop, so I thought I would just briefly pop down to the garage level and bring up some more stock. Taking the second set of stairs down, I encountered somebody coming up the stairs in the opposite direction who had obviously taken it upon themselves to gain entrance to the shop via the private back door, which is metal-plated, grilled and also alarmed at night. Perhaps the outer grilled door was something of an invitation to those who would allow their opportunistic streak to get the better of them during the day. It was a fire door, so we couldn’t lock it during store opening hours, and generally there was little need to as access to it was somewhat convoluted.


The music store where Russ used to work (after it had changed ownership).

The music store where Russ used to work (after it had changed ownership).


I asked the man coming up the stairs, “Can I help you, mate?” with something of a raised lilt to my voice, as I could see the guy looked more than sheepish about the fact that he had been spotted lurking in the stairwell. “Er…do you sell drumsticks?” was his prompt query, and part of me, for a brief moment a least, thought it was a genuine question. Although a dedicated guitar and bass shop, we did in fact stock a few other items such as popular microphones, rack gear, accessories – and a few drumsticks. I thought I’d play it cool and said, “Sure. Just follow me upstairs and I’ll show you what we have got.”  He replied, “Oh great. Is it OK if I wait in the amp room?” I thought it would be fine, as he’d been rumbled and had no pressure to buy anything, and he would probably make his excuse that he didn’t want any after all and simply leave. Perhaps, though, he was a drummer. He was wearing all black, like a rocker, and looked the part.

I returned back to the amp room with a small selection of sticks for him to check out, but he was gone. I found him in the workshop, sitting on a stool with his torso slumped over the second work bench, out cold. He was totally immovable and I couldn’t get a response from him. Either he was totally hung over, on some substance or other, had a medical condition, or had been rumbled a second time; maybe he’d been continuing his scoping out of thieving opportunities and feigned unconsciousness when he had heard me descending the first flight of stairs. I just couldn’t tell. He was breathing, though, so that at least was a good sign.

I asked if he wanted any water, or in true British fashion, a cup of tea, and prodded him in the ribs a few times for good measure, but again there was no response – nada, zip, nowt, nought, nuffin’! Not easily dissuaded, I grabbed his arm and shook him back and forth (relatively gently I thought) and concluded that he needed help. At least in getting out of the shop.


You never know who you might run into in a music store, thinks Russ (R), in this August 20, 1997 newspaper clipping.

You never know who you might run into in a music store, thinks Russ (R), in this August 20, 1997 newspaper clipping.


Opposite our shop was a building that had a real estate office downstairs, and to the rear of it there was something related to the police as I remembered, as I’d often seen them walking in and out of that premises. I figured that if I was quick, I would be able to run over and see if there was an officer around who could help me. As it turned out, the building was a family violence response center, but they were closed. I returned to the shop, checked on Mr. Unconscious who was still out for the count, then looked up the telephone number of the closed office. As it transpired, someone was manning the phone and said they would be able to send a police officer over in the next couple of minutes.

Sure enough, a police officer soon emerged from the offices opposite and entered the guitar shop, and I related what had happened. The officer asked, “So, where is he now then?” I answered, “He’s in the workshop downstairs, dead to the world.”

The officer and I descended the stairs and turned left into the workshop, but again, the mysteriously-fainting (or feinting?) man had vanished into thin air! “Well, where is he?” the officer asked. “I don’t know where he’s gone! He was there two minutes ago completely prostrate on the table!” I exclaimed, full of disbelief while feeling like something of an idiot. We turned out of the workshop into the amp room and there he was, stood upright, hands in his pockets, looking aloof and slightly dejected at the same time, perusing the gear and pretending to ignore that we were there.

Then the police officer turned to me and said, “Excuse us for a minute please, sir. I just have a few questions for this gentleman.” The mock respect was apparent in the air as he told me, “I’ll call you if I need you, thank you.”

I dutifully traipsed upstairs, the ensuing questioning fading out of earshot. A little while later the officer returned and told me he had escorted the “dude” off the premises, and that he would probably think twice about loitering or stealing anything.

I remember only once more seeing the same chap in the high street just around the corner from our shop. We happened to make eye contact as I passed him. I think I’ll always remember the rueful look of acknowledgement he gave me as he simply said, “All right, mate?”

I was surprised at how friendly he was, and recalled thinking that would likely have been the last time he would be asking me for any drumsticks, or using the back of the shop as an entrance when my guard was down!

Ah. There’s nothing general about the general public. Everyone is unique in their very own way. Perhaps I should have installed a sofa in the first place.


Russ Welton's calling card from his retail store days. Note the hole in the guitar which allowed it to be used as a hang tag!

Russ’s calling card from his retail store days. Note the hole in the guitar which allowed it to be used as a hang tag!


Header image courtesy of Pixabay.com/Pierre Prégardien.

Public Access TV, Part Two: Ken Gets Pranked

Public Access TV, Part Two: Ken Gets Pranked

Public Access TV, Part Two: Ken Gets Pranked

Ken Sander

As time progressed, I added two more public access television shows to my resume. (See my previous article, “Public Access TV: A Perfect Soapbox” in Issue 160.) My newest show, Speak Out launched in the 1990s and had a viewer call-in format. My intention was for New Yorkers to comment (speak out) and voice their opinions on an assortment of issues. We had a wonderful time slot at 11 pm on Sunday night. The main competition was the 11 o’clock news and many viewers were channel surfing because they had already watched the earlier newscasts.

I invited guests who were in the news, or who had a public impact. That included but was not limited to elected officials, commissioners, and people from all branches of government. I would interview them and do some call-ins, and viewers would ask them questions. I never had anyone turn down an invitation to appear on Speak Out. The show quickly became the public access show of choice for New Yorkers.

I wanted to mix it up to keep everything spontaneous and within that framework, keep Speak Out relevant. If I had to go to an event or an onsite interview, those shows would be taped. I interviewed the lieutenant governor of New York State in his big office with an unbelievable view of New York Harbor. His office was on a high floor in the original World Trade Center. It was the last time I was in that building before the hijackers flew into the towers.

One of my guests was then-New York City Council member Anthony Weiner (aka Carlos Danger the disgraced Congressman) taking a telephone question from Abe Hirschfeld, the then-owner of the New York Post. Not everyone was from government. Curtis Sliwa of the Guardian Angels was on once, explaining what the Angels did and why New York needed them. All this was raw and unedited – anything we produced in the studio was live.

Another time I booked Congressman Jerry Nadler, and before the show we got to talking about the then-new mayor Rudy Giuliani (who was elected in 1994). Nadler told me that the new Giuliani administration had appointed my cousin Lee Sander to be the Commissioner of the Department of Transportation for New York City. It had not been announced yet, so you can imagine his surprise when I called him to wish him congratulations.

Rudy Giuliani was very accessible to me when he was a mayoral candidate, and again when he was elected mayor. We taped that second interview at his office in City Hall. I tried to touch all the angles and that sometimes resulted in some potentially dangerous shows. In one live broadcast the question of the night was, “are certain community leaders really helping their communities?” That got me a few death threats. On another segment I asked, “should doctors be allowed to assist in euthanasia?” It was a Jack Kevorkian-inspired show.


Rudy Giuliani and Ken Sander, 1990s.

Rudy Giuliani and Ken Sander, 1990s.


Periodically we would have a change of pace. On one Speak Out episode I asked if viewers had complaints about their sexual partners. I had to use judgement with how I maintained my on-air persona. There were some shows, especially the ones where I asked questions about sex, where I did have some lighthearted fun with the callers. Maybe surprisingly, those shows never got calls from nasty people or other delete disrupters. Over time I saw a pattern develop: certain topics seemed to create more negative responses, such as asking questions about inequities that were racial, political or educational.

I received a surprising source of income from short clips from that show, which earned me about $5,000 or more. The BBC bought most of them for a documentary on unusual television shows from around the world. All three of my public access shows, The Cable Doctor, Speak Out and Open Door were aired during the 1990s. I made some nice money selling video clips for foreign documentaries. Every sale of a clip could pay significant dividends down the road, usually about 50 percent of the initial fee to reuse them on reruns. There was never a problem collecting the money; although the checks came at unexpected intervals, the foreign television companies were diligent about honoring their contracts and keeping track of the airings. Between German and British television, I took in about $40,000 in broadcasting fees.

Speak Out’s studio had four on-air phone lines, and they would blink when a call came in. so I always knew if I had calls waiting. There was no seven-second delay (in industry terms, a “deferred live” or “profanity delay”) like those for live commercial network radio and television. That seven-second delay would allow enough time to delete any profanity or attempted disruption before it got on the air. Speak Out didn’t have the benefit of that delay, and a disrupter would sometimes get through. These callers were like a naked streaker at a sporting event. An annoyance to all with for no purpose for anyone. Those disrupters were annoying but I refused to be provoked.

I needed some help so at the end of some of the shows I would ask for volunteers. I soon found that there were viewers who wanted to help with the production of the show; volunteers who just wanted to be part of the action. I always got a good response and had some great folks who worked on the show with me. One would answer the phones and ask the callers what their question was (which would help screen any potential problem callers). Then, the callers were put on hold, and I would answer them in order. Sometimes I had professional camera operators who volunteered to do remote spots for Speak Out. Most of them worked for various local network news shows as back-up camera and sound technicians.

I took many of the questions from current headlines. The more controversial and timelier the subject, the better the interest level from the audience. An example would be the time a transit authority worker was on his way home to Brooklyn. He had just gotten off the subway. Two teenagers tried to rob him at gunpoint. He pulled his gun and shot them both dead. Self-defense? One might think so, but the responding police officers observed that the teenager’s guns were toys. To further cloud the issue, the gun used by the intended victim was unlicensed, thus making it illegal. This was a dilemma. A working-class man killing two teens who were attempting to hold him up with toy guns. Of course, the intended victim had not known that the guns were toys.

One can imagine the headlines in the New York tabloids. And it raised questions. Should this man be charged with carrying an illegal handgun? Did he commit a crime? Even if he had applied for a gun permit, would he have received one? He lived in a dangerous neighborhood and often had to walk home through an empty park late at night, certainly not a comfortable stroll. There were many different angles to this sad story.

New York City has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. The Sullivan Act, passed in 1911, made it a felony to be caught with an unlicensed gun on the streets of New York. It is incredibly hard for an average citizen to get a gun license in New York, especially a license to carry, or CCW. One had to demonstrate that there was a necessity for self-protection, such as being a business owner who handled large amounts of cash. Certain security people were carefully vetted and sometimes, famous and wealthy people could get a CCW. The usual sentence for carrying an illegal gun was one to two years, with most convicted offenders serving at least nine months and that was for possession only, without the perpetuation of a crime.

You know where I am going with this. This was a Speak Out question made to order. That Sunday night we poised the question: what was your opinion of the situation? Know this: the point of the show was to ask the questions and not for me to have an opinion or take sides. It was up to the viewers to air their opinions.

The show started and the phone lines lit up. At that point I had over a hundred live shows under my belt. I understood that on live television anything can happen, and I was ready. (One time a man walked into the studio asking the cameraman and then the show’s host for spare change. That show was broadcasting live at the time, and you can imagine the frantic scene in the studio.)


Ken's New York City press pass, 1990s.

Ken’s New York City press pass, 1990s.


There was a pattern. Most of the antagonists would start with their question or comment, and then go off on a tangent. In the case of this segment, it started with something like this: “Hi Ken, do you think the teens or the transit worker were at fault? F*ck you, you son of a b*tch!” The disrupters were usually just a small minority, but that night I’d hit the mother lode of abusive viewers.

Nothing fazed me; this was no-holds-barred television. I had developed techniques to deal with disruptive people. Seemingly every show had one weird caller, and experience had taught me early on not to react on the air. I certainly would not give them the satisfaction because if I had any reaction, the abusive calls would increase.

In addition to never reacting, I had another technique for ditching callers. If a caller turned abusive, I quickly disconnected them. While doing so, I either answered the first part of their question, or made another, unrelated comment based on the subject matter of the show. I was very quick with the disconnecting and nobody caught onto what I was doing: “Hi Ken, who do you think the real victim is? Fu…” that was all they got out of their mouth before they heard the dial tone. Unfazed, I would go to the next call. Time on air goes fast, and in spite of the flood of prank callers, there were some good questions and comments from thoughtful viewers.

My phone guy Barry said that was a tough show. I answered, yes, it was. In fact, that was the most difficult show I had done to date and I wondered if this was the beginning of a new trend. I took note, and the next week’s show was back to normal, so I felt that that one show was an isolated incident.

I thought no more about it.

A few months later there was a message on my answering machine. The caller had said, “Hey Ken, make sure to watch The David Letterman Show tonight. I am sure you will find it interesting.”

David introduced a segment by saying he and Paul (Shaffer) were wondering what their television careers would look like in 20 years. They panned to a studio with Dave by a telephone. Paul was screening calls. The callers would get by Paul and be connected to David, and would exclaim, “Hi David, you suck!”

Years passed and I was working for Penthouse magazine as a consumer electronics journalist, writing a monthly column called “Technomania.” One day in 2007, out of the blue someone e-mailed me a YouTube link to that Speak Out show about the shooting. For the first time ever, I watched it.

Over 10 years had passed since the initial airing, and I wondered where that YouTube video had come from. Had someone taped it off the air? (I am fairly sure I still have the original 3/4-inch U-matic master. So far, this mystery is unsolved.)

Within a week the segment was all over YouTube in various versions, not all of them flattering. Most versions had edited out the legit comments and just showed the obnoxious calls. Many of these YouTube clips were different lengths, the result of edits from unknown origins. Weird – but the show had acquired a totally new viewership! One posting was even selling copies of the show through Amazon.

(The David Letterman segment begins around 5:40 into the video.)


Now, another 15 years have passed, and the clip is still on YouTube. To this day I get occasional e-mails and inquiries about it including requests for autographed pictures, and people who want to contact me. Occasionally, a phone call gets through.

Looking back, I see that it was a test of my on-air abilities and a baptism under fire. At the time when it first aired, I thought it was just another Speak Out show.

People ask me if I was upset with these calls, and no, I was not. None of my other shows had ever produced that many disruptive calls, but that segment was gonzo television. This came with the territory, part of the deal so to speak. Sure, I would have preferred a show that had gone as I envisioned, but that is not what happened. I was in the moment, and I never took the calls personally. It was like being yelled at by an irrational person, not pleasant but not of any consequence either. If I gave the disrupters any thought, it was that they were inconsequential, certainly not anyone of merit.

I never saw that level of disruption coming, but no matter, I dealt with it.

Really, enough said.

Octave Records Releases <em>The Audiophile Reference Disc</em> and Foxfeather’s <em>The Nature of Things</em> on Vinyl LP

Octave Records Releases <em>The Audiophile Reference Disc</em> and Foxfeather’s <em>The Nature of Things</em> on Vinyl LP

Octave Records Releases The Audiophile Reference Disc and Foxfeather’s The Nature of Things on Vinyl LP

Frank Doris

PS Audio’s Octave Records has released two more titles on vinyl LPs: The Audiophile Reference Disc, created to help listeners get the best out of their stereo systems by providing reference-quality music and test tracks, and The Nature of Things by the band Foxfeather, a compelling blend of rock, pop, acoustic-electric roots music, blues and more. Both discs are available in limited, numbered editions of 500 copies each.

Octave Records’ mission is to offer nothing less than the finest-quality recordings in the world. Octave’s Pure DSD process is an exclusive combination of technologies for ultimate in high-resolution fidelity, including custom-built recording and playback electronics that maintain full DSD throughout the entire process. Octave Records recordings are monitored on PS Audio’s ultimate-performance Aspen FR30 loudspeakers to ensure the ultimate in playback accuracy and faithfulness to the artists’ original performances. The LPs are pressed on 180-gram virgin vinyl using the highest-quality Neotech compound, NiPro Optics electroplating and GrooveCoated stampers. Each record is hand-inspected to ensure flawless pressing quality.

Since its release, The Audiophile Reference Disc (SRP: vinyl LP, $59) has become one of Octave Records’ most popular titles. It includes a series of tracks for basic system setup, followed by tracks that facilitate more sophisticated evaluations like in-room bass response, soundstage width and depth, system resolution, and more.

The Audiophile Reference Disc can be used in conjunction with Audiophile’s Guide: The Stereo Book (SRP: $29). The Guide details each step in the stereo setup instructional process, and a corresponding reference audio track is designated to check and verify the results. The disc and book go over every aspect of getting the most out of stereo system reproduction, from a single voice to the most complex and dynamic musical passages.

The music on Foxfeather’s The Nature of Things (SRP: vinyl LP, $59), featuring singer Carly Ricks Smith and acoustic guitarist/keyboardist/backing vocalist Laura Stratton, ranges from the funk-tinged groove of “Lunatic” and the rocker “Fillin’ Me Up” to the plaintive “24 Years,” a song about growing past difficult relationships. With three female singers, the vocals and harmonies are sweet and layered, and the band complements Carly, Laura and vocalist Kate Farmer with richly-textured accompaniment.


Foxfeather, The Nature of Things, album cover.


Click here to order the vinyl LP of The Audiophile Reference Disc, and on this link to order the LP version of Foxfeather’s The Nature of Things. Both recordings are also available on a hybrid gold CD with a DSDDirect Mastered CD layer disc (SRP: $29), or as a download bundle collection in DSD64, DSDDirect Mastered 192 kHz/24-bit, 96 kHz/24-bit, and 44.1 kHz/24-bit formats (SRP: $29).

Across the Great Divide

Across the Great Divide

Across the Great Divide

Rudy Radelic

Monarch Pass, near the United States Continental Divide, Colorado.

Live Versus Recorded Music

Live Versus Recorded Music

Live Versus Recorded Music

Rich Isaacs

I went to a rock concert a couple of weeks ago. This was only my second such show since the pandemic began (not counting a few bar gigs involving local bands), in stark contrast to the over 50 shows I wrote about attending in 1977 (see my article in Issue 161). I was instantly reminded of the problems one can encounter in the “concert hall” environment.

Stereophile editor Jim Austin, having recently been to a classical piano performance at Carnegie Hall, wrote about some of those problems in his editorial “On Live Music” in the May 2022 issue. He tackled the accepted notion that audiophiles should attend live, preferably acoustic, music events in order to have a point of reference for how “accurate” or “realistic” one’s system sounds at home. His conclusion was that there were distinct advantages to experiencing well-recorded music in a domestic setting, most notably fewer aural distractions emanating from other concertgoers. Austin mentioned cell phones going off, items being dropped and clattering on the floor, and the crinkling of paper programs, along with people who wear excessive amounts of scented products. To that list I would add other peoples’ conversations and – my all-time pet peeve – the person behind me who can’t manage to keep their foot or knee from bumping the back of my chair over and over. Have these folks never experienced any of this, or are they alone on the planet?

The show I saw was a performance by an Australian band, the Church, whose heyday was decades ago. I will admit to being a casual fan – I only own two of their albums – but the chance to see them locally in a relatively small setting was the draw. The concert took place in an old, run-down converted movie theatre, a venue that normally features punk and metal bands where volume trumps sound quality. In the hope of getting what should have been the best possible sound, I was able to put a folding chair ten feet behind the mixing board. My first thought as the performance began (with one of my favorite tracks of theirs, “Destination,” from their best-selling album, Starfish) was, “they sound so much better at home!” Vocals were almost unintelligible, and a general boominess muddied the other instruments. It was loud enough that earplugs were necessary, which added to the dulling effect.

The Church, concert poster.


I have long questioned the hearing acuity of many, if not most, rock concert sound engineers. In fact, I fantasize about being at a show with lousy sound, going up behind the mixer, yanking the sound guy out of his chair, and immediately lowering the master volume fader before tackling the mix and equalization settings. I have only done live sound mixing once, but I do believe I could improve things. Whenever I’ve been at a show where the sound was done well, I make it a point to compliment the engineer. They always appreciate the positive feedback (you should pardon the pun).

I understand that, unlike classical concerts, most rock shows are usually performed in venues where little or no attention has been paid to optimizing the acoustics for music. The cavernous structure in which this concert took place proved to be a rather extreme example of that lack of forethought. Virtually all seating had been removed, and the walls were reflective (another pun) of the idea that acoustic treatment had been given short shrift.


One notable thing about the show was that apparently there had been a problem with their regular drummer. A friend of the band’s from New Zealand stepped in at the last minute. Lead vocalist/bassist (and the only remaining original member) Steve Kilbey told us that this friend (I couldn’t catch his name because of the sound) had “put his life on hold to help out,” and that this was their first gig together. I think he was preparing us for the possibility of a few screw-ups (which didn’t happen). As a former drummer myself, I would never have guessed they hadn’t performed together previously, so smooth was his fit with the band. They couldn’t have had much time to rehearse, but it sounded like they had played together for years. The band was fleshed out with two guitarists and another who alternately played guitar, bass, or keyboards. Those three also contributed backing vocals.

After a few songs, Kilbey seemed pleased with the reception, going so far as to quote the line from Sgt. Pepper, “you’re such a lovely audience, we’d like to take you home with us.” He also begged our indulgence as the band introduced a number of new songs, which were well received. Once again, the sound quality (or lack thereof) prevented me from discerning titles.

I was hoping the band would play my other favorite of theirs, “Lost,” but, alas, they didn’t. The moody feel of that song fits right in with 1980s-era Pink Floyd.


Even if you think you don’t know the Church, you might be familiar with their best-known song, “Under the Milky Way,” which they saved for late in the show.


They were generous with their time, including an encore with three songs, and they seemed to have enjoyed themselves. Unfortunately, this concert experience has me wondering just how many more shows are in the cards for me. There just aren’t that many groups still performing live that will get me off the couch and into the hall.

Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/picjumbo.com.

Cathal Coughlan: From Microdisney to Telefís, Always Progressing

Cathal Coughlan: From Microdisney to Telefís, Always Progressing

Cathal Coughlan: From Microdisney to Telefís, Always Progressing

Andrew Daly

Acclaimed Irish singer-songwriter Cathal Coughlan, formerly of Irish rock bands Microdisney, The Fatima Mansions, and others, is always progressing, with an eye on setting trends, not following them.

If ever-interesting, never-boring music is your thing, then look no further, as Coughlan has served up another musically diverse masterwork with his latest project, Telefís. It’s a collaboration between Coughlan and Jacknife Lee, of the band Compulsion, and producer for R.E.M., U2 and others. Telefís’s electro-pop a hAon is an amalgamation of the veteran songwriters’ influences, and is proving to be a low-key favorite album of the spring of 2022. I think many music fans will pick up on it during this – dare I say it – post-COVID summer. (One can only hope.)

I recently dug in with the Irish singer/songwriter regarding his early leanings, his many ongoing projects, his newest music, and a whole lot more.

Andrew Daly: Cathal, I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us. How have you been holding up over the last year or so? What have you been up to?

Cathal Coughlan: It’s been a difficult time for all the common reasons and more. I’ve mainly been working on my parts for Telefís, and on songs for my next solo project.

AD: What first got you hooked on music?

CC: It happened on a rolling basis over a few years, which started with hearing the Temptations’ haunting “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” and some other great soul music of the early 1970s, on the intermittent-[reception], medium-wave (AM) signals out of the UK and Continental Europe. This was on the south coast of Ireland, where I was born and raised. Later, a family friend played me Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush on a more decent sound system, and from there I was set. I had a huge appetite for all kinds of music.

Making music came later. In Cork, where I went to school and college, there were a lot of fine musicians, but until the times after punk, the formalities and barriers to entry seemed very daunting, so it was just a dream to someone of my limited skill. But around 1979–’80, a lot of like-minded people in the locality began encountering each other, and suddenly I had role models for just getting up there and doing something.

AD: Who were some of your early influences?

CC: It’s a pretty long and some might say incoherent list. Neil Young always, the Velvet Underground and some later Lou Reed, the Beach Boys, Bowie, Roxy Music. But, also a lot of mid-’70s Joni Mitchell, Todd Rundgren, Robert Wyatt. My favorites from the post-punk area went wide – Public Image Ltd, the Buzzcocks, the Specials, the Only Ones, A Certain Ratio, Magazine, Wire, Thomas Leer and Robert Rental, the Normal. And also, the great Irish group, the Radiators, whose extraordinary album Ghostown inspired many of us.

AD: Let’s talk about current events for your Telefís project with Jacknife Lee. Tell us about your new Falun Gong Dancer EP, jointly released by Telefís and [bassist/composer] Jah Wobble, and your forthcoming a hAon debut album.


CC: Well, we released the Telefís album, a hAon on March 4, but soon after we finished recording the album, an opportunity arose to have a chat with Jah Wobble about possibly doing something, as he was high up the list of post-punk heroes, still active, who we thought about involving. The beauty of the album version of “Falun Gong Dancer” is the enormous amount of space – silence, in fact – which exists within it, so we thought, why not use some of that space to let Jah Wobble do his distinctive thing?

AD: What themes are you exploring in the music of Telefís?

CC: If I had to boil it down, I’d say the high-level theme is the unreliability of memory, and of how little credit we, as human beings, give to that unreliability. The net results of that include hankerings after golden ages which occurred before we were born, of which we basically know nothing whatever; [and] a sense of being crushed by one’s own past because one can’t recall why, for example, we occasionally failed to live up to our values. The list goes on.

Much of the framework which Telefís uses to examine this is derived from the media (especially monochrome TV, but photography also) imagery of 1960s Ireland, when Jacknife Lee and I were at various (JL is not as hideously old as I am) stages of childhood.

The country in those days was – unthinkable now – hermetically sealed off culturally. Petrified and scornful of (as well as scorned by) its neighbor and erstwhile overlord Britain, imbued with a misty-eyed longing for those representations of North America which somehow got through the sieve, or bemusedly reverent towards Continental Europe. What happened in culture was haphazard – chunks of reconstituted native (and nativist) culture, oddities from the Continent, the odd bit of Britain. And like many things which grow out of chaotic soil, the results were strange, but very popular owing to the monopoly [of the media] – [for example], one national TV channel only.

The musical and audio means of fulfilling this intention have involved taking some of the highest technology available to Jacknife Lee and distressing the hell out of it, so we’re literally as lacking in distraction when creating the music as Thomas Leer and Robert Rental were when they made The Bridge in their kitchen in 1978.

AD: How has your songwriting evolved to this point?

CC: It’s debatable whether I’ve evolved at all, to be honest. I suppose I tend to not rule out courses of action for myself as much as I did in the 2000s and 2010s – back then, I was still quite stung by what had become of “rock” music (and my previous roles in it), and was resolved that I would avoid all [the] trappings of that, which meant that I would only write songs which could be arranged in a certain way – no electric bass, no overdriven signals anywhere. I’m able to think and exercise my way out of lyrical dead ends a lot better than I used to be (or so I imagine), but a bad and non-productive day can still happen. You just have to learn where in your psyche to dig next.

AD: Are you into vinyl or other formats, or are you all digital now? Also, what are a few of your favorite albums and why?

CC: I live in a small space, so no, format fetishism is a long way beyond my means. I grew up on cassettes, didn’t start being able to play vinyl ’till I was 19 or something, so their resurgence amuses me, but other than maybe as creative tools for making music, I can’t see the point. Vinyl is great, but the bulkiness of it builds up fast.

AD: How do your other passions inform your music?

CC: I’m interested in politics, social history, and literature, but I don’t approach any of them in a manner which might be considered erudite. I suppose I tend to believe the evidence of my own lived experience more than the consensus which can grow from the more formal and even-handed approaches which are required in order to obtain and sustain academic qualifications. I do have some such qualifications, some fairly recent, but I don’t see it as my role in life to further the academy, much as I respect the need for such a thing.

My interest in social history, in particular, informs a lot of my writing. Since the mid-2010s and the rise of the current lunacies, for example, I’ve been endlessly examining perspectives on how the world seemed in 1945 and in the years which followed. Millions suffered then and beforehand, [and] one may as well make use of what was revealed.



AD: What in your opinion is the state of the music business these days?

CC: I can’t presume to provide assessments or advice here. It used to be said that Apple could have bought the remaining major [record] labels with its petty cash, and the fact that it didn’t bother doing so, frankly, speaks volumes. All that remains of the mainstream music business is an archipelago of the tech industry, with its surviving Ruritanian nobility still supping on canapes at the edge of a beach where the tide never comes in anymore. But they can bitch about numbers of Likes, and debate whether to go for a dip next April [until] the next stats come in.

There’s hope in small communities of interest, who support certain artists, within a certain genre, maybe. As a means of letting the artists know their work is appreciated, and it’s worth doing more – both extremely valuable things, for most of us –this works. But how to keep body and soul together while doing it? Merch, sync [licensing], yadda yadda – I always like to hear of people who landed on their feet in this way, but really, it tells me nothing about where I myself can go, or where I’d recommend that others go.

AD: What’s next?

CC: The second Telefís album will be out later in 2022; the tracks are finished and mixed, and we’re just mastering it at the moment. After that, there’s [my] next solo album, and interspersed with life generally will probably be the third Telefís album.

AD: What are you looking forward to most in the post-COVID world?

CC: To be honest, this is something I don’t dare think about. There are vivid signs of politics and culture warfare overtaking science, which have so far pushed the thing back. I can’t imagine where we’ll be in six months, much less in a desired hereafter.

The Big Bang Theory

The Big Bang Theory

The Big Bang Theory

Don Kaplan

As I’ve mentioned before in this column, when I was very young and first started listening to music I was initially fascinated by “big” music – stereo recordings of large orchestras and choruses with sounds coming from different directions and distances. I was so taken with percussion instruments I would borrow my father’s portable Sony stereo recorder and tape anything that could be shaken, banged, or struck in order to improvise pieces where sounds moved from one speaker to the other. Even though I now listen primarily to chamber music I still enjoy hearing “big” orchestral music every so often – especially music with a good amount of percussion.

Here’s an odd but varied assortment of pieces where percussion is integral to the music. Percussion, of course, plays an important role in almost every style of music but I thought these selections were particularly notable.

Aaron Copland/Fanfare for the Common Man/Orchestra of St. Luke’s/Sir Gilbert Levine, cond. (video) One of Copland’s most famous pieces, Fanfare for the Common Man was written for brass and percussion and is hard to imagine without its powerful percussive accents.

The Fanfare was composed in 1942, part of 18 fanfares commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to encourage patriotism as America entered the Second World War. It was inspired in part by Vice President Henry A. Wallace’s speech rallying Americans against imperialism. “Some have spoken of the American Century,” Wallace proclaimed. “I say that the century on which we are entering, the century which will come out of this war, can be and must be the century of the common man.” Copland later echoed that sentiment, stating, “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the War and the army. He deserved a fanfare.” [1]

Copland’s Fanfare was later used as the theme for the final movement of his Third Symphony (1946), written in honor of the war’s victory and intended “to reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at the time.”


Béla Bartók/Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion Bartók’s orchestral music is familiar to many listeners, and his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is considered to be one of his masterpieces. There are many recordings of the work available including audiophile reissues of the classic LP with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA Living Stereo):

Bartók’s chamber music, with the exception of his six string quartets, isn’t as well known. The Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion was inspired by the composer’s interest in the piano as a percussive rather than a lyrical instrument. The piece is rarely found on concert programs because the music is difficult to play, it’s hard to find this particular combination of virtuoso pianists and percussionists, and the instrumental sounds have to be carefully balanced. The Sonata is one of Bartók’s most expressive works: my favorite movement is the third, inspired by Hungarian folk music.

The third movement of the Sonata with Martha Argerich and three equally talented musicians is an unbeatable performance (CD):


Here’s a dynamic performance of the entire Sonata including the well-known pianist Jenő Jandó (video):


Dick Schory’s Music For Bang Baaroom and Harp/Dick Schory’s New Percussion Ensemble/RCA Living Stereo (LP) Audiophiles and other listeners still rave about the iconic RCA Living Stereo Series which consisted of great classical music performances (like the Bartók referred to above) in terrific analog sound…sound so good that these early stereo LPs have been issued and reissued many times in many formats. But there was a flip side to these honored releases: popular and easy listening Living Stereo LPs. Those releases included discs with Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops (there’s an LP of Leroy Anderson favorites like “Fiddle-Faddle” and “Sleigh Ride”), LPs of Morton Gould leading his orchestra, and Sergio Franchi singing love songs, and the infamous Dynagroove releases manufactured on vinyl so thin they invited being bent into a taco shape, and always sounded (and tasted) horrible.

So dust off the music console, grab a martini, give the record platter a spin, and settle back for 33 minutes of late 1950s nostalgia with one of those RCA LPs that took a different kind of turn. Dick Schory played with the Chicago Symphony, toured as a performing percussionist, appeared on TV, and directed radio and TV commercials. Schory recorded Music for Bang Baaroom and Harp for RCA in June 1958. The LP was an excellent example of stereophonic sound, which helped to keep it on Billboard’s album chart for two years including six months in the Top 10. Later the album was re-released as a digital CD and was added to Classical CD Review’s Sonic Hall of Fame as an outstanding example of the art of stereo recording.

Recommended listening: Tap along with the “Buck Dance” on track 3, keep your company swinging through the “Ding Dong Polka” (track 4), and move right along to check out the drum playing during the “Duel on the Skins” on track 5.

Cool. Very cool.

“Duel on the Skins” (track 5 at 11 minutes into the LP):


Carl Nielsen/Symphony No. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”)/San Francisco Symphony/Herbert Blomstedt, cond. (CD) Crank up the stereo and prepare yourself for the battling timpani in the fourth movement of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4. Nielsen composed his dramatic symphony in 1914 to reflect his vision of a world at war and the forces that would cause nature to breed new life even though the world had been destroyed. In Nielsen’s own words, “These forces, which are inextinguishable, are what I have tried to represent.” The fourth movement contains a ferocious onslaught from two sets of timpani placed on opposite sides of the orchestra. The battling timpani help drive the music to its conclusion: a celebration of “the inextinguishable.”

The drums are thrilling and great fun to follow. If you’re only interested in hearing the fourth movement, Juanjo Mena conducts the BBC Philharmonic in an exciting, well-played performance. It has the best sound of the examples available on YouTube and comes with a clear, well-photographed video. One of the best recordings of the symphony on CD is Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (London).

Juanjo Mena: the fourth movement starts at approx. 25:15 into the symphony (video):


Herbert Blomstedt (CD):


Harry Partch/And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma: Verse 34”/Ensemble Musikfabrik (video) Composer Harry Partch was most famous for inventing his own instruments and integrating music with art, drama, and dance. All of his instruments are fascinating and produce unusual sounds in part because they are tuned to a microtonal scale of 43 notes per octave instead of the standard 12 notes. Here’s a short example of his work to match this brief description – with visuals, of course!

“And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma: Verse 34”:


David Lang/cheating, lying, stealing/Bang on a Can All-Stars (video) According to The New Yorker, “With his winning of the Pulitzer Prize for The Little Match Girl Passion (one of the most original and moving scores of recent years), Lang, once a post-minimalist enfant terrible, has solidified his standing as an American master.”

Lang’s compositions have been used by major music, dance, and theater organizations throughout the world including the Paris Opera Ballet, the New York City Ballet, and The Netherlands Dance Theater. His website describes him as passionate, prolific, and complex – someone who is committed to music that “embodies the restless spirit of invention…. His works are by turns ominous, ethereal, urgent, hypnotic, unsettling, and very emotionally direct. Much of his work seeks to expand the definition of virtuosity in music – even the deceptively simple pieces can be fiendishly difficult to play and require incredible concentration by musicians and audiences alike.” Lang is also the co-founder and co-artistic director of New York’s music collective Bang on a Can, [2] which leads us to cheating, lying, stealing:

“A couple of years ago, I started thinking about how so often when classical composers write a piece of music, they are trying to tell you something that they are proud of and like about themselves. Here’s this big gushing melody, see how emotional I am. Or, here’s this abstract hard-to-figure-out piece, see how complicated I am, see my really big brain. I am more noble, more sensitive, I am so happy. The composer really believes he or she is exemplary in this or that area. It’s interesting, but it’s not very humble. So, I thought, what would it be like if composers based pieces on what they thought was wrong with them? Like, here’s a piece that shows you how miserable I am. Or, here’s a piece that shows you what a liar I am, what a cheater I am. I wanted to make a piece that was about something disreputable. It’s a hard line to cross. You have to work against all your training. You are not taught to find the dirty seams in music. You are not taught to be low-down, clumsy, sly and underhanded. In cheating, lying, stealing [1993, rev. 1995], although phrased in a comic way, I am trying to look at something dark. There is a swagger, but it is not trustworthy. In fact, the instruction in the score for how to play it says: Ominous funk.” – David Lang [3]

cheating, lying, stealing:


Steve Reich/”Clapping Music” (video) Steve Reich is an American composer who started writing serial music but preferred the diatonic and tonal sound of the minimalist style. [4] His influences include the compositions of Terry Riley, jazz, the Balinese gamelan, music from sub-Saharan Africa, and Middle Eastern singing.

“Clapping Music” (1972) is a classic Reich piece written for two players and performed entirely by clapping. Reich wanted to (in his own words) “create a piece of music that needed no instruments beyond the human body.” The music doesn’t have a melody; it’s composed solely of rhythm. The performer clapping rhythm No. 1 repeats his or her rhythm continuously without changing it. The performer clapping rhythm No. 2 [which is the same as No. 1] shifts the whole pattern an eighth note forward after 12 repetitions – a technique called phrase shifting – and a polyrhythmic texture results as the phrases move out of sync with one another. The process continues until both performers are synchronized once again, clapping the same rhythm in unison.

“Clapping Music” (abbreviated version, no credits provided):


Iannis Xenakis /“Psappha”/Ying-Hsueh Chen, percussion (video) Avant-garde music has always interested me, but there are only a few pieces I listen to on a regular, or slightly irregular, basis. The first time I heard music by Xenakis it sounded like formless noise. But there was something about its primitive, intense sound I enjoyed and wanted to hear more of.

Xenakis was a Romanian-born French composer, architect, and mathematician who originated musique stochastique – music composed with the aid of electronic computers and based upon mathematical probability systems. He built his works on laws and formulas of the physical sciences, and sought to control his music at every instant. He once said, ”This is my definition of an artist, or of a man: to control.” Percussionists in particular enjoyed Xenakis’ music for its vitality and drama. Many listeners did, too, since the solo pieces ”Psappha” (1975) and ”Rebonds” (1988), as well as the sextet ”Pleiades” (1978) became classics of the genre.



Joe Locke/Lay Down My Heart: Blues & Ballads Vol. 1/Joe Locke, vibes (Motema Music CD) Have you developed a headache from all the preceding bing, bang, boom? Rest your ears by listening to vibraphonist Joe Locke’s Lay Down My Heart, a disc of jazz quartet performances designed to restore some calm. Locke states in his album notes that “This music is meant to provide respite for folks who work hard every day and need an opportunity to slow down and be reacquainted with that certain ‘something’ which eludes most of us in the midst of the whirlwind which is modern life. I can’t put a name to what that ‘something’ is, but if this music hits its mark, perhaps you will know what to call it…I’m grateful to the composers represented here, whose songs have touched my heart, made me wanna dance, or simply put a smile on my face.”


Bobby Hutcherson/Happenings/Bobby Hutcherson, vibes and marimba (Blue Note CD) For more good, but livelier, vibrations listen to Bobby Hutcherson, one of Joe Locke’s influences. Hutcherson’s sound is sharper and more percussive than Locke’s and the selections on Happenings are generally faster-paced than those on Lay Down My Heart. Hutcherson’s career took off during the early 1960s as jazz was moving beyond the complex harmonic and rhythmic elements of bebop. He was fluent in that style, but was also one of the first to adapt his instrument to a freer post-bop language, often playing chords with a pair of mallets in each hand.


Native American Music: Tribal Drums and Flute (CD) Two of the most significant types of instruments used by almost all American Indian tribes are drums and rattles. Drums are the oldest instruments on Earth and the ones most important to Native Americans. In Indian culture, drums are thought to speak to the player: The vibrations help the player tune into the natural frequency of the Earth and bring balance and renewal to the drummer. Numerous oral traditions refer to drumbeats as the Earth’s heartbeat (the spirit of life) and rapid drumming can signal the manifestation of a spirit presence. The process of creating and playing a drum combines earth, air, water, and fire – all of the Earth’s elements each with its own sound – resulting in an instrument that represents the circle of life.

The rattle is an instrument of independence. “It is a piece that utilizes what the Native Americans refer to as the three kingdoms or nations. The animal kingdom is represented by the container or feather decorations used on the rattle. The mineral kingdom is represented by rocks used for sound or the paint used for decoration. The plant kingdom is represented by the container (if a gourd is used) or the wooden handle of the rattle. The Native Americans realize that spiritual energy can be derived from the trancelike state that can be induced by music. The rattle causes our bodies and minds both to respond to it. Some cultures believe that music can unblock energy within our bodies and thus heal us of ailments. The beating of the rattle helps break up stagnant energy that is blocking the natural flow within your body. It can also help us focus on our souls, our cores. If you sit quietly alone or with friends and shake a Native American rattle, the music will help you clear your mind and open a doorway to a different emotional place.” [5]


[1] National Public Radio, “Morning Edition,” July 19, 2018.

[2] “When we started Bang on a Can [in 1987], we never imagined that our 12-hour marathon festival of mostly unknown music would morph into a giant international organization dedicated to the support of experimental music, wherever we would find it,” write Bang on a Can Co-Founders Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe. “But it has, and we are so gratified to be still hard at work, all these years later. The reason is really clear to us – we started this organization because we believed that making new music is a utopian act – that people needed to hear this music and they needed to hear it presented in the most persuasive way, with the best players, with the best programs, for the best listeners, in the best context. Our commitment to changing the environment for this music has kept us busy and growing, and we are not done yet.” [From the Bang on a Can website.]

[3] Percussion for this piece includes: marimba, rock bass drum w/foot pedal, anvil or other nasty metal, two tom toms, snare drum, brake drum 1 (high brake drum, medium brake drum, triangle), and brake drum 2 (medium brake drum, low brake drum, triangle). Brake drums 1 and 2 are intended to be separated antiphonally, on either side of the ensemble.

[4] Minimalism is a style that employs limited musical materials. Features include repetitive patterns or pulses, shifting rhythmic patterns, steady drones, consonant harmony, and the repetition of musical phrases or smaller units.

[5] “Native American Rattles,” Indians.org. For more about Native American music see “The Earth’s Heartbeat” in Issue 115.

Header image: the Harry Partch Ensemble. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Niffer Calderwood.

The Everly Brothers: In and Out of Harmony

The Everly Brothers: In and Out of Harmony

The Everly Brothers: In and Out of Harmony

Anne E. Johnson

With their boyish good looks, energetic and hummable tunes, and perfectly-matched voices, the Everly Brothers enraptured the American public and the world. While they were at it, they turned the concept of vocal harmony in pop music permanently on its head and spearheaded a new genre that blended elements of rock and roll, country, bluegrass, and folk.

Phil Everly, born in 1939, was two years younger than his brother Don. Their parents performed as a country-western act, just as their grandparents had. Once both boys were born (Don in Kentucky and Phil in Chicago), the family moved to Iowa. At the station KMA in Shenandoah, their dad, Ike Everly, worked as a staff artist, playing guitar with a unique thumb-picking technique that would influence Merle Travis and Mark Knopfler.

The whole Everly family took a regular radio gig in Tennessee in 1953; when that ended, Don and Phil made their way to Nashville. But even their dad’s friend Chet Atkins couldn’t land them a record deal. Their sound just wasn’t quite country enough. After a couple of years of getting doors slammed in their faces, the Everly Brothers signed with Cadence Records. Their first single was the monster hit “Bye Bye Love.” You can bet plenty of A&R men were suddenly brimming with regret.

That 1957 debut, The Everly Brothers, also included “Wake Up Little Susie” and “This Little Girl of Mine.” The music-buying public was hooked. But instead of immediately putting out another record of more of the same sugar-sweet pop, they switched gears and released an album of Kentucky folk songs and ballads called Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.

Among its traditional offerings is the slow, eerie murder ballad “Down in the Willow Garden.” The darling, All-American boys who’d sung about Little Susie delivered these grim lines:

I drew a saber through her/It was a bloody night
I threw her in the river/Which was a dreadful sight


But murder ballads aside, Cadence soon had them churning out chart-toppers again, “Bird Dog,” “Devoted to You,” and “Let It Be Me” among them.

Warner Brothers snatched them up in 1960 and quickly put out some of the Everly’s biggest sellers such as “Cathy’s Clown” and “Walk Right Back.” To Warner’s credit, they sank a lot of money into skillful arrangements and top-echelon session musicians to make these songs irresistible.

But the music industry, at a kind of crossroads as rock music was finding its footing, proved disappointingly fickle. Of the Everly’s 14 albums made during the 1960s, only the first two had any impact on the charts: It’s Everly Time and A Date with the Everly Brothers each peaked at the No. 9 spot.

They lost more momentum by enlisting in the Marines. Then a legal dispute made them lose access to the song library of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who had penned “Bye Bye Love,” “All I have to Do Is Dream,” and “Wake Up Little Susie.” The meteoric rise in popularity of the Beatles was a further blow for the already struggling duo.

Warner seemed determined to market the Everlys as straight-up country, in hopes it would keep them afloat. The ploy didn’t really work, although The Everly Brothers Sing Great Country Hits (1963) has some nice tracks. Three of these old-school country songs are by Don Gibson, including “Oh Lonesome Me,” which Gibson had recorded with Chet Atkins in 1957. The Everlys’ version is a hair faster and in a higher key.


Still, the duo would not leave behind their rock and roll roots, which was problematic in terms of trying to market them from both the country and the rock angle. Their interest in preserving a retro style in the middle of the British Invasion made them seem old-fashioned and square. In hindsight, though, these are good albums.

For example, Rock’n Soul (1965) includes the Lieber and Stoller favorite “Kansas City,” which had already enjoyed several high-profile recordings. One, in Little Richard’s medley with “Hey Hey Hey,” had made its way across the Atlantic to knock the socks off Paul McCartney. The Beatles, commercial arch-enemies (and huge fans) of the Everly Brothers, released their version in 1964. So, the song’s appearance on this album was surely no accident.


The relationship between the Everlys and the British Invasion was complicated. Although the two sides were in competition, there was profound mutual admiration. Hence the Everly album Two Yanks in England (1966), featuring an amazing, largely uncredited roster of up-to-the-minute British artists.

Using the pseudonym L. Ransford, Allan Clarke, Tony Hicks and Graham Nash wrote most of the songs on that album, and The Hollies were the backing band for several tracks. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones showed up, too, before they were famous. They all appreciated Don and Phil. As Bob Dylan once said of the Everly Brothers, “We owe these guys everything. They started it all.” The Hicks/Nash number “I’ve Been Wrong Before” is one of the songs written for the duo they so admired, effectively making them part of the British Invasion.


Although the 1968 album Roots didn’t sell very well at first, it’s now considered essential listening by historians of the country rock genre. Some argue that the Everlys invented country rock. The world just wasn’t quite ready.

The track list leans toward country, but the arrangements lean toward rock. Yet, mixed in with numbers by Jimmie Rogers, Glen Campbell, and Merle Haggard is a surprise: “Illinois” by Randy Newman, using piano instead of guitar and a train-like pattern on the snare.


The Everlys kept making music in the 1970s, switching to RCA Records. They also started working in the studio with guitarist Waddy Wachtel, who soon joined their touring band, along with Warren Zevon, who served as music director and keyboardist.

The duo seemed to want to move beyond their signature sound and repertoire, as can be heard in the 1973 album Pass the Chicken and Listen. While they continued honing their country rock sound, they also kept in touch with their bluegrass and mountain music foundation, as in this nostalgic version of John Prine’s “Paradise.”


But being co-workers onstage and real-life brothers offstage was becoming more than they could stand. Phil was having drug problems. They fought constantly. In 1973, having tried to make Los Angeles their base of operations, Don moved back to Nashville, leaving his brother behind.

Both continued their musical careers individually. After 11 years apart, the Everly Brothers got back together in 1983. They started with a TV special in London, for which they convinced an enthusiastic Paul McCartney to write a special song, “On the Wings of a Nightingale.” Then they hit the studio. McCartney’s song opened Side One of Mercury Records’ EB84, the last time the Everly Brothers made the Top 100.

The reunion didn’t last long; they made their final studio album in 1988. But getting back together was worth it for some of the music they created, marked by an appealing roughness that they’d never allowed themselves in the high-polished early decades. One highlight of EB84 is “Danger Danger,” by Scottish rocker Frankie Miller.


Both Everly Brothers are gone: Phil died in 2014 and Don in 2021. Their unique musical contribution lives on in obvious tributes like Simon and Garfunkel, in subtler manifestations like the harmonized choruses of Queen or Van Halen songs, and more recently in the proliferation of vocal-harmony pop groups like Pentatonix.

To think that it all started with those old Kentucky songs their daddy taught them.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/publicity photo, retouched by GDuwen.

James Reese Europe: Jazz Rhythm in Army Boots

James Reese Europe: Jazz Rhythm in Army Boots

James Reese Europe: Jazz Rhythm in Army Boots

Anne E. Johnson

There are great bandleaders, great composers, and great organizers, inventors, and advocates. And then there was James Reese Europe (1881 – 1919), who excelled in every one of those endeavors. While his most famous work was in the realm of ragtime and military marches, he had an impact on American music that reached far beyond any particular genre.

First and foremost, Europe was a Black musician who made Black music. He was always crystal clear and fiercely proud about that. When he worked as a military bandleader during World War I, his colleagues from the allied armies couldn’t match his captivating sound or figure out why, and he let them know that it was all about staying true to his African-American identity in his music.

Europe was born in Alabama and grew up in Washington, DC. In 1904 he moved to New York City and dived head first into the Black theater scene. He primarily worked as an orchestra conductor for musical revues like The Shoo-Fly Regiment, a show for which he also provided one song. That landed him more compositional work in the theater, and eventually he got to conduct for one of the most important Black performers of that era, Bert Williams.

In 1910, Reese embarked on a different endeavor, discovering his gift for artist management and advocacy. First through an organization called the Clef Club and then through the Tempo Club, he acted as a combination traffic cop and union boss, finding and distributing work for hundreds of Black musicians in New York and making sure payment was made. While he was at it, he advocated for the music itself. In 1912 he organized a 125-person spectacle at Carnegie Hall called “A Concert of Negro Music.” In the midst of all this, Europe continued to conduct, compose, and perform; he and the dance team Vernon and Irene Castle are credited with inventing two of the most popular dance crazes of the era, the Turkey Trot and the Foxtrot!

Before the war, he recorded his unique blend of jazz and ragtime on the RCA Victor label, but his more profound and longer-lasting contribution to American composition came when he joined the Army as a commissioned officer during World War I. He scoured America and its territories – particularly Puerto Rico – for musicians to join his military band, which came to be known as the 369th Regiment Harlem Hellfighters Band.

When he came home from the War in 1919, he should have had a long and illustrious career laid out before him. Instead, it all ended within months. A drummer named Herbert Wright, believing he’d been cheated on his pay, cut Europe in the neck with a knife. Not very concerned, Europe stopped by the hospital to be treated. He died an hour later.

Although his life was too short, he packed a lot of important work into it. Enjoy these eight great tracks by James Reese Europe.

  1. Single: “Irresistible – Tango Argentine”
    Label: RCA Victor
    Year: 1913

This is one of the RCA Victor recordings that Europe cut before joining the Army. The all-Black ensemble, which he managed through his Clef Club, went by the name James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra.

“El Irresistible,” as the song was originally called, was a hit tune during the decade before the War. It was composed by Italian-Argentinian clarinetist Lorenzo Logatti.

  1. Single: “Castle House Rag”
    Label: Victor
    Year: 1914

One of the greatest accolades that can be awarded to an American musician is to have one of their works added to the National Registry of Recordings. Europe was so honored in 2004 for this recording of “Castle House Rag.”

“Castle” here refers not to medieval buildings that royalty lived in, but to the dancing duo Vernon and Irene Castle. This extremely popular act – two white people – shocked New York society by hiring Europe’s Black musicians to be their regular backing band.

  1. Single: “Castles in Europe”
    Label: C.L. Barnhouse
  2. Year: (Modern recording) 2018

The number of recordings of Europe performing is very limited, and all of those have sonic problems. But that does not take away from the importance of the music itself. Thus, his music has been given new life through modern arrangements and recordings.

“Castles in Europe” is the title that RCA Victor originally printed on the labels of “Castle House Rag” in 1914. Europe’s own arrangement was for his 10-man Society Orchestra. This recording of Europe’s beloved ragtime march is an arrangement by Chandler L. Wilson, who was commissioned to write it by the US Army Training and Doctrine Command Band.

  1. Single: “Broadway Hit Medley”
    Label: Pathé
    Year: 1919

When Europe was in France during the war, he signed a deal with Pathé, one of the few widely-distributed record companies at the time. This recording, made with his famed Hellfighters regimental band, was completed during his final months overseas in 1919.

This “Broadway Hit Medley” includes four hit tunes from New York revues: “I’ve Got the Blue Ridge Blues,” “Madelon,” “Till We Meet Again,” and “Smiles.” We’re lucky to have such a clean copy of this disc available. The arrangement illustrates Europe’s unique combination of stentorian marching band sound, flowing swing motion, and ragtime syncopation.

  1. Single: “Memphis Blues”
    Label: Radio broadcast
    Year: 1919

Because he had so few chances to record in studios, it’s fortunate that a few of the Hellfighters’ radio broadcasts from France were captured and preserved.

Here the band is playing one of the favorites among their European colleagues in military band circles, “Memphis Blues.” The French musicians couldn’t believe the rhythm and energy of this tune, and badgered Europe to find out how he did it. His response, reportedly, was that this was how Black music sounded.

  1. Single: “Jazzola”
    Label: Pathé
    Year: 1919

This Pathé single features one of Europe’s closest friends, a singer and drummer named Noble Sissle. He knew Europe from New York, in the days before the War, and joined up with his friend, becoming a lieutenant as well as the drum major of the Hellfighters.

The song “Jazzola” was a Foxtrot (a jumpy rhythm in 4/4 time with a strong accent on beats one and four and often including a “backwards” dotted rhythm – shorter note first – also known as a “Scotch snap”). It was composed by popular ragtime and Dixieland pianist J. Russel Robinson.

  1. Single: “How You Gonna Keep ʼEm Down on the Farm”
    Label: Pathé
    Year: 1919

This was one of the songs that New York society demanded to hear Europe’s band play over and over when he returned from the War, in the few months he had to bask in his fame.

“How You Gonna Keep ʼEm Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)” jokes about how soldiers from rural areas got spoiled by the worldliness they experienced when they went off to war overseas. It was recorded many times by singing stars like Sophie Tucker and Eddie Cantor. Here, Sissle is featured again as singer. The band plays the whole 32-bar tune as an instrumental first before the vocal comes in.

  1. Work: James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters: The Absence of Ruin
    Live performance at the Kennedy Center
    Year: 2021

Jason Moran is the artistic director at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. In 2018 he wrote and arranged this 60-minute meditation on the music and influence of James Reese Europe on both the jazz scene and the lives of African American musicians.

Using tunes that Europe either composed or helped popularize as his building materials, pianist Moran has created a medley for piano, wind band, bass, and percussion. If you want to jump past the ethereal opening and right into an energetic, rag-inspired movement, head to 12:09 on this video.

Gazing Back Into the Abyss

Gazing Back Into the Abyss

Gazing Back Into the Abyss

Tom Methans

This past May 2 marked the ninth anniversary of thrash metal guitarist Jeff Hanneman’s (1964 – 2013) passing at age 49. He was a founding member of Slayer, which formed in Huntington Park, California, and played continuously from 1981 to 2011. Due to health issues, Gary Holt of Exodus took over touring duties and played with Slayer after Hanneman died of liver disease. Slayer powered on through their final tour just before COVID-19 shutdown, and I got to see them one last time in 2017 before they disbanded two years later.

There I was at The Theater at Madison Square Garden as one of the aging metalheads. Some guys looked old and frumpy in their extra-large Slayer shirts. Some opted for weightlifting instead of beer-guzzling and appeared disturbingly buff for metal fans, while others, who presumably still enjoyed drinking heavily, bellowed “S-L-A-Y-Y-Y-Y-E-R!” across the venue to locate each other – I’ve been a charming mélange of all three categories. By that time, I had been listening for 26 years and I can pinpoint the day I became a fan: Saturday, April 6, 1991 – sometime around 2 am while watching MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball hosted by Riki Rachtman.

The show, which has been airing hard rock and heavy metal videos on one platform or another since 1987, coincided with the end of my restaurant shift as I rushed to the bodega for a few oil cans of Foster’s Lager and back to my studio apartment to catch as many bands as possible. I waited for videos by Ozzy Osbourne, Iron Maiden, and Motörhead and generally avoided newer material by Van Halen impersonators in fluorescent spandex, makeup, and big hair. The Ball seemed to get worse by the week as MTV incorporated more pop, more ballads, and more soft-metal from LA’s Sunset Strip.

Suddenly, an auspicious sound came out of my 2-inch TV speaker. Did Riki say the band was called Slaughter, or Slayer? The black and white intro lays an ominous foundation with the Sphinx, pyramids, and papyrus scrolls. Musicians I had never seen before appear first in a tomb and then on a single-sail barge being ferried across a foggy river. Shadowy figures build tension for two minutes and 22 seconds until a blue sky finally illuminates the screen. The blackness of the band’s clothing and hair (except for Hanneman, who was blond), instruments, and Marshall amp stacks create a stark contrast to the sun-bleached landscape. Filmed in tight frames and cropped images, the photographer creates a sense of claustrophobia even in the desert’s vastness. Slow motion shots capture band members while men on galloping horses mirror the tempo and increase chaos. The video makes it seem like we’ve been awake for 24 hours, but catharsis arrives at six minutes and 33 seconds: two camels stand in silhouette against the glow of the setting sun, and we are slowly released from the abyss unscathed.


Slayer, final world tour, 2019: Paul Bostaph, Kerry King, Tom Araya, Gary Holt. Courtesy of Tom Tronckoe.

Slayer, final world tour, 2019: Paul Bostaph, Kerry King, Tom Araya, Gary Holt. Courtesy of Tom Tronckoe.


“Seasons in the Abyss” from the album of the same name reminded me of the opening scenes of The Exorcist (1973) filmed in Iraq, combined with the video of Love’s “Alone Again Or” (1987) performed by The Damned. From then on, I stayed up late every Saturday night to see Slayer, wading through hours of fluff. Having made only six music videos, Slayer were live performers, not screen actors, and it would have been unimaginable to see them partying in a strip club with models, pretending to be a rock and roll street gang in motorcycle chaps, or pantomiming B-movie horror scripts. Austrian director Markus Blunder conveyed the dark sensibility of the song without violence or gore but by tapping into our own imaginations with locations and symbols to flesh out the few discernible lyrics:

“Close your eyes
Look deep in your soul
Step outside yourself
And let your mind go”

The video could have been filmed in California’s Death Valley with stock footage of the Giza Necropolis inserted, but it wasn’t. According to the Rolling Stone article “Slayer Reflect on ‘Seasons in the Abyss’ Egyptian Video Odyssey” by Kory Grow (May 20, 2016), Rick Rubin came up with the idea to shoot in Cairo, Egypt. A tall order, but as Slayer’s producer and president of Def American Records at the time, Rubin could make that happen – and just before UNESCO, the Egyptian government, and archeologists recommended limiting further potentially destructive activity at the 4,500-year-old site.

Egyptian antiquities perfectly express the song’s mystery, and it wouldn’t have been as magnificent if filmed anywhere else. Blunder weaves a thrash song into a fabric of hieroglyphs and archetypes of sun, fire, desert, and river. He seems to have a knack for filming in nature, as you get a sense of the wind as it coats the drum kit with a layer of sand.

The embodiment of Slayer as a live band can be seen between 2:22 and 6:00 into the video, with singer/bassist Tom Araya in the forefront, Dave “Godfather of Double Bass” Lombardo on drums, and Hanneman and Kerry King trading leads on guitars. At 4:11, Araya does some monumental headbanging which hooked me completely. I went right to Tower Records and bought the CD of Seasons in the Abyss, their fifth out of 12 albums spanning their career, which started me on a journey into Slayer’s early records as well as future releases.

As a lifelong prog-rock fan, this was my first descent into the depths of Slayer’s songwriting, covering subjects related to war, religion, and people like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein. It does beg the question as to why anyone would create or listen to such bleak material. While Stephen King and John Carpenter invented tales of terror, Slayer’s songwriters reflected the world back to us from their own vantage points – Tom Araya is a practicing Catholic, Kerry King is an anti-theist, and Jeff Hanneman came from a family of war veterans. Functioning in the same way as horror stories, myths, and fairy tales, Slayer’s music opens a portal to nightmares and allows us to confront, reconcile, and relieve the anxiety around our collective fears.

I still listen to thrash metal – especially as I memorialize Jeff Hanneman, and recall the early days of music videos. After watching “Seasons in the Abyss” for the hundredth time, I’m still amazed at its style, impact, and fresh appearance after 31 years. While so many videos from the era have aged terribly, the Slayer/Blunder collaboration on the Nile River and Giza Plateau stands apart from modern time and place. Seasons continues to engage the emotions, unconscious, and intellect, like any enduring and evocative work of art that lets us step outside of ourselves and let our minds go for a bit.


Header image of Slayer in the 1980s courtesy of Neil Zlozower. Left to right: Tom Araya, Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman, Dave Lombardo.

Pilgrimage to Sturgis, Part 21

Pilgrimage to Sturgis, Part 21

Pilgrimage to Sturgis, Part 21

B. Jan Montana

There’s something about a garage that makes guys feel comfortable. Perhaps, deep down in our primordial brains, it reminds us of the protection and safety of caves. All the light comes from one big opening, which we would invariably face to protect the things we love against bears and other aggressive animals. The walls are irregular – covered in shelves and the awkward things on them. The floor is dirt – well, dirty, without the need for regular sanitation. Nobody cares if you spill a beer on the floor, or get dirty fingerprints on the lawn chairs, or talk too loudly. The living room may be a woman’s sanctuary, but the garage is the man-cave – no teacups, doilies, or wine glasses allowed.

Of course, a garage is not a home without a drinking buddy, and KP was as entertaining as any. He was doing his best to ignore his injured finger, though I could tell the anesthetic was wearing off. I enjoyed his story about Candy’s brother, and admired Jake for turning his life around.

About an hour after going in, Jake came out of the house and walked towards his car. When he saw us relaxing in the garage, he came over and pulled up a chair.

“Candy is an amazing person,” he said. “She had such a hard life as a child, and she’s become such a warm, loving person as an adult. She could have been another resentful, angry, addicted prostitute like our mother, and in fact, in her teens, she was, but she’s turned her life around to become exactly the opposite. You’ve got to admire that.”

“The Creator has placed many trials, tribulations, and obstacles in our lives, Jake, but once in a while, he sends an angel to lighten our burden.” I proffered, “That’s how I feel about Candy.”

“Right,” KP commented; “She’s like a gift from heaven.”

“You wouldn’t have said that 10 years ago. She was a bitter, angry teenager.”

“10 years ago, you weren’t driving a big Mercedes. You’ve come a long way too.”

“I was lucky, I had a Big Brother. We didn’t have a Big Sisters organization in town till years later, so Candy never benefited from a positive adult influence like I did.”

“I’d be interested in hearing about that, Jake.”

“Well, KP probably told you that I was pretty much lost as a kid. My father had deserted me and my mother didn’t have time for me. When I failed grade four, I convinced myself that the world was out to destroy me. I was overwhelmed by it. Our mother was never home so it seemed that I was the only one who cared about me. I felt all alone in the world – like a mountaintop pine tree in a raging snowstorm.

The second fourth grade teacher I had recognized that I was headed towards the dark side and recommended me to the Big Brothers organization. They sent a Big Brother to the school, and Bernt seemed like the kindest person I’d ever met. I agreed to be his Little Brother and my mother signed the forms. That’s when my life started to change.”

“Sounds like he had a positive influence on you.”

“Oh yah, but it wasn’t so much what he said – at least, not initially – it was the fact that I no longer felt like a lonely pine in a storm; I had a much bigger tree next to me shielding me from the elements. When a little kid is convinced that there is somebody else who really cares about him, his world changes. I felt much safer and less subject to catastrophe, so I became much less angry and defensive.

Whenever I felt the winds turning against me, I could talk to Bernt and he would straighten me out. He’d tell me things like, ‘The winds aren’t turning against you, Jake, they’re just turning and you happen to be in the way. If you take it personally, they’ll defeat you, but if you shrug your shoulders and believe that you can weather them, they’ll quit.’

I’d never heard things like that before and it changed my life.”

“You quit school at 16 Jake, didn’t he try to talk you out of that?” KP asked.

“Nope, we talked about it for a long time. He recognized that I had no academic interests and that I was itching to be independent. He presented all the possible choices I could make, but when it became clear to him that my priority was to get the hell out of my mother’s house, he agreed. He helped to get me the job at Firestone tires. A friend of his managed it.”

“It’s too bad that didn’t work out for you,” I said.

“Here’s what my Big Brother said when I got fired: ‘I know you’ll be inclined to see this as a set-back, Jake, perhaps even another rejection like your father rejected you, but that’s wrong. This is the universe telling you that it has bigger plans for you.’



That was a life-changing lesson for me. Instead of becoming depressed, I became determined. With my Big Brother’s help and encouragement, I opened my own tire shop. And the rest, as they say, is history.”

“Do you ever miss finishing high school or getting a college education?”

“Bernt encouraged me to read and lent me many books, starting with Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. That had a profound influence on me, which led to many discussions, which led to Bernt lending me other books and referring me to the library. Initially, books were an escape out of my life, but with time, they taught me how to deal with life. So no, I feel unschooled but not uneducated.”

“You don’t talk like someone who’s uneducated.”

“Despite what I just said, KP, I’m not sure education is the route to happiness. I vacationed in Guatemala last year and took a tour of some of the outlying villages. The people were poor and uneducated, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many smiles or heard so much laughter. Maybe ignorance really is bliss?”

“Is your Big Brother still around?” I asked.

“Oh yah, but he moved to Florida when he retired. He said he couldn’t take winters anymore. We stay in touch by phone though.

One time, I told him I owed him a lot. He responded, ‘No you don’t, you owe some other little kid a lot.’

That’s when I signed up to be a Big Brother, and I see my little guy making all the same mistakes I did. It’s such a pleasure to be able to help him. If all fatherless kids had a Big Brother, the whole world would improve.”

“Or at least a lot of neighborhoods. Without adult supervision, kids turn to older kids for guidance, and a lot of them are users and abusers leading gangs.”

“Right Montana, most of us can’t change the world, but we can improve our neighborhoods, and if all neighborhoods are improved, who knows, maybe things will get better with the world.”

“Well, the world of the kids who are helped will certainly improve, and that’s enough to make it worthwhile,” KP added.

“I’ll never forget the feelings of utter desolation, rejection, and alienation I felt when I failed grade four,” Jake said. That’s the feeling Edvard Munch must have felt when he painted ‘The Scream.’ If there’s a hell, that’s what it feels like. All a Big Brother has to do to rescue a kid from that agony is to be there for him, make him feel like he’s not alone, that there’s somebody else on his team. For a kid like that, that’s salvation.”

“Never thought of it that way,” KP reflected, “My old man wasn’t the nicest guy in the world, but at least he was there when I needed him. I never felt like I was deserted or totally alone.”

Jake said, “I was really tempted to drift back into that feeling when I got canned from Firestone. In fact, I wallowed in it during the first evening. It happened again when I had some setbacks in my first year of tire shop ownership. A devil on my shoulder tried to tell me that I would never make it, I didn’t have the skills; besides, I didn’t deserve it. I don’t know where this crap comes from, but when I told Bernt about it, he had a great response.

‘Never give up Jake! You may go down, but if you do, go fighting. Then you’ll have given it your best shot. If you give up to that little red bastard on your shoulder, he’ll never let you forget it. That’ll handicap you in your next venture. Everybody who succeeds has failed, often more than once. It’s just part of the dance of life.’

So, I did just that. I determined that if I go down, I’ll go down as a warrior, not as a prisoner. I was almost captured a few times, but I fought my way through, and now I own the biggest tire shop in town. Not bad for a grade four failure.”

“You’re a star Jake, and Bernt is an inspiration. When I get home, I’m signing up to be a Big Brother.”

And I did. I was a Big Brother for over 10 years.


Previous installments appeared in Issues 143144145146147148149150151152153154155156157158, 159, 160,  161 and 162.

Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/SplitShire.

Running Hot and Cold

Running Hot and Cold

Running Hot and Cold

James Whitworth
"Every time I play any hot jazz the equipment rack melts."