Issue 36

Across the Chronographic Divide

Across the Chronographic Divide

Bill Leebens

Welcome to Copper #36!

I recently crossed the Continental Divide, twice...going west, then coming back home, going east. And now we've passed the Chronographic  Divide of this year. The difference is that there's no going back across this divide, and it's all downhill from here.

There's a lot going on in this issue. Professor Schenbeck offers a a review of some high points of the classical guitar catalog;  Dan Schwartz explains why he would never, ever review cables;Richard Murison digresses on a chase; Jay Jay French recalls why 1967 was the year rock 'n' roll became Rock; Duncan Taylor introduces another young musical phenom, Bella Betts ; Anne E. Taylor brings us the young indie artist Little Simz; Woody Woodward looks back at Firesign Theatre; Dan McCauley reviews the latest from Benjamin Booker; Industry News looks at the good news/bad news/more bad news from Spotify; and I  ponder that whole audio evangelism thing a little more and conclude the series on horns.

Our features are particularly strong this time out: John Seetoo returns with an in-depth 2-part interview with mastering legend Steve Hoffman; Jim Smith looks at EQ, DSP, and maybe a few other abbreviations; and finally, for something completely different----we have a short story by Paul McGowan.

As if to answer the admittedly-overwrought question, "is there nothing our polymath Publisher can't do?" (>cough<)---Copper #36 wraps up with another Parting Shot from Paul.

Until nest issue---Happy Independence Day!

Cheers, Leebs.


How about 4th of July fireworks---viewed from the air?


Issue 36

Issue 36

Issue 36

Paul McGowan

Spotify: Bigger User Base, Bigger Losses

Bill Leebens

[Spotify has not issued a press-release on several recent developments which I feel are important, and of interest to the music and audio worlds. Unlike most Industry News columns, in this instance I will outline a string of events based on multiple news reports, and include links to several of those reports. This will of necessity include some history of Spotify  and the precedents set by peer-to-peer music-sharing networks. Hang on—it’s gonna be a bumpy ride!—Ed.]

The Spotify we know, the developer of music-streaming on the web, is Spotify AB, based in Stockholm, Sweden. It in turn is a subsidiary of Spotify Ltd., based in London…which is in turn a subsidiary of Spotify Technology SA, based in Luxembourg. The company is presumably structured that way for financial and tax reasons, but it makes getting direct information on Spotify’s financial situation a little elusive. The company’s annual reports are filed in Luxembourg.

The company was founded in Stockholm in 2006 by Daniel  Ek and Martin Lorentzon, young entrepreneurs who had sold their companies for large amounts of cash, and were looking for something to do. At that time the music industry was still wary and shell-shocked by Napster’s influence/damage (depending on which side you were on) to their distribution models. As often occurs—look at politics—well-intentioned actions have unforeseen consequences. The industry was so focused on getting rid of Napster (which was shut down in 2001 following a long, drawn-out suit by the RIAA) that they seemed unaware that the marketplace, now acclimated  to free or nearly-free music, would fill the void. And so it did: after Napster vaporized, Kazaa, BitTorrent, Limewire, and dozens of other peer-to-peer sharing networks appeared.

So: when Ek and Lorentzon began to talk to record labels about their vision of shared, streamed music, the response was less than enthusiastic. While their vision was of a worldwide network, the reality of rejection forced them to begin more modestly. In 2008, with the cooperation of a few Scandinavian labels, Spotify went live in Sweden.

Over the next few years, Spotify expanded to several European countries, the service went live in the US, and is now available in fifty-eight countries. The company has received half a billion dollars in venture capital, and has licensing agreements with every major label.

Growth wasn’t an easy process, and it wasn’t always a lovefest. Many artists still claim Spotify and other streaming services (including Pandora, Tidal, Qobuz, and Apple Music) systematically underpay them. Viewing Spotify as yet another music-industry structure designed to cheat artists, Thom Yorke of Radiohead referred to it as “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse”.

Along the way, Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster and the first president of Facebook, joined Spotify as a board member. Purely aside from his $7.5B personal wealth, Parker is nearly legendary for his ability to predict trends. He was viewed as  the primary driver of Facebook’s success, which, in the eyes of the tech and music worlds,  eradicated the taint of Napster. More on that in a moment.

With growth comes recognition, if not necessarily respect: earlier this year, Daniel Ek was listed the most influential man in the music industry in Billboard magazine’s “Power 100” list. The news has not all been rosy this year, however. This spring the company announced that 10 million paying members had been added in the previous year, bringing their paying list up to 50 million. Total users (including users of the limited, free version) was up to 140 million, eclipsing the 27 million announced by Apple Music, and the often-disputed 3 million users claimed by Tidal. At the same time of the announcement, Spotify’s newly-launched player was widely condemned as buggy and just plain unworkable.

In June, a class-action suit brought against Spotify by a group of songwriters claiming massive underpayment  was settled for $43M. There had been a number of similar suits filed against Spotify, but all the others had been filed by groups like ASCAP and BMI.

The upheaval continued later that same month. In Luxembourg, the company released its annual report for 2016. It verified the user-stats of 50M/140M, but also showed that the company’s losses had increased from $257M in 2015 to nearly $600M in 2016. In 2016, revenue had increased 52 percent from the year before, up to $3.3B—-but during the period of 2014-2015, revenue had increased 78%.  For a company supposedly eager to stage an IPO, the decline in growth rate and massive increase in losses were not good news.

The bad news continued in June, as Sean Parker left his seat on the Spotify board. The board added new members with substantial credibility in the financial world, but Parker’s departure was viewed by many as indicating a lack of confidence in the prospects of staging the IPO. Shortly therafter, Apple announced a rare price-cut, offering a yearly subscription rate for Apple Music that would reduce monthly cost from $10 to $8.25. The move was clearly designed to draw paying users from Spotify and Pandora while the companies were floundering a bit (Spotify’s IPO stalled; Pandora’s CEO just left after a continuing string of poor financial reports).

As prospects for an IPO to raise new capital seem dimmed, Spotify is reportedly considering the unusual step of a direct listing on a public exchange, which would eliminate the costs of underwriting an IPO, but would also eliminate the influx of cash which accompanies a well-hyped public offering.

Competition between streaming services will likely increase, and undoubtedly some will fall by the wayside. The only thing certain is that it will be interesting to watch.

Change of Title

Paul McGowan
Hap Nielsen pulled his pickup off the rural highway onto a dirt road that angled off into trees, and parked it out of sight of headlights. He and the others lifted the body from the truck’s bed and threw it on the dirt. The four teenagers took turns kicking and clubbing its bloodied overalls, sweatshirt, and boots. Hap shrugged. “He looks dead enough to me.” The other three dragged the slack body to the highway, the lifeless head bouncing against the trail. As they lay the corpse face up in the road, Hap settled atop a large boulder and checked his gun. Loaded. A chorus of summer crickets surrounded them as they tensed in the shadows. Suddenly, the highway turned to daylight. With a loud boomp boomp, a car mangled the torso and screeched to a halt. The body, now crumpled on the asphalt, was lit red by taillights. The car roared away. “Shit!” said one boy. “Hit and run!” “Hang on!” said Hap. “Here comes another one.” Again the body was brightly lit, but this car swerved to miss it. Doors were flung open. Soon, gasps of horror turned to cries of panic under a hail of rocks. “What the hell?” It was old man Crawley, shielding his head as he knelt next to the body. “Dammit! This is a dummy!” The beam of a flashlight bobbed toward them. As the boys blinked, Hap aimed his gun at the bright, bouncing light. He fired. The light stopped, and a rough voice cursed. The light advanced again. Hap fired twice more. “They got a paintball gun!” yelled Crawley. “Sonsa bitches!” The light faded, retreated. A door slammed, and the car sped away into the dark. Half an hour later, the sound of a third vehicle broke the crickets’ song. The boys readied themselves. Tires screeched, doors opened, lights again moved toward the lifeless lump on the road. The world flashed bright red and blue. “It’s the cops!” Hap pressed himself as close as he could to the rock. His heart pounded hard enough that he worried it could be heard. His ears burned. Bright flashlight beams played over the boulders as red and blue washed the landscape. Hap held his breath. Suddenly, he was blinded. “Gotcha!” “Who is it?” Hap recognized the sheriff’s voice. “The Nielsen kid,” said the man pinning Hap’s arms behind his back. “Cuff him.” Unable to shield his eyes with his hands, Hap closed them against the sheriff’s strong light. Suddenly, he was on the ground, unable to breathe. His right side felt as if a nail had been pounded into it. The sheriff holstered his baton, and the deputy yanked Hap, still doubled over, to his feet. “Dammit, Hap, you know better’n this. You coulda killed somebody. If I was your father, you’d get more of a whuppin’ than I just gave you.” “Hnnnnn,” Hap groaned. “Throwing bodies in the road? Pelting people with stones? What if you hit one of them in the face?” “Uhhh. Hnnnn.” “Lock him up.” Early the next morning, Roald Nielsen said little to anyone as he waited at the jail. Later, he drove Hap in silence past Montana ranchlands browned from the hot summer. Along their long dirt driveway their border collies, Cyrus and Aggie, raced the car and barked. “Your folks won’t be back for another week, son. I was gettin’ ready fer the backcountry when the sheriff called. You’re in my custody now, so saddle up.” Atlas, jet black and 17 hands tall, and Chico, 15 hands and spotted gray, with a dark mane, glistened with sweat as they trudged up the mountain trail, rocking as they carefully placed each hoof. Indian paintbrush and bitterroot peeked through the patchy green of the forest floor. The dogs ran ahead, then dashed back. The trail turned from soft dirt to hard granite, and the horses’ hooves clattered as they climbed. Below the small summit, a raging stream echoed through a canyon; their mounts snorted in relief at the downward trail. They tied the horses to a tree by a quiet bend in the stream. Hap gathered wood, brushed and fed Atlas and Chico, then pitched the tents as Roald cooked a pot of beans. They ate in silence. “You’re pissed at me,” Hap said. “Disappointed’s more like it. You’re doin’ what teenagers do, but given how much you care for animals, I thought you’d be kinder to people. You did damage, Hap. Worse, you risked lives.” The horses whinnied; Hap and the dogs looked their way. Yellow firelight cut through the inky night. “Hap, you know your folks have been fighting.” “I know.” He chewed his beans. “I guess I’m part of the reason.” “I doubt it’s you. They haven’t been happy together for a long time now. They’re in Billings seein’ a lawyer. They’re gettin’ a divorce.” The fire popped and threw sparks at their feet. Hap watched as the angry embers burned and died. An owl’s screech echoed through the tight canyon. The dogs crept closer to the tents, and Hap pulled his collar close. His grandfather stared into the flames. “I know it’s hard, son, but we need to talk about the ranch. Your Oma and me built it together, and before she passed I gave ’er my word I’d keep it in the family long as I could. Our dream was that someday your children would take care of the land, as we have. “Your folks’ situation makes things tough. Oma and me, we owned the property together, but now she’s gone it falls to me, and I’ve divided it equally between you and your dad. In my will. It’s what she would have wanted. Someday it’ll be just you and your dad to manage things.” “And you.” “Hap.” He looked up at his grandson for the first time, but said nothing for a while. “You know I’ve been in and out of the hospital. They thought it was gone, but I got some bad news a few weeks ago. It’s back, with a vengeance. There’s not a lot can be done at this stage. Might be years. Maybe months. Nobody knows.” “What?” Tears burned his eyes. “Jesus, Opa.” “I know, son. A lotta bad news in one night.” Hap stood, and now their eyes locked for what seemed an eternity. Finally, Hap looked away. The rocks by the stream were wet with evening mist, and he zipped up his coat. As he stroked Aggie’s head and scratched her ears, he watched the water caress the rocks. He could hear his grandfather stoking the fire, and knew Cyrus would be close at hand; the black stream brightened with the flickering light, and on his clothes the smell of smoke was strong. He thought back to snowy nights, winter pounding against his bedroom window, the slap of the willow against the house, his stuffed bear held close. Strong dreams often woke him then, and it was his Opa who’d read to him. Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and Charles Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St. Louis were his favorites, and soon the nightmares would become dreams of adventures. “Hap, I don’t expect to be going anywhere fer a long time. Us Nielsens are made of tougher stock than that. But it’s time you got hold of yourself and started acting like a man.” The stars had vanished an hour before. The aspens bent in the wind, and a light rain began to fall. As Cyrus nestled under Hap’s feet, Aggie nudged him for more attention. “Once I’m gone, you and your dad will have a lot of decisions to make. The ranch ain’t makin’ much money anymore, there’s a lot of debt, and your dad might have to borrow more. Money’s part of the reason your folks fight. A lot of our neighbors are in the same boat, and are selling to the folks who’re gobbling up Montana.” “Who’s gobbling up Montana?” “Some are just rich city folks lookin’ for large tracts of land, raisin’ property values higher than ordinary folks can afford.” He shook his head, almost dismissively. “Others are after what’s in the ground. Big oil companies have made me offers, but I always turn ’em down. They’re like this thing that’s eating me up—little by little, they destroy the land that’s fed our family for generations.” The wind died. The mist coalesced into large drops that carried down cold from above. Fall was coming, and with it, the snows that would transform the forest colors. “Hap, yer headin’ off to school soon. It’s different out there. With the taste of city life still fresh, coming back to mountains, horses, and alfalfa—well, it might not matter to you. But it’s important to me—and yer Oma—to make sure you appreciate what you got for what it is. The fields that feed our critters, the streams they drink from, the clean morning air, the night sky so black you can read yer watch by the stars, a place where Aggie and Cyrus can chase squirrels, forests we can hunt in—all that you and me take for granted when we walk out the front door—it could be gone in no time. I’m scared, Hap. I’m scared that someday, all that will be more valuable than gold or money, and we won’t have it anymore.” Roald Nielsen died that winter. Five years later, toward the end of summer, his son, Hap’s father, also passed. No one saw that coming. Even as they lowered his dad’s casket into the ground, Hap had Atlas packed and waiting. He hugged his mother, and said goodbye to his father for the last time. That night, he sat with Cyrus by the stream—Aggie had died the summer before, bitten by a rattler. Hap had buried him over there, under the big aspen. Now he listened to it and the younger aspens singing in the wind, a few early yellow leaves falling at his feet. He slept under the stars. Cyrus shared his bedroll, the collie’s head gently rising and falling on Hap’s chest. At first light, he packed for home. When fall came, early one evening he pulled his truck off the highway and parked behind a familiar outcrop. As he climbed to the top of the highest boulder, he remembered the screech of tires, the thrill of lying in wait for old man Crawley, then ambushing him with paintballs. And what followed. On the way back, as he rounded the last curve before the ranch, red sun filled the truck’s interior. That evening he stoked the fire with applewood, felled after disease had killed orchards in neighboring Fromberg, two years ago. His early-morning coffee was strong, cowboy style—just the way his grandpa had taught him to make it, boiled in a blue, white-speckled pot of enameled steel, and carefully poured to leave the grounds behind. Cyrus barked at the crunch of driveway gravel under tires, and Hap invited inside Bill and Andy, from the bank. They were cowboys, both in fresh-pressed jeans. Bill wore a flannel shirt and boots, Andy a white button-down shirt and bolo tie. On their truck’s dash he could see two curve-brimmed Dakotas, white crowns perfectly indented. They apologized that things had come to this, but the bank’s papers were ready for his signature. Hap offered coffee, and they drank it while talking of better times in the Valley. Bill, the shorter one, spoke of the ranch north of Forsyth that he’d lost in the drought of 2012. He talked of the year before, when he’d cut a thousand round hay bales and cattle prices were still holding steady. And how the next year, and for two years after that, his south Montana pastures were so parched the grass never greened up enough to conceal the swather marks from the previous year’s hay cutting. His weaning calves had little forage to transition to, and their drought-stressed mothers desperately needed a break to fatten up for winter. Bill had weaned them off and shipped them five weeks earlier than usual, but cattle prices had continued to fall. He said ranchers could draw a line more than 400 miles across southern Montana, from Dillon to Ekalaka, to mark where the drought was bad. Half the state. Many had to sell their properties and get city jobs. Andy cleared his throat and started to tell his own sad story, but Hap had had enough. Time to get this over with. He cleaned up, and they walked down to the stream together. The sun was still struggling to melt the white that covered the yellow leaves along the path, and they hunched to keep warm. Near the stream, a weeping willow erupted in a flurry of meadowlark wings, obscuring the sky with yellow and brown. Cyrus barked at a scolding squirrel. Hap led them to a bend in the creek and motioned to a bench he and his grandfather had built on Hap’s fourteenth birthday. To the west was a fallen tree he remembered dragging across the stream—the only bridge across the spring runoff. “I understand we’re all doing what we gotta do,” he said. “Like you, I haven’t much choice but to give up my land. I’m not angry, but I’m troubled.” He knelt down, filled his cupped hands with clear, cold water, and drank. They talked by the stream till evening’s chill weighed on them. Bill spoke of his children’s tears when they had to move in the middle of the school year; how he and his wife, Eileen, had stood strong, unwilling to go deeper in debt; of making a clean start in the north of Montana; of saying goodbye to their animals; and of friends they now visited only by phone. Andy just kept nodding, looking down. Hap gazed toward a far tree, where the hulking silhouettes of perched turkey vultures were black against the sunset. “Bill. Andy. I don’t know.” He stopped. They waited. He rolled his shoulders and stood up straighter. “I don’t know what stories we’re gonna tell our children, and their children, when they know about these lands only from books and pictures and what we can tell them. That ain’t enough. It ain’t enough to let them know—I mean, really know—what the grass smells like with an early frost on it. Or what the wind sounds like when it blows through the Doug firs. “I know we—both of you, me—we’re only doing what we have to do to meet our obligations. I get that. But what does it leave us with? Stories? Memories? TV documentaries? Pictures of . . .” He waved his arm at everything around them. “Of this? All this?” He didn’t say anything for a while. Neither did the bankers. “Is that a legacy? Is that enough? You can’t live on pictures.” They stood there, watching the water. When it got cold enough, Hap turned and headed back to the house. The cowboys followed, their eyes on the ground.

Little Simz

Anne E. Johnson

The male stars (read: practically all the stars) of rap music have not done much to encourage women’s equality. How’s that for an understatement? That’s why the world needs Simbi Ajikawo, or Little Simz, to be a voice and image of intelligence, strength, and grace in a scene that many listeners expect and want to be thuggish. This 23-year-old Londoner doesn’t care what the norms are – she just wants to speak her mind.

The industry big boys wouldn’t be interested, she assumed, so she started her own label, called Age: 101 Music. The opening of her 2013 EP, Blank Canvas, is a good introduction to her early style: rapid-fire rap over laid-back synth sounds and digital drumbeats. In “Yesterday’s Painting,” she’s ready to move into the next phase of her life – “This is me embarking on a new journey” – while a soulful, unidentified male voice sings Lennon-McCartney’s “Yesterday” to a new melody:


2014 brought the EP E.D.G.E., really a full album with 13 tracks. “Enter the Void” is its best song, about a guy named Jimmy who grew up with no opportunities, and now he’s 40 and lost. “His people are now gone, they’re either dead or in jail.”

Simz shows her gift for making insightful statements in unexpected rhythms. Here’s a sentence that holds a lot of meaning, but seems conventional and conversational on the written page: “Sh** was all good in our young days, but it’s changed now ʼcause we’ve grown.” She forces it into an artificial pattern– two short syllables, two longs, two shorts, two longs, etc. — that emphasizes the words and puts them in uncomfortable syncopation with the backing track. Don’t get used to that pattern, though. You won’t hear it again.


Live drums mix with atmospheric synthesizer to give her a canvas to lay her textures of rhythm on as thick as Van Gogh piled on paint.

Simz doesn’t have a beautiful voice, but her poems, and her delivery of them, are sometimes so smooth that they make you think you’re listening to R&B. In fact, her first full album, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons, hit number 20 on the UK R&B charts. That’s on her own tiny indie label, mind you. She is not messing around.

But an indie rap star isn’t a comfortable concept to “serious” rap fans. To quote one well-meaning You Tube commenter, apparently new to Simz’s sound, “Needs to sell out, hopefully someone signs her soul she sick.” In other words, this fan thinks she needs a big recording contract. Simz doesn’t seem to feel the need to get her soul signed, though; it’s doing just fine on its own.

Her soul, or at least her own character’s development, is often the topic of her rhymes. In “The Lights,” she’s talking to a friend – maybe the one in the mirror – with lines like “How d’you find yourself without losing you?” I’m riveted by the layers of jagged percussion, the long string moans, and the voice, none of which agree on where the downbeat is:


“Tainted” has an easier beat, after a spoken intro that makes you think you’re at a poetry reading. That’s something that sets Simz apart from other rappers: she has an introspective, articulate style that emphasizes her rhymes as poetry. But she also has the pithiness needed for rap, little digs at herself or at society that go by in two seconds if you don’t concentrate, like this admission: “You can keep your love. It’s the money I been reaching for.”


Back on Blank Canvas, she had said the line, “But money ain’t the pursuit.” So it’s not surprising to find a later song called “Fallen.” It’s about ending and parting. She lets the natural spoken pitches of the first line, “All good things gotta come to an end some time,” form a melody. She’s actually singing this, not just rapping, and you’re reminded of her close relationship with R&B:


While A Curious Tale seems to focus on Simz’s memories of growing up, her latest album, Stillness in Wonderland, deals with her grown-up, professional reality. She’s Alice, of course. The music industry is Wonderland. That theme pops up in almost every song.

Peppered throughout the 15 tracks are several “Cheshire’s Interludes.” Over short, psychedelic-influenced instrumentals, a man’s voice warns Alice to be careful (warnings she obviously didn’t heed, or she wouldn’t still be in the business). Click here for an example.

Other tracks are more obliquely related to the Alice theme, such as “Doorways + Trust Issues.” The musical setting is lush, like the optimistic point of view at the beginning, but that touch of happiness gets interrupted. “What happened when I followed the white rabbit?” she asks. She willingly went through the doorway, but her trust issues are keeping her from moving through the strange world she’s found on the other side.


Despite (or maybe because of) her remarkable success, Simz is already showing signs of being jaded. The last track on the new album is “No More Wonderland,” which she described in an interview with NPR as her reaction to being “cemented in this [music] industry. I’ve had enough of being in this wonderland, and it’s not what I thought it would be.”


Something tells me that, like Alice, she’ll find her way out of the rabbit hole. But she’ll take her rhymes with her.

The Rope and the Sea

Paul McGowan
Somewhere in the Caribbean….

EQ, DSP, & You: A Cautionary Tale

Jim Smith

Some of this info was presented in the Copper Subwoofery series. But it was buried within lots of set-up details, and I have felt that it needs to be addressed on its own.

From my experience evaluating & voicing systems, I have three main concerns with EQ and DSP:

1 – It’s not a panacea.  Some people think that if they get the response relatively flat, or “fix” time arrival and such, that is all it takes.  If you wish to use these programs (as I have), don’t even think about it until you have first done all of the basic set-up.  I have referred to this as the organic process rather than the electronic.

2 – Sadly, I’ve heard all too many systems that sounded technically correct, but were utterly boring musically because the owner or system tuner felt that once the measurement goals were achieved, they were done.  Not so!

So here’s a story that is related to the concept, at least in the area of execution. Some of you may remember the San Francisco Stereophile Home Entertainment Show in 2003.  If so, you may recall the extraordinary and never-again-equaled response that happened in our (Avantgarde-USA, BAT, Running Springs, etc.) demo room.

At this show, we went on to receive a level of universal acclaim that – honestly speaking – I didn’t expect. Two well-known reviewers (Robert Harley of TAS and Srajan Ebaen of 6moons.com) commented in their publications about this acclaim. They were amazed to see the audience stand up and applaud (!) at the end of each demo session, something that they had never before seen. More about the audio press coverage later…

As always at the shows where we exhibited, I voiced that system.  After several hours of work voicing the system to the room, there remained a few less-than-pleasant peaks in the boundary-dependent-region (below 300 Hz).  Expecting some difficulties with the room, I had brought my Rives PARC (Parametric Adaptive Room Compensation), which is designed to solely address that region.

When I mentioned to Rives Audio owner-and-friend Richard Rives Bird that I was bringing it to the show, he offered to tweak it with his computer program. True to his word, when I let him know I wanted him to drop by, he was nice enough to come over and run the program.

Richard had a ton of work to do throughout the show. He didn’t cut short his time with us, but he based his adjustments on near-perfect measurements. Ten minutes later, satisfied with the results, he went on to other projects waiting at the show.

I should mention that we were only using the PARC in the line from the BAT preamp to the amps driving the BASSHORNS.  The amps driving the TRIOS were direct from the preamp.

There was no question that the bass response was very flat now.  Technically, it was superb.  However, listening for a while after Richard left, I began to feel that the system was missing musical involvement.  The emotional hook was just not there. My response to the music from this measurably flat system was similar to its measurements – flat!

So I spent several more hours building on what Richard had done (LOL – Richard might have had a different description). I didn’t change the frequency of the three cuts he introduced, but did slightly adjust their “q” (width) and the level of their amplitude.

When I was through, I was feeling good about the sound – the music was engaging at all levels and with all genres. I privately wondered if the subsequent measurements would have been as precise.  My guess was — probably not.

Here’s the cool thing – We got standing applause at the end of almost every demo for three days – an almost-unheard-of response to a show demo!  IMO – listeners weren’t responding to the technical aspects of the sound, they were releasing emotions stimulated by the musical experience.

FWIW – I have never before (or since) seen such response from show attendees. It was unique in my long experience in the industry.

Twelve years later (!), Robert Harley again wrote of this phenomenon, in a recent issue of TAS: “The same system at a San Francisco show elicited a standing ovation with wild applause at the conclusion of Pink Floyd’s The Wall—the only instance of such a reaction to a show demo in memory.” —


The fact is, that if I had simply settled for technically excellent sound, we would still have had a good show (as exhibitors commonly think of such). As it turned out, for the next three days, we had lines of expectant listeners down the hall and around the corner, waiting to hear our demo, because (IMO) it was the musical impact that brought the listeners to their feet with applause.

3 – Unfortunately, I think it is likely to be too easy for an installer of digital room correction systems to mainly rely on the measurements. A technician onsite MAY have the requisite blend of science and art skills to do it, but not if he thinks the measurements are the cure. And even if he doesn’t, can he make the system come alive in a musically compelling manner?

And indeed there are some systems today that offer remote tuning. Some even offer automated adjustments. But who determines how the system speaks to you, in your room? Does the person – far away in an office – who suggested the changes in the EQ/DSP come out to hear the results and suggest adjustments? Someone – installer or end-user – needs to do it!

Three final observations:

1 – EQ/room correction cannot replace getting the system/room basics right before running the program. In fact, it makes what I call “Playing the Room” even more important than ever.  If the room correction program is as good as many of us are being told, completing the system with room correction – after building on a solid voicing foundation – could yield incredible long-term benefits.

2 – Even though the outcome may measure text-book-precise, I’ve found that a computer read-out of the measurements may need a little on-site “interpretation” from the end user or voicing agent in order to fulfill the ultimate promise. This is even more noticeable in so-called “automated” EQ/DSP systems.

3 – If it was me, I would FIRST listen to the EQ/DSP system without any adjustments at all. That will probably be its most transparent operation. If it sounds grainy or less dynamic when used simply as a straight pass-through of the signal, not sure I would want to use it, as the adjustments will call for more computing power, likely veiling the sound even more.

Hmm… I said above – “not sure I would want to use it” However, as I think about it, I really am sure – if it affected the sound on a simple pass-through, there is NO WAY I would use it.

Bottom line – re DSP/EQ, go for it – after you have exhausted all efforts organically. Be sure to listen to the results from a musical standpoint. If the system is not immersing you in the music, if you are not moved emotionally, you’ve still got some work to do. In some cases, that may even include removing the DSP/EQ

We’re All Bozos On This Bus

WL Woodward

(sound of thunder in the distance..the only sound in the jungle besides the smoking No Smoking sign outside the 7-11.  The power in the store is out, and three men are bunkered behind the door planning their next move.)

Clem : “Wait.  Where’s Jones?”

Leo : “Dunno. Haven’t him since Tuesday.”

“Then there’s just two of us.  Idiot.”

“Who you mean?”

“Well there’s only two of us, and I don’t mean you, so who dya think?”

“I dunno.  I find his voice smoothing.”

“What? Because he’s in bloody italics?  Yer both idiots.”

(The two men were companions by accident.  Leo was dressed as a waiter from a NY deli, blonde, erudite and had the face of an educated man.  Clem was dressed like Jessica Simpson in an underwater porn clip and had gone to school on a short bus.)

“Hey!  I got these shorts at JC Penney!”

(Right. Leo thought,  ‘ I didn’t know they had a hobo porn section’.)


“I didn’t say that, he did!”

“Well, you were thinkin it.  And he did say you were blonde and erudite.  You like him.”

“Don’t!  Don’t even know what erudite means.”

“It means you come from Hebrew parents.”

“What?  And what the hell does THAT mean?”

(Just then a bolt of lightning, followed closely by a crash that shook the store, revealed the quick silhouette of a boy leading a pig, snuffling like a Panamanian poodle.  The pig, the pig.  Anyway the boy was dressed like a gypsy, yellow filthy trousers, a tattered red shirt with poofy sleeves, holding an olive green handkerchief embroidered with red roses.)

“Poofy sleeves?  Really?  And I didn’t see shit.  Leo, you see anything?”

“I saw less than shit.  Certainly no ‘hankerchef’.”

(It’s handkerchief Einstein.  And it’s called writer’s license.  I was describing the next character, as a good writer would.)

“Snuff.  A good writer wouldn’t spend one sentence describing a new character and have to explain to his reader that it was the pig that was snuffling.”

“Yeah.  And I don’t care for the ‘Einstein hankerchef’ crack, especially as I come from a legacy of brewers.”



(Time to develop new characters.  The boy turned back to the jungle, hearing voices.  New voices.  Less argumentative voices.)

“Listen, George, what do you suppose happened to Jones?”

“Fred, stick to the script in front of ya, please?  We have to find the diamond before Professor Snuffles.”

“Yeah, because if we don’t…”

“The end of Life as we know it Fred.”

(We pause here for station identification and a word from our sponsor.)

Leo and Clem:  “Hey!  You can’t just leave us here.  It’s cold.  And dark!  And there’s something we forgot to tell you…”


Now for the old “You can’t talk about Firesign Theatre without The Goon Show” chestnut.  From 1951 to 1960 The Goon Show, devised and primarily written by Spike Milligan, included players Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers.  The shows were very precursive of what Firesign would start doing in the late 60’s with surreal humor and using radio as a foil, not just a medium.   Fans of Firesign would recognize bits like a character leaving the room, a door closing, and the character was still there.  Or a character would announce leaving, a door would close, with the wrong character outside the room, banging on the door for re-entrance.

Milligan and Secombe met first in the British Army (yes they used to have one of those) during WWII serving in the artillery.  As the story goes, Milligan’s artillery unit screwed up and allowed a howitzer cannon to roll over a cliff.  Secombe was sitting under the cliff in a small truck.

“Suddenly there was a terrible noise as some monstrous object fell from the sky quite close to us. There was considerable confusion, and in the middle of it all the flap of the truck was pushed open and a young, helmeted idiot asked ‘Anybody see a gun?’ It was Milligan.”  Secombe answered “What color is it?”

The show stayed on BBC through the 50’s and into 1961.  The people coming of age in this period, and have mentioned these guys as heroes, were diverse a group as the guys who would eventually form Monty Python, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Firesign Theatre.

The four guys who made up Firesign Theatre started performing live radio together in LA on KPPC and KPFK during the mid-60’s.  By 1967 Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor were co-writing half hour skits and had written an adaptation of a Jorge Luis Borges short story for Radio Free Oz.  Their writing took the surrealistic style of The Goon Show, added fast moving scripting, popular culture parody, doses of LSD and a fantastic lack of political correctness that after all wasn’t invented until later by Dr. James Dobson.   [Readers: send your comments to Woody, not me! —Ed.] Their rampant disrespect for modern sensitivity forced me to listen carefully to any clips I wanted to use in case they slipped in a currently offensive slur.

Which really pisses me off because what these guys were about, what we were about, was challenging political wisdom, convention, and the need to wear clean clothes.  I used to wear dirty clothes all the time.  It was our trademark.  I would no more wear dirty clothes today than drop acid in church, which I think I did semi-frequently.  Anyone born between 1946 and 1964 not only vaguely remembers Firesign Theatre through drug induced multi colored mufti, but may have at one time memorized their favorite Firesign album.  I personally hung out with a group of guys who regularly tortured girlfriends by listening to the stuff in groups, babbling the lines we knew as if tattooed on our wazoos, and laughing hysterically at what to the girls sounded distinctly like gibberish.   And the tone was particularly part of that generation.  The Vietnam police action which killed 3.5 million Vietnamese kids and 50,000 American kids (hardly seems fair now), the deaths of wildly popular public figures, the Summer of Love, Woodstock, and a crazy but Fairly Harmless (until later) drug culture influenced music, political thought, and comedy.  There was a camaraderie of silliness, protest, outrage, and misanthropic brouhaha that defined how we looked at Life.  For a few years anyway, until we discovered the BMW.   Then everything went to shit.

(Well, that about wraps it up.  Less than 2 days until Armageddon according to my watch.  The sound of the jungle rain with drops as large as Panamanian paddles raise the hair on the pig’s neck and slaps against the window of the 7-11.  Looking in, we see thankfully that Leo and Clem are asleep.)

Fred:  “Hey!  Wake up in there!”


George:  “Fred, leave em alone.  Didn’t you hear the guy?  It’s two days to Armageddon and we GOTTA find that diamond.”

“I know, but that guy creeps me out.  I think Clem was right.  He sounds like a commie bullshit laundryman.”

(He never said that.)

(Inside the store Clem sits up, lights a holy roller, and leans against the window.)

Clem:  Only thing left to do is listen to a part of my favorite Firesign album, How Can you Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All.  Headphones required.  Devotees will know the clip we had to cut out and why.  Still pisses me off.

(Me too.)

Horns, Part 5

Bill Leebens

In response to last issue’s installment, a reader quite accurately pointed out that I’d skipped over RCA’s substantial contribution to the world of theater horn systems. Pleading ignorance rarely results in leniency  from a judge, but  perhaps our readers are more merciful. There’s very little reference material on the RCA stuff, and my personal experience with the gear is nil. I’ll gather more information and return to the subject when I have the goods.

It’s a funny thing— considering RCA was involved in every aspect of recording and broadcasting from making records to building transmitters and owning radio and TV stations, from being involved in movie sound recording to building and maintaining theater sound systems, it’s amazing that anti-trust actions weren’t taken against RCA, as they were against Western Electric. I wonder if Sarnoff’s political connections were a factor? I digress.

As previously discussed, by the late ’60’s, horns were  almost extinct in American home hi-fi. The best-known  survivors were the Klipschorn and the JBL Paragon; the Paragon was a custom-order item, and K-horns were rarely seen on sales-floors.  Across the pond, there were still signs of life for horns, with attention from some unlikely sources.  US magazines rarely mentioned horns, but John Crabbe, Editor of the UK Hi-Fi News,  had published horn-construction articles in Wireless World in 1958, and in Hi-Fi News in 1962.  In 1967 he went “go big or go home” with a series of articles in Hi-Fi News  on the massive concrete horns he built into his home (you can find the articles  here—scrolll down the page).

UK industry folks who heard the system still cite it as one of the best they’d ever heard. US hi-fi maven Irving M. “Bud” Fried, an early distributor of Quad and Decca in the US, was also part-owner of IMF speakers, and went so far as to sell driver kits and throat-molds so that ambitious DIYers could build their own concrete horns. I don’t know if anyone in the US ever did so.

Wireless World published a three-part series on horn loudspeaker design by Jack Dinsdale in 1974; the series is good basic reading although it has been widely criticized as misleading and full of errors. You can find the articles reprinted here—scroll down the page.

At the same time stateside, a Klipschorn design kit appeared from Seattle-based Speakerlab. Almost exactly the same size as the real thing, the Speakerlab K was said by many to have more extended bass than the “legit” K-horn.

That blue kinda GLOWS, doesn’t it?

The biggest, baddest, best-known American horn system of the ’70’s —aside from the Grateful Dead’s “Wall of Sound“—was the 5-channel home setup of engineer Dick Burwen, shown on the cover of  the April, 1976 issue of Audio. Burwen began construction of the system in 1962, and 55 years later thinks it’s “about finished”. A close-up of the three front horns is shown at the top of the page, and full details are here. Burwen designed early products for Mark Levinson Audio Systems, as well as the killer Cello Audio Palette.

On the continent,  Jean Hiraga was a conduit from the Japanese horn/triode culture to the west. Hiraga was Editor of the French journal l’Audiophile from 1977 to 1995, and often wrote for La Nouvelle Revue du Son (I think you can figure out the meaning of both titles) . I first encountered Hiraga in Paul Messenger’s “Subjective Sounds” column in Hi-Fi News, around 1977. Messenger referred to a survey article  by Hiraga, in which he tested the distortion characteristics of amplifiers— euphonious tube amps showed mostly second-order distortion, nasty transistor amps showed mostly odd-order harmonics, and so on. It was ground-breaking at the time, and along with Matti Otala’s papers on TIM (transient intermodulation distortion), provoked a new examination  of amplifier characteristics beyond standard static measurements.

Hiraga championed the old Altec 604 coaxial driver in a variety of enclosures, and brought the Japanese bass-reflex enclosure called “Onken” to Europe. The Onken was based upon the Jensen Ultraflex bass enclosure, which was originally a reflex-augmented corner horn; the Onken adaptation converted it into a smaller reflex box, more suitable for smaller rooms. Hiraga introduced the Japanese ultra-fi horn compression drivers to the western world, including brands like Goto (as used in the gazillion-dollar Magico Ultimate system).

The 1980’s saw a blip in the awareness of horns in the US, largely due to a series of articles in Speaker Builder magazine by Dr. Bruce Edgar, several of which are reprinted here . Edgar helped to popularize tractrix  horn geometry, first postulated by Paul Voigt in the UK in the 1920s. Benefits claimed—compared to the more popular exponential horn geometry— were lower coloration and more even distribution patterns.

By the 1990’s  the influence of Hiraga  and the Japanese retro-fiers was seen on this side of the pond in Usenet groups and most famously in Joe Roberts’ magazine Sound Practices, which is seemingly better known now than it was during its publication run from 1992 to 1997. Sound Practices featured a historically-aware DIY approach, with an artsy undertone from articles by Herb Reichert, Gordon Rankin, John Stronczer, JC Morrison, our own Haden Boardman, and of course Roberts himself. The air of discovery combined with a self-aware smirk has not been duplicated since. Horn articles covered building a variety of enclosures for Lowther drivers, Mauhorns, and a wide range of Klipsch and Altec variants. The emphasis was on gear that could be worked on and with, not uber-pricey collectibles (although SP likely single-handedly caused prices of WE/Altec 755s to skyrocket).

Good luck finding these on eBay now.

After Sound Practices, the first home horn loudspeakers to attain a high profile in the audiophile market (and in the audiophile press) were those from Avantgarde Acoustic. Their flamboyant design and colorful paint schemes set the standard for all that followed, and made them prime camera-fodder. The brand became known for terrific sound at CES and other shows, as set up by their first US distributor, our own Jim Smith. While the brand is now well-entrenched in the audiophile marketplace and mindset, they have never again attained that initial level of acceptance and just plain good press.

The last 20 years have seen a sizable number of horn speakers appear on the market in the US as well as overseas. Due to their size and often-awkward styling, many remain highly specialized tweak brands. In the US we’ve seen Bruce Edgar’s designs, mostly in kit form (Edgar’s website is long gone); John Tucker’s Exemplar Audio has been around since the Sound Practices days, and currently makes a speaker utilizing modern production Altec 604s; Burwell & Sons speakers have been seen at a number of audio shows in recent years, and while bulky, are more attractive than most. They feature Altec and JBL drivers and handmade solid wood horns; Volti speakers show a number of design and styling cues from vintage Klipsch designs, and are highly-regarded; John Wolff’s Classic Audio Loudspeakers  began by building reproduction JBL Hartsfields, but has since developed their own field coil drivers and built new horn speakers based upon the priorities of vintage horn speakers. There are dozens more horn builders in the US, many at the hobbyist-collective level;  pro monitors with horn drivers are still made by numerous companies including Westlake, Ocean Way, and of course, JBL.

Horns never really went away in the UK, at least in the enthusiast world. Lowther, builders of extended-range drivers for well over half a century, have promoted horn enclosures designed by founder Paul Voigt since the company’s beginnings. Tannoy has been around for over 90 years, and for many of those years the name “Tannoy” was common parlance for a loudspeaker—ANY loudspeaker. Tannoy’s Dual Concentric coaxial drivers are often used in horn enclosures designed by the company’s founder, Guy R. Fountain, back at the dawn of time. Living Voice’s Vox Olympian and (slightly smaller) Vox Palladian systems take the English tradition of bespoke cabinetry to extremes, utilizing all Vitavox drivers. Speaking of whom: Vitavox has been around nearly as long as Tannoy, offering compression drivers for theater and pro systems, as well as the occasional home hi-fi systems like the classic CN-191 corner horn, as long-lived as the Klipschorn.

Elsewhere in the world, the Polish company Autotech produces a range of horn speakers (oddly called hORNS) including a top model which resembles the Avantgarde Trio if it’d been designed by Tim Burton, complete with sharp spiky feet that look as though they could skitter across the living room floor. Germany has more than its share of horn loudspeakers, including the acclaimed models from Voxativ, who also make their own Lowther-lookalike drivers.  Auditorium 23 produces the Cinema Hommage which was seen on the cover of Stereophile, and fetures replicas of the WE 555 and 597 drivers manufactured by the Korean company Line Magnetic.  Other German brands include Cessaro, Martion, Acapella, and many more.

In Japan, the unfortunately-named GIP has long produced high-quality Western Electric replicas, and recently showed their models next to the real things in the Silbatone exhibit room at the Munich show. A number of companies produce compression drivers and horns, including the previously-mantioned Goto. None are more-spectacular, however, than the giant solid wood baffle with horn hand-carved by Moriyama Meiboku, headed by the affable Tatsuyoshi Moriyama.

There is no way we could produce a comprehensive history of all horn speakers ever made worldwide, or even an all-inclusive survey of those currently made. It’s a vast field, frequently amazing and bewildering. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at horn speakers past and present, and invite you to continue searching the field.

1967: The Year Rock ‘n’ Roll Became Rock

Jay Jay French

To all my readers;

I will be taking the summer off but this last article was truly a labor of love for me. I want to thank Bill & Paul for giving me this outlet to tell stories that I hope you all found entertaining. I will be back in September!

And now…..
With all the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper it wouldn’t surprise me that, if you weren’t alive and a teenager at that time, one would think that its release was the sole reason 1967 was so important.

Yes, Sgt. Pepper is and will remain the 800 lb. gorilla that year, but there were so many incredible releases (many of these releases began the careers of some of the most important artists in rock) that this deserves an overview to crystallize the earth- shattering music of many of our lives.

I also want to add that a couple of other ‘minor’ things happened that year:
1967 was the year that television really went from black & white to color (think Revolver with its black and white cover in 1966 and Sgt. Pepper in brilliant Technicolor in 1967) and we, as a listening audience, made the move from the mono sound of AM radio to the stereo sound of FM radio.

This really was the year that Rock n Roll matured into what is considered the “Rock Era”.

These occurrences do not happen in a vacuum. They seemingly happen together in giant sociologically connected waves that take us, mostly unaware of their actual significance, without really knowing that it all is happening at the same time.

The following mind-blowing list of releases do not need my thumbnail reviews or comments. Those who lived it just need a little prodding to aid in one’s appreciation and to help you all stand back and let the brain cells (that still remain) remind you how freaking lucky we were to actually live (and love) this stuff in ‘Real Time’ (and why our kids hate us!)

Oh yeah….one more very interesting fact about the astonishing changing music business of 1967:

The biggest selling act of the year (both here and the UK ) was not the Beatles. In fact, although Sgt. Pepper held down the number one position in the US for 15 weeks, there was another band who held the number one position for almost all of the remaining (30 out of the remaining 37) weeks-and they did it with not one, not two, not three but a staggering 4 albums at number one for the 1967!

And that band was…the envelope please…

The Monkees!!

Ok… now back to the serious stuff….

I still own all of the following albums. They mattered that much to me!
So now, let us look at what the rock gods gave us, along with Sgt. Pepper that year with actual release dates (or months):

January 4th: The Doors: The Doors (debut album).
January 20th: The Rolling Stones: Between the Buttons. The first of 2 releases in 1967.
February: The Jefferson Airplane: Surrealistic Pillow.
February 6th: The Byrds: Younger Than Yesterday.
March 12th: The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced.
March: The Grateful Dead: The Grateful Dead (debut album).
March 10th: Cat Stevens: Matthew & Son (debut album).
May 11th: Country Joe & the Fish: Electric Music For the Mind & Body ( debut album).
June 2nd: The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The first of 2 releases in 1967.
June 6th: Moby Grape: Moby Grape (debut album).
August 5th: The Pink Floyd: Piper At the Gates of Dawn (debut album).
August 28th: Stevie Wonder: I Was Made To Love Her.
September: Procol Harum: Whiter Shade of Pale (debut album).
September: Chuck Berry: Live at Fillmore Auditorium (with The Steve Miller Blues Band).
September 15th: The Kinks: Something Else.
November: Love: Forever Changes.
November 2nd: Cream: Disraeli Gears.
November 18th: The Buffalo Springfield: Buffalo Springfield Again.
November 27th: The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour. 2nd release this year.
December 8th: The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request. 2nd release this year.
December 8th: Traffic: Dear Mr. Fantasy (debut album).
December 15th: The Who: The Who Sell Out.
December 27th: Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding.

The Beatles, Stones, Who, Dylan, Cream, Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, The Doors, Pink Floyd, The Dead, The Airplane, Cat Stevens, Traffic…….
The mind boggles…
They came, they stayed, they grew, they became the soundtrack of our lives.
There really is nothing left to say except…Have a great summer!

They Have to Hear It to Want It

Bill Leebens

Following last issue’s column on audio evangelism,  I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the requirements of that role. I was reminded that I rant about this subject periodically; in an interview with Jana Dagdagan of Stereophile last year I said of audio, “… this is experiential. Not listening to music reproduced well, and trying to get people to bite into high-end audio makes about as much sense as sending newsletters to people about wine without allowing them to taste wine. I really think it’s an immersive, experiential deal, and unless they can hear it, feel it, it makes no sense whatsoever.”

Well, yeah. I’ll bet that we’ve all had experiences where we played the favorite music of a friend of our kids, a neighbor, or an acquaintance and heard one of those “I never knew it could sound like this” comments. The demo has always been at the heart of audio sales, and that’s true even if by “sale” we just mean  gaining the interest of an acquaintance, increasing awareness, and incubating aspiration.

That’s how it starts. How do  we help that process along?

For many of us, the mere act of sharing our hobby/obsession may be difficult. The hobby may be too personal, or inviting someone to share it may be  too intrusive. Here’s my sympathetic encouragement: get over it.

I don’t mean to be harsh, but— most of us are introverts, and that doesn’t help spread the word about the benefits of high-quality home audio. If we are indeed serious about introducing audio to newbies, including a new generation, it’s gonna require action. And action doesn’t mean “play Diana Krall for the 15-year-old neighbor kid”. You’re going to have to be open to and familiar with material the listener (I nearly typed “target”, but that sounds a little threatening) likes, and is interested in—for starters. In my daughter’s case, that meant Pink, Deadmau5, Paramore, Eminem, Watsky, and Machine Gun Kelly, among others.

You may have noticed that these artists are rarely, if ever, heard at audio shows. Huh.

If your lips curled in disdain while reading those names, we may have pinned down part of the reason that we don’t pick up converts in audio. Snobbery is rarely appealing or attractive.

In my daughter’s case, I enjoyed a fair amount of her music, and continue to enjoy it. Some of the cuts sounded terrific; many sounded smashed-flat-compressed, as do many recent pop recordings.  Oh, well. We discussed why some recordings sound better than others, and the reason many of her cuts were compressed. She got it.

Was it life-changing for her—or me? Not exactly. But the quality of playback gear that she uses has improved greatly, due to her boyfriend’s efforts and she seems to enjoy that. The boyfriend became a convert, and actually works in the audio biz now. He’s been known to demo for his friends, so there was some success here.

To be pragmatic, if not cynical: no salesman closes every prospect. The more prospects you have, the more sales you make. Simple.

Sorry to put it on those terms. If that makes you uncomfortable, skip that.

Just share what you love…but keep in mind that your prospect may require a little flexibility on your part. The worst that could happen is that you learn that you don’t love Beyonce’, or Disturbed, or….

Whistling Down the Wire

Dan Schwartz

Paul McGowan’s recent column brought something to mind that I’ve been thinking about a bit lately. Wires — and the nightmare of reviewing them; and more specifically, why I’ve never wanted that job.

When I first started writing for The Absolute Sound, it was to be about music, and modern music in particular. I quickly found that most modern music sounded pretty bad on the systems of the day (the same recordings sound better now, with better playback — and some with better mastering). HP and SR [Harry Pearson and Sallie Reynolds, for latecomers—Ed.] tried to get me to write about equipment, but I recall saying that I hadn’t heard enough to be objective about sound. I was willing to write about video equipment though, because there, the proof is visible (and I had the help of the eminent Joseph Kane, who measured what I saw).

Now, of course, I’ve heard plenty –– and the situation has become even more extreme, in a way. (I’m currently working on a review of the Studio Electrics FS-1s for Positive Feedback). For me, the situation actually begins at the microphone capsule. I guess most readers won’t have had the chance to hear the same mic with different capsules, or to listen to the various components of a mic directly, as Paul M., David Bock [microphone designer/builder David was interviewed in Copper #10; scroll down to page 8–-Ed.] and I once did in 1996 with my mic collection, but try to picture this: three guys sitting around a room with a U-47 and an M-49 taken completely apart, and hearing what the windscreens alone did to sound. That was a day, I can tell you. I learned a lot.

It puts me at a disadvantage from someone else who strictly reviews based on limited parameters, i.e., a given recording. Because my brain now questions everything, absolutely everything.

I bought my first fancy cable from Christopher Hansen in 1982, the same year that I started spending real money on gear (also the same year, I think, that the MoFi Beatles box came out). It was a Levinson, made of silver wire, and sounded fine — for six months. Oxidization, man — not so good. I can’t remember where I heard my first pair of MIT Shotgun wire, but I immediately sprang for it; it struck me as THAT good. I have a Kimber twisted pair, a few AudioQuests, some wires from BEL, but most of my listening is done via cables from George Cardas. I met him in ‘88 via Brooks Berdan, and until about 10 years ago, he would occasionally send me something to try.

HP wanted me to get into Nordost, but around then I stopped writing for TAS, and there was no justification. I talk to someone from the company every now and then at a show, but I’ve become acutely aware of the enormous expense that cables constitute, Nordost in particular.

Am I as unconcerned about it as I seem to be? Maybe — I suppose so. And that has its root in that day of listening to microphone components. One of the takeaways, for me, was how utterly variable everything is. Am I hearing better highs with Wire A? Great. Maybe I’m just hearing the highs of the mics a little more with it. Better bass? Fabulous – but is it really better bass, or just more bass? Everyone must have thought about this from time to time: it’s the proverbial snake pit of thought. When I think about it, I lose my bearings very quick-like.

I’ve written before that the only AC cord I’m absolutely certain made a describable, maybe even a quantifiable, difference in my system, was the Kimber Palladian cord. It definitely caused a repeatable change in the mid-bass; god knows what’s in that big pod, but Richard Brown of BEL told me to get one, after insisting that I use the Belden he supplied.

All this comes to mind because (I don’t want to complicate your life, so if the few of you left by this point want to remain blissfully unaware, stop reading now): network cables. Oh my god, network cables. Gimme a break… NOW we have to worry about the quality of NETWORK CABLES?

But: https://www.bluejeanscable.com/articles/is-your-cat6-a-dog.htm

I called Angela Cardas a couple weeks ago to express my skepticism, and she put me on with one of their engineers, who said he was initially as skeptical as me, until he started measuring the speed of response time with different cables — and sure enough.

Not that I’ve done anything about this. From my Mac Mini to my router and on to my Bridge/Direct Stream DAC I’m still just using the generic stuff that showed up, somewhat mysteriously, in my house.

But now I’ve got this itch. And you know it’s going to get scratched.

Benjamin Booker

Bill Leebens

Album: Witness

Artist: Benjamin Booker

33 RPM – 1 LP Limited Blue Edition

Release: ATO Records, June, 2017

Benjamin Booker’Witness bursts open at the seams with“Right On You”, PRIMUS style garage punk jam full of distorted noise. It sounds like high school angst – simple, fresh, well-paced. The fast pace blends into one of my favorite tracks of the album, “Motivation”, a slow burner that’s pure, sincere and clear. It caught me looking for answers to all the questions posed in the song.

Witness has the characteristic vocal mumbles and grumbles found on the previous album, Benjamin Booker. A couple years back, my wife and I had the opportunity to see the young Virginia-born blues-rocker in a small venue in Dortmund, Germany. As I was watched him, I felt a great sense of pride being an American in a foreign land. He melted the faces off of a crowd of less than 100 Germans, all crammed into the venue. Benjamin Booker has some moments of needed deciphering of what is being sung, and that’s needed even for a native speaker of English, let alone a crowd of Germans. His scene may have evolved from the small European cafes, but his consistent message and delivery shines through. I’m thankful for that, and had worried that this would be lost in his new release. My favorite songs of Booker’s are still those that are slow and quiet. They’re delivered like someone trying not to yell in a museum. Red in the face, whisper-screaming. Sealing a letter with a punch.

Since the release of his last breakout record (also from ATO Records), Booker moved from the US to spend 6 months in Mexico. It seems he needed a palate cleanser, after the sudden celebrity-ism, and needed a muse for his then-unwritten sophomore album. “Once you find yourself in another civilization you are forced to examine your own” (tip of the hat to James Baldwin). He had unplugged, and after a few days of solitude and Mexcal-drinking, he began to write Witness.

A few songs into the album,  “The Slow Drag Under” captures moments of isolation and presents a classic blues package. Booker’s go-to guitar is the hollow-bodied Epiphone Riviera, which he takes out for a leisurely stroll on this one. It fits the vibe that the song sweats out.

“Truth is Heavy” follows with one of the more impactful guitar riffs on Witness. Reminiscent of the freak-rock epic “Slow Nerve Action” by The Flaming Lips, the guitar cuts up the background singers with a strong and prominent distorted chord. Cue: hair standing on the back of neck . From the lyrical delivery to the short and deliberate guitar chords, you quickly pick up on the emotion, and realize these songs were created for a reason. If they were sung in anyone else’s voice, they wouldn’t sound as sincere and heartfelt.

“Believe” follows with a classic gospel choir sound and finds the singer in search of something pure. The string arrangement introduces the song in the light of some classic rock ballads of the 70s, with an arrangement reminiscent of Leonard Cohen. “I just want to believe in something, I don’t care if it’s right or wrong.” There’s a recurring theme of  searching throughout Witness: What are we missing? There has to be something greater than the sum of all us, right? Does the answer come with age? Booker sorts through these questions as Witness plays through.

“Overtime” struck me right on top of my head, and catches a glimpse of the singer changing between young man and adult. “No more waking up with the “What was I thinking?” Booker gutterally sings. Self-admittance is the first step, and by the time Witness ends, I got the feeling that I had just watched Benjamin Booker work through some major life questions. Not all the questions get an answer—because not all do. You can go your whole life without having some of these questions pop into your mind, and this is where the value of the album comes from. Most sophomore albums shoot for high production value, fancy new studio equipment and finding a way to sell out those stadiums. Most fall flat on their face. This is where Benjamin Booker carves out his place in Americana Music: He reflects, writes, and plays from the heart. No need to change a recipe that has been around since the birth of Blues.

The songs all blend the album into a pastiche of CNN headlines and tragic updates. Booker has a way to mash these current times into a more motivational, NOT preachy, undertone. There are moments throughout Witness we can relate to.

It took me a couple listens of Witness to realize the message may not be as topical as “Hey let’s bring it all down” but rather, “Are we just going to stand around and watch?”. The single “Witness” (featuring the ever-busy Mavis Staples) digs into a first-hand POV of someone living through life with a false fear of them attached. “Witness” is sung with Blues-drenched blood-curdling aggression and frustration. Benjamin Booker, in true form, drops the F* Bomb in front of sweet, stately Staples. There’s an old / ancient tension, and “Witness” knocks the dust off that old jean jacket and musically exposes today’s social climate.

Witness is a self-realization which has been weighing heavy on the shoulders of Benjamin Booker. There is a maturity to this album and a sense you’re learning with the artist. He cites influences for his music with The Gun Club, Blind Willie Johnson, and T. Rex. The album progresses from youth to adult through the album’s purposeful layout of song content. This content opens itself and the listener to love, rejection, fear, and personal reflection. It’s a sincere journey and a sophomore album demanding respect. Witness is a time capsule of our current social culture, and a raw event all in itself.

Other praise for Witness:

“Benjamin Booker makes retro music feel modern, reflecting on racism in America while drawing on blues, soul, and gospel.”  Pitchfork

“An urgent synthesis of blues, gospel and soul … with a raw and unforgiving candor that’s reminiscent of downtown New York punk.” – Mic

“Defiant, insightful and both intimately and communally self-actualizing” – Paste

Guitar Madness

Lawrence Schenbeck

Ah, but none dare call it madness.

We’re speaking of the classical guitar, to which milder epithets appropriately apply. How about “modified rapture,” as in The Mikado? That comes up right before Nanki-Poo reveals to his beloved Yum-Yum that he is not a “wandering minstrel” but rather the son of His Majesty the M., therefore much more attractive as husband material:

Nanki-Poo: But — (aside) Shall I tell her? Yes! She will not betray me! (to Yum-Yum) What if it should prove that, after all, I am no musician?

Yum-Yum: There! I was certain of it, directly I heard you play!

On tap this week: the guitar concertos et al. of Federico Moreno Torroba (1891–1982), done up handsomely by Pepe Romero and his protégé Vicente Coves. Also Guitarra mía, an album of tangos by Astor Piazzolla (1921–92) and Carlos Gardel (1890–1935) from Franz Halász. Also Andrea Bissoli’s Villa-Lobos: Complete Guitar Manuscripts and ¡Viva Segovia!, the latest from Roberto Moronn Pérez.

If it seems that modern music for classical guitar begins and ends with Andrés Segovia (1893–1987, shown above in his younger days), that’s because it pretty much does. Essentially self-taught, Segovia developed techniques that increased the instrument’s range of available tone colors and dynamics while also enhancing player efficiency, i.e., reducing the effort involved. Driven by a desire to gain respect for the guitar as a serious musical medium, he transcribed dozens of works by Renaissance composers, also Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Chopin, and Schumann. His growing reputation attracted living composers to him, and he boldly approached others as well—Villa-Lobos and Torroba were among his converts. As a teacher, he shaped the styles and tastes of several generations of younger performers, among them John Williams and Julian Bream.

Torroba was already an extremely successful composer of zarzuelas (Spanish-language operettas) when Segovia first asked him to write something for guitar. Eventually he composed around a hundred guitar works including ten concertos—more even than his friend Rodrigo. It’s a pleasure to report that volumes 1 and 2 of a projected three-volume edition of Torroba Guitar Concertos (Naxos 8.573255, 8.573503; various downloads available) proved enormously satisfying. Torroba had a gift for sensual, catchy melodies—he was the zarzuela king!—and a knack for colorful orchestration. Here’s the opening of Homenaje a la seguidilla (1962):

Oh, wait! You wanted to hear the guitar. Here you go:

That’s from Diálogos entre guitarra y orquesta (1977), with Vicente Coves handling solo chores. Notice how lightly the accompaniment is scored. There’s plenty of give and take, space enough for the guitar to speak without raising its voice. A good thing, because an unamplified guitar can’t really raise its voice; its strength lies in the suggestion of intimacy. No banging entrances à la Tchaikovsky No. 1! Better to make the audience wait, as in the opening two-plus minutes of Homenaje.

Pepe Romero there, starting off Aires de La Mancha with Jerigonza, based on a children’s language game. Where’s the orchestra? Surprise! Volume 1 includes two solo guitar suites. It was refreshing to hear Torroba’s distillations of Spanish cultural tradition in these brief works. Incidentally, Torroba turned to writing concertos only in the 1960s, after the zarzuela craze had begun to die out. At that point he could combine a genius for melody and color with his long experience in the theatre. There’s plenty of drama in any good concerto:

Concierto de Castilla, from vol. 2. Vicente Coves solos; his brother Manuel conducts on both volumes. Nicely recorded, with sensitive but honest coverage of the soloists. I’m eagerly awaiting vol. 3 now, assuming it will include Nocturnos, for two guitars, and Concierto ibérico, for four (and written for the legendary Romero Quartet).

German guitarist Franz Halász came up with a nifty idea for a tango collection: why not combine music by Astor Piazzolla, the best-known tango musician of recent years, with that of his predecessor Carlos Gardel, a popular Argentine singer and matinee idol who died in a 1935 plane crash? The resulting album, Guitarra mía (BIS-2165; SACD, 24/96 download), consists largely of song arrangements by Halász and others; Piazzola’s Cinco Piezas para guitarra is included at the end. By alternating the music of these two, Halász throws differences between their personalities and cultural eras into sharp relief. Here is some of Gardel’s Mi Buenos Aires querido:

And here a bit of Piazzola’s Primavera porteña, jazzier and more dissonant:

As a performer Halász combines absolute technical security with a certain restlessness of spirit. This could make him an ideal interpreter of the material, but he’s clearly more at home with Piazzolla than Gardel, whose unabashed lyricism and sentimentality belong to a bygone age. The artist acted as his own engineer/editor; his wife Debora, Brazilian by birth and a gifted pianist, produced.

Naxos has now combined Andrea Bissoli’s three Villa-Lobos: The Guitar Manuscripts albums into a box set (8.503289). It would be wrong to characterize its contents as wildly variable, although compared with the prospective Torroba set, it’s certainly a mixed bag. Mr. Bissoli is a good guitarist and also something of a library rat. He’s developed a cadre of colleagues who steer him toward forgotten (and sometimes interesting) material in Heitor Villa-Lobos’ vast (and vastly uneven) corpus of works. So in vol. 1 we get not only the Guitar Concerto (1951/c1955) for Segovia but also a Valse-Choro cut from the early Suite popular brasileira because it was too “bold and innovative.” When it surfaced in the archives of publisher Max Eschig several years ago, Bissoli was apparently standing by. Likewise, he’s reconstructed a lost 1937 work for guitar, flute, and female chorus, Motivos Gregos, by using two contemporary manuscript reworkings of the same material. It’s haunting and unique.

Less haunting and far from unique is Bissoli’s reading, with soprano Lia Serafini, of the famous “Ária” from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 in a version for voice and guitar. You may find it impossible to banish fond memories of Renée Fleming or Joan Baez or any of a half-dozen other sopranos offering this music in its more familiar incarnation with cellos.

Unexpected joys also pop up, as with volume 2’s Choros No. 6, a 25-minute-long orchestral tone poem with nary a guitar intruding. What’s it doing in a set of “guitar manuscripts”? Apparently Bissoli wanted it to stand alongside his performance of the 5-minute-long Choros No. 1. (A Choros is a Choros!) Some of No. 1:

Like I said, a mixed bag. (You may want to compare Julian Bream’s classic performance of Choros No. 1 here.) Curious Villa-Lobos devotees will find much to savor and/or ponder in this set. At Naxos’ prices, the rest of us can afford to give it a spin too. (Check out very fine soprano Gabriella Pace in vol. 2.)

And so we come to ¡Viva Segovia!, Roberto Moronn Pérez’s third offering in his series from the Andrés Segovia Archive (Reference Recordings FR-723; HDCD, download). Said “archive” is a smallish collection of works recently discovered among Segovia’s private papers. Segovia never played most of them; a few were performed once or twice and then dropped. Think about that: “viva Segovia,” indeed. (And here I’m not getting snarky about Segovia’s lifelong effort to broaden the guitar repertoire, but rather about misleading marketing.)

On this newest installment we get music from Hans Haug, Cyril Scott, Lennox Berkeley, Ettore Desderi, Aloÿs Fornerod, and Fernande Peyrot. Not exactly household names, but here’s the thing: Pérez plays the socks off these pieces. Moment for moment, these are the best performances I heard this week: committed, stylish, technically stunning. Turns out Haug, Scott, Berkeley and the rest are beautiful when they take their glasses off. Here’s a bit of Desderi’s Sonata in mi:

I’m going to get Pérez’s Spanish “archive” album (FR-705) too. If you’re a classical guitar nut, you’ll probably acquire all three. Why not? It’s good music played as if it were great.

And that’s all for now. Let me know if you’ve happened upon any recent (!) classical guitar releases that should have found their way into this column.

Steve Hoffman, Part 1

John Seetoo

Steve Hoffman is one of the most highly-regarded  mastering engineers in the recording industry, and his discography is a microcosm of 20th and 21st Century music history. The thousands of records to his credit span from the Great Depression era with Bing Crosby through World War II and the Eisenhower era of jazz, country and folk, Frank Sinatra, Buddy Holly, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, The Doors, John Coltrane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jethro Tull, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, all the way through to present day Metallica. Steve Hoffman has achieved such a rarefied status that he has garnered thousands of audiophile fan followers in a profession that few people outside of the recording industry technical side are even aware of.  Steve spoke with John Seetoo for Copper, and shared some opinions and anecdotes from his home in Los Angeles.

JS:  You aspired to be a musician, and recorded one semi-classic surf rock song, “Cecilia Ann”, with your band, The Surftones.  Where did you go from there?  Did you always intend to be involved in music?

SH: No, that Surftones thing – that was just a lark.  We didn’t expect anything.  It was something that happened only because of that Pixies’ thing; they heard it and wanted to record it for themselves.  So when that happened, it was a happy accident.  But basically, my career has always been behind the scenes.  That’s where I’ve always wanted to be.  I know I’m not a fantastic musician; I mean, I’m adequate, but nothing to make a career on.

So, I worked in radio broadcasting, and then I moved over to a record company, where I compiled albums on paper, you know, old stuff like Bing Crosby…and then I moved over to mastering of old recordings to make sure that they sounded nice.

JS:  You also worked for poet and songwriter Rod McKuen back in the day.  What was that like, and did that have any bearing on your future career? Was he a mentor, or are there any others in your career development that helped you to reach your current preeminence?

SH: Interesting question.  I don’t consider Rod McKuen a mentor, he was basically just an assignment I had.  The record company found him very hard to handle, so they sent me over there, because I’m amiable…and we just clicked right away; absolutely.

JS: Was this during your MCA days?

SH: No, no…after that.  DCC Compact Classics.  He wouldn’t answer the door for anybody because he was going through one of those periods where he didn’t feel like answering the door.  So they sent me over there, ‘cause I was someone to whom he could relate since he was creative and moody and blah, blah…So, I got to know him and…we became real close.  We spent a lot of hours together working on his back catalog, and…he was a really great guy, but as for mentoring me, no.  I was already in it up to my neck at that point.

What we were trying to do was get his back catalog out on CD, and he didn’t quite understand what that entailed.  We rebuilt this little in-house recording studio, and we remixed some of his old things and re-released them, and kind of brought him back out again into the spotlight.

JS:  Were there any people that you would consider mentors; people whose revelations helped you to build on to get to your current level of status…?

SH: Yes, actually.  You know, no one has ever asked me that, in all these years.  That’s an interesting thing.  There was a guy who not many people know now, but at one time he was pretty much a heavyweight in the industry, named Milt Gabler, and he was the guy who, in 1939, founded Commodore Records.  When Billie Holliday wanted to record “Strange Fruit”, no record label would touch it,  so his Commodore label put it out, and it went on to become famous.  Later, he worked as an A&R guy for Decca Records and MCA.  He did “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets, and many, many other great songs from that era.  In his old age, I had him flown out to Los Angeles, and apparently no one at the record company had really talked to him for many years.  I spent many days with him.  And he got me all the contacts that made it possible for us to re-release Buddy Holly, Bill Haley…and everybody like that.  So, he helped me out; he helped my credibility out.  And I helped him to become remembered.  You know, not only in the company, but outside the company as well, so he died a happy man.

JS: Wow, that’s great. It’s nice to be able to have a sense of giving back to the industry; to the people who made a difference in the history of recorded music.  That’s wonderful.   Did you intend to become a mastering engineer when you realized you weren’t destined to become a fulltime musician?

SH: No…I never wanted…I never even knew what a mastering engineer was.  I wanted a job that actually paid money because I was still living at home with my parents.  And up to a certain point, that’s ok, but after you get into your twenties, it’s like ok, you know, it’s time to get a real job now.    So I worked in radio broadcasting.  And when I moved over to the record industry, I was simply hired to do historical A&R, A&R, of course, meaning Artist & Repertoire.  In other words, to utilize the back catalog of the record company (labels): ABC,  Paramount, Dot, Decca, and Brunswick…all those songs that were lying dormant.

So I was working on a Bing Crosby record and writing down the songs that I wanted on it, and when I heard the test pressing that came back, one song from 1936 sounded wonderful, and then another song recorded at that same time had this echo on it, and it sounded horrible.  I then made the decision, that constantly made me a lot of enemies, to find out what they used as their source material – why one song sounded great and a song recorded an hour later sounded horrible.

It turns out they were pulling the wrong versions of the songs, and the mastering engineers out there didn’t care.  They would master whatever they were given.  I put my nose in where it wasn’t wanted and started to learn what mastering was and how important it was.  I kept hanging around, and finally, I was a part of it.

JS: Did you have any training as a cutting engineer or a recording engineer, or did you just hit the ground running as a mastering engineer?

SH: No.  I knew how to engineer.  I knew what compression was; I knew what dynamic range was from my several years in radio broadcasting.  I did radio engineering in high school and in college at the big radio station here in town.  They hired scab labor in those days because they were trying to break the engineering union, and I was about the most willing scab they could possibly find (laughs).

So, you, know, I got to learn how it was done.  And I noticed, for example, if we had three versions of Paul McCartney’s Ram, and one sounded really good and another sounded really horrible, I would have to finally look at the leadout groove, and if the writing was not the same, I realized that whichever engineer worked on the bad sounding one didn’t do it right!  So it whetted my curiosity.

Basically, I always worked in record cutting with another guy, Kevin Gray.  He did the actual cutting part; I did the sound part.  In other words, I made sure that it sounded the way I wanted it to sound, and he made sure he captured that sound on the actual record.

JS: You refer to yourself as a “music restoration specialist”. Is there any misunderstanding about mastering you’d like to clear up, and how you view your work as different from standard mastering? Do you have a particular philosophy as a mastering engineer?

SH: Oh yeah.   Ok…you know, I’ve had the same philosophy, throughout my career and even before.  If someone works very hard on a song, it’s the mastering engineer’s responsibility to do no damage.  Unless it sounds really, really bad – then it’s the mastering engineer’s responsibility to make it sound as good as possible.

I always refer to mastering as, “hanging the Mona Lisa.”  If the Louvre Museum loaned you the Mona Lisa so you could display it at a party, and you hung it in the living room and shined bright lights on it, you’re going to see all the cracks; you’re not going to be really thrilled with it.  It’s how you light it, it’s how it’s hung, and how it looks – that’s what’s going to make the difference, and that’s what mastering is.

In my style of mastering, I want everyone to sound like they’re human beings, and I want to keep the dynamic range that’s on the master tape.  Other than that –  the mastering engineers, especially right now, the  trend is to squash everything so that everything is loud, (even the quiet parts).  And that is the absolute antithesis of my mastering philosophy.

J.S.: Were there any particular projects where you feel you “saw the light” and began to achieve and consistently deliver that higher standard of music restoration above that of the industry norm, since you say you didn’t work at all as an engineer in other recording capacities?

SH: Well, I hung around with those guys.  I realized that end of the industry was not for me.  I mean, working all day on a tambourine overdub on a song….I mean…ok, but I want to do something else.  With mastering, half of the battle is finding the right source material.  If you don’t have the right source material, you’re just wasting your time.  Once you’ve spent hours hunting for the correct version of each song…but every single album I’ve done has been in the same way.  There are projects where I’ve uncovered the actual master tapes that were never used, and I’d go, “Wow! That sounds really fantastic!  Let’s make sure I don’t screw it up!”, but I never went, “Oh!  This is the way to do it! Let me just ignore everything I’ve done previously, and concentrate on this style.”  No, I’ve always had the same style.  I’ve worked on thousands of albums: Buddy Holly, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, The Doors, The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra…and the list goes on and on.  And you know, I’ve had that same sound in my head, ever since I was young, so that really hasn’t changed.  It’s always been…almost the opposite of every other mastering engineer out there. (laughs)

JS: So you have an innate quality standard that you’ve always strived to achieve, and once you were in a position to do it, you just keep repeating that process and hitting that mark for yourself. 

SH:  That’s exactly right, John.  That is perfect.  I’ve got to copy that down to use that the next time someone asks me.  That is absolutely it.  You know, I’ve always heard it the same, and that’s never going to change.

 J.S.: You’re associated with audiophile labels and re-releases. Is that by choice? Or would you like to work on new releases as well?

S.H.: No.  I’m old and crotchety now, and I don’t like the engineering style of most of the new recordings out there; they’re absolute ear bleeders.  You know, if you hear some of these bands live, they’re fantastic.  But when you hear their final recordings, they just sound like – one note.  And I try to explain to some of these guys, “Look, back off on all this signal processing and let the natural band sound shine through.” And they always say, “Yeah, but we don’t want to be quieter than anybody else on a CD or download. We have to be loud. ”  Well, if you’re all loud all the time, you sound quiet.  You know, unless you have something quieter to compare it to, it’s all annoying, and after a while, you lose interest, because your ears are just shutting off the sound.  No, I like  working with the old stuff.  I’m happy with that.

J.S: Do you associate the heavy compression with the lower resolution quality of mp3 and streaming, or is it a style thing more than a tech thing?

S.H.: No.  What happened is Sony, in their infinite wisdom,  invented the CD changer.  So now you had a tray with six CDs in there.  One is really loud; one is naturally dynamic.  So when you’re at a party, the naturally dynamic one comes on and nobody can hear it.  So when the executives started realizing that, they told their mastering engineers to make everything sound loud, so you could hear it. And I can understand that philosophy, and that’s ok for something that was recorded in 1998,  but you don’t – you don’t screw around with Bing Crosby!  You make that loud all the time, you just make it sound – obnoxious.

J.S.:  Agree totally.  You’re primarily associated with projects released on CDs and SACDs. How does your job differ for vinyl or download releases? 

S.H.: That’s another very good question.  It doesn’t.  It’s the same, every single time.  When I am working on an LP, all we have to worry about is that the record doesn’t get too loud so that it’ll break the groove or that it gets too quiet and goes under the noise floor of the actual surface of the record.  Other than that, I do not change my style for CDs or for SACDs or any other platform.  It always sounds like me.  You know, a lot of people love that and a lot of people don’t like it.  So, I don’t change my style.

J.S.: Do you still see strong demand for physical media like CDs?

S.H.:  I do.  But I’m in a world of audiophiles, and they want to hold it in their hand. You know, they want numbered editions, they want something tangible; they want something saying that there’s artwork.  They’re not really into downloads, although that may change when the next generation comes in.  That wouldn’t surprise me.  For now, no, it’s always an SACD, vinyl or a CD.

JS: Are they any particular types of projects you prefer to work on, or particular types that you refuse to accept?

S.H.: I like Asian rap – that’s a joke. (laughs) No, I don’t care what it is.  You know what? I fall in love with all my projects.  And even if it’s something that I don’t like, I find something about it to love.  That’s the only way I can actually operate.

J.S.: There’s actually some Asian rap you’d probably have fun with, because there are some that use gamelan and traditional Asian and Southeast Asian instruments which can have some very interesting dynamics.

S.H.: I know.  And a lot of it is actually extremely well recorded.  I mean, unbelievably well recorded. Yeah, I like pretty much everything.  I was brought up in that old school: you listened to some classical, you listened to some jazz, you listened to pop, you listened to world music, you listened to everything – it’s all good.  You listen to Buddy Holly and to Miles Davis, and you find something to love about both.

So that’s me.  And fortunately, it turned out really good for me and my career that I am like that, because I’ve worked on the most eclectic amount of crazy albums from all eras,  and I love it all, so I’m happy.

[We’ll conclude John Seetoo’s interview with Steve Hoffman in Copper #37. In Part 2, Steve discusses his well-known Forums, why razor blades are important to his work, and his favorite projects. Thanks to Steve and John for a great interview! —Ed.]

The Thrill of the Chase

Richard Murison

I had a friend named Steve (not his real name). He was originally my financial adviser, and at one time we started looking at opportunities to go into business together.  Steve had become disillusioned with the financial advice business which he saw as being over regulated to the point of irrelevance.  The role of a financial adviser, as he saw it, had become one of trying to keep up with the ever-increasing mass of regulations, and picking one of an ever-diminishing variety of investment options which the regulations prescribed according to the client’s circumstances.  Worse than that, he perceived a widening disconnect between actions that were in the client’s best interests and those that were in the adviser’s best interests.

Steve was an archetypical sales guy.  The CEO of a company I once worked for liked to say that there were two types of salespeople, which he called Hunter-Killers and Gardeners.  The Hunter-Killer is always on the lookout to close a deal, and if he doesn’t see any kind of a deal in the offing he won’t hesitate to cut bait and go look elsewhere.  The Gardener, on the other hand, knows that it is often necessary to cultivate a client over the long term, and to gradually build him up to the point where a deal is ready to be harvested.  The Hunter-Killer is in his element with smaller deals, the Gardener with bigger ones.  The Hunter-Killer is a big, energetic, bouncy dog, ready to hurtle off at full pace in pursuit of a stick.  The Gardener is a cat, hopping up onto your lap, taking its time to get comfortable, and settling down for a long nap accompanied by a loud and satisfied purr.  Depending on the kind of business you are in, you need one type of salesman or the other.  Sometimes you need both.

Steve was your prototypical Hunter-Killer.  Me, I’m not any kind of salesman.  It’s not in my DNA.  If pushed I could function better as a Gardener than a Hunter-Killer, but that’s just how it is.  I see myself as more of a strategist.  So Steve and I potentially made for a good team.  Steve, the big, energetic, bouncy dog, would hustle off in the direction of a potential business opportunity, and drop it in my lap.  I would figure out what was necessary to turn that opportunity into a functioning business.  Usually, the opportunity would be flawed, and Steve would immediately hurtle off after another one.  The trouble was that to make an opportunity work for Steve, we would have to start up the business on Monday, and Steve would head out on Tuesday and start selling.  By Friday I would tell him how much money we had made.  Businesses rarely, if ever, work like that, so naturally we never got anything off the ground.  But it was an endless source of fascination to examine the surprising variety of opportunities he unearthed, something I look back on with some fondness.

One thing Steve wanted more than anything else was to own a BMW dealership.  Actually, he wanted to own a BMW, but projecting that ambition further led him to covet the whole dealership.  So he left his financial services company and went to the local BMW dealer to get a job as a salesman.  This would be an ideal position, he figured, from which to learn what it would take to acquire a dealership.  Unfortunately, BMW dealers can afford to be very selective in whom they employ, and salesmen with no experience whatsoever selling cars are not generally welcome.  He was advised to go get some experience elsewhere.  So he got a job with a local GM dealer, who were less picky.  By the end of his second month he was their second-highest performing salesman, and from the third month onward became their top performer, by quite a margin.  Within a year he was back at the BMW dealership, and this time he was hired on the spot.  He became an effective salesman very quickly.  But the deal he really wanted to close was to own a dealership.  He cozied up to the owner, and the more he learned about how the business worked, the more he realized that it wasn’t going to happen for him.  For a start, the buy-in cost alone was so much more that he ever imagined.  Why, he asked me with his financial adviser’s hat on, if you had that kind of money, would you ever drop it on a BMW dealership?

Steve had a client in his role as financial adviser who was raking in a lot of money in the used car business.  Steve was anxious to know how he did it.  The client was equally anxious not to tell him, but Steve is nothing if not persistent, and so he managed to extract an outline of how this man’s business worked.  Basically, as he described it, he bought certain specific models of used GM vehicles at auction in Canada and exported them to the southern States where their resale value was a lot higher.  I tried to figure out how a business model like that could rake in the amount of money his client was clearing, but the one thing I couldn’t get a handle on was how the business of buying cars at auction worked.

As it happened, at about the same time I was introduced to a guy called Nick (also not his real name) who was in the used car business.  His thing was that you told him what vehicle you were looking for – being as specific as you wanted – and he would go out and find one for you, and sell it to you at a good price.  I learned that he bought them at massive trade-only auctions, and persuaded him to take me to one, where I was formally registered as his assistant (they go to great lengths to keep you out if you’re not in the trade).  What I found was a facility with thousands upon thousands of used vehicles, virtually all of which would be sold at the upcoming auction, which happened every week.  The auction itself was staggering.  Vehicles passed through so quickly, and bidding on each one was over in a matter of seconds. The amount of money transacted was mind-blowing.  But if you knew what you were doing, it was possible to come away with a very good deal.  In the end, Nick bought two cars for me this way, which I was pretty happy with.  And Steve, the Hunter-Killer, managed to negotiate a nice little sideline for himself by bringing clients to Nick and then arranging the financing for their purchases.

In any event, I was able to put together a sufficiently clear picture to establish that Steve’s wealthy client, whatever he was doing, was not raking in the cash he said he was by exporting used Chevrolets to Florida!  Another business opportunity that fell by the wayside.

But Steve saw an opportunity to acquire for himself the BMW he had always wanted.  Steve is a big guy, so the 7-series was his thing.  He saw that the 740iL and 750iL, particularly the ones with high mileage, could sometimes be picked up for a song.  The value of a 7-series at auction was very mileage dependent, and from his experience at the BMW dealer he knew two things – how to check a BMW’s service history, and how the company’s warranty system worked.  From his experience in financial services he also knew a third thing – how private car lease financing worked.  Prowling the auctions with Nick he looked for high mileage 7-Series Bimmers with spotty service records.  He instructed Nick to buy at a particularly low price if the opportunity came up.  It did, and Steve became proud owner of a two-year old BMW 740iL.  Steve then had Nick wind its clock back from 120,000km to 60,000km, which meant it still had 20,000km before its warranty expired.  He arranged lease financing with a fixed buy-back based on a book price which three years down the road would still be more than he paid up front for the car.  He took the car to a BMW dealership and had them inspect the hell out of it and perform a whole bunch of warranty work including, incredibly enough, a re-spray.  Steve apparently had no qualms about any of this.

Thus, in May of 2000, Steve became the proud owner of a near-new BMW 740iL in tip-top condition, and was paying less in lease payments than he was previously paying for the Nissan Maxima that he sold to make room for it.  As a man who negotiated so effectively with his cards close to his chest, Steve surprisingly often wore his heart on his sleeve.  We were going for a long drive in the 740iL one day, when he told me what he thought about the whole affair.  He had wanted a BMW for so long, he said, and he never thought he would be able to afford one.  Now that he had one, and had owned it for several months, he told me that he had to admit something important to himself.  The long-felt desire to own such a fabulous vehicle, and the thrill of the chase to come up with a scheme that actually put one in his garage, were in the end deeper passions than the actual fact of owning the thing.  He was quite disappointed that the thrill of the chase and the thrill of the kill were somehow not being satisfied by the subsequent feast.  Yes, the BMW as a vehicle was everything he thought it would be.  The sound system, I can tell you, was fantastic.  But in the end it was just another vehicle that needed to be filled with gas, washed, and driven from place to place.  And the jaws of your friends and neighbors would only ever drop once.  The parallels with high-end audio systems are obvious.

Not a person to let the grass grow under his feet, he told me he was going to sell it.  In fact he had lined up a buyer.  More than that, he had put his house on the market and was going to move to Florida.  Just like that.  Within three months he was gone.  Last I heard, he was selling medical insurance and planning to take a course to get his Real Estate license.  My guess is he won’t have had the patience to complete it.

Nick, on the other hand, absconded one day with thousands of dollars of someone’s money, on deposit for a specific vehicle he was tasked to obtain. He hasn’t been heard of since.  I’m just glad it wasn’t me that recommended him to the client who got fleeced.